Sunday, March 13, 2011

Not (Quite) The End Of The World: Goldfinger and Dr Strangelove

It's 1964.

Goldfinger starts with that weaving gun barrel and then a man in a hat shooting at the camera. Isn't it strange that the view is drenched in blood? Has there been so much spilt claret that it's got all the way into the chamber of the gun where the camera is apparently located? Never mind, I'm probably thinking too hard about this.

Seriously.  A seagull hat?

Goldfinger, or to follow the exact wording of the opening titles, Ian Fleming's Goldfinger 1, begins with Sean Connery wearing a seagull for a hat as he swims into a secret refinery. It's strange that everyone I know remembers the embarrassment of Roger Moore swimming around in a rubber alligator costume, but Sean's previous seabird-headgear tomfoolery was completely forgotten. Hypocrisy, thy name is Bond Aficionado. Then again, James Cameron lifted this opening lock stock and barrel for True Lies, although he lacked the cojones to electrocute a man in a bath.

Product placement arrives swiftly with a glance at his Rolex just before the explosives ... explode.

Bond's still not that suave a gentleman, preferring to use a naked woman as a human shield to stop himself being conked on the head by a random bloke in his bedroom, but hey, what are you going to do? But with that quick jolt of violence, the titles start, and after the oddity of Dr No and the belly dancing of From Russia With Love, we've finally arrived at Boobs With Stuff Projected On Them. Woo hoo!

This is not as expressionistic as we'll get later on. This time round they're just projecting scenes from the film you're about to watch onto this random bird's figure. That's a bit odd. It's as though you'd popped round to Cubby's house to watch the telly, and he wouldn't let you sit down with your cup of tea until he'd disclosed half the plot of the programme you're about to watch. I'm only really happy when I can see silhouettes of naked women flying out of gun barrels, but does that make me a bad person?

It does give us what has been pointed out2 as a ruddy terrifying image - while we're finding out who the editors were, we're presented with a woman whose mouth has been replaced by the license plate of a car, like some horrid auto-pornographic fantasy that J G Ballard has belched up. Ian Fleming probably belched a lot, given his diet, but I don't think he was into the perverted body-modifications that Ballard was obsessed with.

Not that Fleming was ever as part of the avant-garde like Ballard. This is demonstrated quite clearly a few minutes later, when Bond compares drinking room-temperature champagne to listening to the Beatles without earmuffs. ZING! It's almost as if he's a grumpy old reactionary who spends his life in Jamaica fulminating about modern life, rather than a spy ... oh.

Anyway, never mind about dreary old England and dreary old attitudes, the film begins properly with a lovely open; rather than informing us of our location with a prosaic subtitle on the screen, there's a 'Welcome to Miami Beach' sign towed by a plane, and then we helicopter in to a hotel by the beach, folow a diver into the water (wait untill 1998 for this shot to be remade in Boogie Nights, obsessives) and before we know it Felix Leiter, who now resembles a young Rodney Dangerfield, is wandering through serried ranks of bikini clad women.

This is 1964, after all. The UK is still austere, dull and grey. Goldfinger is a window for a hungry British audience to a pleasant, exciting, warm world. It was also an opportunity for British men to watch Sean Connery slap the backside of a woman called Dink. Is that the sound of a sexual revolution ahead? Actually no, it's just the looming dangernoise of James Bond appearing, warning ladies everywhere to stay indoors and not get into a vehicle with this strange man.I've already mentioned the dangers of being in a car or other transportation device with James Bond.
here, but we'll probably revisit that again.
You don't want to get in a car with this tall dark stranger

When Jill Masterson dies, not by being in a vehicle with James Bond, but by the fishy-sounding and vaguely unbelievable "skin-suffocation" we get what is seen as the iconic image of Bond from the 1960s. A dead woman covered in paint. If you start to think about this for too long, it begins to appear a rather revolting example of either misogyny or fetishisation of B&Q's emulsion department, and it's a little odd about how much people will go on about it and how wonderful it is. It's iconic, I'll say no more about it.

Instead, as I've previously gone on about hats, I'll talk about that some more. The hats worn at the start of each of the first three Bond films are terrible, but after the lamentable headgear in the opening sequence (and the questionable choice Bond displays whilst blowing up the refinery) when we get to the golf course, we see a battle between contrasting hat wearers:

This is a good hat.

This is a bad hat. And a Bad Man

And this is a man with a very bad hat indeed. A very bad ass hat. Ahem.

And this part of the film is masterful - there are some lovely compositions of pictures of ugly men, and the overhead shot as Goldfinger misses his putt, distracted by an ingot of purest, delicious Nazi gold, is a wonderful image that could stand happily on its own:

It's impressive that we can stand watching Goldfinger at all, given the horrible clothes he has to wear. Few people look good playing golf, but did he have to go all out with the lamentable brown plus-fours? Truly, this is a good walk spoiled, spoiled.

It's only a partial victory for Bond here though. Just as Oddjob crushes the ball, so you sense that Bond's caddy may not have a job for long. It doesn't do to laugh cheerily as your employer gets shown up for the compulsive cheat that he is by a man in a better hat.

But again, watching this film I imagine I had different concerns to contemporary viewers. When Goldfinger's scheme to buy gold in London and sell it in Pakistan for a profit is mentioned, I just thought that this was an example of commodity arbitrage, and not really anything that bad. Yet in the film this is something that the British Government can, will, and must stop - we should be quite happy for the government to intervene in Goldfinger's large-scale jewellery operation, as if making an honest buck from moving things around the world was a Bad Thing.

But in the 1960s, when the gold standard was still viable for governments, maybe this seemed to make sense.

Another attitude that was perhaps more common back then was that all Asians are still the same roiling mass of interchangeable henchmen and evil doers. We already know from Dr No that there was a certain tone-deafness to appropriate Chinese surnames. Well, despite Goldfinger's main man being Korean, Goldfinger's Swiss foundry is staffed by Cantonese speakers (who engage in a Chinese fire-drill, chasing after Bond's car in a Keystone Kops sequence), and who curiously also have some of the same vocabulary as Po from the Teletubbies.

Again! Again!

Perhaps you think I'm making this up. But no, when Bond has finished bashing a man's head in against a car, you'll hear the blue overalled Chinese chaps yell 'fide la!', which is the same as what Po cries when she pushes her scooter over the grass of Tellytubby Hill.

Once again, we see that you shouldn't get in a vehicle with James Bond; if you're a man, you'll be fired into the air on a frankly insane ejector seat, and if you're a woman, it's just a prelude to a lethal bowler-hat takedown.

Alas, Tilly Masterson, you're a poor shot and not long for this world.

Of course, Cantonese and Korean would present no language problems for Goldfinger's multilingual staff - apparently when Oddjob yells out 'ack! ack!' it's clearly understood as an instruction to gather up a dead woman from the bushes, and then ferry James Bond back to HQ. It's sad that this ability to communicate didn't also imbue Oddjob with even a rudimentary understanding of the dangers of electricity. Ah well, you can't have it all.

In the novel, Oddjob dies in the way that in the film Goldfinger meets his demise. By being sucked off in a plane. Sorry, sucked out of. What was I thinking of? Maybe I was concentrating too much on the novel, in which Fleming revealed Pussy Galore was a member of a Lesbian gang, the "Cement Mixers" in New York. Naively I thought that was a group of Greek women, but with twenty five years' extra wisdom I have still no better idea what Fleming was getting at. Gangs that go around selling drugs or robbing people I can understand, but what were the Cement Mixers doing? Wandering the streets of Harlem promoting female homosexuality with a lot of pamphlets and the occasional demonstration? Is this better or worse than listening to the Beatles without earmuffs?

As well as the utter contempt Bond feels for popular culture, it's interesting to see the utter contempt that Goldfinger feels for him. If he's not coming up with a frankly embarrassing way to die (who would be proud to find their son had his groin bisected by a laser?) then he's installing Bond at his horse ranch, or flying him around on a plane, or taking him all the way to the centre of his Evil Plan, without ever treating him as a meaningful threat. For Goldfinger, Bond is an amusing irrelevance, a little bit like the US saw Britain. Now they were usually too polite to mention it, instead banging on about a 'Special Relationship', but maybe it would have been better if they'd been as honest as Goldfinger. At least then we'd all have gone to a Kentucky horse ranch for a roll in the hay with a future Avenger.

Now I haven't said too much about the plot here, and I don't intend to. Plenty of other people can summarise the plot, and there isn't that much of one - it's really more a series of increasingly impressive set pieces, no bad thing, which eventually educates us about a few important facts:

Never trust a fat man. This is made clear to us again and again: whether you encounter him whilst holidaying in Miami, or playing golf in England, or even if he's dressed as your superior officer, watch out.
Don't coat your lady friend entirely in paint. I thought this would go without saying, but apparently not. Skin suffocation. Guuueugh.
Radiation is an eldritch and incomprehensible magic. Yes, it's a weird process by which you can make gold radioactive just by exploding a nuclear bomb next to it. I struggled to stay awake in physics at school, but I have a feeling that's not exactly how isotopes are created...

However, throughout the Fifties and Sixties, radioactive materials were supposed to be these strange, immediately lethal things that we can't comprehend. At the end of Dr Strangelove, the eponymous doctor shows a complete lack of understanding of what the half-life of an isotope is. And he was a doctor, not a Scottish bodybuilder fumbling cack-handedly inside a nuclear weapon.

Which brings us neatly onto Goldfinger's companion, Dr Strangelove. This starts more gently than Goldfinger - nothing blows up and we just have nuclear bombers floating gracefully in the air (real planes, rather than the Thunderbirds models that Goldfinger's directors employed when they wanted to depict flight.)

If Goldfinger is a film about British self-deception about their importance in the world, Dr Strangelove is perhaps an antidote. Althouhg Mandrake has a much weaker hat than anyone in the corresponding Bond film, he's the only reasonable chap in all of America.

Unfortunately, he's in a Kubrick film, and that means nobody is reasonable, so he's a bit stuck. Poor old Peter Sellers.

It's strange. Everyone knows that Bond films are mindless entertainment, and everyone knows that Kubrick was a Great Artist with Something To Say, but most of the things Kubrick had to say weren't that profound. Nuclear proliferation is a Bad Thing. Punishing criminals to protect society may infringe on their rights and have adverse consequences which is a Bad Thing. People in the Marines are sometimes quite unpleasant and that's a Bad Thing. War is not fun and so also a Bad Thing. This wouldn't be so bad, but every one of his films goes on a bit too long, whether it's the interminable ending of A Clockwork Orange or the over-broad caricatures that start to wander into Dr Strangelove in its final minutes. In fact I was rather surprised that there's more meaning to be taken from a fairly ephemeral piece about violating the gold standard and employing mute Korean domestic staff, than from the Great Artist's masterwork.

Again, Sellers is a character elevated to practically divine status in comedy, yet watching him flapping his arm in a Nazi salute from his wheelchair doesn't feel so much like mordant satire now, as just embarassing. Or perhaps that's just me.

It's not all bad: "No, I expect you to die" is a favourite line of dialogue, but if I had to choose between that and "I've been to a world fair and a pig rodeo and that's the stupidest thing I've heard over a set of headphones", it would be difficult to say which was superior. And although Mandrake is lacking, there is at least one mighty fine hat:

On the other hand, this hat ends up ending the world. It's not entirely this man's fault, although he's a bit too cheery for a man riding a nuclear bomb into the Russian countryside:

There are other parallels besides the proliferation of chapeaus in both films. There's a sexy secretary in both - although Kubrick only allowed for one lady in his film, and it's offputting to see her next to a man with such a big pair of underpants:

In both films, there's a chap in uniform you really shouldn't trust, whether it's Jack D Ripper (ho ho ho, wasn't Kubrick adorably subtle when it came to naming characters?) or Auric Goldfinger. Although one of them just has designs on your gold, while the other is some sort of mentalist who thinks water fluoridation is an evil communist plot. I suppose mandatory water fluoridation would have made old Fleming cross too. Nobody was going to tell him how to keep his teeth clean, any more than they would tell him to drink, smoke or slap backsides. Still, he probably would have balked at the idea of substituting a glass of grain alcohol and rainwater for his martini.

As I said before, in both films there's a lack of understanding of radiation, apart from as some terrifying and incomprehensible monster that will either mess with our fiscal policy or force us to live in a coal mine for a hundred years. It's strange to be writing this the weekend after a massive earthquake has caused the possible meltdown of several Japanese nuclear reactors. The combination of any-given-Oriental-nation and nuclear devices is probably just the sort of thing Fleming would have fulminated about, but I don't want to go into that in any great detail here. Maybe that's just a strange syncronicity between the films I've watched this weekend and the media coverage I've followed. Which is odd - although as I said here, it's interesting to watch supposedly trashy culture in order to learn things about ourselves ... and it's also interesting to watch supposedly higher cultural artefacts and find they might not be as good as you thought you were meant to think they were.

Which makes me wonder what impact Thunderball will have on my life.
1 I suppose we're lucky this practise died out. Or did anybody want to see Ian Fleming's Octopussy?
2 Simon Winder puts it best in The Man Who Saved Britain:

...far more frightening, nihilistic, Sadean, fetishistic than anything else in conceptual art. It is just on the screen for a moment, but it is a true nightmare, choking the viewer, but crystallizing something nasty at the heart of the whole Bond project.


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