Monday, January 02, 2012

Dreaming of egg on your face: Octopussy Is Risky Business

It's 2010. A heartbroken Justin Bieber sings "I'll buy you anything", demonstrating that teenage relationships are reduced to nothing more than materialism, financial worth replacing emotional commitment. This nadir is just the natural end of a process kicked off in the 1980s by Tom Cruise, at the time another fresh-faced child, not the thing he has grown to be. Over a quarter of a century passed before it became clear to us quite how strange 1983 was.

On the face of it, Octopussy is not a very good film.  It's not a terrible film. The plot is convoluted and rather silly, but it chugs along entertainingly.  What's more interesting is what it makes us think about, so perhaps it is a very good film in that sense. We'll come back to that, after looking at the bare bones of how the film works.

It makes more sense than For Your Eyes Only, but only just, and that's not saying much. One thing that we should have realised by now is that if you're thinking of sneaking into a Cuban military base to blow it up, you should always sneak a jetplane in a horsebox in as well. But if you've done that, there's not much point in dicking about with a silly moustache and some dynamite, when you could have just flown in and strafed the hangar to begin with. Still, we do get to see Roger Moore declaim the wonderful sentence "You're a Toro too". (Moore's autobiography is silent on how many takes it took to get that tongue-twister pronounced correctly.)

The Cuban start is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the film; usually there's some consequence to it, but I suppose once you've disguised Northolt as Cuba with a few palm trees, you're desperate to forget about it. Pretty soon Bond rushes off to India, and when I say rush, I mean it - apparently he could get from central London to a departing plane from Heathrow in under 55 minutes. (Is that really the point where the series properly departs from reality - never mind space shuttles and metal mouthed men, does nobody appreciate the modern congestion in London?)

Anyway, India. Ah yes, India, where everyone rides an elephant/sleeps on a bed of nails/has one eye and laughs in an evil way. As Salman Rushdie put it
one can only say that [Octopussy's] portrait of modern India was as grittily and uncompromisingly realistic as its depiction of the skill, integrity and sophistication of the British secret services'.
And he won the Booker, so he should know a thing or too.

Oversimplifying things or not, Octopussy makes clear to us is that India is a strange, strange place.  It's a place with flying tuk-tuks, a place where a middle-aged man can do a Tarzan impression (one of the lowlights of Bond) and not be shot by an army of men intent on his death, and a place full of dangerous, yet photogenic, animals that are cowed by the sight of a man in a safari suit.  Honestly, between tigers, alligators, snakes and elephants all studiously avoiding eating Roger Moore, it begins to feel like the film was sponsored by the India Tourism Board, who wanted to show off the wildlife to its best effect, but were worried holidaymakers might be put off by man-eating tigers, well, eating men.

But with all the bright colours and excitement, India has the best product placement in the film.  The only other thing we see is a crappy Seiko.  I know everyone in the Eighties thought digital watches were cool, but couldn't at least Bond have seen sense?  Or did he flog his Rolex to get that watch instead?

India also has a bona fide tennis star (Vijay Amritraj) to act as Bond's sidekick.  I didn't realise this when I watched the film, but when he thwacks a henchman with a tennis racket, that's probably a genuine play from the WTA.  Nobody should accuse the filmmakers of not getting the realistic details right. It's also nice to see that instead of playing cards for money, we get a different game, backgammon. The only mention of backgammon in Roger Moore's autobiography is when he's playing with Cubby Brocolli:
'You can tell your agent to go shit in his hat,' he said, rolling his dice. (p239)
If only that had got into the script, Octopussy would have been quite a different film.

After we've had enough of India, we go back to Europe, where we discover that circuses are full of psychopaths with silly clothes, US military bases have almost no security whatsoever, and Germans are all either sports car driving wankers, or fat people obsessed with sausages. So there's some succour for British national pride. We needed it after that rubbish rubber crocodile that Rog has to swim around in...

Then, after a quick bit of bomb disposal, we go back to India again, where Bond floats around in a hot air balloon being irrelevant, while beneath him a band of plucky women beat some men up.  This is initially worrying, because they're all Europeans duffing up Indians, but it's ok, because they're women, and feminism trumps any worries about being racist. (Where did I put that sign saying 'Irony'?)

If you're a man you should be more worried by the subtext that men just float around while women get the job done.

If you're a British man you should be more worried. To borrow Salman Rushdie's words again, Bond's belief in his significance is just 'the phantom twitching of an amputated limb': British pretensions of importance in India are demonstrably nonsensical, given that a bunch of bints in silk pants can conquer an entire evil base that Bond could only get locked up in.

So in short, Octopussy has a lot of Bond dicking around in exotic places, the occasional one-liner and various demonstrations that we're departing from reality (London traffic, security guards who don't search prisoners for acid-filled pens, and the notionally attractive woman that Bond sleeps with who looks like a giant insect, or a fetus, or a giant insect fetus). So much the same as any other Bond film, you might say. There's a few references to the books (Property of a Lady and Octopussy get borrowed, mainly to make Bond-nerds happy (were there Bond-nerds in 1983?) and to give the eponymous Octopussy a backstory; maybe they were still feeling guilty about the abandonment of the South Downs Nazi Rocket Club from Moonraker.  But still, just another Bond film, right?  Just a bit more mindless escapism, nothing to see here, move on, move on...

But look again, at all the ways that Octopussy comments on the world at large.  Without anyone coming out and saying it, one conclusion the film makes you draw is that CND was nothing but a fifth columnist plot to surrender Europe to the Commies. Orlov's plan is to co-opt some idiotic European types who don't like nuclear bombs, and ensure there's space for the Red Army to drive to the border of Belgium.  Although thinking about it, why would you stop at the Belgian border?  You'd have the disadvantage of being stuck in Germany.  No mayonaisse on your frites, no delicious chocolates and lace doilies to put on your tables. So perhaps as well as being a Reagan-style paranoiac fantasy about the idiocies of peaceniks wanting to abandon Europe to the Reds, Octopussy is also propaganda about the Russians being too dumb to remember to invade France and the Low Countries after they're occupied Germany.  Not that the US soldiers are much better, if the base security at Feldstadt is anything to go by...

Russians aren't just dumb; they're shootable.  Not all Communists are equal; at the start of the film, in Northolt Cuba, none of the soldiers actually get shot by Bond when he has a gun, but by the time he's in the Eastern bloc, people are shot left right and centre without there being any concerns at all. Then again, Bond's probably in a bad mood by now, what with his mate, 009, getting stabbed in the back. Of course, 009 deserved it, dressing up like the evil clown out of It. I wonder what would have happened if they'd got Sergio Leone to film this: maybe they could have titled it They Died With Their Clown Shoes On.  Ahem.

Then again, the UK is massively irrelevant and ineffective too. (See hot air balloons, spies that keep on getting hit on the back of the head, etc etc ad nauseum).

Bond is really, really forgetful.  Take another look at the first bird he cops off with, Kemal's bird.  "I need refilling" indeed.  Surely Bond should have learned by now that redheads are dangerous creatures?  There's not been a single one in the series so far that he could trust, whether it's been Kleb, Volpe, or that one that jams him under a bit of plywood in a plane in You Only Live Twice. (I took this teaching to heart, and married a woman with red hair, on the basis that I'd be able to keep an eye on her and thwart any nefarious schemes that she might be planning.  I'll let you all know how that turns out.)  See also Bond forgetting to fill up his plane with enough petrol at the start of the film, and conversely, every barman in the world knows what his favourite drink is.  Crivens.

1983 was the Year Of The Monkey Suit. You know, some people might think of dear old Rog, hiding inside a monkey suit, as one of the crowning indignities of 1980s Bond. I think of it more happily - at least he wasn't getting bummed by a gorilla, like Clarence Beeks, the other inhabitant of a monkey suit in 1983, Eddie Murphy's untouched moment of triumph, Trading Places. 1983 wasn't the year of the crocodile though - the Octopussy crocodile is as rubbish as anyone remembered - much worse than Connery's head top seagull from Goldfinger.

Finally, feminism can go shit in its hat. Or at least, when we start to unpack the woeful treatment of Moneypenny, that seems to be the message that the film is pushing to us.  As Tara Brabazon puts it, Moneypenny's
'weakness', judged by the value of face rather than face value, allowed a fatiguing Roger Moore to be propped up as an ideal man... the indignity and condescension by which the older Moneypenny is represented is to the detriment of the character and the films... a camp figure, an aged aunt, rather than sexualised partner to Bond.
That's a bit wordy (I've been reading a lot of critical texts this month) but it's clear from the interplay of Bond, Moneypenny and Smallbone that nobody has any respect for ageing ladies, and that it's ok to make them look as pathetic as possible in the hope it will distract from the practically octogenarian spy on screen with them. It's really, really rather embarassing, isn't it? Rather puts the portrayal of Maggie Thatcher in a different light when you consider how we're meant to be viewing women.

And of course, there's that strange announcement "Folks, we've had an emergency, but everything is alright now" at the end of the circus bomb disposal scene. It's not strictly true, as there's still another twenty minutes of dicking around in India. And if we're going to be honest, nothing is ever really going to be alright ever again.

The reason things aren't ever going to be alright again is because this is 1983, and this is the year that Risky Business was released.

Now, we all know about Risky Business. It's the film where Tom Cruise dances in his white socks. Everyone knows that. I know that, you know that, my redheaded evil-masterplanning wife knows that. But I had never seen the film, my wife had never seen it, and I firmly believe you haven't seen it either. If you had, you wouldn't be agreeing that it's the film where Tom Cruise dances in his white socks.

You'd be screaming that it's the film which suggests a teenage boy should run a brothel while his parents are on holiday, and the worst that can ever happen is that Joe Pantiolano might rearrange his furniture, and he'll get into Princeton too. With hindsight, we can see that it's the start of that long arc of Tom Cruise's career, which may have marked its zenith this year as he shows his body beginning to approach Moore-like collapse as he staggers from the hospital in Mission Impossible 4, just as Octopussy should have been Moore's Bond swan song.

The last paragraph may suggest that Risky Business has a plot. Well, I suppose it does have a plot. For the final half hour. The first hour of Risky Business is a series of dreams within dreams. There's meant to be a catch-phrase that the characters try to popularise, and it's literally "Say 'what the fuck'". I suppose that's what the audience was saying again and again, sitting through this mess of dreams, soundtracked by Tangerine Dream (was everyone in the 1980s obsessed with being metatextual?), where Tom Cruise looks much, much younger than he should do. He looks so young and freshfaced that I started to think he was a computer generated image of what Tom Cruise should have looked like when he was young.

I think even people in the 1980s thought Tom Cruise looked too young. Maybe he should have been boffing the fetus-lady from Octopussy. But that would have required a bit more plot, whereas in Risky Business, the first hour feels like one of those terribly pretentious European films you go to see on a date, to try to convince somebody else that you're sufficiently and pretentiously intellectual enough to be worth having sex with. Nothing much happens. Tom Cruise drives around ineptly in a Porsche. He has sex on the stairs. There's a giant black transexual who turns up with an important message and then vanishes again, like some sort of 1980s oracle. Tom Cruise tries to bully a nurse, and you sit there looking at his big preppy, over privileged face and want to punch it as hard as you can. As Tom asks earlier in the film, "Does anyone want to accomplish anything, or just make money?" Well, I think we know now...

But hang on, it's the 1980s... Where's that feminist influence? Oh, there it is again: both have women as the prime motivating force - and both end up with the 'hero' powerless as women organise around them. Who would have thought both films would be loaded with heavy feminist subtext - or if you're paranoid, propaganda? Then again, the Bond films could always reliably deliver an exciting car chase (I almost fell asleep during the one in Risky Business), and even if there's not much attention to the plot in a Bond film, there is a plot, not just some bumbling around Chicago like we're in the nightmare stillbirth of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I'm scared now to ever watch Trading Places again, just in case all films in 1983 were as horrible as this - at least Octopussy was protected by having the watchful eye of Roger Moore over it all.

But most importantly, more important even than the sight of Tom Cruise trying to rub one out (and failing), more important even than Tom Cruise having sex with Rebecca De Mornay on a train while a man with a beard watches and eats a sandwich at the same time, more important than all of that: Both Films Are Obsessed With Eggs. The main motor of Octopussy is that fake/not fake Faberge egg that keeps getting switched, bugged and finally smashed. Likewise, everything that goes wrong/right/wrong again/right again in Tom Cruise's life is down to the enormous, disgusting glass egg that his mother keeps on the mantelpiece.

If you wanted to see Tom Cruise say "I want my egg back" then this is the film for you. If you wanted to see Tom Cruise doing strange things to a sofa, you don't need to tune in to Oprah Winfrey re-runs; just watch Risky Business. There, not half an hour in, under the watchful eye of a giant glass egg, Tom Cruise is doing strange things to a sofa.

OK, there's golden ducks, and Romanov stars, and hookers with fold-away beds disrupting university interviews, and a train-set that is totally unremarked upon before and after it appears, but the key to this, to the whole year, not just these two films, is the EGGS. THE EGGS. I SEE IT NOW. WHY DID I NEVER SEE IT BEFORE? Bieber's 'Baby' is clearly about an egg, an egg, we're FULL CIRCLE FOLKS, we've had an emergency, but everything is alright now, ignore the man in the clown outfit, everything is going to be fine...

(James Bond will return in A View To A Kill.)


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