From Quantum of Solace to Sherlock Holmes

The novels of Ian Fleming have been around for a very long time. James Bond has been given life in so many forms and with so many different actors that is might be fair to suggest that the films (and Fleming’s novels) are among a small number of foundational stories that say a great deal about our culture and values. I will not dwell on this point. Suffice to say, that my viewing of Quantum of Solace, the latest Bond was profoundly influenced by what I have just said. The key metaphor that I want to draw from the film is the balance between fallibility and infallibility that is at the heart of Bond’s attraction as a hero. In an era characterized by the never-ending presence of terrorism, war and violence against innocent civilians, there were two moments in this film that said more to me than the entire film itself. The first came after an endless chase between Bond and a villain which led both men into an open-air arena with thousands of people attending a horse race. The villain fires his gun at Bond and hits a civilian. The film pauses for a backward glance and then returns to the chase.

This raises some important questions. We witness the injured woman falling and so the film feels morally inclined to show the effects of the villain’s violence and ineptitude. But, should Bond not have stopped to help her out? Aren’t heros supposed to be capable of engineering a good outcome to everything that they do? Is the new Bond of the last few films and especially this one really a tragic hero? And, is the death of a civilian merely one part of that tragedy? The answer to these questions can be found in the ways in which justice is defined not only within the film, but within our culture as a whole. In Bond’s world (and among many contemporary movies), the roots of evil are always encapsulated within a broader context of conspiracies driven by megalomania, the desire for absolute power and greed. The overarching goal therefore has to be to destroy the source of evil even if the innocent have to suffer. The villain is more important than the injured woman and what would otherwise be a moral conundrum becomes a passing moment in an endless battle.

The second characteristic of the film that is of interest to me is the way in which Bond escapes all injury during a series of spectacular encounters between himself and the seemingly endless world of evil. Every form of transportation is used to highlight his superhuman abilities and most of his encounters mirror previous challenges in previous films. The film tries to create a sense of potential weakness in his abilities and in the confidence that his boss “M” has in his character. This is all a charade of course, because he would not be Bond if he did not triumph. The ebb and flow between his weaknesses and his strengths opens up a small window for some discussion of the ethics of his violence but this too is no more than a plot vehicle. In the end, Bond triumphs notwithstanding his own lack of a moral framework for his actions.

This is of course the central challenge of the war on terror, itself a metaphorically terrifying and deeply contingent way of solving issues of far greater complexity than the term ‘war’ suggests. So, it was not a surprise to me to recognize that the new Sherlock Holmes film was really a meditation on absolute power, fear of new technologies and on the role of magic and religion in determining people’s actions. Yet again, Sherlock played by Robert Downey seems to evade every form of violence directed his way. He transcends, as in the comic books, every challenge he faces including a series of dockside explosions that throw him all over the place. So, although the war on terror is very much about our general fragility and vulnerability, we have new and recycled heros who are able to withstand whatever is thrown at them. The irony is that the moral centre that is needed to progressively engage with violence has shifted as terrorists have targeted more and more civilians through their most powerful weapon, suicide bombing. Very few contemporary films deal with this issue nor do they explore the issues of inflicting pain on suspects or perpetrators. Torture is present in both films but without much fanfare and even less concern for its implications. The reality is that for better or worse, the moral fibre of contemporary culture is being challenged by events that seem even less rational (if that is possible) than just a few years ago. The challenge is how to bring this theme into the foreground of popular forms of storytelling.

Learning from Popular Culture (1)

Steven Johnson's new book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter popularizes an argument that has been at the core of debates in communications and cultural theory for over thirty years. The argument is that analyses of popular culture cannot be reduced to a simple and uni-dimensional approach. For the most part, the analysis of video games, for example, has focused on their negative effects upon children. There may be some validity to suggestions that young children are not able to discriminate with enough acuity to explore the differences between real life and gameplay. The counter argument is that a great deal of what we describe as play among children is filled with violence and aggressive behaviour. In general, and Johnson makes the same mistake, it is difficult to come to conclusions about the impact of the media both on children and adults.

It would take a long and detailed empirical study not of the behaviour of individuals, but of their reactions to the experiences of engaging with popular cultural artifacts. Note the two words, reactions and experiences. How long does it take you to articulate your reactions to a television show or to a film? Furthermore, which part of your discourse reveals the truths about what you are saying? The complexities of analysis and reflection surrounding these issues are rarely dealt with in the popular media. Rather, in a lovely irony, the popular media generally trash their own activities pointing to the dangers and never analysing the audiences they make claims about other than through the most primitive of survey tools. I would argue that we know very little about the impact of the media and popular culture and I therefore welcome Johnson's intervention in the debate. As with any analysis, it would take more than a simple set of generalized assumptions to really investigate what happens when viewers engage with various aspects of popular culture. In any case, popular culture is not a monolith. There are as many counter-arguments as there are arguments about its value and relationship to everyday life.