The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Art House 007: How Heineken Poisoned the Well of the West’s Most Beautiful Franchise

James Bond fans are angry. Very angry. At a time of economic chaos and global uncertainty, we need archetypes that are consistent and reliable. Can you imagine Homer Simpson eating caviar? Hamlet making a fart joke? Carrot Top making a successful joke at all? No, this is not the time to “experiment,” “shake things up,” or “think outside the box.” Yet the creators of Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, have done just that. In a scene that’s created no small measure of hullaballoo and controversy, audiences will now be forced to watch Daniel Craig’s 007 drink not the customary shaken-not-stirred vodka martini. No, instead fans throughout the world will be treated to the spectacle of the world’s greatest secret agent and super spy sipping on…a Heineken.


Why? In the name of god, why would anyone allow this to happen? The answer is simple: money. This is product placement, nothing more than a cynical bid from the makers of Heineken to convince us to purchase and drink their pernicious swill of watered down, alcoholic inequity.

Well, I don’t know about you. But I, for one, am outraged that the hallowed 007 franchise has whored itself out for profit and commercialism. Remember when James Bond films didn’t care about the money? When they were cool? When it was all about the art? When they had visionary directors at the helm like Orson Welles and François Truffaut? When Bond the girls were played by Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave? When 007 himself was inhabited by the likes of Shakespearean actors like Anthony Hopkins and Albert Finney?

Well those days are gone, people. Consider them chapters of a bygone era. Do Heineken’s fortunes give them a license to kill the west’s most beautiful franchise? Perhaps they do. So for those of you unfamiliar with the 007 canon, here is a retrospective of five previous Bond films – all of them money losers – that represent the height of cinematic achievement and artistry, uncorrupted by commercial considerations of any kind.

Twilight on the Sunset of Tomorrow (1959)

Kafkaesque in its inscrutability, this surrealist classic gives us a James Bond sent to the rural English village of Surrey with vague instructions from a nameless superior to capture and murder another secret agent. There, Bond finds himself in the midst of a bizarre Italian carnival, surrounded by a variety of entertainers and circus freaks. 007 becomes uncharacteristically less focused on the task at hand, instead befriending the carnival “strongman” named Hugo. During a fifteen-minute monologue, James Bond reveals his more “sensitive” side to the weight lifter, who brutishly devours pounds of raw meat during 007’s soliloquy. Spoiler alert: if you’ve seen Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, you’ve got a pretty good idea of where the whole thing is headed. Shot entirely in black and white, this low budget (and money losing) critic’s darling influenced an entire generation of directors, including David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. It took Orson Welles seven and a half years to complete the movie, evidenced by continuity problems in an otherwise flawless film.

Beach Blanket Bondage (1965)

At the time 007 aficionados cried, “sell out!” – but a few critics new better, praising the “James Bond Musical” for its “radical experimentalism” and “post-modern irony”. Sent to Southern California, 007 poses as a surfer, where he infiltrates SPECTRE’s smuggling ring to Eastern Asia. Screenwriter Hunter S. Thompson is credited with his successful (if jarring) incorporation of Hell’s Angels into the musical numbers, where Albert Finney’s 007 sings surprisingly well.  Finney’s chemistry with Annette Funicello fell flat with some viewers, but no one can forget the “club house” sequence in which the secret agent turns on Frankie Avalon, and beats the teen idol to a bloody pulp (a scene that never failed to earn standing ovations). It still remains unclear if director William Asher was aware that he was satirizing his own career. The movie proved “too weird” for most viewers, putting it on the list of many 007 box office failures.

Broken Bond (1969)

James Bond is sent to Hanoi with clear instructions to assassinate Ho Chi Minh. There he is captured; the subsequent scenes of torture are brutal, even by today’s standards. This historic Arthur Penn work is one of the only major Hollywood studio releases to deal explicitly with the Vietnam War while it was taking place. Arthur Miller’s script was widely (but not universally) panned, as was Marlon Brando’s outing as the only American actor to ever play 007. President Nixon himself
personally decried the film as “…un-American, un-Believable,
and un-worthy of the dollar fifty price of admission.” The movie went $5 million over budget – an
astronomical sum at the time – partially because Bond girl Jane Fonda brought in acting guru Lee Strasberg to help her find the proper motivation in the love scenes with Brando. Brando had Strasberg fired after three hours of shooting. The star also frequently butted heads with Penn, improvised most of his scenes, and gained 200 pounds.

Le Dossier du James Bond (1972)

Jean Luc-Goddard, fascinated by the possibilities of a cinematic secret agent, created an infamous piece of cinema vérité when casting a balding, middle-aged Scottish actor named Sean Connery in the role of 007. Goddard released a film of which consisted of Connery reading the recently leaked Pentagon Papers in their entirety for a period of four uninterrupted hours. The actor took the job, but was not amused. “I never really understood the role of Bond,” Connery said years later. “The life of espionage doesn’t appeal to me: the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the effeminate attention to detail. It’s fine a fine role for a certain type of actor, but I prefer a man of action.” Seated behind a desk and incessantly chain smoking as he reads, Connery could not look more uncomfortable. Critics unanimously praised the film as socially relevant, historically indispensable, and completely unwatchable.

Bond of the Spirit (1985)

Harshly condemned by the Vatican before the first ticket was sold, this controversial Ken Russell masterpiece has 007 thwarting an assassination attempt on the Pope, only to be plunged into a crisis of faith in the process. Malcolm McDowell (who played James Bond more than any other actor) is riveting in the infamous confession scene, where he recounts his many acts of violence and sexual promiscuity. “As 007, MacDowell has finally shown us the inner Bond,” wrote Roger Ebert, “and he is frightened, wasted, and vulnerable.” Bond of the Spirit is the only film in history to dramatize 007
seducing a nun. The Vatican released a statement condemning the film for its “craven heresy” and noted
that the film’s PG rating made it essential that society “protect children from the predatory, sinful actions of certain depraved individuals in whom parents have placed so much trust.” The boycott was successful: the movie lost $15 million, but like all the James Bond films, it enjoys a loyal, if small, cult following

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See ye now the purity of the well that Heineken hath so heinously putrefied? The James Bond franchise has never, ever been about financial gain. These aren’t the kinds of movies that pander to the lowest common denominator; they’ve never used cheap thrills, gadgets, or special effects to get the butts into the seats. Each film is a coherent, fully realized work of art that intentionally employs innovative, risky aesthetic choices that challenge and sometimes alienate their audience. To have the Bond character say or do things we don’t expect is, of course, alienating, but for all the wrong reasons. Narrative choices should be artistic, not financial, and no film series exemplifies this principle in all its glorious purity better than that of James Bond. How do we react to the discovery that all the filmmakers really want to do is take our money? Daniel Craig himself recently attempted to put this fire out by saying: “It’s unfortunate, but we get the movies made, and that’s all that matters. And I whore myself out a little bit for that…and so what? Everybody wins.”

Really, Mr. Craig? Really? Does everybody win? Everybody? Well I put it to you, sir, that this game in fact does have a  loser, and he goes by the name of Art. And it is Art, not SPECTRE or the Soviet Union, who is now James Bond’s rival and arch-nemesis, one whom 007 seeks to destroy by drowning it Heineken’s corporate vat of insatiable greed and avarice.

Once upon a time, there was a franchise. Its sole purpose was to further the art of narrative cinema to its finest, fullest potential – commercial gain be damned. Now, with the flick of a bottle opener, those days are gone forever. Bon voyage, 007. As the saying goes: if you can’t beat ‘em…

Besides, I suppose we can thank Heineken for finally reminding us what James Bond is really all about.

 

David Berkson

October 26, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

 

 

 

American Intervention: Why The United States Needs A 12 Step Program

Let’s start with George Carlin. For a guy who repeatedly said he couldn’t understand America, he sure got an awful lot right. Like the phrase: Proud To Be An American. “What the f#@% does that mean?” Carlin asked. “That’s like being proud to be 5’7”, or proud to have a pre-disposition to colon cancer…Pride should be reserved for something you achieved or attained on your own, not something that happened by accident of birth…if you’re happy with it, that’s fine. Put that on your car: Happy To Be An American.”

 

But there’s a reason why you never see that slogan on the bumper sticker of an automobile. Americans are not happy. Maybe that’s why we feel the need to be proud; it’s as if our American pride masks something dark, bizarre, and unfaceable. If 2008 was the Year of Hope, then 2012 is the Year of Fear. Barack Obama will destroy your business. Mitt Romney will take away your reproductive rights. Quick! Fact check that lie and get it out on Facebook before all the people who probably agree with you anyway start to believe in something that simply just isn’t true. And don’t forget the Supreme Court! And the Deficit! And the Unemployment Rate! And Iran! And Benghazi! And I stood upon the sand…and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

With all this surplus of information and opinion, you have to wonder if there is a single national problem that Americans are failing to discuss. The truth is, there are many. Like characters in the world of Harold Pinter, our major presidential candidates distinguish themselves primarily by what they aren’t saying. Perhaps it’s because we just won’t let them. “Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary,” writes Scott Shane in The New York Times. “It is impermissible to dwell on chronic, painful problems, or on statistics that challenge the notion that the United States leads the world…” Shane goes on to demonstrate how far behind we are:

  • In regards to childhood poverty: “…of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania.”
  • Shane asserts that, “…contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.”
  • Our infant mortality is high; 48 countries have lower rates than ours, among them Singapore, Guam, South Korea, Croatia, and Serbia.

The candidate planning to bring any of those facts up in the next debate might as well book a lunch date with Michael Dukakis. No. America must be Number 1. (And we actually are number one when it comes to incarceration, obesity, and energy consumption.) Our national optimism must be massaged, our egos protected. We need our president to be the kid’s soccer coach who cries, “Nice try!” every time the ball slips past the grasp of the goalie.  C’mon Mr. President! Be charming! Be funny! Be tough! And presidential! But don’t make us get all introspective and shit. That’d be un-patriotic.

In short, we are not electing a president. We’re electing an enabler. A co-dependent who might occasionally nag us to “cut down” on those things that will surely kill us, but in the end reassures Americans just how special we really, truly are. That it’ll be ok. That we are better than our actions might suggest. And this, above all else: that genuine change is possible without the sweat and blood of true political sacrifice.

In the global human family, America is the raging addict, the abusive head of household. Charming we are: the rest of the world loves us so much, that 20.56% of our population is comprised of immigrants.  Influential? Absolutely. With a defense budget of $700 billion (more than the 14 other highest other spending countries combined), how could we not be? Culturally relevant? You betcha. Quantifying the world’s biggest pop staris no easy task, but all evidence would suggest that music’s reigning monarch is most certainly an American.

During the course of my life, I’ve known plenty of addicts. They’re a pretty charming bunch. In fact, they’re irresistible. I’ve never met an addict who didn’t fill the room with a magnetically dominating personality. Shane didn’t title his article “The Opiate of Exceptionalism” for nothing. On our planet of humanoid dysfunction, America is addiction personified. And don’t try to contradict me; you’ll just be displaying the classic signs of denial. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over 20% of its resources. In spite of overwhelming evidence that carbon emissions are destroying our planet, America’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions grew 7% between 1990 and 2009. Is it any accident that the U.S. is the only country in the world that “debates” the human cause of climate change? What part of America’s Falstaffian reveling isn’t the mark of an overbearing, overweening, overfed addict?

Yeah, but….I bike to work. And I’m voting for Obama! (Even though he, like Mitt Romney and every other Republican, criminally employs the oxymoron “clean coal” when discussing our energy options.) C’mon, gimme a break, already! I’m doing my best! I try to be good! America’s not that bad, is it?

Robin Williams once approached an audience member at a comedy club who, like many other patrons, was smoking a cigarette. “Oh! Filtered cigarette!” Williams quipped. “Kind of like this!” The comedian then proceeded to take a napkin from the smoker’s table and place it on his head. Williams then pretended, through the fabric of the protective napkin, to blow his own brains out.

Denial. It’s the addict’s number one tool to keep the party going. That’s why Step 1 of every recovery program begins: “We were powerless over [take your pick: alcohol, drugs, oil, colonialism], that our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s that admission – the only antidote to denial – that paves the way towards ending the horrific cycle of addiction, and moving towards the responsible mindset of taking responsibility for one’s own actions. To be fair, of the two major presidential candidates, Barack Obama comes the closest to being the adult in the room. But if he wants another gig as our babysitter, he ‘d darn well better play the dysfunctional family’s rules. That means that there are certain things that he just can’t say. Like the word “poverty” – to do so would be an open admission of national failure. (In Liberalism’s Shrinking Agenda, conservative blogger Michael Gerson notes that Mitt Romney actually used the word “poverty” five times in the second presidential debate; Barack Obama never used it at all.) Failure isn’t American! We’re a can do nation! Our presidents must always project unflagging confidence and buoyancy.  One of the reasons President Obama was criticized for his first debate performance was that he “looked tired” – a sad indicator of our desperate need to be constantly reassured that everything is okey-dokey and a-okay. Especially us.

“Woe to the nation that breeds heroes,” says Galileo’s former pupil in Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei. “No,” replies the astronomer, “woe to the nation that needs one.” Leave it to a communist like Brecht to shoot down American optimism. Good god, isn’t there someone who can save us? Put on the Superman cape and fly it on in? How about an intervention for America? Won’t someone show us the error of our ways, and push us along the road to recovery?

Someday China might be happy to oblige. They are, after all, the largest foreign owner of U.S. debt (more than $4.5 trillion). Romney might actually bring that one up in the next debate, even as he continues to press for policies that will drive the deficit higher. One of the hallmarks of addiction is blame; count on both candidates to employ it right until the final ballot is cast on November 6th.

But not every addict is saved by an outsider. In fact, many interventions end in failure. No, an addict pretty much has two options laid out before him: death or recovery. And that’s where we stand today. And I mean “we” as in We the People. The United States of America may not be a pure democracy, but we have lots of democratic tools that could stand to be dusted off. And I’m not just talking about voting. For starters, we could stop driving cars. Period. We could also cease to support agribusinesses that overproduce meat, sell genetically modified crops, and exponentially enlarge our carbon footprint. How about closing tax loopholes on corporations, and making multinationals like General Electric pay their fair share? Or legislation (in the form of a constitutional amendment, if necessary) to overturn Citizens United? And while we’re at it, let’s open up the presidential “debates” to more candidates so we can end these interminable personality contests that masquerade as elections.

These ideas are hardly unheard of, but they are well outside of the American political mainstream. To put them forward in a focused, responsible manner might take more than a little bit of courage. But contrary to popular opinion, politicians do respond to consistent, disciplined pressure from the electorate. Mitt Romney may or may not be pro-life. Or pro-choice. Or pro-anything. The change in his stance on abortion was based not upon principle, but political calculus. Barack Obama’s “evolution” in supporting gay marriage did not come purely out of the goodness of his heart. The president is a smart man; he did the math: conservatives were never going to vote for him, no matter what. And the pressure from the left to support gay marriage was too intense to ignore.  We can only wonder what would have happened had Obama’s apologists – the so called “liberals” who never pressed for single payer healthcare or the closing of Guantanamo Bay – held him to the same standards that the Republican far right now holds his shallow opponent.

No matter. One of the essential ingredients of recovery is looking at the past, learning from it, and then simply letting it go. This is where we are. Every American citizen is free, at any time, to abandon his imperial prerogatives, or cling to them for dear life (or death). Which brings us back to George Carlin. More than twenty years before his rant on American pride, Carlin took on a bigger subject: humanity’s place on the planet. It’s a great bit, one in which he excoriated lefties like me who try to preserve the environment. Said Carlin:

We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet. What?…Save the planet? We don’t know how to take care of ourselves, yet. We haven’t learned how to help one another. We’re gonna save the f#@%ing planet? . . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet…it’s the people are f#@%ed! …the planet is doing great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t going anywhere, folks. WE ARE! We’re going away! We’re going away…

Pretty tough stuff, isn’t it? I’ve included the entire bit here, and I can guarantee you that, regardless of your political persuasion, that at least some of it will make you very, very, very upset. That’s the job of the brave comic, and George Carlin was most certainly that. But I find a perverse hope in his words, which I’ll quote in full here:

I think that we’re part of a greater wisdom than we’ll ever understand. A higher order, call it what you want. You know what I call it? “The Big Electron.” It doesn’t punish. It doesn’t reward. It doesn’t even judge. It just is. And so are we. For a little while. Thanks for being here with me for a little while tonight. Thank you. Thank you.

And that’s all there is. The Empire will Autumn, and then it will die. The same is true for you, for me, and all of humanity. So does any of it really matter? Sure it does. Every last part of it. As any twelve step or self help guru will tell you: all we really have is now. So now is the time to get busy. Jean Paul Sartre once famously asked in his play No Exit:”What are you, if not your life?” Future generations (assuming there are any) may find tremendous fascination with our delusional and magical thinking – but we’ll finally be evaluated on our actions, not our fantasies. True national pride comes only with actions that match our mythology. Then, and only then, will we shed our imperial hubris. That’s when each of us can truly be Happy To Be An American.

David Berkson

October 21, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at davidberkson66@gmail.com, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

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