Friday, 20 March 2015

The Day of the Dead and other festivals in the Bond films

This week the Spectre production crew moved to Mexico to start filming more key scenes, including part of the film's opening sequence, which, as revealed by an official tweet, will recreate Mexico's famous Day of the Dead festival. 
The Bond films have developed something of a tradition of incorporating celebrations and festivals from around the world. Let's look at some examples.

Junkanoo (Thunderball)
The Junkanoo is a street parade of highly decorated floats, percussion-based music and exuberant dancing seen in the Bahamas each year on Boxing Day. James Bond gatecrashes the celebrations in Thunderball when he attempts to lose Fiona and Largo's henchmen, who are in pursuit, in the crowds. Bond is shot in the leg and trails blood, which leads Fiona to the Kiss Kiss Club where Bond is hiding. The tense sequence terminates with one of Bond's best lines in the film series: “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead.” It is said that some of the participants in the Junkanoo decorated their floats with Bond-inspired designs, and Bond's code, 007, can apparently been seen. If so, I have not spotted it yet.

The origins of the festival lies in the late 16th and early 17th century, when plantation owners in Jamaica and the Bahamas gave their slave-workers three days off at Christmas. Festivities developed, and may have included the wearing of costumes and masks and stilt-walking. The Junkanoo eventually died out in Jamaica after the abolition of slavery, but continued in the Bahamas.

The modern festival is celebrated throughout the island, but the biggest celebrations are conducted through the streets of Nassau. The main element of the Junkanoo is a parade, which is populated by thousands of participants organised into 'crews', who compete for cash prizes for best float, costume and mask. The parade, dancing and (goombay) music continue through the night and ends at dawn.

Rio Carnival (Moonraker)The carnival backdrop and its samba soundtrack helps raise the suspense in the scene in Rio de Janeiro where Jaws, clad in an outlandish carnival costume, makes his way down a narrow street towards Manuela, who is transfixed by fear at the approaching threat. As Jaws reaches her and is about to give her the 'kiss of death', revellers tumble out of a bar and sweep Jaws up in their dancing, thus rescuing Manuela.

The Rio Carnival takes place over the five days in February or March before Shrove Tuesday. It has its origins in the 17th century-tradition of estrudos, when the inhabitants of the city would run riot through the streets pelting passers-by with foul substances. These festivities were eventually banned, but not before the wealthier inhabitants had begun to organise masked balls and float parades. Meanwhile, samba schools emerged in the working-class areas of the city and these played an increasingly significant role in the evolution of the pre-Lent festivities.

The modern carnival parade, characterised by extravagant costumes, thousands of dancers, and pulsating rhythms, developed as a competition between the Grupo Especial, or elite samba schools, but carnival-goers can also enjoy street music provided by blocos and bandas, and balls held in hotels and other indoor venues.

Palio di Siena (Quantum of Solace)
James Bond finds himself among the crowds enjoying the horse racing of the palio di Siena as he pursues Mitchell, M's bodyguard who is revealed as working for Quantum. A shot is fired and someone in the crowd is hit, but Bond does not hang around as he continues to give chase with chaos developing around him.

The palio di Siena is held twice a year in July (Palio di Provensano) and August (Palio dell'Assunta), and combines white-knuckle horse racing with religious observation and festivities. It began in the 14th century with horse races around Siena's squares organised by the city's wards or contrade. In the 18th century, the numerous contrade were reduced to seventeen, and it was also decreed that no more than ten contrade could participate in palio. Today, the races are still restricted to ten contrade, whose colours are worn by the bareback riders.

The Day of the Dead (Spectre)
Day of the Dead, Coyoacan (Photo: Christine Zapata Perez)
Mexico's Day of the Dead is a two-day festival held on 1st and 2nd November. It is said to combine Aztec beliefs that the dead returned to visit their loved ones at the end of the harvest season with the Christian (and ultimately pagan) traditions of Halloween and All Souls' Day on 31st October and 1st November, which reached Mexico with the Spanish Conquistadors.

Today's festival is celebrated both in the home as food and drink and prayers are offered to deceased family members and ancestors on make-shift altars, and outside. People's front doors and paths around homes are painted and heavily laden with flowers and food, including Pan de Muerto, the bread of the dead; markets stalls sell edible skulls and ghoulish decorations, and streets are lined with marigold petals, which lead inhabitants to cemeteries, where families hold all-night vigils – and, effectively, picnics of tortillas and other treats – at the graveside. Throughout, there is a street-party atmosphere, characterised by music and much tequila-drinking.

How might the Day of the Dead be seen in Spectre? We will certainly see lots of papier-mâché skeletons (do these inspire the name of the organisation which gives the film its title?), which have become a symbol of the festival. The action may take us to a cemetery, or through bedecked streets and markets. In any case, the Day of the Dead will give the film a macabre backdrop that will be highly redolent of the Voodoo aspects of Live and Let Die, a film which director Sam Mendes has repeatedly referenced.

The use of traditional celebrations and festivals in the Bond films (we could also include, among others, the jazz funerals of New Orleans seen in Live and Let Die, or the bull-fighting shown in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) serve to enhance the spectacle and exoticism of the films, increase the tension and suspense of the scene with the juxtaposition of the celebration and the threat, and at the same time help ground the films in a degree of reality. While EON's tweet revealed something of a spoiler, I cannot wait to see how the events of the opening sequence will show the Day of the Dead.

World Party: The Rough Guide to the World's Best Festivals, London (2007)

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