Monday, August 29, 2011

A Game Of Two Halves - Live And Let Die while eating Soylent Green

It's 1973. Sean Connery has been and gone and come back and gone again. Now it's time for the series to get Rogered.

As Simon Winder put it in The Man Who Saved Britain, in Live and Let Die we see
Roger Moore exactly a point: reasonable figure, likeable face, bright eyes, good teeth, a very good Bond, in fact, in a bad film. what we all remember now is the Bond of A View (1985), where he looks like some burst-open yoghurt found at the back of the fridge.
Perhaps the comparison to out-of-date dairy produce is unfair (or not - we're six films away from making that assessment) but certainly as the film begins, you're struck by how young and healthy Moore looks.

From the get-go, it appears the franchise has recovered its verve after the sonambulism of Diamonds Are Forever; instead of an interminable, almost tragic-comic opening of Sean punching various types, we have a succession of exciting, exotic deaths, then straight into the titles. Were they scared to reveal Roger too soon? It doesn't matter: the film is pacy, there's swagger back in its stride, and watching it doesn't feel like a trial.

Unfortunately, there seem to be two films called 'Live And Let Die'; there's the first one, which is a stylish romp, and there's the second one, which is awful, and goes on for a very long time without anything good happening. Strangely, the two films are always shown together, almost as if they were a single production where the writers and directors ran out of ideas half way through.

Consider - the first half has an espresso machine in Bond's kitchen, pre-empting the Starbucks Space Age by a good twenty years or more. The second half has a 'comedy' red-neck sheriff tooling around the Louisiana bayou.

The first half has beautiful, almost monochrome compositions like this one:
The second half has a balloon shaped like a man in a suit, exploding.1

So the second half is dreck. The film is castrated2 by the rush to finish things off without doing so properly, after wasting a bit too much time and money on boats going round in circles.

But even then, the last half is not all bad. There's that lovely scene where Bond converts a double decker bus into a single decker, and the roof then gets driven into a pond.

There's a better wet-suit than the bright red number from Thunderball. I'm still having nightmares about that. And this is the Seventies, decade of lamentable clothing choices. Oh, but then there is Bond's blue suit. And his removable trousers. (However, one thing Roger Moore's autobiography tells us is that he was suffering from kidney stones during the filming, and, high on methylene painkillers, sprayed blue urine inside his wardrobe one night. Shame that didn't get rid of all the awful high-waisted trousers...)

And throughout, there's some eminently quotable dialogue. How can you not like a film where the villain gets to say Names are for tombstones, baby? Moore might be accused of being too ironic, but I think it's only right and proper that he calls out Kananga for having that arch-villain cliche, the underground monorail.3 "Connected to the last refuge of a scoundrel", indeed. Between that, "Get me a wig and a white pimpmobile!" and "For 20 bucks, I'd take you to a Ku Klux Klan cookout", the scriptwriters were earning their pay, I'd say.

I don't think the head of casting was though. Unless everyone really thought it was a good idea to have a twelve-year old Jane Seymour as the love interest. At least Roger is entirely convincing at showing how bored he is when Solitaire starts gibbering about mystic bullshit.

Pragmatically sceptical as he is about such things, it's a shame that Bond shows ignorance of more practical matters. Or perhaps it's been such a long time since From Russia With Love that he had just forgotten that all trains are filled with evil assassins. (Did Fleming have a bee in his bonnet about public transport? Perhaps we will never know.) However, Tee Hee is no Robert Shaw, and Bond gets to enjoy his hobby of flinging people out of transportation devices to their doom.

That's a problem with a successful, long-running series. At some points, you have to acknowledge, or at least not mess with the formula. Or the industry that's built up around the films. As Kananga says, Solitaire is "merchandise". Well no, she looks more like a pubescent girl who's obsessed with Dark Magick (did she buy her tarot cards from "Oh Cult!"?), but maybe this is a nod to the future of films, all product placement and toys based on the villains and gadgets.

So it's almost as if it's self-aware, teasing us with glimpses of monorails and evil geniuses who talk too much. It even dangled before us the possibility of somebody getting into a vehicle and then dying, but although Rosie gets into a boat and a car, she only carks it while running through an incredibly fake looking thicket - had they rejected the whole trope of Women Dying Once In Transit?

Perhaps Live And Let Die was going through its own adolescence - some things it does very well, some things are downright dumb, choked up by its own hormones as its appearance changed from films about a hairy Scotsman to a clean-cut bloke from Streatham. And you can't be nasty to teenagers just because they're teenagers.

But then, like a teenager, Live and Let Die sometimes isn't very pleasant to have around. Watching it now, you're bedevilled with worrisome questions. Do you take issue with all of Harlem working for a drug lord with a rubbery face? Do you get upset that Roger Moore's fight scenes look like they've been deliberately slowed down, like an antidote to the sped-up punch-up at the start of On Her Majesty's Secret Service? Are the incredibly empty roads in New York incredibly unconvincing? Should you be able to watch a film where everyone in the Caribbean is a dopey, voodoo-worshipping, superstitious nutcase? Is "All the cards are spades" incredibly clever, or a lousy bit of racist wordplay? How come in all of these films, people who are disabled (wheelchairs, prosthetic arms, metal hands) have to be evil? How come the more exotic the location, the more boring the film becomes?4

For Winder, Live And Let Die is
a mean-spirited and offensive shambles, too stupid really even to be racist, too chaotic to be camp
Well, we already know he doesn't like Moore because of his later transformation to beyond-best-before-date-Yoplait. For me, it feels like a strange failure, something that could have been better if it were half the length. Stupid, yes, chaotic in its final act flailings, but still possessed of some style and grace. We'll have to wait until the next film to see if that was really just because of Paul McCartney's theme tune.

After Live And Let Die, I thought I'd watch another classic of 1973, Soylent Green. Now, I'd definitely never seen that before, but having been brought up in our post-modern world, I knew exactly one line, and waited the whole film for Charlton Heston to shout 'Soylent Green is people!'

It wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped.

Watching Soylent Green is an instructive experience; it turns out that Live And Let Die isn't so bad after all, at least compared with the rest of 1973. And Soylent Green is a famous film from that year, not just a vanished squib that happens to have a man with unfeasible eyebrows in it.

That's right. There are a huge pair of eyebrows on Charlton Heston's face, and for much of the film, that's the only thing that's even half-way interesting. Charlton Heston walks around. Charlton Heston makes a phone call. Charlton Heston gets in a lift. Charlton Heston washes his hands. Charlton Heston eats some beef stew. Say what you may about Roger Moore and the way he runs like an old duffer escaped from the British Legion club, at least he does things more remarkable than the average Charlie.

Plus, we might criticise Katanga for being an egotistical nincompoop with a tendency to talk too much, but at least he had a well-designed scheme to flood the heroin market in the US. Soylent Green is the kind of idiotic food-production plan that even during the film, you find yourself thinking not "that's nefarious and shocking" but "hmm, that's not a very efficient way of producing food." Who were these berks at the Soylent Corporation anyway? Didn't they realise we're meant to eat the rich?

Maybe it's because I live in Hong Kong, where we really are twenty years in the future, which makes Soylent Green's future about 48 years out of date. Or it's because even in a city with 40 million people, Charlton Heston still has an apartment that's bigger than mine, the greedy twat.

Oh, and that's another thing: if there are 40 million people, how come the streets are so empty for most of the film? It's almost like they couldn't afford extras. Or black people: Live And Let Die might be full of evil black people, but at least it has some: in New York in 2022, there's only two of them, apparently, and one gets shot and the other is corrupt. So much for Live And Let Die being the worst film out there.

And as for Bond villains having nitwitted schemes - well, did it take an entire corporation to think up rendering people into delicious feedstock? It certainly required employing a whole phalanx of blokes to drive the dustcarts of doom around New York City. And that's another thing: Bond villains might have quite silly toys for destroying the world, but if Blofeld had built the 'Scoops' they would have been a terror to behold, not a bunch of trucks with hydraulic shovels on the front. The future is going to be run by binmen?

At least both films provide a window back to the Seventies; arguably Soylent Green is worse in its portrayal of women; either they wander around wearing awful clothes, or they're 'furniture' which feels like it's one worse than Katanga's 'merchandise'. I mean, people will pay for merchandise (except for gratis heroin, I suppose) but who gets excited by furniture?5

So watching Soylent Green is a proof that Bond wasn't as bad as we rediscovered it to be. Things happen in Bond films. They might be stupid, over-the-top, grandiose, unfeasible schemes involving radio-controlled young ladies or diamond-powered laser beams, but stuff happens. And there are proper special effects, not bright purple fake blood, when somebody gets shot. People are fighting over meaningful things, not a jam spoon. Or defending our right to misconstrue what might possibly be a very clever satire about materialism, overeating, overpopulation and ... no, actually, it was just Soylent Green I was (possibly) misconstruing.

But equally, Soylent Green is a proof of the failure of memory. Say 'Roger Moore' and people think of awful, late-period Bond, a shambolic pastiche of the young and energetic spy portrayed this year. And say 'Charlton Heston' and you think of a man who won't let you pry a gun even from his cold, dead hands. Not of a man with enormous eyebrows in a film with a pro-environment subtext that's so big you could see it from the moon. At least Live And Let Die has a berk in a top hat laughing his head off at the end. You don't see that in enough films these days.

1When I first watched Live And Let Die as a callow youth, I seem to remember somebody being blown up by an inflatable bullet, without understanding why. Now I know that it's an ironic comment on Chekhov's maxim that if you put a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, somebody should be shot with it at the end of the last act. Whereas in Bondland, if you suddenly fancy having somebody being inflated and exploding at the end of the film, you can just mention compressed air bullets a minute earlier, and nobody will mind. I thought Whisper got shot with one of those bullets, but no; he's just the victim of an exploding sofa. That, and being jammed into a submersible space capsule, or somesuch. That's no way to treat an actor with a name as fabulous as Earl Jolly Brown.
2Yes, castrated. How else do you justify all those things being chopped off, like the wings of planes, the tops of buses ... and never mind Tee Hee's groping metal choppers.
3 OK, the cliche of the arch-villain that the Bond films invented three episodes earlier, but never mind.
4Think about it. If the whole film had been shot around the Fillet of Soul in Harlem, do you really think it couldn't have been an improvement on half an hour of speedboats and some dicking around with a rubber snake?
5Bond, that's who. Or at least, Sean "I like hitting people with chairs" Connery Bond. Not so clear that Roger likes seat-based brawling so much.


Harry Hilders said...

Interesting read!

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