I’ve been threatening to write this one for about three years, and it’s finally happening. It’s long, and kinda in-depth (though not as in-depth as it could have been, because I realized I could spend literal years trying to get into all the different details. I didn’t even really touch on Moneypenny and the significance of her being in control during this specific scene, but like I said, I could spend literal years.). If you disagree, let’s talk about it. If you agree, let’s also talk about it. If you don’t know where you land, the comment box is right down there after you’re done.
Here we go.
Around the second or third time I watched Skyfall, I personally noticed a lot of allusions to Douglas Sirk films. (That may or may not be affected by the fact that I was enrolled in a film class specifically devoted to talking about the melodrama genre, but that’s neither here nor there, tbqh.) For those who aren’t familiar with film history, Douglas Sirk was a German filmmaker who essentially made the genre of “melodrama” academically palatable.* And for good reason; his films are quite good. Written on the Wind was the inspiration for the television show Dallas, All That Heaven Allows is by leaps and bounds one of the best touchstones of good melodrama (aside from Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager), and most people who know films from the 1950s have heard about the absolutely magnificent Imitation of Life.
You’re probably asking yourself, self? What does a German director from the 1950s who made films about ladies and families have to do with a Bond movie? Well, I’ll tell you, because I brought it up in the first place. Look no further than Sam Mendes. The reason it’s important to acknowledge this connection is the fact that Sam Mendes, based on his CV, is very clearly familiar with Douglas Sirk. Revolutionary Road, a movie he made 4 years before Skyfall, has resonances of Sirk films. Not just because they are within the same genre subset—family melodrama—but also because watching Revolutionary Road is like watching a Sirk/melodrama nerd (like Todd Haynes) geek out about his favorite Sirk/melodrama things (like Far From Heaven). Sam Mendes is, in my opinion, a capital-A auteur**, and his ability to endow the frame and the scenes with meaning to reinforce the film’s themes make elements like cinematography, character dynamics, and composition of the frame more important in Skyfall than they would be in another run-of-the-mill action movie, not to mention a good melodrama is just as much a conversation about identity as it is about familial dynamics.
Some quick backstory for ya: based on social nostalgia, white Americans tend to see the 1950s (and early 60s as well in some cases) as a golden time where white men were breadwinners and white women were homemakers, and everything was beautiful and shiny! Most people know this isn’t really the case, but even in the midst of this cultural moment that we tend to romanticize now, Americans were very much invested in this idea of idyllic home life and living as the image of a perfect family, because it imbued a sense of success and a desperate need for perceived normalcy. Sirk was basically doing back in the day what Mad Men was doing during it’s run. With his films, he was pointing to all the fucked up shit that Americans were trying to hide behind these veneers of picket fences and two car garages.
Which is why screens, mirrors, windows, partitions, and shadows are such a large focus in Sirk films. He used these to expose things about the characters to the audience that the character is oblivious to. Gazing into mirrors, and through glass and partitions motivate moments of self-recognition and realization, as well as moments of self-awareness, reflection, and self-reconstruction. To wit, in All That Heaven Allows, one of Sirk’s best films, there’s a hugely important shot at the end of a scene of the main character, Cary, framed in a dark television screen, a gift from her children for Christmas. It’s supposed to be a moment where she (and we) realize that her children want her to stay in a kind of stasis—permanently widowed, permanently alone and constantly available to them as a mothering figure—and this isn’t what she wants. It’s her impetus to follow her heart and get with Rock Hudson. (The ending shot is an analysis in and of itself, but parsing that shot would take me so long, mostly because I’d spend at least 3 paragraps yelling about how Sirk was sucH AN AMAZING FILMMAKER HE GOT IT WOW, but hey, if that sounds like something you’d care to talk about, don’t be afraid to shoot me a message!)
Now, I don’t know about you, but to mine eye, Mendes really had a thing for mirrors, glass, windows, and light in Skyfall. One of the most notable scenes, the fight in the glass walled office building, is a prime example of this. Skyfall is very much a film about Bond rediscovering and redefining his identity as Bond; it’s about him losing himself, losing his sense of what it means to be the James Bond, and then reaffirming it by returning to his home(s), and rejecting/killing Silva, his dark double. (Read into that word choice as much as you want).
That glass fight scene as it is, is highly disorienting. Bond ambushes Patrice, the mercenary, and all we can see are their silhouettes and images of jellyfish flitting across the glass. We’re meant to be confused, asking ourselves which one is which. We as an audience experience the same kind of disorientation that Bond experiences within himself in the film. What exactly is the difference between him and Patrice? What divides them? What makes him Bond? What puts him above the gun-for-hire identity and makes him the Bond icon? The film is primarily a question of what divides Bond and Silva, but this scene builds upon the greater question of Bond’s true identity. If nothing except who signs his checks separates him from Patrice, the “bad guy”, he is not as different from Silva as he initially believes himself to be.
In keeping with this idea of Bond rediscovering himself, we must return to the opening scene. As the film opens, we see a dark hallway, then a man appears, backlit by sunlight from a window, scored by that iconic Bond riff, and walks down the hall, toward the camera. A light cuts across the man’s face as he stops short, and we see Bond’s eyes. Of course, we immediately know it’s Bond; it would be hard for an audience to come into a film like Skyfall and not know its Bond. This opening is a marker of Bond’s presence both onscreen and in the cultural consciousness. We know it is Bond, just as Bond is entirely sure he is Bond of legend. And this Bond does what Bonds do; he leaves his fellow agent to fare for himself in pursuit of the greater cause (though his discomfort with this part of his legacy shows in his reluctance to leave), he wrecks an entire marketplace in pursuit of the villain, and he leaves his partner, Moneypenny, to fare for herself instead of pulling her into the loop to capture his target. Bond’s arrogance and solo-gun single-minded determination is what dooms him, but he does not recognize it. Because of his track record as The Agent, The One and Only, he has no doubt that he will win.
The moment when doubt appears is when Bond is shot; but not because he was injured. Bond gets injured all the time, he shakes it off and keeps going. It’s because of two interlinked reasons: M did not trust him enough to complete the mission, and, as a direct cause of his arrogance and her lack of faith, he failed his mission, and it is because of this, that the wound sticks. In all of Bond’s previous adventures, M has been assured that he is capable enough to do his job and bring the bad guy to justice. In keeping with a theme that appeared in Casino Royale, (and didn’t appear in Quantum of Solace, because that entire film was a clusterfuck and I will call anyone who thinks they can make sense of any of it the liar that they are), M’s confidence in Bond’s ability to manage his job is rightfully being called into question. M making that call was essentially her fairly saying that she didn’t trust Bond to finish the job, when previously he was the only one to call when a job needed finishing. Bond’s identity and sense of self is wrapped up in the idea that he is the one and only. That’s who Bond is. He is the Guy. While we are supposed to understand that Bond is one of many in the 00 program, we never see any other agent aside from him. While these movies are focused on him, there aren’t any other 00 agents in the periphery. The implication then becomes that Bond is always the first and only on the list to call, because, to M, he’s the one who gets shit done, and he won’t quit until said shit is done. For M to swoop in via Moneypenny and decide that Bond cannot handle the job himself is a blow to his overinflated ego, especially since Bond is then grievously injured in the process and abandoned. His gunshot wound is a constant cause of pain for him through the first half of the film, because it stands as a reminder that he’s not that person, The Bond anymore. He is forced by it to move into a new way of being Bond. But this is an especially important realization, because his way of previously doing things in that Bond-legacy persona is no longer going to work for him.
Bond is then detached from the thing that gives his life meaning. Which brings me back to the scene that inspired this desperate Sirkian-focused reading obsession. After the opening credits, when Bond is still in semiretirement, and he’s sitting in a tropical island bar, daydrinking, he discovers that MI-6 has been attacked and he immediately decides to return. He looks up, sees the bar television in the mirror, and then turns to watch the news report. Now, there are a myriad of ways that Mendes could’ve shot that scene. He could’ve had Bond on the other side of the bar. He could’ve moved the tv to the opposite wall. It’s not a coincidence that Bond is looking at the television through a distorted mirror. He’s a man who has chosen to make his life about his work. He’s a physical and mental wreck for most of the first half (notably he gets his mojo back after that shaving scene with Moneypenny, but another post for another time), but in this moment, he’s not himself. He’s not Bond-as-a-character. Mirrors serve the function of reflecting us back at ourselves, and this is essentially a metaphorical version of that for Bond-as-a-legend. MI-6 is vulnerable, as he is. MI-6 was attacked, and its facade of strength and power was dealt a crippling blow, like Bond. In this moment, Bond is reminded that he is a company man is the most literal and figurative sense of the word, and in order to rebuild himself, he has to help rebuild MI-6 and make it stronger. He has to learn to adapt in this new world, without invisible cars and exploding watches. The mirror in the scene reflects to him what he has become in living in the identity of Bond-legend; a weakened MI-6, a man wrecked by his inability to complete his work because of his ego and his vices. He has to let go of those trappings in order to win the day. This is reinforced by the training and briefing sequence, which leads into Bond failing the tests. He is a physical wreck, not just because of the nature of his work, but because of the way he goes about doing it: recklessly and often with little regard for who gets caught in the crossfire (coughBONDGIRLScough). And yet M still allows him back into the field because, (I believe, at least) she has invested so much faith in him, and because of what happened with Silva, she recognizes that Bond is reliant on her faith in him in order to get the job done, and to adapt to get the job done.
Sandman Silva, via one of the most interesting (and gorgeous, really) villain introductions of all time. Of all time. The film is very much focused on setting up Silva and Bond as diametric opposites, and this is made important by the fact that Bond is going through a journey of self rediscovery. In opposition to Bond’s shadowy entrance, Silva enters into the film in brighter light. He walks toward us (and Bond) much in the same way that Bond walked toward us at the top of the film. Unlike Bond’s entrance in the narrow hallway, which is nearly entirely cloaked in darkness, Silva’s room is open, exposed wiring of multiple servers awash in natural light. Bond enters his scene, silent, closed off, trapped, and observing; Silva enters, speaking, open, freer, and observed. There’s a fair question in why they are introduced this way, and not the opposite; why Bond cloaked in shadows, like a villain (or a trapped rat? uhuhu!), and Silva awash in natural light, like the hero of the piece?
Silva likens them to each other, and it is fair to say that they are two sides of the same coin. Their betrayals, occupations, tastes, and skills are similar. But, it could also be said that Silva is more of a crossroads moment for Bond. Silva sees his former self in Bond, and feels as if there is only one way for Bond to morph, and that is into him. The possibility is strong; there are many elements of unspeakable ugliness in Bond, and Silva’s rage and reasoning for doing what he does are somewhat valid. Bond, despite his heroism in his occupation, is kind of an awful person.
Because of this undeniable fact, is also an element of deconstruction of the legend in the rebuilding of the legend, both within the film and outside it. In this (rather great) article on GQ.com, Freddie Campion nails just why Skyfall is so much better than all of the other Bond films:
“Daniel Craig’s Bond is just as egotistical and misogynistic as the ones played by Connery and Moore. There is one crucial difference, however: In Skyfall, everyone knows it.
Sam Mendes, directing a James Bond film for the first time, uses every opportunity to remind us that James Bond is kind of an asshole who is bad at his job. He’s constantly being flagged for his drinking and his lack of emotional intelligence, and when M forces him to re-enter the 00 program, he fails all the tests, because obviously he does.”
However, I also challenge that his failings are recognized not just because they finally need to be recognized, but because Bond is so jolted out of that bloated, nostalgia-heavy version of himself at the start of the film, that trying to fit back into who he was no longer works. Bond’s crisis of identity creates a powerful engine for the film to operate on, and the Sirkian use of light and mirrors informs this. Who is Bond and how does he rise above and beyond being a hired gun like Patrice, or a jaded, tired cynic like Silva? Bond has always been a racist, misogynist, borderline emotionless automaton. But instead of celebrating it as other Bond films do, Skyfall attempts to show, through reflection on Bond-in-film and Bond-as-legend’s shortcomings, that these things are not to be revered. The very things that Bond is celebrated for—the womanizing, the ultraviolence, the boozing and the blind idolization of past Bonds—are the things that make him unideal as an agent, and therefore unsuitable for the job. When we move away from this, and toward what motivates Bond as a character (a shitty childhood, and an opportunity to serve Queen & Country), Bond becomes a more interesting and complex character, and less of a bloated, one-dimensional glorification of his past selves. Kinkade, the gamekeeper on the Bond estate, as he pulls out a knife, remarks that sometimes, “the old ways are best.” Now this can be taken as a positive remark on Bond film nostalgia, but I take it as a notion that the ornate bells and whistles of usual Bond film resolutions are unnecessary. Rather, the old ways, the ways of dispatching your enemies before invisible cars and exploding pens, are the best. Bond wins at the end because he functions well as an agent in a tight corner, not because of his myriad of gadgets, but because of how effectively he utilizes everything he has at hand. Bond benefits because he strips away the trappings of the Bond-legend and truly inhabits the Bond-spy identity. His victory and vanquishing of Silva in shadows at the end is a triumph, because it is not the cloak of the bloated Bond-legend, but the coating of the newer, Bond-agent, which is informed by, but not strangled, by the legend.
Silva, therefore, becomes a vessel for the Bond-legend to be played against, infused with, and then destroyed. As his double and doppleganger, Silva is a distorted mirror into who Bond is at the time of Skyfall; broken down and exhausted by MI-6, and mistrustful of and hurt, emotionally and mentally, by M. Where Bond and Silva differ, is that Silva fully falls into what the Bond-legend can turn Bond into: an unrepentant and unapologetic villain, buoyed by his righteous fury and fully willing to hurt any and everyone he can to exact his just due. Bond recognizes his similarity to Silva, but chooses to reject it, and in doing so, forces Silva to assume all the ugly trappings of his legend-persona. In killing Silva, Bond attempts to kill off those negative aspects of his legend-persona. Whether he succeeds is really down to what Spectre tries to do with this new Bond persona.
Skyfall is also by leaps and bounds the most apt Bond film to set primarily in London. The movie is just as much about overhauling the franchise of the Bond films as it is about overhauling Bond as a character and archetype. It’s no coincidence that this is the film where Bond is given roots and a backstory. Before that most film lore assumed that Bond was just a codename for a rotating cast of agents. Casino Royale kept with this trend, establishing the canon that Craig Bond was a poor, maladjusted orphan. Skyfall retcons a good chunk of this and lays down that Craig-Bond’s name is actually Bond. Within the film that is very invested in exploring and deconstructing the identity of Bond is the best place to truly lay down a foundation for the character of Bond is
England Scotland if you’re picky, the United Kingdom. Bond rises, at the end, triumphant over the new, revitalized London, as a new, revitalized version of himself.
Now why did I rope Sirk into this, you ask? The resonances are subtle, but they are still there. Skyfall, in my opinion, is just as much a “family melodrama” as it is an action film. Craig’s Bond is wrestling with the pressure of his “familial” legacy (the Bonds of yore) and trying to find who he is amidst all of that. Sam Mendes, in my opinion, is just as interested in the conversation of identity, projection of the self, and how we are seen by others vs how we see ourselves, as Sirk, and the melodrama genre were.
*It’s not that melodrama as a genre wasn’t interesting or worthy of scholarship before he started making them, it’s just that people became interested in the genre of “women’s films” when they rediscovered his CV (or rather found an in by watching a male filmmaker talk about “women’s issues”). But let’s just keep in mind the fact that this genre, like romantic comedies, was not considered legitimate by its own merit because it’s a genre that was marketed specifically to women, despite the fact that the films in the genre are a cultural record for the anxieties and fears of their times.
**I have a lot of feelings about auteur theory, I’ll get into that in a later post.
Still here? Wow, thanks! Here’s a little ramble for your trouble (yanked right from my older
public-ish notes on Skyfall):
this is so silly and such a goddamn stretch but i really need more people to acknowledge how reminiscent that scene in Skyfall of Severine in the shower is of that reeds scene in Murnau’s Sunrise.
it’s not a moment to moment match, but just the way that the camera creeps forward out of the trees reminds me of the way the camera creeps toward Severine in the shower.
like us as audience members taking on the physical POV of the male protagonist and then stopping to view the scene while he moves forward and rejoins the scene?
the textual differences make it interesting though; The Man in Sunrise (that’s literally the character’s name) approaches The Woman From the City from the left side of the screen. She’s anticipating his arrival and primps herself for his coming. she’s the one in control of the scene; she controls how he sees her, she controls their meeting place, she controls him in a way that his wife (literally called The Wife [stares into the middle distance like I’m on The Office]) can’t. Severine, on the other hand, as we all know, was not fucking prepared for this brolic ass white man to come in behind her when she was vulnerable. And he comes in from the right, instead of the left.
(EDIT: I would also like to take a quick second and point that the left was often associated with the feminine, and the right with the masculine. And also the Latin root names for left and right were sinister and dexter, respectively. Food for thought!)
Bond is the one that is very clearly in control of the scene. he comes to her when she’s unmade up, she’s unguarded, and despite the fact that he’s in a dangerous space, he’s the one who’s in charge of the moment. the power dynamics in the scenes are so distinctly oppositional, but the way that the shots are set up, I dunno, I can’t think of one without thinking of the other.
ADDITION: And now that I have the hindsight of writing this to think about this scene, it comes before Bond meets Silva and 1.)has that moment of self-recognition and 2.) gets Severine killed right after. I think this was the catalyst, in a way. The film objectifies Severine in this scene, and allows Bond to be presumptuous and take advantage, after we are witness to a backstory that humanizes her. Perhaps this is a catalyst of a moment where Bond realizes that his sexualization of her dehumanizes, he is forced to recognize her humanity when her life is taken. But that is pretty much undercut by the fact that he makes an awful quip about wasting scotch after. Of course this is a painful reinforcement of the “woman dies for protagonist’s manpain” trope, but there’s a bigger conversation to be had about Severine’s maltreatment in comparison to Moneypenny’s valuation, and an even bigger conversation to be had about these women in the context of their respective races. But once again, another post for another day.