Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall & England's Greatest Painting

(This post was written before I saw Skyfall; my review of the film, including the artwork, is Last Rat Standing: Skyfall & the Question Of Free Will). Skyfall will probably be the best Bond film ever; why? Meticulous care has been taken by expert film makers to build up the character of Bond for the audience to dive into; Bond has been re-made into an icon--not only of action heroes--but of  metaphysical and cultural identity reflecting the dramatic changes in global events and norms. It's because Bond has become human, then risen above his human boundaries, that we both believe everything he does and willingly suspend our disbelief to believe everything he does, and this is character success when the audience wants them to succeed and identifies with them in their pain.
Judi Dench as M in Skyfall. Please note, in this shot, how her stance reflects the image of the little English bull dog on (our) left, atop her desk. Any and every detail about M we can gather in the film will be imperative to understanding what has happened and why.
Having said all this, you now know what it costs me to say that I think Skyfall will be pro-socialist. There are a couple of reasons for this, but most center upon the relationship between M (Judi Dench) and Silva (Javier Bardem). I think Skyfall is really casting M as the villain because she gave birth to Silva as a terrorist. Before it was advertised on Yahoo! that Wikipedia had posted the complete plot of the film, I had found it and was considering the ins and outs (of which there are many). IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN THE FILM, STOP READING NOW! REPEAT, THE REST OF THE POST HAS SPOILERS, SO STOP READING IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS. I am seeing the film this afternoon, will be posting my initial responses via Twitter, then working through the night to get the complete review up! If you want to know what happens in the film before seeing it, the complete synopsis is here!
The point of the film at which this scene takes place will be important for Bond's character because bathing/swimming/raining, etc., is usually sacramental for a rebirth so that they are cleansed of previous wounds (emotions and physical) so they can complete their task, fulfill their destiny. Don't believe me? Remember, Silva has Bond captured and Bond says, "Everyone needs a hobby." Silva asks, "What's yours?" and Bond replies, "Resurrection." The swimming scene pictured above may be the actual moment of psychological resurrection for Bond or this may be one of the "minor" moments of resurrection, as every day of our lives we have to validate decisions we have made or decide to alter our lives. Up to the point of this "resurrection" scene, Bond is depleted and needs rejuvenation; what has depleted him? The scene following this swimming scene will probably be the key to Bond's entire being, i.e., what makes James Bond James Bond, because whatever he does after he swims (the significant action) will be his inner-most motivation, what he sees as his purpose in life.
M dies.
Whenever a character dies, it is a metaphysical/cultural judgment upon whatever that character represented/symbolized. Being an older woman, M symbolizes Great Britain, specifically, the "old order" of Great Britain and the way things have been done, the values the UK has stood for and fought for; what changes all that? That has to be seen in the film, but my thesis going into Skyfall is that the film makers are critical of the enemies England has fought in the past mistaking the enemies for the friends, and the friends for enemies (China and communism). 
These are the shots that make my heart swoon! Light and darkness will be major characters in Skyfall (as we can tell from the shot above) and probably any other dichotomy (inside & outside, man & woman, light & dark, evil & good, etc.). In this clip, the darkness covers Bond but his eyes are illuminated, meaning that his world is dark (something has happened and he's confused or the world is no longer the place he thought it was) but his inner eyes, that is, his wisdom and experience, are "lighting" the way for him to track the real enemy, so he's still able to "see" through the darkness that is symbolic of whatever is going on within this scene.
This delectable morsel from Skyfall, when James Bond meets his new Quartermaster, Q, is too delicious for us not to spend some considerable time on it and get an idea of what to look for in Skyfall before we see it this weekend:
Where are they and what are they looking at?
We know by the paintings in the room they are in London, the National Gallery, specifically in Room 34, south end, facing the west wall (being an art history major has finally paid off,...); let us now compare those specific coordinates of Bond's exact location to this clip when M (Judi Dench) tries to "locate" Bond:
Why would his boss (a long acquaintance) have little knowledge of Bond's location, yet Q (who Bond has just met) knows 007's exact location? Such a grand, polemical comparison in Bond's relationship to M and Q will be constant throughout the film and this is only one of several dichotomies upon which the characterizations will hinge. Why should we care about that? Because if the characters demonstrate such highly dramatized polarizations, the villain and the hero will exhibit ever greater diametrical opposition--that vastness in-between good and evil--and identifying those poles will not only be the key to understanding what the film wants to say and why it needs to say it, but where we enter into that discussion.The reason this scene in the museum is so important is because this is the scene wherein Bond gets the gun that fits to the palm of his hand, so only he can fire it: a work of technological art within a setting of cultural art.
Ben Whishaw as Q.
There's something unusual about this scene in the National Gallery,... the seat. Yes, it's the bench that is so odd, because there are no "benches" in Room 34 of the National Gallery, there are individual leather seats, all together in a row, one row at one end of the room, another row at the opposite end. So why a bench? Q and Bond "share the same space," or are in "the same position" (you can, if you want, stop the film at 0:02 and compare how they are mirror images of each other in that pose, their arms, their legs, their suits, and the similarities only heighten their differences; more on that below). So they occupy that same sort of space; so what? Well, the long black bench the leather chairs have replaced puts them "on equal footing" within their relationship (they "balance" each other, if you will, like two children on either end of the see-saw) and, because the very painting they look at reflects them more than they reflect upon it, it's time to "turn" (as in Turner) our attention to it.
The Fighting Temeraire Tugged To Her Last Berth To Be Broken Up, 1838, by JMW Turner, 1839, National Gallery of Art, London. Please, click upon the image and open it at full viewing capacity because that will bring the painting into an entirely different perspective for you. Turner is one of the best known--and best loved--English painters of all time, so it's not the least bit surprising that a painting by the Royal Academy member would be included in the ultimate film about the ultimate British superhero; what is surprising is the choice of painting. I mean, why not go with one of the far more abstract ones, or one of the more intimate ones? One of the more famous ones? (Simon Schama has a fab part on Turner in his Power Of Art series, which is available through Netfilix). This one was chosen for a reason, this one over other possibilities within Room 34 of the NG, or any other painting in that enormous museum (or the Tate, or the Grosvenor Gallery, for that matter).
 J.M.W. Turner's The Fighting Temeraire borders on the academic painting Turner's contemporaries valued so highly (real-to-life imagery in a painting, verisimiltude) and the total abstraction later modern artists would worship him for (the blurring of the colors in the sunset, for example). Why is this formal analysis important? It reflects the differences between Bond and Q: Q lingers in the dream world of pajamas and computer codes like the blurred sky, while Bond exerts himself within the hardened battles of "kill or be killed" symbolized by the warship. Q reflecting on the death and inevitability of time he sees in the old battle ship, now being towed off for scrap, reflects what he sees in Bond: the old agent being towed off for scrap, the past, the dead... Bond. The painting relays an actual event: the great war ship is being towed by a dark, little towboat to be junked and used for spare parts, and in this simplicity, we now understand their roles: Bond--as the big, bloody ship--and Q seeing Bond as the big, bloody war ship that is now facing death and a "new way" of doing the bloody work of war, via bloodless computer codes.
Or is it?
This is complex. Bond has just seen a man fall to his death while a woman in yonder window has just seen Bond send a man to his death. Here are the important dichotomies again: the darkness of the night (where Bond is) and the light of the room (where the woman is); the vertical space of where the man has just fallen to his death and the horizontal space between Bond and the woman; Bond is outside, the woman is inside. Note how nearly everything in this shot is vertical or horizontal: the buildings all going up , and the tidy, neat lines going across the apartment as window frames, like a grid. This order may reflect the order within Bond at this moment of action, but it might also serve to heighten the disorder within him, we will have to see, but it's one more thing to look for in the film.
In the Wikipedia entry for Turner's painting, Bond being the old warship led away to the scrap yard is how it has been interpreted. I disagree with this. Bond doesn't die in the film, M does, and because the Fighting Temeraire was Britain's famous warship that battled England's Catholic enemies, the Spanish and French, I think the boat far better symbolizes for us how M is being retired to the scrap heap while the black tugboat is Silva: dark because of his wounds and hatred, but also because his motivations are dark and greedy. It's difficult to say, at this point, if Q is thinking of Bond as he gives his melancholy interpretation of the inevitable, and if Bond is thinking of himself or M as he sighs about a big, bloody ship, but there is another key element to this scene.
Mr and Mrs Hallet (The Morning Walk) by Gainsborough.
If you note in the art museum clip, this is the painting behind Bond (it's the actual paining in Room 34 at that position). I took time to point out the changed seating in the room because I wanted to demonstrate how this painting could have been edited out of the shots but they wanted to include it in. Gainsborough's portrait of the young, married couple suggests a new beginning. As they walk on the path, it's the path of life, and the white dog symbolizes loyalty and fidelity. Since the painting shows up behind Bond during this clip, we can see it relating to him, that even though Silva will take away the old Britain from him in the person of M, a new, young bride awaits him (symbolically); so the question is, who is this new bride?
Another fabulous shot; why? There's darkness, but it's being illuminated by "false lights," the neon and florescent, which will make for an interesting mirror of what Bond is going through at this point in the film. Please note the beard Bond wears, which is unusual for him. It means either one, he has given into his appetites (facial hair usually symbolizes the base appetites because civilized man shaves his face, that is, he disciplines his appetites because hair makes us like the animals, I'm just explaining the logic of the symbol) OR it means the exact opposite: Bond has been an ascetic. Holy men who would go off into the desert would grow long beards because they were taming the inner-passions and appetites, leaving the world behind in favor of the inner-world of the spirit, so that, too, will make for an interesting insight into Bond's struggles and weaknesses at this point of the story.
Because the camera focuses on The Fighting Termeraire we should, too. The whole title is, The Fighting Termeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838. Just as art today reflects our culture and what is going on, expressing approval or disapproval, so art did then, too. What else was going on in 1838 that might have drawn Turner's attention to this particular event as a reflection of larger social or moral issues? The People's Charter was passed, a movement of socialism. While the Charter was a wonderful advancement in civil rights, some, such as Turner himself, could have seen the workers of England toting off the grand old British Crown like a heap of scraps at the mercy of the "work boat" (the tug boat as the workers' movement). Therefore, it's possible that the "new bride" of Bond will be socialism, which is devastating given that Bond has always fought socialism throughout his career.
Is this the side that Skyfall takes?
"Mommy was very bad," Silva tells Bond, and why would such a big bad villain refer to M as "Mommy?" Because she is. She symbolizes the order and the state which gave birth to both Silva and Bond. The question is, what does Silva symbolize? We know he dresses up like a cop and in that guise tries to attack M while she is on trial for her letting the drive with British spies on it be stolen. So Silva is a "false arm" of the law accusing her, meaning that there is both legitimate accusations against her and illegitimate accusations. Silva will represent a class or a theory and what he represents will be the ill-borne fruit of Great Britain's past that must pass away with Great Britain.
There are two secrets revealed about Bond in the synopsis. First, he's Scottish and a member of the upper-class (you might recall that, in Casino Royale, Vesper suggested he was an orphan and he didn't deny it). Secondly, he comes from a line of Catholics. We know this because Bond takes M to his childhood home in Scotland, Skyfall Lodge (which only the upper-class would have) and at one point in the final battle, they escape through a priest hole. These revelations rather complicate Bond so I want to draw your attention to them now but I am going to wait to say anything further until after the film.
Again, I have no doubt that Skyfall (the name of Bond's childhood home being given the title of the film alerts us that the whole film is geared towards what happens at Skyfall Lodge) will be the best Bond film ever, maybe even the best film of the year. I am off to see it now and will be tweeting my initial response and working on this post to get it up asap because it's so important! Go see the film and enjoy it and we'll discuss it!
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner