The Gadget Laid Bare: Some Rambling Thoughts On Quantum of Solace (2008), Liberalism, Montage, Stalin's Aesthetics and A.I.

Posted by Charles Reece, December 6, 2008 07:26pm | Post a Comment
Sean Connery James Bond Ursula AndressDaniel Craig James Bond bathing suit beach

I'm not much of a James Bond fanatic; I can take him or leave him, and have tended towards the latter for the past 20 years of installments. I grew up on the Roger Moore version, but the problem with the Quantum of Solace upcoming posterfranchise started there, only getting worse with each new Bond film. Too many gadgets and too many one-liners were used to cover the fact that Sean Connery had been replaced with a bunch of pantywaists (except George Lazenby, but his reign ended after one film). Not that there's anything wrong with wit, it's just that in an action film it should be backed with the assurance of brawn. That's why Christian Bale makes for a better Batman than Michael Keaton or George Clooney. No matter how editing might be able to slice and dice the action sequences, there's always going to be an aesthetic flaw in any machismo-centered film where the physiognomy and somatotype of the lead don't meet the iconic demands of the hero. (Just consider two recent examples: fresh-faced fratboy Matt Damon playing a badass in the Bourne Trilogy and pipsqueak Freddy Rodriguez as a renegade secret ops soldier in Planet Terror.)

After Connery, drollery and charm became tools to distract the audience from what the leads couldn't do rather than an assurance that Bond could be doing much worse. (Ian Fleming initially doubted the fit of Sean Connery, thinking him too brutish, but changed his mind after seeing the first film, and even changed the character in the novels to line up with the actor.) Unfortunately, 60s technology and budgets could never deliver the promise of action that Connery's physicality promised. His films were all foreplay. By the time production values could finally deliver, Bond no longer could.

With too many years of distractions, Bond's body finally caught up to the technology and budget in the form of Daniel Craig. He's the cyborg that the screen Bond has always needed. True, he's a tad too laconic, and could use a little more Cary Grant, but he conveys pain, both in receiving and delivering it, like no other Bond. The repressed emotions are there on the surface, in a much more detailed way than was the case even with Connery. You could say Craig's Bond is more likely than the previous Bonds to pass the Turing Test. That is, if he acts like a human, he effectively is. If his charm isn't up to Connery's level, that's largely due to the faulty input of hisinspector gadget programmers, the humorless Paul Haggis among them.

Quantum of Solace's plot is a broken Rubik's Cube, where the politically minded liberal writers begin by drawing analogies to the Iraq War and oil, but end up with an environmentalist message in a Third World Chinatown. Evil mastermind Dominic Greene and his secret organization Quantum are backing an eminent coup by the would-be Bolivian dictator, General Medrano, in exchange for the rights to a seemingly barren stretch of land. Believing the property to be free of oil, the General is happy to sign it over. The CIA, represented by Agents Beam and Leiter (the latter of whom befriended Bond in Casino Royale), gets behind the coup, since a right-wing dictator is easier to deal with than the unspecified current regime (but I bet they're lefties). As Bond begins to gum up the works, he becomes a target of the CIA. Just like in real life politics (wink, wink), the British (represented by the MI6) don't want to offend their American counterpart, so Bond is ordered to desist. Not so much like in real life, Bond does whatever the hell he wants to do. As it turns out, Medrano is correct, the land has no oil, making the ideologically charged homage to Goldfinger -- where Bond girl Strawberry Fields gets shellacked with oil (replacing gold) -- something of a non sequitur. Instead of oil, what the land rights give to Quantum is control over Bolivia's water supply. I suppose the allegory here is saying beware of shadowy organizations taking over our natural resources. Since not-so-shadowy organizations already own all of the world's natural resources, this moss 117 movie poster upcomingakes for a pretty weak moral lesson.

One can't really blame the screenwriters for trying to modernize the politics of this anachronistic symbol of fading British power during the Cold War. With all the 007 satires that now exist (the French OSS 117 being the latest example), setting the modern adaptations within the otiose ideological struggles of the 60s would have resulted in a parodic detachment of the audience. Bond's efficient coolness is here given psychological depth, developing it from what happened when he got too attached to one of his jobs. What I take issue with is trying to humanize the character's diegesis, which ironically fosters an old-fashioned conservative idea about heroism. Rather than having Bond serve the organization whose greasy machinations keep Britain functioning civilly on the surface (à la the really human realpolitik) -- where the fantasy might actually critique the naive notion of a liberal open society -- Quantum of Solace places him against the MI6. This plot contrivance winds up serving the fantasy of espionage as a struggle of the heroic will, an extension of the liberal myth. It's a myth in that ignores what's called the liberal dilemma:

Liberalism stands for respect for the individual. But to respect the individual is to respect who he is, and this is determined at least in part by his cultural background. Does respect for the person bring with it respect for that person’s cultural identification even when this is grossly illiberal, involving for example the denial of equal rights to women? Answers to this question fall between two extremes. On the one hand are those who staunchly maintain the Enlightenment tradition under which the proper treatment of human beings everywhere and always requires the upholding of a set of universal and generally uniform rights regardless of the claims of local politics and culture. At the other extreme are those who interpret respect for persons as involving respect for their religious or cultural beliefs and practices, even where these run counter to the traditional liberal concept of human rights. -- George Crowder

The film's evasion of this point recalls the "few bad apples" defense of egregious corporate behavior in the film The Corporation, where greed isn't a component of capitalism, but a supposed corruption of the system. Members of the counter-bureaucracy (you know, the bad bureaucracy) killed his girl, Vesper Lynd, in Casino Royale, so Bond is enacting his revenge, working outside the rules of the game, since MI6 won't fund a personalized mission (particularly against the CIA). But it's the question of rules that this liberalized version never comes to terms with. With so many fellow spies (Fields, Leiter, and utlimately M.) willing to help him out, Bond (or the audience) never really has to question his allegiance relative to the personal ethical code being transmitted through his baby blues. In the end, it's not the system in which Bond operates that demands an illiberal solution to liberal problems, but villains unfairly changing the way the game is supposed to be played, such as infilitrating the "good side" (i.e., the CIA and MI6). If Bond has to operate on the outside, it's only as a restoration of the rules. Despite the pretense of moral and political maturity, Quantum retains the simplistic good versus evil struggle of all the previous films. Fleming's fantasy remains intact: the end continues to justify the means, since the latter is shown to not really contradict the former.

The revenge motif turns out to be a MacGuffin, not only as a narrative impetus for Bond's being where he needs to be in order to get the actual story going, but as an emotional facade for the instrumentalist worldview the Bond series is selling. If at one time Bond's leisurely exploits (e.g., the domination of exotic locales and exotic women) created a fantasy around the commodified agent (is that an oxymoron?), they clearly began to take a back seat to increasing use of technology (often in the form of special effects or product placement) to create desire on the part of the audience. As a sign of the times, Bond has finally completed the cultural narrative arc, from man as homo faber (tool maker) to homo ludens (leisure) to homo instrumentum (tool). And it's in depicting Bond as a tool, an efficient means of death, that the new movie really excels. He no longer needs gadgets, he is the gadget, a game piece being moved around the board, which director Marc Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer convey through the action sequences. The viewer knows that Bond is always going to survive, so any joy to be had is in watching the gears move. The best example takes place on the scaffolds of a construction site where Bond is fighting a counter-agent using ropes and pulleys. Like the Rube Goldberg-inspired game, Mouse Trap, it's fun just watching the ball roll around -- who cares about the rules, or the plot?

I share many critics' disdain for the cheese-grating montage deployed in 90s action films, as well as the more recent Bourne Trilogy, but rapid editing can be used to good effect, even bordering on phenomological description. For instance, Solace's opening chase sequence along an Italian mountainside through heavy traffic is constructed through fragments of objects making it an action film by way of Alain Robbe-Grillet. As Bond, racing along in his product placement, an A___ M ___, Craig is no more significant than the car being advertised (but no less, either). The scene is broken down into a series of acutely angled shots of a door, a side mirror, tire, the hand on the shifter, and those eyes -- all of which the mind interpolates as one gleaming gestalt. If Sergio Leone used the close-up to convey the face as a landscape, it here becomes a billboard for wish-fulfillment. Man, machine, product: is there any difference at this point? The film's stylistic use of Craig's body reveals far more than the script is willing. What's important here is the syntax, not the story. But, before I get to that point, I need to talk about the Russians (they had to come up somewhere).

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I created a montage experiment which became known abroad as the ‘Kuleshov Effect’. I alternated the same shot of Mozzhukhin [a Tsarist matinee idol] with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl, a child’s coffin), and these shots acquired a different meaning. -- Lev Kuleshov, quoted here (.pdf download)

Josef Stalin really got montage wrong. He reasoned that if the images don't have content in and of themselves, but acquire it through surrounding images, then the Kuleshov Effect couldn't be properly appropriated for propaganda. Montage was thought to have left too much up to the viewer. Thus, he called a halt to the practice in Soviet films in the early 1930s, enforcing social realism, where the ideology inherent in the image could impress itself on the viewer. But what Kuleshov demonstrated was that images do come with semantic baggage that can be exploited for ideological purposes (as Madison Avenue began to demonstrate in the 1960s). Furthermore, following the lessons of Josef von Sternberg and Alfred Hitchcock, "good acting" can be created through the arrangement of images, with the actor being just one more image. The Russian formalists were well aware of this fact. To wit:

[The audience] raved about the acting of the artist [in the aformentioned experiment]. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.  -- Vsevolod Pudovkin, quoted in ibid.

Even if the actor has no talent, his or her look is still confers meaning (cf., cute girls in beer ads). Perhaps Stalin simply didn't trust the dialectic between images to produce the results he wanted. He needed a ideological plot to control the materiality of the images. I'm just speculating, but my point is that images are never just pure syntactical forms, to be filled in by the storyline of a film. They come with content, semantics, usually developed through cultural accretion. Consider what the dialectic between Bond and the products he's selling might connote if he were a fat slob: a lazy reliance on consumer goods, sort of a techno-exotic version of Cannon. Or consider Greene's slender, slimy and effete henchman, Elvis: nothing's mentioned about his sexuality, but exposure to Classic Hollywood is enough to derive the homophobic subtext.

Getting back to the Turing Test, there are those who have argued that it's sufficient to establish artificial intelligence as simply intelligence -- a position that's called strong AI. If a simulated life form can manipulate symbols to produce a meaningful interaction from humans, where the human can't tell he's conversing with a simulation, then that's real ("human") intelligence. In his famous Chinese Room thought experiment, philosopher John Searle rebutted this claim, arguing that manipulating symbols isn't the same as symbols possessing meaningful content for the one doing the manipulating. A monolingual English speaker might be able to move some Chinese symbols around in accordance to some rules (syntax) with which he's been furnished, but that doesn't mean he understands Chinese. Syntax doesn't entail semantics, in other words.

Contrary to Stalin's scepticism that people wouldn't be able to read the proper ideological message from the contiguity of images alone, strong-AI defenders are too trusting that their manufactured interlocuters actually understand such symbols in the same manner as we humans. I suggest the theoretical golden mean here is Daniel Craig as Bond. You need an image of Bond that can sell the attraction of using the human as a mere means to an end. Seems to me this is what warfare and marketing share, the human is a symbol to be manipulated to achieve an ideological purpose. Craig manages to look confident, blasé and tortured at the same time, plus he wears a tux well. Not that the other Bonds couldn't pull off a tux, but -- with the exception of Connery and one-timer Lazenby -- none of them conveyed the streamlined brutality of what's supposed to be underneath. While the new Bond films fail to liberalize the heroic fantasy (unsurpisingly), they do get the iconography correct (despite the blonde hair), recognizing that, as images, actors come with cultural content, and that there's been something amiss with the franchise for a good, long while. Violence is as important as exotic women and cool technology for the Bond machine to work. In service of this old-fashioned fantasy of masculine potency, selling it as human desire, Craig is the perfect symbol, the machine's missing piece.


 Olga Kurylenko Camille Quantum of SolaceGemma Arterton Strawberry Fields Quantum of SolaceJudi Dench M Quantum of Solace


Mathieu Amalric Dominic Greene Quantum of SolaceAnatole Taubman Elvis Quantum of SolaceJoaquin Cosio General Medrano Quantum of SolaceMathieu Jesper Christensen Mr. White Quantum of Solace


Jeffrey Wright Felix Leiter Quantum of SolaceGiancarlo Giannini René Mathis Quantum of SolaceDavid Harbour Gregg Beam Quantum of Solace

Relevant Tags

Daniel Craig (1), Masculinity (3), Quantum Of Solace (1), Kuleshov Effect (1), James Bond (7), Ian Fleming (1), Montage (2), Chinese Room Argument (1), John Searle (2), Commodification (4), Liberalism (3)