The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

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


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

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