Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Name's Bond: Skyfall as Surrealist Allegory

‘Allegedly, the story goes like this.  
Billy Wilder runs into Louis Malle.  This was in the late 60s, early 70s.  
And Louis Malle had just made his most expensive film, which had cost two million dollars.  
And Billy Wilder asks him what the film is about.  
And Louis Malle says, “It's sort of a dream within a dream.”  
And Billy Wilder says, “You just lost two million dollars.”’
                                                   - Steven Soderbergh, in Waking Life

How are we to make sense of the new James Bond film, Skyfall? With its numerous diegetic discontinuities and narrative lacunae, the film seems almost to deliberately resist reasonable exposition. Numerous commenters – on Twitter, IMDB, etc.  – have gleefully pointed out the various continuity "errors" so-called: characters' shoes change colour mid-scene, time distorts and accelerates in strange ways (the final confrontation, for instance, begins and ends at daytime with a whole night passing somewhere in the middle), gloves and scarves and coats disappear and then reappear like ghosts in the night. 

Leaving aside for the time being the fact that Bond comes back from the dead enough times to speaks of "resurrection" as a hobby; the most grievous error seems to me to be the apparent revelation that James Bond's real name is none other than James Bond, son of Andrew Bond. I couldn't care less that this is established by Ian Fleming himself in the late novel, You Only Live Twice; in the context of this film it makes no sense. It is made clear that the name Silva, given to Bond's adversary is a nom de guerre, and the whole menace that Silva poses is his ability to reveal the real names hiding behind the professional aliases of other secret agents in the field. So how can the agent who, in the course of his work, introduces himself repeatedly as James Bond, possibly bear that name on his actual birth certificate except by some preposterous double bluff?

I would like to propose, then, that the most productive way of understanding Skyfall is as the pre-death dream of an agent so absorbed by his own cover that he has entirely forgotten his own identity. In this respect the film resembles the usual understanding of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, with which it shares a number of themes: doubles and double identities, betrayal and bitter obsession, the need to protect oneself through roleplaying. Skyfall is full of classic dream tropes: old houses, secret tunnels, watching one's place of work burn down, saving mummy. Characters frequently tell Bond that he is tired and needs a rest, recalling Freud's reminder in the Interpretation of Dreams (in the section on the dream of the burning child) that one of the functions of the dream is to prolong the dreamful sleep. There are numerous references to psychoanalysis in the film – the word association game, the all-too-obvious Oedipal triangle – as if to nudge the audience towards such an explanation. Even the way data is visualised (in various scenes involving Q) resembles a middle-aged man's fantasy from the 80s of what the net would one day look like. 

So, to reconstruct the story's fabula from the beginning: we see the agent known as James Bond die, falling from a bridge in Istanbul. The credit sequence featuring Adele and Paul Epworth's song then appears as a kind of hypnagogic hallucination, a confused fantasy of erotic fulfillment and a return to the womb. The rest of the story then arises as a kind of substitute formation to ward off the traumatic possibility of ‘James Bond’ recalling his own real identity. This precisely is the threat represented by Javier Bardem's character Silva (whose name is an anagram not just for the YouTube account "Vials" revealing agents' true names online, but also of "Valis", the intergalactic AI system that Philip K. Dick believed was communicating with him through dreams in the early 70s). 

Silva's threat is then double – both to undermine 007's self-identity as a virile heterosexual man (in the notorious seduction scene on Hashima Island) and also that he might reveal Bond's true name as he has of the other agents. The 'return' to the old Scottish mansion in the last act of the picture only really makes sense as the confabulation of a spurious back story on the part of Bond's subconscious in order to shore up his fragile sense of self by 'proving' that he 'really is' James Bond. Doesn't this rural manor in the end resemble the house in Louis Malle's infamous dream-within-a-dream, Black Moon, in which Cathryn Harrison's Lily escapes from a real war of the sexes to a strange cottage (in fact, Malle's own family estate) full of talking unicorns and naked children singing Tristan und Isolde?

The only true narrative inconsistency still requiring explanation, then, would finally be the unresolved question that must surely have hung in every viewer's mind at the end of the film [and I warn you, from here on there be spoilers]:  why doesn't Albert Finney's bizarrely inserted father substitute, Kincade, die in the end? Everything points towards the logical conclusion that he should die – both from the realistic stand point that, without any combat training, he somehow survives the assault of a small army – even surprising the murderous Silva at one point, who mysteriously declines from shooting him; and, from our own oneiric angle, that Bond's subconscious should require Kincade's death in order to resolve his Oedipal conflict. 

The only logical explanation is that, finally, the whole point of Skyfall is the protection of old patriarchies (represented by the name of the father, Bond – as in Andrew Bond). For what has actually changed at the end of the film – when, realistically assessed, every mission has been failed, what has been achieved? Only this: that Judi Dench's female M has been replaced and MI6 has a new male boss, while the feisty gun-toting female field agent, Eve (played by Naomie Harris), has settled down to a life as his secretary.