Couple weeks back the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, crossed the US$1 billion mark in worldwide box office receipts. It’s the first movie produced by Sony to cross the billion dollar mark and easily the most successful installment of the Bond franchise ever.
It’s also a really, really good movie – one I highly recommend if you still haven’t watched it.
I just don’t think it’s a good James Bond movie.
Much as the same way Robert Downey’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ was a fun adventure romp but a pretty stupid movie about the detective from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, Skyfall was a gritty, atmospheric and psychologically intense tale about a secret agent and his origins but it certainly wasn’t Ian Flemming’s Bond as we’ve come to know him.
The reason we didn’t get to see the Bond we’re used to in Skyfall is because the movie is consumed by an ulterior motive which it doesn’t even attempt to conceal, a motive which has increasingly become a bit of a national obsession for jolly ol’ England of late.
In Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s character works purely as a metaphor for the country he serves and, as the secret agent battles seemingly old age and more complex threats, you can’t help but conclude that Bond’s search for relevance and meaning in today’s world echoes England’s struggle to define itself in an era where the country can’t deal with the fact that they simply don’t matter. The final shot of the movie abandons all attempts at subtlety as we have Bond juxtaposed against a fluttering union jack, staring confidently out at the Kingdom, apparently more at ease with himself and his purpose now that he’s figured out his place in the world.
Sadly, that sort of stone-faced self-assurance continues to elude England.
The Bond franchise is effectively reduced to nationalistic propaganda in Skyfall which really sucks because, despite the fact that it has always been very clear that Bond served at Her Majesty’s behest, his employers were never a part of his legend. James Bond wasn’t supposed to wear his allegiance like a shiny badge on his suit lapel.
While the use of the handsome, chiseled frame of Daniel Craig as a representation of a country reeks of over-compensation, the underlying insecurity goes even wider. Skyfall is indicative of a much broader national malaise which has weighed uneasily over the English people for a while now and which has awkwardly become apparent to the world at large through works like Skyfall and the jingoistic opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. England is in desperate search for some sort of reassurance that they still matter. And I think an inability to come to terms with the fact that they don’t matter after the heady days of the British Empire has provoked an internal debate on what it means to be English in the first place. The country in effect seems to be trying to redefine itself given that the current perception of what they stand for is either too vague or at least has no place in the world today.
So what is “Englishness”? I actually don’t care because I find the concept of being “English” highly boring and a deconstruction of its principle tenets seems about as appealing to me as a John Crawley innings (I could have used Misbah-ul-Haq there but thought an English reference would be more apt).
What I do find interesting is the search for a collective identity. Why should that be a cultural imperative for a nation? Apparently, it’s a potentially troubling place to be if you, as a country, don’t know what you’re all about. This lack of a national identity could possibly give rise to some sort of “social chaos”, and I guess if I knew I was on the path to something which sounded that scary I’d probably be falling over myself to remind everyone what I stand for.
I’m sure the political science geeks on fiverupees are better equipped to tackle broader questions regarding national identity but what fascinates me (in the same way a car accident or a couple breaking up loudly at a restaurant is oddly compelling) is why a country like England is willing to go to such great lengths on the global stage to try and advertise what they stand for.
England are seemingly hell-bent on a socio-political campaign to crack the question of national identity since basically the end of the second world war, a point in history after which the English state declined dramatically in power and relevance. The closing of the British Colonial Office in 1966 was symbolic as well – for so long England had defined itself by virtue of the glory years of its colonial empire, but there was a growing recognition that, given the brutal realities which underpinned the colonial era, it may be wholly inappropriate to base an identity in the modern era on those questionable conquests. Unfortunately, this inability to come to terms with their past only leads to more confusion in the present as there appears to be a systemic denial of English history right down to the school level and, as Martin Kettle points out, it’s harder to figure out who you are if you deliberately avoid confronting parts of yourself.
The problem of defining what it means to be English seems to be reaching a fever pitch in England. The country’s leaders are starkly aware of a lack of national conviction among its populace, prompting the Prime Minister to remind everyone that his country still matters in the bigger picture while politicians struggle to find the best way to celebrate “Britishness”. A recent study showed that only six out of ten English people associate their national flag with pride and patriotism. The organization which conducted the study urgently recommended taking concrete steps to foster a sense of “English patriotism” which was vital to the survival of the English state.
So how did a country heretofore known for its understatement, class and dignity attempt to cultivate a national identity its people can subscribe to?
It took every positive and cosmetic facet of English history right up to its modern pop culture contributions and ejaculated it all over the global stage in the form of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
The New York Times described the opening ceremony as “a wild jumble of the celebratory and the fanciful; the conventional and the eccentric; and the frankly off-the-wall… Britain presented itself to the world Friday night as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.” Those , by the way, are the words of an Englishwoman, the London correspondent of the NYTimes.
I beg to differ. The Olympics opening ceremony was pretty awful.
Not in that they were poorly choreographed or the music sucked or that I wanted a billion synchronized drummers like they had in Beijing. While some parts were in fact flat out boring, it was more or less a grand spectacle which was entertaining if you could ignore the distinct self-serving narrative coursing through the entire ceremony.
I just could not get past the subtext of the entire show – “this is us, this is England, this is who we are, what do you think, neat, huh? “
It was damn annoying.
Just like Novak Djokovic is insufferable due to his constant antics and publicity stunts to get the crowd to love him, Danny Boyle took an Olympic institution and turned it into a fucking travel brochure. Oh, look at us. We’re quirky. But also deep. We’re scholars and inventors. But also have a sense of humor. We go way back and still have a Queen. But hey, she’s cool, and anyway look at all the pop hits we’ve produced recently. We are a welfare state. What the fuck hospital beds have to do with the Olympics is beyond me.
So this was how England chose to identify itself. An eccentric hodgepodge of history (minus the blood and gore), literature, pop culture, sport and music. Wow. How do you process that? The author of that NYTimes piece would probably argue that the English identity is not conducive to being harmoniously processed given its diversity and varied peculiarities.
You’re a conceited dick if you think that you’re the only person with diverse characteristics in the room, let alone the only country that has multiple attributes which define it.
What ruined the opening ceremony for me was the palpable insecurity which pulsed through it as we witnessed a nation put on a pretty face and try to convince us about who it was and why that should matter to us. It was also perhaps asking for our tacit approval as it exhibited all the colors and sounds we might find appealing.
As introductions go, it was incredibly awkward.
Imagine you’re at a bar and your friend introduces you to a guy. So you ask that guy who he is, what he does. The guy replies with: “Oh I’m a lawyer. But that’s not all there is to me. I like to play the guitar in my free time. I’ve also fallen in love. I write poetry. I read books. Watch movies. Play tennis. I cook. I’m bi-sexual. I pay my parents hospital bills. I use the internet. I drive a car. I have hobbies.” By the end of it, you probably wouldn’t hate the guy but at least feel incredibly sorry for him if he feels the need to convince you about what he’s all about rather than expecting you to get it after a few conversations and meetings. A guy like that probably isn’t sure about what defines him which is why he feels the need to constantly externally reinforce the parts of his identity which he feels capture his essence. On a macro level, that was the problem with the opening ceremony, which was borne out of a national crisis to define a country. It was trying way too hard.
This tiresome agenda ruined the opening ceremony for me and it was no coincidence that the same agenda was pushed to the fore in Skyfall as the film-makers exploited a nation’s obsession to come to terms with itself. The Guardian went as far as to describe the Olympics opening ceremony and Skyfall as “a patriotic double bill” in an explicit recognition of the kind of cultural zealotry England is hoping to inspire by defining a concrete identity for itself.
There is a degree of conceit involved in the projection of a national identity. While some stress the important of developing a national consciousness as a means of fostering community and enabling different people to connect on some basic level due to a shared national experience, there’s also a negative motive at work here. The underlying conceit is that by knowing who you are, you also know how you’re different from everyone else, maybe even more significant. That’s the sort of thinking which lies at the core of all nationalistic rhetoric. And it’s hard not to see that conceit at work in the Olympics opening ceremony (at one point England basically credits itself with the invention of the internet by having Sir Tim Berners Lee playing a piano).
It’s a tough position to be in if you’re England. You used to be the popular guy in school but now there’s a new crowd on campus who’re more hip so you’ve lost your gloss and sex appeal. You want to recapture your old glory and break back into the scene but you’re unsure how to present yourself without coming off as stale. You don’t really want to acknowledge what made you popular in the first place because it’s sort of dubious and you’re kind of ashamed of it and, at the same time, you’re not sure what it is about you right now which sets you apart from the rest of the pack.
These insecurities nag at England relentlessly and I hope they can learn to come to terms with the fact that they’re not that special anymore, and neither do they need to be. That sort of national inner peace will probably make it easier to develop a collective identity (if that’s really necessary) and, at the very least, make them much less awkward when they project themselves to everyone else.