Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Dieselpunk Manifesto: Art Deco, Bond and the Cool Curve pt 4.

Send in the Spies...

In previous posts I’ve argued that the Art Deco movement was part of a process that saw the cultural authority of the upper classes shift to middle class producers. These middle class producers would dictate taste for the vast majority of society in the Post-War middle class consumer-nirvana. In this way the Art Deco movement not only illustrates the changing of the guard but, for many, embodies a set of ideals and qualities associated with a completely different era and way of thinking. An era with its own symbols and cultural practises that provoke this very different ideology.

To frame it in a controversial light – the previous era was the last era of elitist culture. To frame it in another ‘less provocative’ light – the previous era was the last era of meaningful class and style.

A previous era of cool...
So in the face of this new rise of middle class cultural practise – complete with its new youth-driven cultural movements – there were many who resisted what was happening across society. Although the changes were new and exciting they were also troublesome and potentially dangerous. In the face of this cultural chaos, people needed a new breed of heroes to make sense of it all.

One of those new heroes arrived in 1962. Mister Bond, James Bond...

James Bond wasn’t the first spy to make it to screen. Far from it. The spy genre had been percolating away in the background of Hollywood for decades with plenty of World War 2 war films and Detective pulp stories segueing neatly into and out of the genre. This was often built on a healthy diet of popular pulp characters, especially in Britain where characters like The Saint and Bond himself proliferated. But none of these had the cultural clout of the film version of the MI6 agent with an obsession for mixing his martinis just so.
The Saint in New York, a 1938 film and series that proceeded Bond.
The genesis of the Bond series was however boosted by the British penchant for spy television series. Being an English-speaking market located so close to the Cold War hub of central Europe probably helped, and saw the creation of several series that while successful, weren’t break out hits in a global sense, lacking the market clout of an American audience. Two of the most famous were The Avengers and Danger Man, two series that while attracting a decent local audience and slowly filtering out to become cult classics across Europe and other markets, didn’t really take off because they didn’t attract enough American attention. They were, however, good examples of the unique British spin on the gentleman spy that would provide the unique pattern by which Bond would capture the world.
The Real Avengers.
But in 1962 James Bond swaggered onto cinema screens in the break out hit Dr No and the spy genre would never be the same again. A dashing gentleman spy like those who had gone before him, Bond also added a wry sense of humour and more than a few lashings of adventure, sex appeal and cheeky bombast to create what would become the archetypal spy movie.

The character quickly grew into a phenomena, not only spawning an endless run of sequels but also its own genre as film, television and pulp producers started churning out spy fare for the hungry masses who couldn’t get enough. By the mid 1960s not only did Bond have several sequels but television shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Saint and Mission: Impossible were springing up everywhere while shows like The Avengers and Danger Man were called back for encores. A mark of the health of the genre was that not only did these new shows gain their own rabid mainstream fan bases but other characters and stories sprung up to try and refute the stereotypes put forward by the Bond films, examples such as the Flint series of films. Flattery doesn’t always come in the form of a copycat, a jealous backlash often works just as well.

And like vampire/werewolf stories today, the stories kept proliferating.

Popular genres often have a half life by which writers use up every possible scrap of storytelling available to a genre, exhaust the supply, then move on to the ‘next big thing’ in a storm of parody. The appearance of these parody versions often marks the end of a genres ‘Golden Age’ as writers no longer take the genre seriously. The few genres that escape this process become meta-genres that become so vast and portable that they often show up across a range of other genre stories whenever they can be useful, watering down the genre tropes to their bare essence. A good example of this would be the action or adventure ‘genres’ which are so broad you usually need another adjective to define a movie, such as ‘it’s a sci-fi action/adventure movie’ or ‘it’s a spy action/adventure movie’.

Not really taking the spy genre seriously...
It could be argued that the spy genre well and truly reached this phase with the popular spoof series Get Smart, which parodied the genre mercilessly as the genre died down at the end of the 60s. In its brief but influential heyday the spy genre had held audiences in thrall on both sides of the Atlantic, providing a hero that audiences wanted to see over and over again in many different guises. This new hero saved the (Western) world from vast government-based conspiracies launched by foreign powers, while enjoying the thrills and spills of action and adventure that went with the urbane and global jetsetting of the ‘spy lifestyle’. It was classy, it was cool, and it provoked a Euro-centric style that refuted current youth lifestyle trends for the upper class refinement and sensibility that was once the height of fashion. But the rise of Get Smart signalled that the spy genre was becoming just another television genre and much of the steam had been used up, the genre drifting back into obscurity or blending with other genres, such as the spy/heist combination of the long running Mission: Impossible. The genre was there in the background but not the dominant force of storytelling it once was.

With one exception: Bond himself.

Still going strong.
In a world where Hollywood and the television industry would move on to different headlining heroes and different genres of action/adventure storytelling the Bond series would go on to be the most successful (inflation adjusted) and longest running movie franchise of all time. And with the current box office success of the latest Bond film Skyfall, that run doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.

So why has the Bond series not only outlasted its contemporaries but gone on to be a phenomenal cultural success? Why is Bond a staple of Hollywood action/adventure storytelling, a British gentleman spy in amongst a sea of American military hardware toting gunslingers and revenge-seeking policeman or gangsters?

The heroic competition...
Stay tuned for the final episode of Bond, Art Deco and the Cool Curve...

No comments:

Post a Comment