James Bond, Cultural Icon

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THE PLANK OCTOBER 18, 2009

James Bond, Cultural Icon

A.O. Scott has an interesting piece in Sunday's Times about the films of 1962. Scott thinks 1962 matters for two reasons: The sheer number of good movies, and the collision of two eras in filmmaking. Scott's examples include The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention Truffaut's Jules and Jim and what Scott calls the start of a real "film culture".

In the early ’60s the studio system, buffeted by television and by accelerating changes in social norms and public expectations, was on its last legs, but it still had the wherewithal to produce big spectacles like Cleopatra and flog new life into established genres. Lavish musicals, wide-screen historical epics and westerns were fixtures of the Hollywood menu even as popular taste was starting to outgrow them. At least some of the American moviegoing population was acquiring a taste for more exotic fare, especially from Europe, where a generation of filmmakers was charting the horizon of the new.

Scott does not mention the movie, but it's worth noting that 1962 marked the release of Dr. No, the very first James Bond film. True, Dr. No is not a Truffaut film, and its image of Britain's place in the world was one that--as Scott notes--David Lean and other filmmakers were beginning to challenge (Lean would go on to abandon this project in his ridiculous adaptation of A Passage to India). Sean Connery's Bond spends the film going around Jamaica as if he were any old colonial policeman; 47 years later, the film feels like the relic of another era. And yet, the hero was  an old-school Brit who became a symbol of the swinging sixties. The movie itself was controversial for its violence (Bond notoriously kills someone in cold blood), and, more importantly, for its casual attitude to sexual matters. The subject of sex and the Bond movies is a larger topic, but also one rich with paradox: The male-female relationships are both shockingly sexist and traditional, and yet also risque and interesting.

The new film culture--although very thematically and stylistically distinct from the Bond movies--also reflected a similarly lax stance toward the facts of life. And it is extremely difficult to separate the cultural forces that embraced and produced the art films Scott mentions, and the cultural forces that assured James Bond's enormous popularity. Dr. No may not fit neatly into any category or era (neither do Lawrence or Liberty Valence, really), but it presents a helpful prism through which to observe 1962.

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posted in: the plank, europe, david lean, james bond, jim, jules, sean connery

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