Criticism

Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not nature. Art, like nature, has to be distinguished from the systematic study of it, which is criticism.

— Northrup Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, VII

Volume VII, April 2019

Sleuth (1972)

Watched Sleuth (1972), with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Caine is a jumped-up pantry boy Cockney hair dresser who’s run away with blue-blooded Olivier’s wife, and Olivier invites him to his manor, ostensibly to offer his blessing. This movie has more 180-degree twists than Tony Hawk Pro Skater (1999). It’s the first role I’ve seen Olivier in that still stood up. Caine goes toe-to-toe with him, which must have been a nice trick to pull off at the time. Alec Cawthorne is serviceable as Inspector Doppler. Amazing dialog. Great direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz: never got lost with all the movement from room to room. But, how did he know the song ‘Anything Goes’ would be playing, hmm? I give it 4.5 hedge mazes out of a possible 5 hedge mazes.

Emperor of the North (1973)

Watched Emperor of the North (1973), a movie set in the Depression, with Ernest Borgnine as a sadistic train conductor, and Lee Marvin as the alpha hobo who’s determined non-euphemistically hop his train. This is basically a horror movie, with Borgnine playing a surprisingly intimidating villain, Ahab-esque, chasing Marvin around with a hammer and chain. There is a climactic fight scene that took 35 days to shoot. This movie has a lot of hobo lore and slang in it. There is a scene where a railyard bull chases Lee Marvin through the woods while Marvin is carrying a live turkey. In the universe of this film, to hop a train is to achieve absolute victory for the hobo, and absolute shame for the conductor. I give it 3.5 cigar stubs out of a possible 5 cigar stubs.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Watched They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), a WWI documentary by Peter Jackson and the cast of WWI. The restoration job is as good as advertised, maybe better. Makes me wonder whether the techniques he used to make the movie are fair. It’s not about a specific person or event, it’s a made-up story cut together from real interviews and footage. The people in it didn’t know each other, weren’t fighting in the same battles, though it looks like they were. It’s the question of whether a lie can be used to illuminate the truth, which is something you usually ask about fictional stories, not documentaries. An image is now burned into my brain: a soldier is so past the point of caring that he sits down on a rotting horse carcass like it was a love seat. I give it 3.75 tins of plum & apple jam out of a possible 5 tins of plumb & apple jam.

Gambit (1966)

Watched Gambit (1966), a caper movie with cat burglar Michael Caine recruiting showgirl Shirley MacLaine, who looks strikingly similar to the deceased wife of the reclusive Arab billionaire he wants to rob. The first part of the movie shows the perfectly planned heist going off without a hitch, but then it turns out that was just Caine’s sales pitch, and when the real heist goes off it has a _lot_ of hitches. Interesting reminder of the jet-setting, pre-apocalyptic Persian Gulf region. For example, there is an opulent bedroom that acts an elevator to a private helipad. MacLaine and Herbert Lom are fun to watch, Caine coasts by on charm, and in general there is less actual chemistry between the main cast than there was in John Dee’s notebooks. I give it 2.5 orange peels out of a possible 5 orange peels.

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Watched Kung Fu Hustle (2004), a live action cartoon about martial artists fighting over, well, I guess they’re just fighting over who is the best martial artist. Stephen Chow directed the visually interesting sequences, but left my favorite fight scenes to other directors. It kept seeming like this movie should end, because they’d kind of resolved all of the threats, but then they’d introduce a new threat out of nowhere, which was fine because it was a lot of fun. I would not say this is a funny movie, for my taste, but it is very entertaining. Lots of references to movies I’ve seen, and probably lots to movies I haven’t. I give it 4 red underwear out of a possible 5 red underwear.

Taxonomy

The first book of Moses cites as one of the distinctive marks of man: to give animals names. Now it is characteristic of the ordinary man, the man of the people, to have that gift. If the ordinary man sees a bird for some years, which is not normally seen, he immediately gives it a name, and a characteristic name. But take ten learned men and how incapable they are of finding a name. What a satire on them when one reads scientific works and sees the names which come from the people, and then the silly miserable names when once in a while a learned man has to think of a name. Usually they can think of nothing better than calling the animal or the plant after their own names.

— Søren Kierkegaard

Constancy

We get many advantages of our enemies, that are but borrowed and not ours. It is the quality of a porterly rascal, and not of virtue, to have stronger arms and sturdier legs. Disposition is a dead and corporal quality. It is a trick of fortune to make our enemy stoop, and blear his eyes with the sun’s light. It is a prank of skill and knowledge to be cunning in the art of fencing, and which may happen unto a base and worthless man. The reputation and worth of a man consists in his heart and will; therein consists true honor. Constancy is valor, not of arm and legs, but of mind and courage; it consists not of the spirit and courage of our horse, nor of our arms, but in ours. He that obstinately fails in his courage, Si succiderit, de genu pugnat. ‘If he slip or fall he fights upon his knee.’ He that in danger of imminent death is no whit daunted in his assuredness; he that in yielding up his ghost beholding his enemy with a scornful and fierce look, he is vanquished, not by us, but by fortune: he is slain, but not conquered. 

– Montaigne

Donutry

Yet it is an iron law in democracies that anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics. The reverse is not the case. The movements that reshaped our country over the last half century did much good, especially in changing, as we say, hearts and minds… But over the long term they are incapable of achieving concrete political ends on their own. They need system politicians and public officials sympathetic to movement aims but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced.

— Mark Lilla

Tradecraft

The Bond in Casino Royale is pretty different than the Bond in any movie, including the earliest ones — even including the two that were based on this very book. He has no confidence in his ability to succeed, and is suspicious of working with women out of a professional fear that he might become emotionally entangled with them.

He doesn't fire a gun, and his only attempt at hand-to-hand fighting is laughably ineffective.

He makes it through the book on luck, and the ability to withstand torture long enough to be rescued. First outplayed at baccarat, and then outmaneuvered in an ambush by the Russian agent, Le Chiffre. Both times, he survives only by being bailed out, first by American money, courtesy of Felix Leiter, and then by a Russian bullet, courtesy of another Soviet agent, also sent to kill Le Chiffre. This isn't the hyper-competent Bond we're used to seeing.

But the most interesting difference is that Bond's arc in this book is from questioning the ethics of the job he's chosen, to accepting that the world is actually less complicated than he thought.

At the beginning of the book we see Bond's internal moral struggle at a low simmer. He doesn't like that murder is part of his job, but he does enjoy the lifestyle it brings: caviar, vodka martinis, and high-stakes gambling. 

Bond frowned. "It's not difficult to get a Double O Number if you're prepared to kill people," he said. "That's all the meaning it has. It's nothing to be particularly proud of.  I've got the corpses of a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm to thank for being a Double O. Probably quite decent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world like that Yugoslav that Tito bumped off. It's a confusing business, but if it's one's profession, one does what one's told. How do you like the grated egg with your caviar?"

Ian Fleming

Later, talking to the older agent Mathis, he announces that he is jaded the whole enterprise of espionage, and takes a postmodern position, that there's no objective heroes and villains, it's all a matter of which side you're on.

"You see," he said, still looking down at his bandages, "when one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it's easy to pick out one's own villains and heroes, and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains."

"Well, in the last few years I've killed two villains. The first was in New York— a Japanese cipher expert cracking our codes on the 36th floor of the R.C.A. building in the Rockefeller center, where the Japs had their consulate. I took a room on the fortieth floor of the next-door skyscraper and I could look across into his room and see him working. Then I got a colleague from our organization in New York and a couple of Remington thirty-thirty's with telescopic sights and silencers. We smuggled them up to my room and sat for days waiting for our chance. He shot at the man a second before me. His job was only to blast a hole through the windows so that I could shoot the Jap thorugh it. They have tough windows at the Rockefeller centre to keep the noise out. It worked very well. As I expected, his bullet got deflected by the glass and went God knows where. But I shot immediately after him, through the hole he had made. I got the Jap in the mouth as he turned to gape at the broken window. Bond smoked for a minute.

"It was a pretty sound job. Nice and clean too. Three hundred yards away. No personal contact. The next time in Stockholm wasn't so pretty. I had to kill a Norwegian who was doubling against us for the Germans. He'd managed to get two of our men captured — probably bumped off for all I know. For various reasons it had to be an absolute silent job. I chose the bedroom of his flat and a knife. And, well, he just didn't die very quickly.

"For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service. Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough. A Double O number in our Service means you've had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.

"Now," he looked up again at Mathis, "that's all very fine. The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn't a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up…"

Mathis is surprised by this revelation, not because it hadn't occurred to him, but because he thought Bond was smart enough not to fall for it. "It is, of course, a difficult problem in the abstract," he says, "the secret lies in personal experience."

Bond's argument is the argument of someone who has come face-to-face with evil, but failed to understand the ramifications. He ought to have realized that there is nothing wrong with killing someone, if they deserve to be killed.

By the end of the book, after Vesper is revealed to have been a double agent, and then, like Le Chiffre, murdered by her own masters for violating their inscrutable code, Bond comes to realize that Mathis was right all along. Presumably, this is where the focused, doubtless, hyper-competent Bond we recognize starts to emerge. The devilish, smirking, pistol-wielding seducer.

I don't know that I'll read any more of the books to find out. It wasn't all that well-written, and if (as I suspect) Bond becomes a less dramatic character as the series unfolds, it would be a shame. I like the introspective Bond, and I think that continuing to struggle with the nature of his duty, in a world where expedience is the primary ethic, would be more interesting to explore.

Reciprocity

There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters.

— Alice Thomas Ellis

Peace

Peace is perhaps that state of things in which the natural hostility between men is manifested in creation, rather than destruction as in war.

— Paul Valéry