There’s something uneven about the new James Bond movie, Skyfall, though not in a bad way, and I think it has to do with the juxtaposition of luxury and austerity. Near the start of the movie, when 007 has dropped out of sight, he’s shown boozing at a low-rent beach bar. Near the end, when he needs to make a final stand, he retreats to a derelict stone manor glowering over the starkest of Scottish countrysides. So the story is bracketed by evidence of Bond’s ultimate need for little or nothing. Yet in between our eyes are treated, of course, to the usual black ties and backless dresses, luxury yachts and elite suites.
Over-the-top indulgence was firmly established as Bond’s natural mode back in the Cold War heyday of the spy fantasy. It always appeared cheerfully escapist. But there was something telling about the decadence. In a recent New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews historian Anne Applebaum’s new book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, and observes that in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the top Soviet apparatchiks genuinely anticipated a world revolution to ensue as the capitalist economies decayed. “The rapid recovery of Western Europe after the war,” Menand writes, “the fact that the American economy did not collapse, and the general prosperity of the non-socialist developed world was a scandal to this world view.”
As a result, arguably the key propaganda goal on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain was to keep out, as much as possible, images of all those consumer goods readily available in the West. Thus, the Cold War contrast wasn’t only (or even mainly) about democracy vs. dictatorship; it was about plenty vs. privation. So in a Cold War movie, what could make more sense than showing the champion of our way really living it up? Nowadays, however, it’s hard to see what point is being made by all that absudly conspicuous consumption. I think that might be why the 2012 Bond is suddenly, soulfully able to show an almost ascetic streak.
Where are rivals to be found for the West that Bond still dons his tux to defend? Maybe Shanghai or Dubai, unless we regard these as new capitals of a globalized western economy. No shortage of excess in those places. In Skyfall, the villain is a post-national digital psychopath; the appeal of high thread-counts and chiming stemware might be lost on him. It’s still fun to watch Daniel Craig gliding through one deluxe interior after another. But what was once a cultural competitive imperative to show off our most expensive stuff has been replaced by mere product placement. Expect Bond’s new spare side to keep showing through.