The recently released James Bond installment, Skyfall, prompts this post, which I hope you can follow even if you haven’t seen the film (though I recommend you to watch it, is a great entertainment film). This is not a review, or if it is, then it is a ruin-centered review. Because ruins are a very important element in the 23rd film in the Bond series. Also, spoiler alert: I am revealing it all.
One of the themes, if not the theme, of Skyfall, is the persistence of the past. The good-evil tension typical of any action film is articulated in Skyfall along a temporal dimension. The resulting binary pairs are something like this:
Past- present (and future)
Ideologies- economic gain
Nation- borderless networks
Good Old Bond
At a first level, the tension past-present is self-referential: the past the film wants to revive in the first place is…its own, that is, the James Bond series and characters. In the film, Bond mentions his hobby is “resurrection”. It is impossible not to read it both as a diegetic comment (the film begins with him dying) as well as a stylistic justification for the film: the franchise can go on and on as long as it is capable to reinvent itself. As the new Moneypenny says about Bond: “Old dog, new tricks”.
In this sense, it is a metafictional film, or, according to film theoretician Jim Collins, just a contemporary genre film. Talking about film genre in the nineties, Collins notes how “Narrative action now operates at two levels simultaneously in reference to character adventure and in reference to a text’s adventures in the array of contemporary cultural production” (p.254). So does Skyfall, which at one level is an action film and at the same time a movie about the ‘array’ that now forms the “imaginative landscape of contemporary cultural life”, an array that includes Bond’s films, and many others, both old (Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, Silence of the Lambs) and recent (Batman and Bourne series).
If we understand Bond films as a genre, their set of features (i.e., tuxedos, ladies, travel, witticism, gadgets, technologically advanced villain aiming at world-domination, stylized credits and a on-purpose song, an ending on a beach) become “generic artifacts”, that while born in a particular moment (Cold War, sexual liberation, boom of tourism industry) remain “unanchored, subject to multiple transformations, multiple transportations”. Skyfall thus presents yet another reworking of these artifacts that retain “vestiges of the original semantic and syntactic relationships that once gave it a precise generic value” (Collins, 256).
Note how Collins’ text uses the vocabulary of archaeology and ruins to explain current forms of narrative consumption: vestiges, relics, artifacts, fragments that, almost ghost-like, keep resurrecting to conform, in combination with “the exigencies of the present”, a new rendition of a genre film.
So, it is clear how, at a self-referential level, the ruin universe play a role in the film. But they are also a constant presence at a diegetic, ‘reality’ level of the film. Let’s see how they are featured and what they mean.
Tourism & ruin gazing
As most contemporary action films, Skyfall takes us traveling around the world. The grand opening of the film is an exciting persecution in Turkey, with memorable motocrossing on the roofs of the Grand Bazaar, followed by Adele’s Skyfall song (yet another “generic artifact”: a twenty-first century version of a soul diva, a profitable blend of nostalgia, television culture, political correctness, etc.) After a short visit to London, the film really takes out on a flight to (let’s see: where do most villains live nowadays? Yes, in) China and the glitter of Shanghai’s night skyline (which is getting a bit cliché by now), and continues deeper into China, to a casino in Macao that has more to do with the orientalist fantasy of Shanghai vintage than with Adelson’s Sands.
Macau welcomes Bond with full Chinoiserie: fireworks, lanterns, exotism, and, you guess it, dragons. The folk dragon that swallows Bond as his raft takes him to the heart of today’s Chinese/corporate darkness, finds a ruinous transformation right when we enter the precinct.
A sort of moat behind a wooden bridge is inhabited by two Komodo dragons, a strange enough choice of dangerous animal, unless we consider that they are the closest we can get in real life to the threatening Chinese dragons, and unless (and that is of course my choice) to read them as constituting the first in a long list of ruin-quotes: the Komodo dragon is often referred as a relic species, the last of a class of reptiles long disappeared, in truth, a cousin of a dinosaur. (But as we will see later, digital technologies have a lot to say in current debates on what is actually true, original, genuine, etc: these dragons, which I had just described in terms of ruins, they were a digital creation of visual effects company Cinesite, as you can see here).
After Macau, we sail to an island, a deserted island after evil Raoul Silva (a memorable Bardem) made the inhabitants believe (“with a single computer”, Severine notes to Bond, the single “field agent”) there was a chemical leak. The scene unfolds in a war-like scenario, closer to the Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket, with empty streets framed by skeletons of buildings.
I imagine many of you thought, where is this place? Does it exist? I did, and the answer was far more complex than I thought. In the film, we are still in China, having just sailed there during a short night, but the reference for this island is Hashima Island, in Japan, a real abandoned island after its coal mine closed in 1974. As a modern industrial ruin, it has an standing candidacy, “Modern Industrial Heritage Sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi”, to join UNESCO heritage sites lists. But interestingly, both diegetically (they are a torrid yet short night away of sailing from Macao) and in reality, Bond and Severine remained in China: a set was build on a small island off the coast of Macao to short the scenes: for a while there existed two ghost Hashima island in the South China Sea. (Also, whether we remained in China might be a contentious issue given the rekindling of China-Japan dispute over Diaoyu-Senkaku islands. I know, we are far from the area, but still, I think it is interesting that a Japanese island was Chinicised).
Why does the evil Silva retreats in such ruinous landscape? Besides the obvious benefits of seclusion and remoteness, there is a denotative element. Scorning Bond’s “love of country”, Silva states: “England. The Empire. MI6. You are living in a ruin as well, you just don’t know it yet.” The ruinous island is an acknowledgement of the decrepitude of the old ways and order, the perfect lair for a digital corporation of evil. Silva considers himself wiser because pain and betrayal has made him less delusional, he can see the rotten, collapsing essence of the world. The island just makes evident a future ruin which is already inscribed in the present in the form of a virus. So, the island is, as islands usually are, a microcosmos, a liminal space, a condensed representation.
Bond is now feeling weak, worn and insecure (or at least, as much insecure as the ‘exigences of the present’ for this generic artifact (Collins) allow, and this blend of Briton irony, Tahitian hedonism and antediluvian machism can sustain). The world has changed: technology has altered the way intelligence works; ideology and Cold War have given way to corporate terrorism and cyberhacking; and it takes much longer for a middle-aged agent to recover from a gunshot in the blade than it used. That is what Silva wants Bond to understand: with the appropriate digital capability, one can “Destabilize a multinational by manipulating stocks. Easy. Interrupt transmissions from a space satellite over Kabul. Done. Rig an election in Uganda: all to the highest bidder”, that is power today. So, Bond, you do not need to get out in the field. You are getting old and tired. England is old, tired and passé. Welcome to the desert of the Real, and why you don’t come to the dark side, we can join our experience and get rich; plus, if you are up to it, we can have a shag now and then.
But some old things do still work: Bond traps Silva with the help of a simple radio, one of the only two gadgets he has received from the agency (there other being a gun with a microsensor on the grip encoded with Bond prints, so another commentary on the digital-analog duality), and, at the narrative level, a centuries-old deux-ex-machina narrative technique in the form of helicopters. From here we go back to London. Silva scapes and unsuccesfully tries to kill M, Bond’s boss (Silva is a former agent with grudges againts M, whose meaning as castrating, cruel Mother is constantly referred to). Bond decides to take the initiative: the motion is both forward (to get ahead of Silva-and plays of words keep recurring about being ahead, on top, faster, etc) and backwards, as it is a travel “back in time”: Bond drives M, with his old Austin Martin, to his brithplace in the Scottish Highlands, to a state named Skyfall (or Rosebud, if you like). With the aid of Q, a teenager update of the MI6 scientist, they reverse Ariadne’s thread and play Silva’s cyber-game, carefully leave digital traces for him.
As the location of childhood, memory, and tradition, Scotland is the perfect place to fight Silva, because “if all else fails, sometimes the old ways are the best”, old Bond state keeper Kincaid emphasizes: defense is arranged McGiver-style, with old barrel guns and DIY explosives.
But here is when we find how postmodern, in the Jamesonian sense, is this film: because this is no real past. The Skyfall manor, rather than collapsing Usher-like, looks well-kept and preserved: time is only hinted by a few white sheets covering sofas and lamps, and the selling of the gun collection. The Austin Martin might be vintage but it is a state-of-the-art heavily armed weapon, which serves them to get rid of half the attackers. When we reach the final scene, in a small church with attached graveyard, time disappears altogeter: there are no spiderwebs, dust or weeds covering the tombstones. In ruin lingo, we can say that these aren’t real ruins because they haven’t matured, they do not have ruin time (cf. Hetzler 1998).
So, at the end, the tension between the past and present is solved à la Jameson, that is, by the postmodern position of flattening historicity altogether. Remember how for Jameson ‘historical deafness’ is one of the symptoms of our times, when we indulge in “a series of spasmodic and intermittent, but desperate, attempts at recuperation” a past (x). Sam Mendes, the director of the film, has acknowledged he wanted to make a film to contribute to the rise of English pride building up to the London Olympics, the opening cerimony of which offer one of such “attemps at recuperation”.
After all this runing around, there are no real ruins in the film. Even though they play with their iconography, and the script makes reference to them, there are no ruins, that is, no real pieces of material from another time that arrive to us unmediated, as a pure testimonies of their age and fate. Unless, such real, pure ruins can never actually exist, as I have suggested in other posts. A ruin is always created, constructed, is always a discursive category that accumulates layers of meaning about the present.
In Skyfall, we are confronted with a middle-aged England, “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will”, which achieves, once again, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson’s “Ulisses“, recited by M at the ministerial enquiry, summarizes the film, and is echoed by Adele’s refreain in a more modern style: “Let the sky fall/ when it crumbles/ we will stand tall/ and face it all together” ). The nation, love of country, the English bulldog, London, the SIS building, and of course James Bond: at the end, they are not ruins, just half-worn trees full of vibrant sap waiting to upsurge. So, here we are again, the non-interesting ruins of national-allegory and commodified nostalgia. (It is really interesting that this movie appears when the Scotish referendum has been approved. Unhesitantly, Bond the Highlander answers ‘England’ when asked about ‘country’).
Before we forget all about ruins, it is time to introduce China again, as I usually do in this blog. In this occasion, Chinese tradition can show us a different angle, perhaps a way out of our postmodern flat world. Having used myself the tree metaphor and seeing this tree in a promotional photograph (a scene that didn’t make it into the film), it all made me think of a recent, and much expected book on the tradition of ruin representation in China by art historian Wu Hung (which I have reviewed for China Quarterly). In the book, Wu mentions the trope of the barren tree (ku shu 枯树), a living ruin that “can register both gradual decay and sudden destruction” (p.42-43). Stephen Owen has commented on the metaphorical universe of old trees in ancient Chinese painting and poetry: for example, playing on the equal pronuntiation of talent (cai 才) and timber (cai 材), the man of talent could be equated to the necessary “beams” of the state, and “seemingly lifeless trees [could] flower out of their barrenness to indicate the restoration of a clan or dynasty” (p.171).
I still want to comment on what constitutes, for me, the real conflict of the film. As a villain worth its name, Silva presents an opposition to the current order/system. His trying to convince Bond to bond with him (sorry, couldn’t help it…) is also a defense of truthfulness in front of the system’s hypocrisy: he’s just using the technology and code created by Q and other techno-gurus. The difference? He’s an entrepreneur, not a lap dog with false consciousness. He will use cyber-power for his own purposes and be evil, while the others will collaborate with equally controlling, manipulative, and obscure powers, but their, oh so middle-class, responsibility will leave them safe on the right side.
In the film, Silva’s cyber-savynness and techno-essentialism (“there’s nothing superfluous in my life”) confronts Bond’s loyalty and field skills, and the last wins: the “old ways” (a good-old hunting knive) eventually kill the cyber-terrorist. But the conflict (about technology’s manipulative potential, about the facelessness of politics, of the vacuity of patriotism, you name it) is not solved, just sterilized via liberal pragmatism: technology is not inherently good or bad, it just depends on the finality it is put to work, there exists such a things as a good combination between technology and humans, the digital world and the material world.
Of course this is Hollywood traditional narrative (and ideological) strategy: to deflect real/material/economical conflicts into moral/ emotional choices. Silva is right, the world has turned into a faceless, cyber network of interests. Therefore, he must be eliminated, because he lifts the digital cover from our eyes so we can see the reality of economic exploitation.
This same topic seems to build on the tension between technology and its material base analyzed by Katherine Hayles. According to Hayles (How we became Posthuman), we conceptualize technology as something rid of any material base: in films (Avatar, Source Code), popular culture (Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon), in common speech (“update me”), we live as it were only a matter of time to upload consciousness and exist (eternally?), as pure information. Whereas Silva the techo-evil says “All the physical stuff, so dull, so dull…”, Hayles would underscore the materiality of technology. The famous title of one of her books, My Mother was a Computer, reminds us how the first ‘computers’ were human, mostly female number-cruchers who calculated things like artillery trajectories.
It is symptomatic that Silva’s offer to Bond arrives when he is facing old age: Silva softens him up by revealing his real, failing scores in the MI6 reincorporation tests, which M(other) had- lovingly? cruely?- hidden to him: Silva is the sexual Snake as well as a jelous Cain as well as a tricky Mephistopheles. As well as Bond’s brother, the person who can understand him more, his reflection (in one of the tens of mirrors that appear in the film). But no, Bond will stand by his bosses. Why? Well, you can choose a) because he is an English bulldog, b) he is Oedipically in love with his Mother/Boss, c) he is the synthesis of the two worlds, a Real/ Natural Man who moves well enough in the cyber-world, or d) he is pretty dumb, but eventually, it all comes to e), we wouldn’t have a movie.
Thanks for watching.
Jim Collins. “Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity” in Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins (eds.) Film Theory Goes to the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1993. 242-263.
Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991
Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999
—- My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. University of Chicago Press, 2005
Florence M. Hetzler (1998) “Causality: Ruin Time and Ruins”. Leonardo, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 51-55
Stephen Owen “Deadwood: The Barren Tree from Yü Hsin to Han Yü”. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jul., 1979), pp. 157-179.
Wu Hung. A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture. London: Reaktion Books, 2012