Tuesday 26 April 2011

James Bond memes escape

A few years ago, I was watching an old British comedy film starring Charlie Drake, a comedian and singer popular especially in the 1950s and ’60s. The film was called The Cracksman, and featured Drake as a locksmith tricked by a burglar into robbing a bank. In one scene, Drake’s character crawls through a ventilation shaft. I can’t remember the exact line, but he says something like, ‘Now I know how James Bond feels’, referring to the scene in Dr No (1962) in which Bond, imprisoned by Dr No, escapes through a shaft. Released in 1963, The Cracksman shows that it didn’t take long for aspects from the Bond film to seep into wider popular culture.

The ventilation shaft scene in Dr No has faded as an individual meme readily manifested in non-Bond films, televisions shows, books and so on, but as the Bond series progressed, others have emerged and become very successful in that they are replicated often and reasonably accurately, and have survived well over the decades.

A good example is the Q meme. This is expressed as a science boffin or inventor who distributes gadgets and weapons to the hero. A variant has a computer geek instead of an absent-minded professor type. The meme, which was best-defined in Goldfinger (1964) in the scene where Q (Desmond Llewelyn) explains the gadget-filled Aston Martin to Bond, has found its way into many action films, helped by repetition of the idea in subsequent Bond films and by the fact that it’s a convenient device for film makers to incorporate useful objects into their plots. Batman Begins (2005), in which Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox arms Bruce Wayne with weapons, is a recent example (and an interesting case of one superhero genre borrowing the conventions of another).

The James-Bond-uniform meme is just as successful. Any action hero (or indeed any leading male character) in a dinner suit brings to mind James Bond, and this is acknowledged by film makers. Executive Decision (1996), to give an example, starred Kurt Russell as a desk-bound government intelligence officer. He is called in the middle of a black-tie function to join a commando team on a passenger plane to defuse a bomb. When, still wearing his dinner suit, he is introduced to the team, a member of the team asks, ‘Who’s this, 007?’. The dinner suit is so strongly associated with James Bond that Clive Owen was touted in the press as a possible James Bond after appearing in Croupier (1998) wearing a dinner suit throughout.

Another successful meme is the shaken-not-stirred meme, repeated in the Bond series each time Bond orders a Martini. Its spread into wider popular culture has also been helped by its being applicable beyond Bond and spy-film culture, enabling it to enter the general lexicon as a phrase in its own right.

There are others, such as the use of ‘for your eyes only’ as saying, and the placement of a short action sequence (as if concluding an earlier adventure) before the main titles in a film. These have emerged or have been developed in the Bond series, but have become successful with wider repetition and adaptation by others.

Monday 18 April 2011

How many James Bond book titles are there?

Or, to rephrase the question, how many types of titles did Ian Fleming use? To give an example, Live and Let Die is what I will call a phrase variant, deriving obviously from the well-known saying, ‘live and let live’. Other phrase variants are Diamonds are Forever, a mutation of the de Beers’ advertising slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’, From Russia, with Love, which is a play on oft-used sentimental expressions, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is taken from the standard phrase used on government communications, and You Only Live Twice, a derivation of the saying, ‘you only live once’.

Then there are film/book title variants. The Man with the Golden Gun appears to fall into this category, with its inspiration probably coming from The Man with the Golden Arm, a 1955 film starring Frank Sinatra. Another title type is personal name – Goldfinger and Dr No – with other names forming a fourth category. Moonraker, the name of Drax’s rocket, Thunderball, the name given to the mushroom cloud resulting from an atomic explosion, and Octopussy, the pet name of an octopus, belong to this group. (We should note, however, that Fleming didn’t actually choose the Octopussy short story title as the main title of the volume, as it was published posthumously.)

Of the remaining titles, For Your Eyes Only is presumably an original phrase, which Fleming came across and used during his wartime career in the Navel Intelligence Division, although I must confess I can’t put my finger on evidence to support this. It may in fact be a phrase variant, being similar, but not identical, to a form of words used in espionage. The origin of The Spy Who Loved Me is also uncertain, but is also provisionally placed in the original phrase category.

So we have a tentative list of five title types. Fleming’s titles in turn inspired the authors charged with writing continuation Bond novels, who tended to use the same basic title types. Phrase variants include John Gardner’s Win, Lose or Die, and Raymond Benson’s The Facts of Death. Personal names are evident in Colonel Sun by Robert Markham (Kingsley Amis) and Scorpius by John Gardner. Curiously, neither Raymond Benson, nor Charlie Higson, author of the Young Bond series, use personal names for titles. Of the film/book title variants employed by the continuation authors, all examples, such as Licence Renewed (John Gardner) and The Man with the Red Tattoo (Raymond Benson), have their origin in Fleming’s phrases or titles. The fifth type, original phrase, is interesting in that the continuation authors have turned to the category proportionately more than Fleming. There is, for example, Gardner’s Role of Honour, Benson’s Zero Minus Ten, and Higson’s By Royal Command. Recent authors have also used original phrases; Sebastian Faulks had Devil May Care, while Jeffery Deaver’s forthcoming novel will be called Carte Blanche.

Another aspect to consider is the association of certain words or concepts with the world of James Bond. The most frequently used are death (or variants of, such as die), forever, the man who or from, and negative words, such as never and nobody. Fleming used these sorts of words sparingly, but they increased their frequency among continuation authors to the point of over-use. Half of Raymond Benson’s Bond novels have the word death (or similar) in the title, while almost a quarter of John Gardner’s titles use a negative. In contrast, only 8% of Fleming’s titles use a form of death, and none uses negatives. Despite this, these words and concepts have become so strongly associated with Bond that continuation authors regularly turn to them. Their use has also spread to films – Licence to Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day – and no doubt anyone invited to generate a Bondian title is likely to consider words like these. Oddly enough, no title generator has used the word that Fleming used twice and is just as Bondian: love.

Saturday 9 April 2011

From Chitty to Camper – the magical car flies again

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Ian Fleming’s only children’s book (although I started reading the Bond books from the age of 12), gets a sequel. Novelist and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce was invited by the Ian Fleming estate to continue the adventures of the magical car. The book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, will be published in November.

The original car was based on a racing car built in 1920 by Count Zborowski, who used a pre-1914 Mercedes chassis and a six-cylinder Maybach engine, a type normally fitted to Zeppelins. For the new book, Cottrell Boyce has retained the engine, but placed it instead into a VW camper van.

Why a camper van? It is possible, simply, that Cottrell Boyce likes the vehicle, perhaps having owned or otherwise experienced one himself. But the camper van does in any case seem an appropriate choice. I don’t know how the camper van has been depicted in literature, but in recent films the camper van has either been used to evoke period (Forest Gump), or identify ex-hippies (Field of Dreams). I suspect, however, that Cottrell Boyce has picked up the idea of the camper van representing adventure and freedom in the way shown in Little Miss Sunshine. The new owners of Chitty Mark II, the Tootings, may also echo the kooky, poor, and ultimately loving and accepting, family depicted in the film. If so, then the Tootings would not be very far removed from the original Potts, a poor family on the margins of society, whose lives are changed with the arrival of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Monday 4 April 2011

The evolution of the James Bond poster

Imagine a British James Bond poster. You’ll probably bring to mind the central figure of James Bond, facing us or body turned to the side, with gun brought close to the face, as if preparing for a duel. No doubt a Bond girl is draped around him, and both figures are placed in front of a montage of action highlights. Bond’s rocket-firing car is in the background, and the head of a Bond villain looks menacingly on the proceedings. Throw in an explosion or two for good measure, and you have some of the more successful attributes or memes (or, rather, variations of the memes for the depiction of Bond, action montage, Bond girl and so on) that form the standard James Bond artwork. Successful, because they have been reused on several poster campaigns, and have also been replicated on posters of films other than Bond. There are other memes, and by identifying how they varied and which variants were favoured and reproduced, and which fell by the wayside and disappeared from view, we can trace the evolution of the Bond poster.

The UK poster of the first Bond film, Dr No (1962), showed Bond in casual repose with a cigarette in one hand and a gun in the other. Half the poster is taken up by Bond girls. Images of action and the villain are somewhat hidden from view by the title. The use of a central Bond figure, the Bond-girl emphasis, and discreetly-placed action/villain motifs survives in the posters for From Russia With Love (1963), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967), although with the last mentioned, there are other versions of the poster than give much more emphasis on action, one for instance showing Little Nellie, Bond’s autogyro. The poster for Goldfinger (1963) is different, though, and could be a still from the title sequence (both were designed by Robert Brownjohn). This style was not continued.

The action montage was brought more to the fore with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), while the depiction of Bond girls was restricted to the leading Bond girl, in this case Diana Rigg. This may have been a response to the introduction of a new Bond actor, George Lazenby. The emphasis on action may have been designed to reassure film-goers that this was a Bond film despite the absence of Sean Connery. In any case, the artwork set the pattern for the next nine films, from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) to The Living Daylights (1987). All feature strong actions montages, and central Bond figure with the leading Bond girl by his side (although the poster for Live and Let Die (1973) was reminiscent of the 1960s’ posters in terms of the relatively high number of women it showed).

In a return almost to the early posters, the action montage depicted in the poster for Licence to Kill (1989) was reduced in size and shifted to one end. Much of the poster, however, was taken up by the 007 device (rarely depicted before) with James Bond, this time shown running, placed in front. This was possibly meant to convey the idea of a Bond on his own and impatient for revenge. The use of the 007 device survived the six-year gap between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye (1995), and was prominent on the GoldenEye poster. Indeed, it was replicated in the posters for every subsequent film. We now see only the head and shoulders of Bond, although the figure is large and dominates the poster. The main Bond girls are shown behind him. These variants were selected for the Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) poster, and to some extent for the Die Another Day (2002) poster, although there Jinx, the leading Bond girl, mirrors the pose given to Bond to indicate an equal status. The poster for The World is not Enough (1999) is closer in style to the Bond posters of the 1970s, with the expression of the variants of prominent action montage and smaller full-figure Bond, clad in Bond girls.

Taking over from Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig brought a brutal and darker style to the Bond films, and the poster accompanying his films reflected this. The Bond of the Casino Royale (2006) poster was depicted with gun in hand and purposeful movement, echoing the poster of Licence to Kill, but also the memes expressed in the posters for the first Bourne film (The Bourne Identity). The action montage was restricted to a single scene central to the film – the casino. Vespa Lynd, the Bond girl, was prominent too, although some posters showed her in front of Bond, while in others she was behind, looming large in silhouette. The poster for Quantum of Solace (2008) replicated the structure of Casino Royale, with the hotel in the Atacama Desert seen in the climax of the film replacing the casino.

Examination of the Bond posters shows that none was designed in isolation. Generally, each poster replicated the memes expressed in the poster of the previous film, and sometimes, if the selection pressure was sufficiently strong, the artwork for films other than Bond. Some variants of the standard memes (background montage, Bond figure and so on) were more successful than others, and these were expressed sufficiently frequently to fix in artists’ and film-goers’ minds the concept of the archetypal Bond poster. And with each subsequent film, they became more dominant in the cultural environment and increased their chances of being selected for the next poster campaign.