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Poor Skyfall, it deserved better

[ 81 ] February 24, 2013 |

Sam Mendes is the Don Delillo of contemporary cinema, in that he’s as beloved as he’s banal and otherwise right-thinking people seem incapable of recognizing him as such. A few years ago I wrote of my hatred of the flat affect (or affected flatness) that characterizes Delillo’s prose, and I’m going to be making a similar argument about Mendes. I can make that argument directly, in that both blame the postmodern condition for the flattening and both think that finding meaning in meaninglessness is the proper aesthetic response to it. To wit:

To understand all this. To penetrate this secret. The mountain was here, unconcealed, but no one saw it or thought about it, no one knew it existed except the engineers … a unique cultural deposit … and he saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and eroded object of desire.

To understand Delillo. To penetrate his secret. The appeal is there, everyone sees it when they think about it, everyone knows it is “a unique cultural deposit,” taken by Delillo on the chest of Americans who want to believe they belong to an esoteric order, that they are the adepts and seers of literature. Only they aren’t. They read a big book full of moments, as above, in which characters look at “garbage” and are struck by an epiphanic bolt named “recycling.” Don Delillo writes “deep” thoughts for stupid people. Mendes traffics in similar crap:

I don’t care if it could be mistaken for a two-shot of people in a museum, that thing they’re looking at is still a plastic bag, not a reminder that everything is connected. Or if it is a reminder that everything’s connected we’re back to the profundity that it is modern recycling. It’s not evidence that there’s “this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid.” It’s not an ontological proof of the existence of a non-denominational Kindness that communicates through gusts of trash. It’s a fucking plastic bag. But it gets worse. It’s a plastic bag “that was just, dancing with [Ricky], like a little kid begging [for him] to play with it—for fifteen minutes,” meaning that it’s a plastic bag that Ricky didn’t recycle. He befriended it in the name of the non-denominational Kindness who speaks through trash and filmed the encounter so we all could meet said Kindness through Art. It’s first-order Art in the film, when Ricky shows it to Jane, but it’s second-order Art when Mendes presents us Ricky showing it to Jane, so we experience their experience of Art because in the postmodern world one can never experience The Thing Itself only mediated versions of It through Art. This is a Baudrillard-bruised insight from ’70s masquerading as profundity and everyone fell for it. The Academy declared it the Most Unique Cultural Deposit of 1999 and Mendes the Most Unique Cultural Depositor of the same.

Which brings us to Skyfall. I watched it last night and thought it a fine little Bond film. But it was not the Art it thought it was. Mendes comes from a theatrical background and directs his movies like old episodes of Masterpiece Theater: he positions the camera at some distance from the action, checks that every element of the frame is in focus, then walks away. The result is a reliance on shots that are longer than they need to be:

He seems not to know that when every element of a shot is in focus, the result is a flatter looking shot. There is foreground only in the literal sense that some people are closer to the camera, but because the people in the background as are crisp those in the foreground, the frame feels short and flat, like someone learned how to stage a scene in a theater. Just so you don’t think I’m unfairly knocking filmed versions of theatrical productions, here is a screen capture from something you know I’m inclined to love:

The Doctor and Captain Picard in Hamlet. Brilliant! Marvel at the spectacular set design! Glory in the deftly composed theatrical lighting! Are you done yet? Good. Now look at the shot itself: the spectacular acting and stunning design and artful lighting are all undermined by the manner in which they appear on film. That’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgment of difference. Plays must be filmed at this scale (an extreme long shot here)  because the alternative is that the performance is halted every time an in-frame element or the camera needed adjusting. In which case the play would cease being a play and become a movie. Saying that Tennant and Stewart’s Hamlet looks like a play isn’t an insult, merely an acknowledgment of what it is. But Skyfall is not a play. It’s a film too often shot like one. Even the action scenes:

That’s an establishing shot, so I can forgive Mendes its scale and depth because he needs to indicate the important elements of the scene. Now that we know where the Bond element is in relation to the others we’ll probably cut to a close-up:

The close-up allows the audience to see both the mental focus and physical toll that this chase is having on the Bond element. The establishing shot informs us where he is and the close-up tells us how he’s coping with the chase. Where to next?

A re-establishing shot that’s more extreme than the initial one? The charitable reading of this decision would be that Mendes wants to communicate the confusion rooftop-motorbiking necessarily entails, but such a reading would be pre-undermined by the close-up he just cut from, in which Bond looks like he’s facing down danger with the unperturbed cool with which Bonds face down dangers. The decision to increase the scale from extreme-long to extreme-longer combined with the one to keep the entire frame in focus results in flat shot in which no elements—not even the Bond one—are afforded more significance than any other. Just as the audience of the Tennant Hamlet know they should be paying more attention to Tennant as Hamlet, the audience of Skyfall knows that Bond is most important element in that frame. But thanks to Mendes they can’t see him well enough to care.

Someone seems to have informed Mendes that his propensity for deep shots only makes them seem all the more flat and shallow, but because he’s as talented a director as he is a thinker, he responded to this criticism by overcompensating. The shots in the film that aren’t made shallow by the depth of their focus are deliberately shallow when they need not be, as when Bond home-invades M’s apartment:

Given that M and Bond are the only two people in this shot, there’s no need to add shallow focus to this one-shot to remind the audience who’s important here. It’s gratuitous. The odds of anyone in the audience focusing on a non-central and non-facial element are slim because her face is right in ours and it’s a face. Humans seek out faces. They see them in clouds and oil slicks and burnt toast. Put a face in front of a person and they’ll pay attention. But at least there’s some real depth to this shot: the warm lighting makes her (and Bond in the reverses) appear human, even as the slight shadow on her face makes her look less than entirely trustworthy. But Mendes’s greatest sin may be against the palette. The first shot from the film above is representative of every work-related shot in the film in that it’s tinted blue. Work is tinted blue. Because Bond is blue:

Get the feeling Mendes likes that shot? Me too. Bond is always some shade of blue because work is blue:

But didn’t I just say that Bond was talking to M above? And wasn’t that scene warmly lit? Yes I did and yes it was. Because there was a woman in it. Women change the color of the world, you see, as in that last shot above. Bond is blue, but the woman he’s looking at?

She takes his blues away. Not really, since when the shot reverses it’s to the blue room the blue Bond just vacated, but you see my point. I don’t mind aggressive palettes—I’m a huge fan of Kieslowski’s work—but Mendes’s seems to verge on sexist here. Or they’re just stupid in the Bond-is-blue-without-a-woman-in-life, which still verges on sexist, being that woman are reduced to things-that-make-Bond-not-blue.

Comments (81)

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  1. Peter Hovde says:

    The opening credits and song are fucking awesome, though.

    What is the most blue tinted film ever made? I would go with “Blackhawk Down,” but I’m probably missing something.

  2. Another Halocene Human says:

    I disagree with you about how the shots are set up in Skyfall. My total non-expert attention, but I thought the film was just visually beautiful and for once I felt like I got my money’s worth out of a movie instead of some shittily-filmed, cgi-ed up corporate cccrap, which this movie had every right to be.

    I think your comments about color and sexism are very interesting because I felt like the script of the film was very sexist. M is this total badass but meets her end like that? Where was the ‘Yoda’ moment? I’m sorry, “M as evil mommy” is not enough for me. (I chose to ignore the casual killing of Severine. In a movie full of nods to the 60′s Bond her arc is nowhere near as vile as what happened to 60′s “Bond girls”.) Why does she have to die at the end? Punishment for being “evil, tainted Mommy”? Why? It’s a fucking JOB. Apparently Bond doesn’t deserve to die for doing it. Why M?

    • SEK says:

      I disagree with you about how the shots are set up in Skyfall. My total non-expert attention, but I thought the film was just visually beautiful and for once I felt like I got my money’s worth out of a movie instead of some shittily-filmed, cgi-ed up corporate cccrap, which this movie had every right to be.

      Seeing it in a theater may make a difference, given that my complaint hinges on the fact that objects in the frame aren’t differentiated at a scale where they need to be. If you’re seeing it on a bigger screen, that complaint might not be so compelling.

      Plus, obviously, I’m more than happy to have people disagree with me.

      • Jonathan says:

        I saw it in a theater. The train scene was well filmed, as was the House of Light & Glass scene. There were some nice establishing shots. But everything else, including the action scenes, didn’t do much for me. It’s one of those movies where I would like to pull a few scenes out and add them to a much better movie. Like how that one alien invasion movie with Harvey Dent in it would be so much better if they cut the first 30 minutes of “character development” out of it.

        • The action scenes were strictly dull competence, but that was a remarkable step upward from the “quick, jiggle the handheld some more and people will think they’re watching a Bourne flick” disaster of Quantum of Solace.

          • Timb says:

            QofS was such a better film than Skyfall from a plot and character perspective. This was just silly and where does that guy keep getting all those mercenaries/soldiers/elicopters/perfect uniforms, etc. at least QofS seemed on the verge of possibility

      • KWillow says:

        The distance shots of the opening chase scene made it obvious (to me at at least) that the filmakers had created a neat,tidy and smooth little pathway for Bond to zoom after the villan on. The scene lost its slim credibility when I saw the new-looking, clean, path built on top of the market buildings. Perfect for a motorcycle chase. The movie over all was enjoyable, tho the many plot holes were distracting.

  3. ploeg says:

    The observation that a Bond film can verge on being sexist is, shall we say, surprisingly common.

    • wengler says:

      The sky is blue, the Earth is round etc.

    • SEK says:

      Typically the sexism is in what is being filmed, not so much on the mechanical level of how.

      • Also worth calling out: an early sign of how poorly things are about go to comes when Naomi Harris’ character lampshades for the audience the fact that we’re supposed to feel sympathetic to Lord Voldemortthe new M because he apparently spent most of his career fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland. Granted that critiquing a James Bond film for taking a soft line on English imperialism is only slightly less obvious than critiquing it for treating women shabbily, but still: even the Connery era somehow managed to avoid accidentally ennobling the likes of Reginald Dyer.

        • Timb says:

          Bugle fans unite!

        • ajay says:

          Granted that critiquing a James Bond film for taking a soft line on English imperialism is only slightly less obvious than critiquing it for treating women shabbily, but still: even the Connery era somehow managed to avoid accidentally ennobling the likes of Reginald Dyer.

          The ignorance on display here is… well, actually, not at all surprising. I’m just amazed you spelled “Reginald” correctly.

  4. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    I actually have a softspot for Delillo (though I don’t really disagree about him). Lord, do I dislike American Beauty, though!

  5. DeLillo’s earlier stuff is much better.

    I couldn’t get through Underworld, but End Zone and The Names are awesome.

    • snarkout says:

      I thought “Libra” was fantastic, and “White Noise” is quite funny.

      • Decrease Mather says:

        White Noise is brilliant, the fact that George Will loved it notwithstanding. Will was then asked to review Libra.

        “DeLillo seems to blame America for Lee Harvey Oswald.”

        “I don’t blame America for Oswald, I blame America for George Will.”

        • Mao II doesn’t get enough attention.

          He deals with terrorism in a much more interesting way in that book, and in Running Dog, than in anything he wrote after 9/11.

          • Was about to post just the same thing: DeLillo gets less interesting the most long-winded he gets, but Mao II is a lean and mean slice of brilliance. (And these days, hard to read without feeling footsteps on your grave.)

      • Johnny Sack says:

        I thought White Noise was 66.6% brilliant. I did not care for the last third. But in terms of good writing, I’ve always looked to the first half of that book in terms of writing humor in my dark fiction. I think Pynchon is funnier, but I don’t think I could ever write like him so…DeLillo it is.

    • SEK says:

      I’m actually fond of The Names as well, but that’s also the first of his I read, and since all the other narrators in all his other novels sound alike, well, you see my point. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to like the first Delillo novel you read.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Saying that DeLillo is a bad novelist based on Cosmopolis (which, to be clear, is quite terrible) is like saying that the Stones are a mediocre band based solely on Steel Wheels.

      Underground is definitely uneven, but its best passages (the famous Pafko at the wall sequence, the Bronx childhood) are stunningly good.

      • That opening scene at the turnstiles kept me going a couple hundred pages past the point where I cared.

        Really brilliant.

        • SEK says:

          That link to my original Delillo-hatred noted the Pafko sequence as being stellar … and totally out of character with the rest of the novel. I re-read it in a “Big Books” course with Katherine Hayles a few years later, and it only seemed worse when read alongside Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest.

          • SEK says:

            That said, Scott:

            Saying that DeLillo is a bad novelist based on Cosmopolis (which, to be clear, is quite terrible) is like saying that the Stones are a mediocre band based solely on Steel Wheels.

            The difference between good and bad Delillo isn’t as pronounced as you say here. I think he’s riding on the fumes of the first half of White Noise, because no one would read his earlier or later stuff without Hitler Studies and the most photographed barn in America. Give me Joseph McElroy or Jack Womack any day.

  6. wengler says:

    Skyfall was an enjoyable film, even when it became Batman Home Alone. I do think those wide shots look good, especially the outdoorsy atmospheric ones, and not flat, but they don’t add anything thematically.

    I’m more interested in your take on J.J. Abrams, especially now that he gets to do both Star Trek and Star Wars. I’ve heard him described as someone that can direct great sequences, but couldn’t tell a story to save his life. Looking back at his work, it’s hard for me to disagree with that.

    • SEK says:

      Abrams would take me a while to work out, since on the one hand, Fringe, and on the other, Alias and Lost etc. So give me some time with that one.

    • celticdragonchick says:

      Needs more lens flare. Never enough lens flare in a JJ Abrams movie…although I actually do like that he tries to film in natural light as much as possible.

      In an aside, I would like to get SEK’s take on Beasts of the Southern Wild. The child performer was the best I have seen since The Bicycle Thieves

      • SEK says:

        I haven’t seen it. We tried to set up a “send SEK stuff and he’ll give his take on it” thing awhile back but the logistics baffled us. (And by “us” I mean “we.”) But if you send a link to somewhere I can acquire it on an adjunct’s salary (if you know what I mean) I’m more than happy to comment on, well, pretty much anything. (I even have a Triumph of the Will post in the drafted queue, so I mean anything.)

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed. Alias was fun to watch early on, but then there were all these ridiculous plot twists and story lines that made it unwatchable.

    • Cody says:

      Talking about J.J. Abrams leads me to an ignorant question: How do you separate the Producer from poor writing. I think he does good work, but I think he takes on a lot of shitty projects. Star Wars and Star Trek both seem right up his alley. They have lots of action and technology that fit into the plot.

      With some good writing, they should turn out great! But if you’re in charge of a the 20th season of Alias not a lot to do…

  7. Patrick says:

    I did not like skyfall. The movie starts with James Bond losing an ecnoded disk and then going on a long bender after be gets wounded. Then he comes back, gets a girl who trusted him killed. Then he falls for the bad guy’s plan to bring him back into the heart of London’s MI6 and then takes M to an isolated farm where he defends with only his pistol , an old man and a double barreled shotgun that happened to be left behind; not much of a defense strategy against multiple terrorists sent against him. M gets shot and bleeds out and Bond kills a guy who was about to commit suicide anyway.. Bond lost at every turn.. This movie was supposed to be good because it showed a more “sensitive” Bond.. It was Lifetime movie of the week with bigger explosions. Bring back Sean Connery.

  8. djangermats says:

    I think its jacked up that the movie decides that m was just another bond girl

    Between that and setting up a redemption arc for Moneypenny that the movie never redeems Sky fall def felt like it hated women more than a bond movie typically does.

    • SEK says:

      that m was just another bond girl

      But … but … but … it’s reverse empowerment? I don’t know, it didn’t work for the character, that’s for damn sure.

  9. Domino says:

    Always felt upset Severine’s arc is so short. There wasn’t any reason why her character had to die, especially w/ so much of the film left to go.

  10. djangermats says:

    It was kind of interesting in that its the only bond movie I’ve seen where James bond a. gets shot, and b. loses.

    Aside from that it felt like all the shittier parts of goldeneye

  11. Anonymous says:

    Has there been a movie that has aged as quickly and as poorly as American Beauty?

  12. Domino says:

    Gonna go OT here-

    Scott, for a class I recently watched Blade Runner a couple of times. I was curious if you ever took an in depth look into the film like you have others. Particularly the use of shadow in Deckard’s apartment.

  13. Johnny Sack says:

    Thanks for this. A friend has been absolutely badgering me about watching American Beauty (“I can’t believe you haven’t seen it!! How can you not have seen every film released in the past decade! What do you work or something?”), and when we finally saw it in my place my reaction was: “That’s it?’ Even though I love Spacey.

    And spot on with DeLillo. I found the early part of White Noise really tightly written, but that thing just disappeared up its own asshole of pseudo-profundity.

  14. Rennie says:

    “I’m a huge fan of Kieslowski’s work” – the link is broken.

  15. John says:

    I’m not really good with assessing the visual rhetoric stuff, but I don’t see why the fact that that plastic bag is stupid should be blamed on Mendes. The guy primarily responsible for selling us cheap-pseudo-profundity in American Beauty is Alan Ball, who continued to do this for several years on Six Feet Under (which somehow remains beloved where American Beauty has become largely derided) before deciding he just wanted to make soft-core vampire porn.

    Writers and producers are involved in making movies! Mendes was a first time film director who was hired on by the producers to direct the film. It’s not like he had full discretion to do whatever he wanted to the film, and the script was likely fatally flawed to begin with.

    Maybe the rest of what you criticize Mendes for is totally fair, but I have a hard time with criticizing for bad writing in a film he didn’t write or have full creative control over.

    • Walt says:

      I don’t think this is right. The original ending of the movie had the daughter’s boyfriend get arrested for the murder, but this ending was hated by test audiences, so they tacked on the floating bag sequence.

  16. Major Kong says:

    I rather liked Skyfall. As Bond films go I’d say it’s one of the better ones.

  17. Kurzleg says:

    Deakins was DP on Sky fall, no? What responsibility does he have for the flatness of the visual presentation?

  18. MikeJake says:

    B.R. Myers left a rather memorable deposit on Delillo’s chest in his rant against pretentious prose in literary fiction.

  19. Julia Grey says:

    I have to say I am delighted to see the DeLillo chest deposits. His Underworld was one of the very few books I’ve ever literally thrown. Not only was it relentlessly depressing and ultimately boring as hell, all his characters had the same speech patterns and vocabulary (even though a couple of the supposedly less educated pretended to search for the le mot juste from time to time). I assume they all talked like DeLillo himself. Even the women; all of them were just men in drag.

    And after that brilliant opening chapter, which had nothing to do with anything that followed, really, except that it showcased a spectacular failure, failure and agony and self-hatred and selfishness and random violence and, yes, streets and barges full of garbage apparently being what DeLillo really wanted to talk and talk and talk about…. but I digress… after that graceful opening chapter, he presented us with the hideous masculine cliché of two guys punching each other out and becoming closer friends as a result.

    My everlivin’ gaud. And you thought celebrating the profundity of dancing plastic bags was laughable….

    I should have stopped reading then. I wanted to. But (WHY?) I slogged on through what I remember as several hundred more pages of sheer yawning nastiness and finally flung it at the floor just after the introduction of… wait… was it the random freeway shooter who had fascinated the little girl in the back of the car or the cheerless, godless nun climbing around a trash heap in the Bronx?

    Good riddance.

  20. dporpentine says:

    More DeLillo bashing, please. He really deserves it.

    That isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his virtues as a writer. Sometimes he’s spectacular. But he’s never written one wholly good book. All the ones I’ve read start off remarkably then go quickly downhill: he gets inspired, then he gets the job done.

    Honestly, he makes me yearn for the not-too-distant future, when people stop pretending to care about literary fiction. Though even that might not rid the world of Cormac McCarthy lovers.

  21. TribalistMeathead says:

    And then there was Revolutionary Road, which had all of AB’s hackneyed all-that-glitters-in-suburbia-isn’t-gold nonsense, only without Kevin Spacey chewing the scenery for 90 minutes…

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