Saturday, 6 April 2013

Dieselpunk Manifesto: Art Deco, Bond and the Cool Curve pt 5.

Bond, The First Dieselpunk.

This post is the fifth and final post in my (long) blog essay arguing Bond’s place as one of the first Dieselpunks.

Starting with post 1 I explained how the Art Deco period marked a change in cultural authority. Cultural authority started with the upper classes at the turn of the Century then gradually shifted to the middle classes as technology and consumer discretionary income rose. However, during the Depression of the 1930s an image of the ‘high life’ was conveyed to audiences, a high life that involved fancy suits, glamorous women, dancing, exotic locations and a host of other qualities sourced from the upper class culture of the Art Deco movement. The post War period saw the end of Art Deco and the rise of youth culture, but also the ‘problem’ of the Soviet Union. Both ‘problems’ found a cultural solution in the form of the spy – a jetsetting, dapper gent who rejected contemporary fashion trends for a classy suit, had more than his fair share of charm, travelled to exotic locations and took down enemies of the Free World. Bond was both the reason for the glut of spy storytelling during the 1960s as well as its leading light.

Bond would go on to become the most successful film series of all time, a title that wont change as new films are made into the indefinite future. And while other properties from the era get the occasional reboot, such as the Mission: Impossible and The Saint movies, Bond hasn’t rebooted for new audiences so much as updated and changed to suit current tastes. Over and over and over again, to the point that the longest stretch the world has gone without a new Bond has been the five year gap between License to Kill (1989) and Goldeneye (1995).

You could say this was the closest Bond got to being cancelled...
So why has the Bond series become the genre titan that it is today? Especially when the rest of the genre had ‘gone out of style’ by the mid 1970s. What is it about Mister Bond, James Bond that has made him one of the most successful stories of all time, reaching more human beings than nearly any other story being told today? And how does this tie into his Dieselpunk tendencies?

I think that Bond embodies a unique set of ideas, a set of ideas that sets him apart from the rest of his action hero peers and makes him more culturally valuable. This was a process that started in the 60s when Bond first appeared on our cinema screens, embodying a hero that looked back to the past in the way he dressed, acting as an argument against current trends in society. In doing so he saved the day from current threats. He embodied the argument for the value of the old way of doing things – the Diesel way of doing things – taking on new threats with old style. And it’s an argument that has been readdressed and remade every time the Bond franchise has added to its roster.

They never stood a chance...
This argument for Bond’s constantly updating retro focus has become more obvious the longer the series has continued, several new breeds of action hero coming and going during Bond’s illustrious reign. From the Western and cop heroes of the 70s, to the Hard Body heroes of the 80s, the martial arts heroes of the 90s and the superheroes of the Noughties Bond has held his own and outlived them all. But I think the unique qualities of Bond – the things that make him a unique idea that outlasts all those other heroes – can best be illustrated by revisiting one of the more famous sequences of the series, the opening scenes from what many consider the greatest Bond film of all time, Goldfinger (1964).

The opening sequence of Goldfinger has everything that sets Bond apart as a hero. The opening shot of Bond is of a seagull swimming towards a dock, a seagull that lifts out of the water to reveal that the bird is actually fake, tied to Bond’s head as camouflage while he scuba dives up to the dock. It’s an absurd opening shot for a hero but clearly illustrates that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s a knowing sense of humour – a wink at the audience if you like – that is repeated later in the sequence when he is asked why he always carries a gun and he replies “Oh, it’s because I have an inferiority complex.”

This ‘knowing’ humour illustrates how Bond is completely self aware concerning his more bombastic and cheeky aspects... and he doesn’t care. In fact he revels in them and invites the audience to do so as well. When combined with his ability to shrug in the face of over-the-top insanity we get a character that wanders into a giant secret underground villain lair, shrugs his shoulders at the absurdity and continues onwards, just to see where it all leads. Bond’s knowing-ness allows his villains to be as absurd as they are (or for the situation to get as absurd as it does) without destroying the audience’s suspension of disbelief because, like us, he wants it to continue.

The second aspect that sets Bond apart is revealed after he has emerged from the water, infiltrated the secret drug lab and rigged it to blow in twenty minutes. He then leaves the facility and removes his full body wetsuit... to reveal that he is wearing a white dinner jacket and bow tie. It is yet another absurd gag played for laughs but it also sums up Bond’s attitude to fashion – he adores wearing suits and will go out of his way to make it happen. The fact that he then walks into an establishment where half the people aren’t even dressed up is irrelevant. Bond is the most over dressed man in the place and he’s quite okay with that. He chooses to dress in a classy way, superseding all other suit wearers around him, he chooses to make a big deal about his cocktails, his watches and his cars (which don’t exactly blend in during his espionage missions) and he chooses to behave in a way that is different to those around him. He’s making a stand, a stand that harkens back to an earlier age of well-tailored suits, fast cars and cocktails and it’s a stand that has become synonymous with the hero ever since. A DIESELPUNK stand.

Overdressed or just making a decent effort?
The scene ends in typical Bond style. He takes a completely unnecessary detour – both in terms of plot and mission – in order to visit his lady friend, the dancer at the bar. While there she waits until he is disarmed then has him ambushed by a random goon. Bond evades the initial attack before knocking the goon into a bathtub full of water, then throws a fan in to electrocute his ambusher. The finishing quip by Bond? “Shocking. Positively shocking.” It’s a joke that is humorous both because it releases the tension at the end of the action scene but also because what happened really wasn’t surprising at all. In the face of a warning not to, Bond went on an unnecessary aside to his mission and found trouble. Exactly where he knew it could be. 

But that’s Bond. He jetsets off to locations full of danger and then extricates himself, all with a style that harkens back to the Diesel era which was the high point for his choice of fashion. All with a wry humour that audiences across the world adore. He doesn’t do it dressed in camo and lugging military hardware around, he’s not a cop out to rescue his family, a martial artist out to avenge his slain master, or a superpowered hero with rage issues or a deep psychological need to scare bad guys into obeying the law. Bond saves the world by dressing in the classiest way possible, jetting off to an exotic location to meet up with a classy dame where he enjoys taking down a bad guy with humour in the face of absurdity. A classy method of heroism that can be thin on the ground these days.

Except when people are quoting Bond.

Style + guns. They must be spies.
The further we get from the era where Bond’s style was formed, the more jarring his style choices can be. Now they’re often parodied in cliché or in the movies reserved for those special casino scenes Bond always seems to find himself in. But Bond’s lifestyle choices and sense of fashion still take their cues from a completely different set of cultural products from a completely different era. He hasn’t been retroactively rewritten into a working class bruiser or a government funded superhero experiment, he’s just doing the same thing he’s always done with the same style, but renewing it in the face of more recent trends. He doesn’t wear retro clothing but he still wears modern takes on the suit and tie fashion staple. He rarely drives retro cars for any length of time but he is often driving their newest descendent. He’s still making sure his drinks are mixed a little differently and inventing cocktails like the ‘Vesper’ ala Casino Royale. And he’s still taking down bad guys with an old-school kind of style. A Diesel era kind of style.

And what could be more ‘punk then that?

Ladies and Gentlemen... the first Dieselpunk.

So that's the end of my VERY long blog series/essay on  the Dieselpunkitude of Bond, James Bond. I didn't intend to make it so long but there you go... it's finally finished. If you have any thoughts on the topic feel free to leave your opinion, whether for or against. I'd be happy to chat to anyone who'd like to talk about Bond or Dieselpunk :)

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