Sunday, June 2, 2013

James Bond and the Sublime

I keep waiting for someone with a background in German philosophy to write about the obvious connections made between James Bond and the concept of the aesthetic sublime in Skyfall, but so far the entire internet is failing and so I take it upon myself to do the deed.

*PS There are movie spoilers in this post*

Now, I do need to get the obvious art in the movie out of the way before I go to the non-obvious art. Ahem. All art lovers, including myself, were delighted to see the British National Gallery in Skyfall, and enthralled when James Bond and his new quartermaster hold a hilariously frigid conversation about the 1839 painting The Fighting Temeraire by J. M. W. Turner:

C'est magnifique, non?

The 98-gun Temeraire was one of the most celebrated, vicious warships in the British Navy, playing a preeminent role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. I'm no war historian, but even I found the history of this ship alluring. In Turner's painting, the Temeraire is light and ethereal, a ghostly shell of its former beauty and brute force. It is conspicuously constrained behind the vivid, black, smoke-puffing steam engine--a very modern contraption-- that hauls it away for scrap after fourteen years of lethal service to the crown in 1812.

Throughout Skyfall there are themes of aging and anxiety about modernity, both of which are encapsulated in this painting. James Bond himself displays an ill-tempered longing for past glory and ability. I noticed that the director did lots of visual tricks to demonstrate the ideas of age and clouded vision. Skyfall messes with James Bond's eyesight, and ours, in various ways: light, dark, smoke, water, fire, and human frailty. For the first time, we wonder if James Bond is really as sharp, as righteous, as we have always assumed him to be.

Remember when he totally failed all this tests?

Couldn't get the bad guy that time.

Roger Deakins on the Shot: Skyfall
The Scene: James Bond hunts an assassin in a glass office tower in Shanghai, the pursuit heightened—and highlighted—by walls of glass and neon advertising images of sea jellies.
Birth of the Shot: “We were coming out of the monochromatic gray of England, so we wanted to arrive in Shanghai with a bang—a lot of color and movement of light. Gradually we came to the idea of making everything glass, so the whole thing was this big box of magical reflections.”
Making It Work: “We built a model to see how the reflections would work and so we could position the big billboards and have the assassin firing at the hotel room in the right position. Then we built the set on the soundstage and spent a number of weeks rigging it, positioning every light. The jellyfish originally were just a stand-in image, but it was such a good choice, it stayed.”
Shot Significance: “The calming, poetic nature of the jellyfish imagery builds the tension of the scene. If the imagery had been frenetic, like what you usually see on billboards, we wouldn’t have been able to build that sort of menace. And that’s what we were after: the ultimate cat-and-mouse scene.”
Seeking a killer through a revolving maze of glass and neon.

There is a second entrance of the Temeraire in the movie, perhaps not as highlighted as the first, but just as thematically loaded. In the final scene, after M's death, James Bond chooses to continue his duties and trust his new leader Mallory, played by Ralph Finnes. We see this painting on the wall of Mallory's office:

It's Thomas Buttersworth's oil painting, H.M.S. “Victory” heavily engaged at the battle of Trafalga, from 1825. Sailing alongside Lord Nelson's ship The Victory is, you guessed it, The Temeraire! The past is present again! Ability is eternal! There is a connection to be drawn between M's death and Lord Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar, but that's not really what this post is meant to dwell upon. Ok the obvious art has been mentioned, time for philosophy.


The concept of "the sublime" is a storied philosophical one. It's been around since antiquity, first appearing in the writings of Longinus, who used it to describe great and lofty powers of persuasion. It didn't became a lodestar of Western philosophy, however, until the 18th and 19th centuries, where it overtook almost every facet of British and German philosophy. Immanuel Kant is someone no art historian will ever be able to get away from ("Without Kant, you can't!" I believe was our favorite quip in Historiography) because he applied the idea of the sublime to aesthetics. I cannot emphasize this enough: the Sublime kind of ruled supreme in Western thought processes for over a century (I'd liken it to the current mood of secular relativism).

To Kant, there is a profound dichotomy of feeling when we view anything. Either a vision is beautiful,  and thus constrained (we see it, we love it, we take it into ourselves, the end), or it is sublime. A sublime sight is both terrifying and entrancing. It is boundless. We are without power to contain or describe what is before us. "Above all, the sublime [had] come to refer to the 'rush' of intense aesthetic pleasure paradoxically stemming from the displeasure of fear, horror or pain."*** 

The Romantics felt this was the infinitely more interesting experience, and sought a thousand different ways to recreate the sublime through art, particularly landscapes. Often, in German and British Romantic paintings, the sublime is represented by a natural disaster: earthquake, avalanche, stormy sea, etc. Later, when the artist Caspar David Friedrich ruled the German art roost, the sublime was also connoted by Gothic ruins of castles and cathedrals.

C. D. Friedrich. Monk by the Sea. Oil. 1809.

You can see how the ghostly Turner Temeraire painting fits into this schemata.

Often, landscape paintings of the sublime included a small person, back to us, viewing the intense and unfathomable scene. We are meant to symbolically inhabit his or her vision. We enter the experience of the sublime through their eyes:

File:Caspar David Friedrich 032 (The wanderer above the sea of fog).jpg
Friedrich. Wander Above the Sea of Fog. Oil. 1818. Kunsthalle Hamburg, GER.

Myself, I always found the concept of the sublime to be a little self-indulgent. Like today's adrenaline junkies but more nerdy, philosophers of the sublime were captivated by the sensations within themselves as they viewed unstoppable forces outside of themselves. It wasn't REALLY about the sea, or the fog, or the moldering castle, it was about the dandy who viewed them.

One could argue that we are still subject to the powers of sublime today, as we find ourselves motionless before a car crash, or photographs of 9/11, or the Boston Bombings.

Despite my reservations about the writers and promulgators of the philosophy, the more modern interpretation of the sublime object-- something both beautiful and dangerous-- applies, with great ease and value, to the icon James Bond. Blue eyes, magnificent physique, kills without hesitation... he is the sublime personified. Why else would this one spy last 50 years in the cinema spotlight when countless others have been retired? (Val Kilmer's The Saint, we hardly knew thee...). Precisely because he lives out our greatest fantasies of both violence and passion.

In Skyfall, we get to gaze a little longer on the enigma of James Bond; we take a look at his past as he travels to his family's home, where an unknown disaster bereft him of his parents years before. There, the sublime is suggested through even more visual tricks:

Moldering, slightly tragic, stone home.

It's beautifully tragic, and the director had fun capturing its demise  from every possible angle and by every possible source: gunshots, invasion, fire...

This is the scene that first got me thinking about the link between James Bond and the sublime. It has an uncanny resemblance to Friedrich's masterpiece, Abbey in the Oakwood:

Oil on canvas. 1810. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

And, true to British cinema, they conclude the film with James Bond, acting as a stand in for the viewer, gazing out into the great metropolis of London, the true reincarnation of the sublime, of our present modernity, unfathomable and entrancing: