Sunday, April 4, 2010
A series of posts by Big Hollywood contributor Leo Grin on Ian Fleming and James Bond prompts the question. Where are the villains and heroes of today? When we have real life villains such as Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova and Umalat Magomedov, the curios absence of villains even remotely resembling the real-life jihadists afflicting the West, Russia, and China is pathetic. Even worse is the matching lack of real heroes. Only throwing off the PC blinders (and catering to a female-dominated PC dogma crowd) can popular culture both regain relevance and provide useful models for boys and men.
Leo Grin's post on how Ian Fleming created James Bond out of an homage to his father who died when he was a child, in World War One, and various men with whom he served in Naval Intelligence during World War Two, prompts the question. Who were the villains, and what was the nature of the hero? What was James Bond really about?
Look at the video below, of various Bond exploits set to the tune of Barry Gray's 007 music:
What is going on? An intrepid secret agent, infiltrates the enemy, and with the aid of gadgets galore causes havoc and escapes, as the Americans come in and blast the enemy apart.
This was not limited to James Bond, either. The clip from UFO (circa 1970) shows the British again fighting the Germans, only this time the Germans are aliens:
Even the Avengers fought WWII all over again:
Note the similarities, jazzy, brassy, opening score. Not much electric guitar (that's American). Various heroes, by turns brash or ruthless, with unconventional allies (often women), using the very latest gadgets to turn the tables and defeat a vastly overpowering enemy. One with more men, or better technology, always more resources and certainly more viciousness, defeated by the very odd-ball, weird, idiosyncratic and very English/British sort of "smallness," with roots in Victorian culture, and celebration of eccentricities. Older, dignified men whose authority is respected, send Steed, or Bond, or John Drake out on dangerous missions with only weird gadgets and beautiful women to accompany their fists and determination. Col Ed Stryker, of course ,runs a modern-day RAF against the Alien Luftwaffe. Even as late as 1970, the end of World War Two was only 25 years distant. Closer in time than the start of the Reagan Administration is to us today.
The national myth of Britain was that even though the Empire was lost after World War Two, by the exhausting effort, the bravery and sacrifice of tough and daring secret agents empowered by the most oddball but devious gadgets, concocted by eccentric geniuses, along with the help of the Americans, had won the day. Saving Western Civilization. From both the Nazi and Soviet tyranny. This is why Bond constantly outwits his enemies with ingenious, World War Two-like gadgets such as cars that convert to submarines, auto-gyros, miniature jets, knives popping out of attache cases, and so on. All while maintaining the composure of a proper English gentlemen.
Then there is John Steed, equally as polished. Fighting all sorts of "home front" enemies. If you prefer, there is also Patrick McGoohan, more clipped and cerebral, and very mocking and ironic, from "Danger Man":
There's even Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in the Ipcress File:
[There is a bit of the opening sequence on Youtube, as well, it cuts off right before the whole point -- after Palmer finds the jewelry left behind in the bed by his paramour, he also finds his gun and secretes it in his waistband. A wordless opener that tells the viewer all he needs to know about Palmer.]
The British Spy heroes might be total gentlemen (Bond, Steed), or cockneys (Palmer), or something in-between (McGoohan's John Drake), but regardless they were very, very British. In Palmer's case, too stubborn, insubordinate, and eccentric to be brain-washed by the Soviet agents.
And not only were the heroes, indeed very recognizable, "National Myth" heroes from World War Two revisited, the music itself was very similar, very British, as Grin notes here, always an element of jazz, lots of brass, a natural evolution from the beloved British military marching bands (itself a feature in the Ipcress File in one key scene).
Not only the heroes came from World War Two. The villains did as well. Particularly for the Bond villains, real organizations were used. SMERSH really existed. The sort of stateless, rootless, vaguely Central European, German, or Baltic villains such as Auric Goldfinger, or the German/Chinese Dr. No, or the classic Ernst Stavros Blofeld, all could have come out of the various hangers on to the Third Reich in Europe or elsewhere.
If Britain's spy heroes were re-fighting World War Two, at a time when most people well-remembered the fight, the villains were all of a type. Vaguely Nazis or allied with them, very little was needed to explain how the villains were evil, and needed to be fought. Needed a hero to oppose them.
Oppose them in a way that was totally opposite. Where the villains ruled by intimidation, fear, and ruthless killing of their subordinates and allies, the heroes willingly accepted orders from the older, fatherly men who sent them out to dangerous missions. Never questioning the rightfulness of being sent to stop the villain. Where the villains have weird, and repellent subordinates with fairly murderous characteristics, the hero's allies are usually beautiful women, and a gadgeteer providing all sorts of things giving him a critical edge. Of course, even the music makes that point, being jazzy and orchestral, the opposite of Teutonic Wagnerian Gotterdammerung, and different from American rock.
No one at the time, needed to know why James Bond had to stop Ernst Stavros Blofeld, or Auric Goldfinger, or Dr. No. They were Nazis, thinly disguised, or Soviet assassins, or both. Enemies that needed stopping.
Now, we have bland and boring, angsty heroes who reject responsibility (the Matt Damon Bourne series), numerous bad guy assassins (the Crank series) implausibly cast as heroes, or low level gangsters forced into some semblance of duty and responsibility (the Transporter Series). Even TV cannot experiment with any meaning to the heroes or depth and evil of the villains. NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" was its own worst enemy, finding a quickly deserved cancellation, as audiences did not find the premise (a real spy creates a split personality ordinary man to have the ultimate cover) compelling enough. The hero was no hero, and the villains colorless PC bad guys. So too with "24's" Jack Bauer, hand-cuffed by the PC nature of the star demanding a more politically correct approach to villains (again the ultimate villains being boring, politically safe White guys in corporate boardrooms). Or "La Femme Nikita," or "Alias," or NBC's "Chuck," all with endless, soapy love triangles out of "Twilight" and the enemy defined as their own bosses or intelligence services. Endless and meaningless conspiracies, as society cannot define enemies abroad and without, and so must look for culturally safe ones within.
South Park shows there is a market for non-PC conformist humor, and indeed content. That market is mostly male, as women make up the customer base for PC Dogma. Refusing to look real enemies, real villains, and real threats square on, because it would threaten the whole PC agenda. Require a real sorting out of heroes and villains.
Culture is in creative crisis when it cannot even deal, even in disguised mode, with real threats. Due entirely to a blind adherence, religiously, to PC dogma.
TV and movies don't have to depict Muslim Jihadis straightforwardly as the enemy. Ernst Stavros Blofeld and Dr. No worked for SPECTRE, a fictional alliance of crime organizations and bosses, but the real enemy was the amalgamation of rootless, stateless criminals and assassins who helped first the Nazis, and then the Soviets, depending on who was winning. SPECTRE was not the bad guys, really. It was World War Two all over again. Indeed, the very stateless/rootless nature of the bad guys, who believe in nothing but power, was always contrasted by the very rooted in British eccentricity nature of the heroes.
Anyone could figure that a 30 year old jihadi like Magomedev, who apparently met then 16 year old Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova in an online chat room, and semi-abducted her, married her, and then left her a widow at age 17, is the true picture of a villain. The photo of Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova, blank face brandishing what looks like a Makarov, while Magomedev holds a Stechin pistol and and visibly controls her (neither by the way adhering to trigger discipline) is both chilling and evil. Pretty much everyone can figure that her path, and that of her evil husband, is one that should be stopped. Child marriage, likely forcible, the hijab and covering, brandishing weapons Crips/Bloods style, and blowing up innocent Muscovite commuters is something anyone can oppose. It is the ultimate enemy of safe, middle class life the way that the Nazis and Soviets and Japanese were in WWII.
World War Two, Nazis, Soviets, and their various collaborators, are too distant. The end of WWII was 65 years ago. It simply does not have emotional force, any more. Moreover, Western society faces new challenges. That of Jihad, of Islam, of people who figure if they kill enough Muscovites, or New Yorkers, or Beijingers, or Londoners, everyone will submit. Surrender. So that the surviving killers can rule, and for those who don't, well the killing is the point in the first place. Against these real villains, the phony PC villains of corporate executives, the "White Guys in Suits" do not cut it. White guys in corporate boardrooms are subject to massive PC, lawyers everywhere, and don't blow up subways.
All creative people need to do is be … creative. Don't call it jihad, and don't call the bad guys Muslims. Call them something else. Just have lots of covering for women, beards for men, fanatic prayers, suicide bombings, and terrorism.
After all, spy shows are cheap. ITV, not known for its big budgets, had many of them for years. Any quick look at the early Avengers or Danger Man or the Saint will not find massive budgets or highly professional stunts. Men like the action and adventure, and it is quite possible that female audiences hungering for something different than pouty, hunky metrosexuals would find the latter day equivalents to say, Patrick McGoohan, or Roger Moore, or Patrick McNee far more appealing than the glittery gay vampires of "Vampire Diaries" or the rich boy metrosexuals of "Gossip Girl."
Indeed, the shocking thing to comparing TV stars from the 1960's and 1970's, when there was still living memory of just what the sacrifice to win World War Two entailed, is just how masculine the actors appeared, versus the ones of today. McGoohan, Moore, McNee, all are far more masculine than say, Chace Crawford.
Westerns, of course, are not coming back. Ever tighter budgets, and loss of the ability to depict horsemanship and everything else means Hollywood today can't do what it did in 1957, even on TV. Private eye shows, don't seem to be coming back either, though periodic attempts to revive them have been tried. Cop shows are all procedural affairs, which as Ed Bernero points out, are made mostly for a female audience. But spy shows are cheap, and the villains of our time cry out for a creative disguise in an updated Goldfinger or Blofeld.
If Bernero is right, and he makes his living producing TV shows, so he should know what he's doing, the only issue is the largely female line executives at the Broadcast Networks, and likely, the gay executives. Disney is famous for its Princess Factory at the Disney Channel, which openly gay Rich Ross nurtured into a money-making machine. Just as well known, is the complete failure of Disney XD to draw boys. Who knew, that gay men just can't connect with the action and adventure that men and boys want?
NBC ought to be hungrier than most. Their ratings are in the toilet. All the other networks have established shows drawing younger women to hunky vampires, or Desperate Housewives, or multi-threaded soap operas. Simply offer real heroes, reflecting the odd, and unique attributes of Americana, and real villains. Variations of the jihadis who blow people up. Simply make them disguised. Snake worshippers, or black magic devotees, not the obvious Muslim jihadis. This puts CAIR off your back and still allows you to have women dressed in chadors, and guys in beards and skull caps.
This approach makes the writing simpler and easier. No angsty sub-plots, soap operas, or complex arc plotting. Just deadly and dangerous villains, who have to be stopped, and are, by unique and deeply American heroes. A focus on the action, not relationship angst and drama. Which often devolves into self-pity and maudlin sentiment. Keep it simple, and execute.
Up to a point, this is what Burn Notice on USA Network has done. Though even there, the enemies are the own intelligence service, rather than people blowing up innocent commuters. It is time for Hollywood to show some innovation. Otherwise someone else will do it for them. Sooner rather than later.