Quantum of Solace: Guilt Flavored Ice Cream

by zunguzungu

Observing that James Bond is misogynist is like observing that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves: it’s such an important fact that it can be easy to forget how spectacularly obvious it is. I’m not going to say that the new Bond film isn’t misogynist — that’s a sucker’s game — but I want to start by observing something interesting about this new Daniel Craig version. Since Bond’s narrative arc now defines his character by the trauma of a particular loss/betrayal in Casino Royale*, the inherent misogyny of the character gets re-framed less as a natural attitude towards women (and thus a masculinity which implies an anti-feminine attitude) and more as a defensive, individual, and contingent response to that personal trauma. These two movies are, in other words, prequels in the most extraverted sense, for by providing a specific explanation for what has otherwise been taken for granted (and thus naturalized), they transform the misogyny of all the other movies. Or at least they do to the extent that we buy the fiction and let Daniel Craig function as a prequel for past Bonds.

In any case, Quantum of Solace is an interesting and strange Bond movie whether or not we let it retroactively re-narrate the franchise. After all, the franchise’s main misogynist institution is the “Bond girl,” the conceit that being a secret agent naturally implies having a lot of sex with a series of women defined by their replaceable uniqueness. To put it one way, this plurality is necessary to dis-imply any measure of personal attachment on the part of Bond himself, and to put it another, it’s a seriality that commodifies difference, transforming the “individuality” of each girl into the difference between flavors, like blonde flavored ice cream. More ominously, however, seduction in the Bond film has often suggested rape — especially when it involved “turning” enemy agents by overpowering them with sex — and the number of times it resulted in the women’s deaths is part of that logic. The Pierce Brosnan Bond not only embraced this paradigm, it perfected it; I found it deeply disturbing when Pierce Brosnan killed Sophie Morceau in The World is Not Enough, and while you can partially rescue that film by emphasizing the extent to which it makes plain what is usually mystified, you can’t really argue that there is any alternative in the universe of those films. Women are a threat, increasingly the threat.

Quantum, on the other hand, adheres to this convention in a pointedly agonistic way. After all, there are two living Bond girls in this film, one who he doesn’t sleep with (and who is essentially his narrative double), and another who he kills by sleeping with, a guilt he both addresses as such and suffers from. In other words, both serve precisely the opposite function as we have been taught to expect of them: instead of using guilt-free sex as an expression of masculine power over women (and an expression of “free world” supremacy in the cold war), the main relationship of the film is a celibate one, and the other only illustrates Bond’s impotent inability to use sex in a constructive way.

Bond’s character arc within the film is therefore a progression from a position of hatred towards the woman he loved and who betrayed him towards a position of what the movie narrates as understanding, catharsis, and transcendence. At the start of the movie, he is a homicidal maniac who has displaced his rage onto the a series of similarly different bad guys — making every kill an expression of sexualized rage. By the end of the film, however, his choice not to kill the man who is most directly responsible, at the same time as he “forgives” the woman that this bad guy is in the act of seducing out of her duty, is an indication of narrative closure. Perhaps more importantly, a classic Bond movie ending involves having sex with the good Bond girl while headquarters tries (in vain) to locate him, yet this movie ends with Craig and Kurylenko having parted ways, and with (something like) this exchange between M and Bond:

Dench as M: “I need you back”

Craig as Bond: “I never left”

If the classic Bond ending emphasizes the simultaneity of sexual power and duty — and even subordinateds the latter to the former — then Quantum explicitly places sex in opposition to duty, and Craig sacrifices the former for the latter. And while so much of the Bond movie is a touristic fantasy of never-ending summer vacation in exotica, Quantum’s Bond chooses to “come home,” and go back to work.

It’s worth noting, then, that the ending is made possible by this willingness to be brought home, by M’s decision to trust him, and finally by his proving to be worthy of that trust. M is a mother figure — it even sounds like “mum” — and while his earlier response a threat on her life had been psychotic homicidal rage, the ending is a “happy” one only because his response has changed: instead of expressing the problem of attachment to a female by displacing it onto an object of violence, he embraces her. In this sense, M is by far the most important Bond girl in this film, or she would be if it were possible to call Dame Judi Dench a “girl,” which it is not. And this is the thing I dig most about the film: the most important female character in the film, occupying the space where the Bond girl usually goes, is a person who really explodes the series’ most cherished fantasy. While the Bond girl represents guilt-free sex, power, the fantasy of freedom from attachment, and an infantilizing femininity, Judi Dench’s de-sexualized M voices his guilty conscience as a powerful (and deeply respected) maternal figure he cannot disavow, and he denies ever trying to do so. What makes the Bond franchise most questionable, in my mind, is the thing this movie works the hardest to stand on its head. Yet, all that said, where is home? Who is M really?

Since I wrote my Shirley Temple post, I think I understand better what bothered me about The Littlest Rebel: not merely that the movie is racist, sexist, and pedophilic (again, importance makes us overlook obviousness), but that its address to these characteristics is explicit, and that it tries to exploit them. The Littlest Rebel is not a movie that hides what it is; instead, it takes pleasure in being what it is, and by mounting an argument that this pleasure is legitimate, it invites the viewer to take part, even moralizing on its behalf. The fact that this film becomes a source of affective pleasure in ways novels traditionally aren’t thought to be — with the key exception of, for example, the sentimental novel tradition — makes the particularly passivity of the movie-viewer an even more significant site of meaning; not only are we urged to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, but that very “sitting backness” of it is the thing itself. This is something I’m thinking about after reading the late great David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and I wonder if the general point he makes about TV and fiction doesn’t translate nicely into why I distrust Shirley Temple’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: filmic/televisual media have the power to affect us in exactly the ways Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted her novel to do, but which novels are less good at doing. Reading brings pleasure, but it’s an active one and you have to work at it (at least by comparison with film). What makes me so suspicious of a film like The Littlest Rebel, then, is that its medium and message converge: it doesn’t just teach you to how to be enjoy being passive, it does so as you enjoy it passively.

Quantum of Solace is not as different from The Littlest Rebel as one might expect. While The Littlest Rebel works to transform guilt into pleasure, Quantum is a movie that urges us to take pleasure in guilt. Or perhaps it’s the reverse? After all, The Littlest Rebel transforms the spectacle of the civil war and southern guilt into a kind of joyous subjection, but the more I think about it, the more I find myself disturbed by the analogous pleasure Quantum teaches us to derive from Bond’s guilt. A friend called this the most “Christian” of Bond movies, in a largely pejorative way, and I think he’s at least partially right: this is a movie in which there can be no pleasure without guilt, and the sprezzetura and panache of the franchise has disappeared (if you’ll pardon the expression) into a Bourne from which no traveler returns. As in the Bourne franchise, the special service suddenly stands revealed as an agent of disorder and tyranny, less the fun-loving defender of the free world than an economic hit man, a sin which Craig can only seem to expiate by (improbably) fighting against American hegemony on behalf of Evo Morales and Bolivian peasants.

Part of me both welcomes the change and sees why it was inevitable. During the cold war, the pleasure loving Bond always stood in implicit contrast with a pleasure-less totalitarianism, and even the Brosnan Bond managed to burden the character with an imperial “free world” hubris. No more. As Juan Cole points out, this Bond is a radical departure from those older Bonds in both ideological context and intervention; the “lurking presence” of George W. Bush “appears to have almost single-handedly pushed Bond into championing the indigenous peasants against the white-tie global elite,” and “Craig’s Bond is an intimation of the sort of Britain that could have been if Tony Blair had stood up to Bush and refused to be dragged into an illegal war of choice.”

Yet the many critics and fans who have complained about how un-fun this new Bond might have a more serious point; however ideological the Bond-as-jouissance fiction may have been, it’s a powerful one precisely because it only champions “The Free World” as the free world, less the Anglo-American axis as it was than as it was imagined to be, thereby positioning the better Angels of our nature against a totalitarian command to enjoy as little as possible.” Put ins such terms, I’ll take the better angels. And while I think we should be careful about how the Bond films naturalize a misogynist performance of masculinity, as Lauren Berlant pointed out some time ago, sometimes attacking hypocrisy has the effect of damaging the ideals in question; after all, does rejecting misogyny have to imply rejecting love as well?

This, I think, is the danger in taking the movie on its own terms, for while it explicitly attacks the pleasures of the old Bond films, it also revels in the darkness of this very vision, transforming the very guilt by which its sins are remembered into a pleasurable aesthetics of ascetic denial and righteous denunciation. And if the movie’s politics are anti-right, they aren’t exactly left either; as a commenter at Juan Cole’s blog rightly pointed out, it is a massive exaggeration to say that Kurylenko is “so organically a figure of the left that no distinction can be made between her private quest for vengeance on Medrano and the salvation of the pro-peasantry government of Bolivia.” In fact, she is the daughter of a good soldier within a dictatorial junta, “a cruel man” whose death has left her with no option but a pleasure-less revenge, nothing to fight for but self-denial followed by self-destruction (from which Bond saves her).

But Bond is in the same predicament, and it would be just as much of an exaggeration to make Craig’s Bond into an organic anything. While it’s true that he fights (at one remove) both against the CIA and in defense of a nameless Bolivian president, that president is less an Evo Morales who nationalizes industry and redistributes income than simply a bugbear used to frighten right wing children of all ages. As a figure of revolution and opposition to US hegemony, he has been emptied of his content, less a Che Guevara than a Che Guevara t-shirt. And a re-investment in M as embodiment of maternal virtue only helps obscure that Bond is still working for the same slime balls he’s supposedly fighting against, a valorization of an empty “duty” that will endlessly defer the problem of why. And this, I think, gives a new meaning of Bond’s lost love: “Vesper Lynd” is a pun on “West Berlin,” a signifier of the lost cold war, when things made sense. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bond’s jouissance no longer works in those old terms. “That Bush’s America now appears in a Bond film in rather the same light as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union used to,” as Cole puts it, is a loss that he can mourn but which he can never, quite, let himself understand. The same is true for his audience: we can enjoy denying ourselves the pleasure of empire, but only as long as we forget to think about the cipher that comes to replace it.

* As Erich Kuersten puts it, “One of the many things which makes Daniel Craig the best Bond since Connery is his pain. He’s aware of the lost sense of intimacy that came with having license to both kill and “be a sexual heel.” In that vein, you can find an interesting “Bond Blogathon” over here.