Monday 25 February 2013

And the winner is... Skyfall's Oscar success

There were mixed fortunes for Skyfall at the 2013 Academy Awards. Of the film's five nominations, two brought home the Oscar РBest Song, won by Paul Epworth and Adele, and Best Sound Editing, won by Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. There was, however, disappointment for Roger Deakins, who lost out to Life of Pi in the best cinematography category, Scott Millan, Greg Russell and Stuart Wilson, who saw Les Mis̩rables take the honours for Best Sound Mixing, and Thomas Newman, who lost to Life of Pi for Best Original Score.

Unfortunately, my predictions for Oscar success made in a recent post proved more accurate than I had hoped. Looking at previous winners in the categories in question, I suggested that Skyfall's best chance for an Oscar was in the sound editing category. I thought the award for sound mixing would go to either Les Misérables or Lincoln, and that Argo or Life of Pi would win the Oscar for its score. However, while I suggested that Skyfall would lose out in cinematography, I looked to Lincoln or Anna Karenina, rather than Life of Pi, which was a somewhat controversial winner in the category. For best song, I thought that Life of Pi or Ted might have the best chance, given the history of past winners.

Naturally I hoped that Skyfall would win in all categories, although I don't mind admitting some satisfaction with the methods and results of my statistical analysis, which highlighted a number of trends in certain categories across the history of the Academy Awards.

Although on the night Skyfall didn't come away with all five Oscars for which it was nominated, to win two is nevertheless a tremendous achievement for the film. The Oscars (along with the other nominations) represent the first Academy recognition for the Bond series since Cubby Broccoli's Irving G Thalberg award in 1982, and the first winners since John Stears' award for his visual effects work for Thunderball in 1965.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Evolution of the gunbarrel sequence - an update

In an earlier post, I traced the evolution of the gunbarrel sequence, identifying some of the changes that have occurred through the series. I suggested that for style each sequence generally followed those that immediately preceded it (for instance, a gunbarrel sequence from a later Roger Moore film is closer in style to an earlier Roger Moore sequence than it is to a gunbarrel sequence from a Sean Connery film). I also noted that the sequence was becoming shorter over time; excluding that from Dr No (28 seconds) as an outlier, the sequence in From Russia With Love (1963) was 22 seconds, while that from Die Another Day (2002) was 17 seconds. Between these points, a reasonably steady decrease in length is evident.

While the gunbarrel sequence for Daniel Craig's first Bond film, Casino Royale (2006) was incorporated into the narrative of the film, that for Quantum of Solace (2008) was more traditional in style, although it had been moved to the end of the film. It was also the shortest of the series at just 10 seconds. I thought this anomalous, and predicted that the gunbarrel sequence for Skyfall would be about 15 or 16 seconds long in line with the trend ending with Die Another Day. I should, however, have looked again at the pattern of evolution that I outlined.

Against much expectation (and not a little disappointment), Skyfall's gunbarrel sequence was again placed at the end of the film. Director Sam Mendes has said that he attempted to restore the sequence to the beginning of the film, but found that it didn't work next to the opening scene of Bond walking towards the camera. However, there is a musical nod to the sequence at this point, as the opening bars of the James Bond theme are heard when Bond appears and turns a corner to begin his walk towards the camera. Although the reasons for keeping the sequence at the end of the film are undoubtedly different from those for Quantum of Solace, the placement of the sequence in Skyfall nevertheless owes something to the previous film. Quantum of Solace set the precedent, which in turn was allowed by the radical treatment of the gunbarrel sequence in Casino Royale.

Skyfall's gunbarrel sequence also matches that of Quantum of Solace in length, lasting just 10.6 seconds. Far from being anomalous, then, the Quantum of Solace sequence appears to fit the trend for ever shorter sequences, which is continued in Skyfall. (Incidentally, the gunbarrel sequence which introduces the documentary, Everything or Nothing (2012), and features all six official Bond actors, who appear one after the other, is 15 seconds long, shorter even than the sequences of Pierce Brosnan's films. It seems that this sequence, too, fits the apparent trend.)

The sequences of Quantum of Solace and Skyfall share other traits. In contrast to the earlier gunbarrel sequences, they lack the wobble of the barrel to represent Bond's would-be assassin falling to the floor after Bond has fired. And in both, Bond wears a lounge or business suit, rather than a dinner suit that had been seen in all gunbarrel sequences from The Spy Who Loved Me onwards.

The gunbarrel sequence of Skyfall follows a standard pattern. Just as the sequence of Die Another Day shares more attributes with the sequences of Pierce Brosnan's earlier films than it does with those of, say, Sean Connery's films, Skyfall's sequence is closest in style and length to that of Daniel Craig's preceding film, Quantum of Solace. It seems, then, that a new gunbarrel sequence is more likely to inherit the traits or memes of the films that immediately preceded it, and not of those made much earlier (although, of course, particular elements have survived and been passed on through the series). While factors such as long breaks between films and a new Bond actor are sufficiently isolating from earlier films to allow significant changes to the style of the sequence, the gunbarrel sequence in general continues to respond to a selection pressure to become ever shorter.

Saturday 16 February 2013

A portrait of Ian Fleming

The 'Literary Career' page of the website of Ian Fleming Publications shows a photograph of Ian Fleming sitting at his desk in London. The photograph is perhaps less familiar to us than, say, the portraits of Fleming by Horst Tappe, but to me it is considerably more meaningful. I had the chance to examine the image closely when I was given permission to reproduce it for my article on Fleming's brush with archaeology (published in British Archaeology magazine). What I found especially fascinating wasn't so much the image of Fleming himself, but what was shown in the background. In the manner of a Tudor portrait, Fleming surrounded himself with the symbols of his past that go some way to explaining his world view.

Three objects are of particular interest. The first, a portrait of Horatio Nelson, hangs on the wall to the left of Fleming. Nelson was one of Fleming's heroes, and indeed he may have played a small role in Fleming's decision to live in Jamaica. Fleming had much encouragement from Ivar Bryce, a friend Fleming had known since his Eton days, to establish a house in Jamaica. Bryce lived there himself after the Second World War. His house, Bellevue, was a mid-18th century residence built for the admirals of Jamaica. The house and grounds were by all accounts stunning, and this may have been enough to tempt Fleming. But Fleming was also attracted by the romance of the country's past, and was fascinated by the fact that Nelson had convalesced at Bellevue during a bout of illness.

Fleming revealed another Nelson connection in his Sunday Times' article about his treasure hunt at Creake Abbey in Norfolk in 1953. Nelson's birthplace of Burnham Thorpe is only a mile north of the abbey, and this was a deciding factor in choosing Creake, rather one of the many other sites suggested by Sunday Times' readers.

Hanging above the Nelson portrait is a painting of Fleming's father, Valentine. If Nelson was Fleming's hero, Valentine was his idol. Admired by fellow army officers and politicians, including Winston Churchill, Val inevitably became a role model for the young Ian. This was a role that Ian's mother, Eve, encouraged, especially after Valentine's death in the First World War. During his nightly childhood prayers, Ian would intone, “...and please, dear God, help me to grow up to be more like Mokie [Val]”.

The desire to emulate and live up to his father stayed with Ian for the rest of his life. In all his houses, Fleming hung framed copies of an appreciation of his father written, and signed, by Winston Churchill and published in the Times. In the photograph, the framed appreciation hangs on the wall behind Fleming.

Ian Fleming was a hero-worshipper. In later life, Fleming's heroes came from the world of journalism and literature, and included newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook and authors Somerset Maugham and Raymond Chandler. In his father and Nelson, as much part of our photograph as Fleming himself, Fleming saw qualities that he wished to emulate or believed he lacked. It is perhaps not too big a stretch to claim that through James Bond, Fleming felt that he had the opportunity to stand as tall as those he worshipped.

Bryce, I, 1984 You Only Live Once: Memories of Ian Fleming, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Turner
Pearson, J, 1966 The Life of Ian Fleming, Cape

Monday 11 February 2013

Live and Let Die in the Gleaner

In the manner of the Chinese calendar, I was born in the year of Live and Let Die. And this year, both the film and I are 40 years old. Last year, during the film's 50th anniversary, I trawled through the archives of the Jamaican Daily Gleaner and Sunday Gleaner to discover how the newspapers reported the production and release of Dr No, which was substantially filmed in Jamaica. How did journalists respond when Eon Productions returned to the country ten years later for the filming of key scenes from Live and Let Die?

The coverage began on 31 August 1972, when the Daily Gleaner reported that co-producer Harry Saltzman arrived in Montego Bay on 26 August to announce that parts of the film would be shot in Montego Bay (which was used for the fishing boat scenes), Falmouth (where the crocodile farm and Kananga's cave scenes would be shot) and Ocho Rios (for the hotel scenes and others) along the north coast. Saltzman was reported as saying that Live and Let Die would be the most extravagant of the Bond series yet and tell the story of a black crime king based on a Caribbean island who plans world conquest using occult means. Many Jamaicans were expected to get parts in the film, the paper added.
More filming locations were revealed on 9 October 1972. The Gleaner reported that Messrs Hanson and Davis, representatives of Eon Productions, met the secretary and councillors of the Hanover Parish Council to discuss filming in Lucea, a small north-coast town. It was agreed that a new road at Johnson Town would be closed and as much local labour as possible would be employed during the filming. (This location was used for the bus chase.)

On Monday 13 November, the Gleaner reported that Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry flew into Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay the day before (a photograph of Roger Moore greeting the manager of the Jamaican Tourist Board and the board's director of public relations was published on the 16th). Another arrival was tour director, Mr Henry Saltzman. The error amused Roger Moore, who noted it in his 'James Bond diary'. In his account, Roger Moore described being questioned repeatedly by the press about his salary, and could only shake the reporters off when he arrived at the Ironshore Golf and Country Club for lunch. “He would not disclose how much he was being paid for the James Bond series”, the paper wrote.

The filming of Live and Let Die was mentioned next on 19 November in the Sunday Gleaner in the social page, 'The World and His Wife'. “James Bond...walked over several areas of Ocho Rios over the past few days personified by actor Roger Moore”. The piece added that scenes  were also filmed at Owen Flynn's Ruins and Waterfalls. (These scenes included Bond and Rosie's picnic.)

Cast and crew returned to the UK in December, but items related to Live and Let Die continued to appear in the Gleaner afterwards. On 18 January 1973, the Gleaner published a photograph of Jane Seymour (Solitaire) and Gloria Hendry (Rosie Carver) beside a pool at the Sans Souci Hotel, where the production had been staying. A profile of Roger Moore was published on 18 February, and 5 August saw the publication of extracts from Roger Moore's 'James Bond Diary'.

Live and Let Die was released in the US on 27 June, and in the UK on 5 July. Jamaicans had to wait until 17 October before they could see the film. A feature announcing its arrival, published in the Sunday Gleaner on 14 October, noted Roger Moore's “suave, sophisticated style and physically impressive manner which conforms to author Ian Fleming's concept of British Agent 007”. Jane Seymour was said to portray Solitaire “with sensuous innocence”.

Not everyone enjoyed the film. In an opinion piece published on 30 October, Thomas Wright described Live and Let Die as “the poorest of the lot so far, though there were some great moments during the speed-boat chase”. The columnist also alluded to Jamaican protest that the film was “insulting to black people”, though dismissed the argument.

Just as in 1962 with Dr No, Live and Let Die gained regular press attention before and during its filming and at the time of its release. Forty years on, James Bond continues to fill newspaper pages and dominate other media outlets. It is testament to the success of the film series, that after 50 years, the James Bond phenomenon shows no sign of abating.

Mulder, M and Kloosterboer, D, 2008 On the Tracks of 007, DMD Digital

Sunday 3 February 2013

The Music of James Bond - a review

Music is as significant a part of the James Bond films as the jaw-dropping stunts or the plots that go, in Fleming's words, beyond the probable, and is deservedly the subject of in-depth analysis. The Music of James Bond by Jon Burlingame tells the story of missed opportunities (including a shelved plan for a Moonraker symphony), legal wrangles (notoriously over the authorship of the James Bond theme), recording-studio disputes (the creative differences between John Barry and a-ha are well known), but above all wonderful, genre-defining music.

Although many people contributed to the soundtracks that accompanied the Bond films, the music was shaped and developed largely by one man, John Barry, who made the James Bond sound as instantly recognisable as, say, the music of the classic Western or that of Hitchcock's later masterpieces.

The book is packed by some fascinating facts that are likely to be new to even the most scholarly of Bond aficionados. Eric Rogers, the man who scored many a Carry On film, conducted the orchestra during the recording of the Dr No soundtrack. Led Zeppelin’s legendary guitarist, Jimmy Page, was a session musician during the Goldfinger recordings. An extra verse penned for 'Diamonds Are Forever' was dropped because the song was too long. Frank Sinatra agreed to sing 'Moonraker', but the deal mysteriously fell through. Vic Flick, who played guitar on the James Bond theme for Dr No, played the same guitar while recording the James Bond theme for Licence to Kill. Wyclef Jean contributed background tracks for the Haitian scenes in Quantum of Solace.

Taking a meme's-eye view, what especially interested me were the origins and evolution of the James Bond sound. Audiences of Dr No in 1962 are unlikely to have been completely surprised by the soundtrack, as it built on material that already existed. Composer Monty Norman borrowed elements from his musicals and was also inspired by Jamaican styles, particularly the calypso. Norman's score, notably the James Bond theme, were then given the full treatment by the well-established and popular jazz group, the John Barry Seven. And just as Norman took ideas from his earlier projects, so to did John Barry, on sole scoring duty after Dr No, take ideas from his other work. Jon Burlingame notes that some of his themes from You Only Live Twice, for example, were reminiscent of music for The Whisperers, while aspects of the score for The Man With The Golden Gun owed something to his music for The Day of the Locust.

Throughout the film series, the Bond scores continued to be influenced more generally by the external musical environment, and almost naturally evolved as they incorporated new sounds and techniques. Jazz or easy-listening styles, which dominated the Bond scores of the 1960s, gave way to synthesisers and disco in the 1970s. A harder-edged pop sound accompanied some of the films of the 1980s, and technological innovations were coupled with John Barry's increasingly symphonic approach (one that he would use to Oscar-winning effect in later, non-Bond films). Following Eric Serra’s industrial (and to an extent unfairly maligned) take on the James Bond sound for GoldenEye in 1995, David Arnold returned some of the traditional musical elements to the Bond scores (horns made a rousing comeback), but kept them modern with electronics, drum programming and unusual instruments. Latterly, the scores of the Daniel Craig era, while retaining traditional elements, have been concept-driven, with music contributing both to character and story.

Jon Burlingame's research and level of detail are impressive, even when discussing rejected theme songs, such as the many songs offered for Tomorrow Never Dies, or Amy Winehouse's embryonic theme for Quantum of Solace (elements of which would be incorporated into David Arnold's 'No Good about Goodbye', a song that appeared on Shirley Bassey's album, The Performance). As for the legacy of the work of John Barry and others, this is clear by the huge number of artists who have covered Bond themes, but also when we watch Austin Powers or other spy spoofs. The music is an integral part of the Bond film and inevitably imitated along with the gadgets, cars, action, exotic women and megalomaniac villains. From the music's origins and evolution to its legacy, Jon Burlingame's The Music of James Bond is exhaustive, and deserves a place on every Bond fan's bookshelf.