Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, perhaps the ultimate blockbuster of canonical art history, traces the aesthetic evolution of humankind from the caves of Lascaux to postmodern architecture in Manhattan. In the chapter “A Break in Tradition,” Gombrich explains that, before the Enlightenment, even artists who took to secular topics were confined to a few select, best-selling themes: Greek mythology, accounts of Roman bravery, and allegorical tales demonstrating established truths through traditional personifications. It is “curious,” he muses, how rarely pre–eighteenth century artists strayed from the narrow limits of those blockbuster leitmotifs. As many after him have pointed out, however, it’s not so certain the eighteenth century’s break from said 10,000-year tradition was as dramatic as Gombrich suggested — or that it happened at all.
To this day, nearly every popular story, high or low, can be summarized as the story of some man on a quest for his personal sense of ethics. It seems we can never get enough of watching these dudes as they ponder, question, get into trouble, and go back home — or die, or both. From Ulysses to Hamlet to Inspector Gadget — not to mention the crucifixion itself: the simple story of a seditious Nazarene getting the Guantanamo treatment has been repeated trillion-fold over the last two thousand years. It’s not only the popularity of the plot but also the enduring intensity of its reception that is remarkable.
When studying the peculiar pleasures of repetition, mysterious and deep, psychoanalysts, critics, advertising executives, and spouses have invented names that are disappointingly flat, always pointing vaguely in the direction of “identification.” (Whenever I argue with my girlfriend, for example, she claims I sound like Tony Soprano. I try to explain that any male over thirty who swears with his mouth full — something that any self respecting male over thirty should do every now and then — will sound exactly like Tony Soprano (try it at home, with a chunk of white bread, saying twice, in rapid succession, “Fuck you want from me?”), but she insists that it’s more than a matter of acoustics alone, that it began when she bought me the DVD gift set on our vacation.)
Last night, I was watching the latest James Bond very intently. It has been widely announced that this is a radically new Bond. New in style, new in tenor, new even in narrative framework. (The film, as Wikipedia will tell you, marked the third adaptation of what was Fleming’s first Bond novel, previously produced as a 1954 TV episode, then as a 1967 spoof, starring Woody Allen.) In other words, the latest Bond marks a reboot of the series. Gone are Q and Moneypenny, and Daniel Craig’s Bond has only just been promoted to the status of double-oh. Tabula rasa. His boss, M, has yet to learn to trust him, though she already looks upon Bond in that aunt-like, my-my, temper-temper sort of way.
The gamble, the producers are now trumpeting, has paid off. Casino Royale immediately became the highest-grossing Bond ever. But, as you might guess, the film was no more a break from tradition than the Enlightenment itself. Bond is still chasing black Africans of ambiguous political background up and down building cranes, then moving on to the real scalawags, their First World bankers, with their marvelously tailored business suits and continental accents. You tought I was bloffing, Mistair Bont? (There’s even a curly haired slimeball — Greek — with necklaces and no dress sense and a scandalously unmerited babe of a girlfriend.) Only the graphics of the opening credits are stunning, but they’re ruined by what must be the worst Bond theme in history (performed by onetime Soundgarden grunge god Chris Cornell, sounding frightfully clunky). Arm yourseeelf because no one else here will saaaave you!
Even the changes in this Bond are very Back to the Future. The film unmistakably smacks of the 1950s, despite all the blip-blip-galactic-GPS-tracking-device-ooh-la-la’s, and quite agreeably so. To take the first encounter between Bond and Bond girl Vesper Lynd, it would be hard to imagine a woman today remarking on the way I wear my dinner jacket — “with disdain” — to speculate on the modalities of my Oxford tuition fees, but it makes for the finest dialogue in the film. Equally 1950s is James Bond’s critical observation that “the bitch is dead,” indeed a quote from the original novel. (I would have had him say this through a mouthful of ciabatta. Twice, in rapid succession.) In moments of tense concentration — moments when Connery, Moore, and Brosnan would all look pensively preoccupied (that pensively preoccupied Englishman thing), as they listened, reconsidered, or tottered about on building cranes — Craig always looks like he’s about to bet ten pounds on Chelsea FC. Accordingly, when the bartender asks whether the martini is to be shaken or stirred, Bond replies, “Do I look like I care?” — reaping sophisticated chuckles from the audience, every one of us feeling like doggone film history cognoscenti. Come to think of it, even the quaint fascination of the blip-blip tracking devices serves not to weaken but to vastly enhance the 50s feel.
In sum, the one new thing about Casino Royale is its claim to novelty, which has precious little to do with the strength, intelligence, or magnetism of the movie. In other words, if I wish to criticize, say, Scorsese’s The Departed for its medieval vision of womanhood, or Inarritu’s Babel for its picture-postcard aesthetics and heroically victimized fathers (or the upcoming Indiana Jones IV or Rocky LXXXIX for anything similar), accusations of stereotypical repetition would come across as superfluous at best, dishonest at worst. But perhaps these archaic satisfactions, so colossal in depth, so Gombrich in scope, could be transfigured and recombined in other ways. A Nazarene Darth Vader who talks like Tony Soprano, using his Inspector Gadget utensils to avenge kin and kinship. I know it’s already been done by the Israeli cabinet, but perhaps if it was set in a Montenegro casino? With an all-woman cast?