Skyfall & Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to TravelNovember 24, 2012
In his James Bond Dossier of 1965, Kingsley Amis wrote: “Not much mind is needed to notice that Bond’s adventures have been getting more fantastic all the time and some critics have actually done it.”
After fifty years and some 23 features, it would be an understatement to say Bond’s cinematic adventures are getting more fantastic all the time. They tend to get more fantastic along with the special effects and the ever-spiralling budgets. Yet one might paraphrase Amis in the proposition: ‘Not much mind is needed to notice that Bond has been around for half a century, and some critics have actually done it.’
As a general rule I try to avoid reading reviews of a film I’m reviewing myself, but withSkyfall – presented as an event rather than a movie – curiosity got the better of me. Because there has been a big hullabaloo about the Bond series reaching its 50thanniversary, it was predictable the new film would be filled with references to past glories. It was slightly more adventurous for Sam Mendes and his team to broach the subject of an aging 007 and a doddering M.
This was a cute idea, but was it such a daring, iconoclastic manoeuvre that reviewers would be bursting with admiration? I thought “no”, but the correct answer was “yes”. Everyone seems to feel this unremarkable plot line has imbued the film with a humanity and sensitivity that lifts the Bond franchise onto a new level, perhaps somewhere near On Golden Pond, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Bond is portrayed as an old-fashioned spy in a young person’s game, and Daniel Craig with his rugged, weather-beaten looks is just the man for the job. Had Sean Connery been brought back it might have been even better, as he is now 82 years old.
Judi Dench as M, at a sprightly 77, is an unlikely choice to be running MI6, even though the British Civil Service has scrapped its mandatory retirement age of 65.
Scrawny, young Ben Whishaw as Q, is the new face of British espionage. He is a computer whizz who sneers at the crude gadgets of yesteryear that Bond afficionadoes once saw as space age technology.
Somehow we know these aging secret agents will prove a match for an evil menace the young brigade cannot handle. This celebration of corporate knowledge could hardly be more timely in a world in which superannuated age is being rapidly jettisoned in favour of callow, inexpensive yoof. Perhaps a special screening for the board of Fairfax Media might be arranged.
Along with the ‘aging spy’ theme there is an attempt to take us into Bond’s family background, with new information about his childhood, his parents, and the family estate in Scotland. This gambit has also been rapturously received by the critics, even though the Batman films have already given us a thorough grounding in the idea of a hero whose personality is forged by childhod traumas.
With so much uncritical love wafting in from review pages around the world, I hate to spoil the ambience, but one fundamental fact seems to have been overlooked: the Bond films are profoundly formulaic, and Skyfall – despite its attempt to humanise 007 and M – is no exception. The movie still consists of dazzling opening credits, title song by a current pop sensation, extraordinary fights, car and motorbike chases, a bit of underwater action, things exploding, travels to exotic locations, and the irresistible atttaction Bond exerts on beautiful girls of all ethnic persuasions.
Then there is the super villain, Silva, played by Javier Bardem, with a severe blonde dye job and a persona that would not be out of place in the Rocky Horror Show. Think of the truly menacing character Bardem played in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007), and one can only see Silva as an exercise in preposterous camp.
Dedicated fans recognise the formula, and love it. In fact, a large part of the enjoyment of a Bond film probably lies in the regular fulfilment of one’s expectations. There is, however, a fine line between giving audiences what they want, and banal repetition of the same scenarios. For instance, there is not much to choose between the motor cycle chase that began the last Bourne film, and the one at the start of Skyfall. I can’t pretend to be a connoisseur of motor cycle chases, but I’d swap any of them for a sustained passage of clever dialogue.
The dialogue in Skyfall has its moments, but it is pedestrian by the standards of some of the earlier movies. After fifty years it may be almost impossible to make a Bond film without an element of self-parody, but that is no reason to assume a note of gravitas will transform a cartoon into something touching and deep. When a character in a film begins to feel his age or his limitations it invites a degree of empathy. But could anybody truly identify with a fantasy figure like 007? Or M? Only the vast majority of film critics, apparently.
After watching Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, I’m convinced there is nothing so extraordinary about James Bond. One might have to look to Frances Bacon to find someone with a comparable energy and talent for self-creation. Like Bacon, whose paintings are currently being shown at the Art Gallery of NSW, Vreeland (1903-89) was a sacred monster. She dominated everyone by sheer force of personality, being loved and hated by the same people at the same time.
Vreeland made her reputation as columnist and fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, New York, from 1937-62, and editor-in-chief of British Vogue from 1963-71. When she was fired from Vogue she became a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she put the study and display of fashion on an entirely new footing, and attracted huge audiences.
Diana Dalziel was born in Paris into the most cosmopolitan of families, her father being a British businessman, her mother the scion of American high society. According to her mother it was a shame Diana was so very ugly while her younger sister was so attractive. No child needs to be continually reminded of her shortcomings by a parent, particularly when the parent is biologically responsible for the problem.
Many children would have been driven back into their shells, but Diana took the opposite course. She danced her way through her teens, and mingled with a fast set. In 1921 she married the handsome young banker, Thomas Reed Vreeland, who provided the life-long stability her impetuous personality required. They would have two sons, Tim and Frecky, who talk about their mother with a mixture of affection and bewilderment.
As a young society wife, Vreeland didn’t need a professional career, but upon relocating to New York in 1937 she was invited to write a column for Harper’s Bazaar, and enjoyed it so much that work became her passion. She would put in long hours, and later expect her employees to do the same.
From the beginning she showed extraordinary orginality, striving to take the magazine out of the doldrums of domesticity and into the realms of high romance. Her column was called Why Don’t You? And contained surreal suggestions such as: “Why don’t you wash your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne, like they do in France?”
When she was headhunted for the editorship of British Vogue in 1962, Vreeland came into her element. It was the era of swinging London, and the magazine was at the forefront of the trends. She filled its pages with fashionable figures from all walks of life; worked closely with David Bailey and other leading photographers; and discovered models such as Twiggy, Veruschka, Penelope Tree and Marisa Berenson, who all helped define the look of the sixties. Thinking of the way she overcame her own ugly duckling status, Vreeland decided that every supposed imperfection in a model must be accentuated. Twiggy’s thinness became her trademark, while Berenson’s long neck was made to look giraffe-like.
Vreeland’s eccentricities and imperious style were parodied in a number of films, including Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957), and William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), which both feature in this documentary. She befriended movie stars and pop singers, and helped Jackie Kennedy choose her wardrobe.
When she got the sack from Vogue, a victim of an economic downturn, and her own extravagances, Vreeland returned to New York, and set about transforming the Metropolitan Museum into Party Central.
The archival interview material in this film, co-directed by the subject’s granddaughter-in-law, is frankly amazing. The flow of sharp, witty comments proceeds without hesitation, as Vreeland answers questions put to her by the writer, George Plimpton. Watching her in action, I thought of the sullen, uptight figure of Anna Wintour, the all-powerful editor-in-chief of Vogue featured in the film, The September Issue (2009). In the difference between these two women one sees how fashion has become an industry where once it was pure fantasy.
Skyfall, UK/USA, rated PG, 143 mins
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, USA, rated G, 86 Mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 24, 2012