Deeper Look at “Skyfall”

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Mark Epstein
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by Mark Epstein

Writing about the latest Bond movie may seem like an exercise in futility to many, but having read many positive reviews in the corporate mass-media and a couple of negative ones in CP (Paul Carline has intelligent and detailed comments about the franchise and the world of intelligence; Peter Lee makes a couple of good points about British history and foreign policy: but in my view both really don’t acknowledge Mendes’, and his scriptwriters’, intent), I decided I would jump into the fray, since the negative comments didn’t seem specific to the latest film directed by Mendes (in fact he was barely even mentioned), and many of the positive ones really didn’t seem to have seen the same movie I saw.

In fact knowing that Mendes was the director was the decisive point that made me go to see the movie, since I thought, and still think, that “American Beauty’ was one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in the last decades.

Below I analyze the movie and try to establish the following points:

-“Skyfall” is not a paean to British patriotism and imperialism

-It is a movie that contrasts encompassing, historical, networked and networking understanding, with blind, mechanical, repetition-compulsion and obedience

-It is a movie that itself requires decoding, decrypting and “human intelligence” in the best sense of the word to be understood

-References to recent episodes in UK “national security,” (over)reactions and escalations are intended to make the viewer(s) ask what should ultimately be on trial

-It is a movie that puts the very foundations of certain aspects of serialized ‘entertainment’ into question, including the most popular ‘hooks’ (and ‘hookers’…) in the Bond franchise..

-Mass-art and mass-culture in very late monopoly capitalism have not infrequently led directors to use forms of Aesopian language. I argue Mendes in “Skyfall” is one important such example

Skyfall” (although some of the information relating to his ancestral home and parents does come from Fleming written material, the symbolic twists given the name, the purpose of the “return home” etc. are all the scriptwriters’ and Mendes’) advertises its difference from other films in the franchise starting with the title itself and continues doing so for the careful viewer throughout the movie… While superficially, phonetically, it might resemble the titles of other flicks in the series, “Thunderball” for instance, semantically it immediately catches your attention. The “sky falling” hardly has very positive connotations in anyone’s cosmology, and in this case as we shall see appears to echo meanings coming from negative apocalypses…

Already in the movie’s opening sequence Mendes is asking the viewer to pay attention: we see an out of focus Bond in a corridor. As we come closer and the shot comes into focus, we transition to a counter-shot of what Bond sees. Corpses and bleeding bodies, violence and destruction in a room: the sort of handy work that is routine in this genre of “spy” “action movie”, in fact part of the “popcorny” repetition compulsion of these genres and the franchise itself.

We soon find out thanks to the soundtrack, that Bond is actually in constant communication with M, and the object of the search is revealed: a hard drive, with, as we will duly find out, an extremely important encrypted file with the names of agents belonging to NATO countries inside “terrorist organizations”. The fact Mendes chose this as the content for the files is itself very important and revelatory. What is the purpose of NATO having double-agents in “terrorist organizations”? How does that relate to so many important events of the last decades, from 9/11 to the London subway bombings, to renditions, to covert uses of Islamic fundamentalist organizations (Al-Qaeda among them) for the destabilization of other countries? Of course the propagandistic/ ‘official’ answer will always be along the lines of: “defense”, “prevention” and “monitoring”. Careful analysis of events, foreign policy and otherwise, from the break-up of Yugoslavia to the destabilizations of Libya and Syria prove otherwise. As I have argued elsewhere these kind of “double-agents” are literally the kind NATO used in programs such as “Gladio” and the “strategia della tensione” in Italy, as ways to destabilize and attempt to foment authoritarian coups there on behalf of the US, UK and NATO.

But one of the most important pieces of information in helping us to try and decode the film, is that while Bond’s instinct is to help the shot and bleeding fellow agent, compressing his wound, M wants him to leave him immediately and engage in pursuit to recover the stolen drive. As we shall see this initial signal and cue as to M’s behavior and modus operandi will be a constant and a central factor in understanding the “commanding officer”, the end of the (in-house, institutional) chain of command of this particular incarnation of MI6. As I shall argue later, we should contrast it with Silva’s almost obsessive preoccupation and interest in the physical well being of others, or the wounds they have been subjected to (something we will find out is probably connected to the torture and physical abuse and destruction he had to suffer as a consequence of M’s betrayal).

As the chase scene develops in the tradition of many Bond and other “action” flicks, Bond finds himself on the roof of a train with the hired killer who has stolen the hard drive, Patrice. The agent who had been with Bond, Eve Moneypenny, has been following the duo, and now has a brief moment in which she could take a shot, but advises M that she does not have a good shot. M once again goes for it, regardless of the consequences for her agents, in this case Bond. Moneypenny misses the shot and hits Bond, who has already been shot previously by Patrice. He falls into a river from hundreds of feet above, we presume he has died… Preparations are made for his funeral, and the bureaucratic wrap-up of his career, M herself writing his obituary (the glimpse we catch is of an extremely brief, and cold couple of sentences…). In the course of the film we will find that, significantly enough, MI6 has sold his flat and the house of his birth in Scotland, yet another significant piece of information about the system MI6 sacrifices its agents to defend…

Mendes invites the viewer to focus on his movie, not as the killer (Bond) but as the decoder (Bond? Perhaps, not likely, this is not Le Carre’..). So while the plot obviously has to fit into the Bond franchise, and has to obey many superficial rules of the “spy” “action” genre, Mendes complies, but only superficially. He is really inviting the viewer to decode the literalized metaphors that are like a “trail of breadcrumbs” throughout the movie, and to connect them to some key revelatory (“apocalyptic”) moments, such as the monologue about islands and rats, a very striking piece of story-telling which is how Silva (Rodriguez) introduces himself to Bond…

So while superficially Silva fulfills all the required plot roles to play the “villain”, even only the colors he is associated with, the colors of his preferred clothing: white, cream, light, as contrasted with those of Bond: dark, gothic, gloomy, aging, symbolically tell the viewer something more is going in this film than “meets the eye” (golden or otherwise…). Silva obviously sounds like “silver” and his hair, cybernetic abilities, close association with hacking and computers, ability to uncover information the government(s) want suppressed, and some physical resemblances have led a number of critics to make a connection with Julian Assange.

During the course of the entire movie, the information provided by Silva turns out to be correct and corroborated (whether about Bond’s “unresolved childhood issues” or about his not having passed any of the examinations which M, ready to sacrifice him one more time for her career, draped by her ego in the colors of the imperial Union Jack, has, true to what we will find her character to be, falsely stated to Gareth Mallory, and Bond himself, he has passed). The same of course, and crucially, is true about his having been betrayed by none other than M herself: he is a former MI6 agent himself, betrayed, tortured and left to rot in prison. He took the (supposedly standard issue) hydrogen cyanide capsule hidden in the fake tooth to commit suicide to escape his predicament (after he has figured out M’s betrayal), only to have yet another MI6 device and caper malfunction, so instead of killing him, it merely destroys his insides (very symbolically of course in terms of his relations to MI6, i.e BOTH the “physical” AND the “inside” part…).

So although “Skyfall” is not the only film in the Bond franchise in which the villain is a former MI6 agent or affiliate, it is certainly the only one in which M herself and MI6 headquarters are the principal targets. This in and of itself should be another significant clue to tell us that this specific Bond movie is NOT about “external enemies”, but it is a reflection on the “organization”, the activities, the goals, etc. themselves… In her attempt at defense and self-exoneration at the inquiry, M states that one no longer knows who the enemies are, since they are part of the hidden world of the “shadows”… In the opening credits (which of course do not open the film…) the graphics show Bond actually shooting at his own shadows, a very significant other clue about the meaning of the film. M in her incompetence and arrogance tries to mystify the inquiry and oversight into her behavior, by talking about the “unknown” nature of these “enemies.” Yet as the film makes quite clear, both literally and metaphorically, the enemies M is fighting and has to fight have been created by her own actions, bad judgments, incompetence, and pig-headed resolve to continue regardless, without ever learning from any of her mistakes (these are M’s and MI6’s own “shadows,” in other words “the enemy is us”…). She leaves the agent in the opening sequence to die, she has Moneypenny take the poor shot which to all intents and purposes would have killed Bond, she decides to let the hacking of the MI6 system continue instead of shutting it down, causing (indirectly) the explosion at MI6 headquarters and the deaths of many more agents. The drive she is trying to recover, has been stolen, and the names of agents revealed, BECAUSE she had betrayed Silva due to “unauthorized hacking”…. Her decision to decrypt the code in Silva’s computer actually allows the ultimate breach of the MI6 system, enabled also by Bond’s “decoding”… Ultimately even her final moments are marked by the utter selfishness that has characterized her life. She refuses to accept Silva’s invitation for her to pull the trigger and kill them both (an undoubtedly more selfless and perceptive, in terms of an understanding of his ‘superficial’ self/role, act than she ever offers), clearly because she is not willing to engage in any real form of self-sacrifice (even though this would of course be the highest…). Instead, immediately after Bond murders Silva, she passes away… highlighting the futility of her self-centeredness in the grand scheme of things…

So “Skyfall” is also in some sense a test of the viewers’ (remaining…) moral code(s). Will they follow the superficial markers of the ‘action’ and the plot, and accept Silva as the ‘villain’ or will they actually judge both M and Silva by what they do, say and accomplish, what their past has been, based on the information we have from the movie…?

“Skyfall” is also about history, time, origins and aging in a way I believe no other films in the franchise are. This is the only movie in which the relationship between M and Bond is explored in such depth and detail, it is the only Bond film in which we learn about Bond’s childhood, and in which we return to his childhood home. It is the only Bond film in which we repeatedly turn to Bond’s signs of aging and physical fragility, a theme raised to another level by the whole issue of his passing the tests, which he hasn’t, and Silva knowing about this (as M is caught in yet another fraud). And of course nothing is more deadly to the ‘action’ flick than meditations about aging… And Mendes is quite clearly undermining this aspect of the genre, as well as the compulsive drives of the audience who watch them, as he proceeds… Even Bond’s abilities in terms of repartee seem to be drastically (intentionally) curtailed and hampered, as in the exchanges with both Silva and Q, and Moneypenny, which could also be interpreted as signs of aging. Clearly the information Silva provides in the film helps the viewer to reconstruct history, to start building a whole picture, a big picture, from fragments, deceptions, etc. Silva’s parable of the island and the rats is perhaps the most important, trenchant, and key of all the story-telling in the movie, in terms of finding our ethical bearings, as opposed to the ‘hooks’ of action-movies superficialities, glitz, booms’, babes, and gadgets… As deuteragonists to Silva, M and Bond are instead bent on erasing history, as M threatens to do to the traces of Silva’s past at MI6, and as Bond so successfully does to the traces of his childhood past and home in the film’s finale. Silva is decoding and putting together a whole, M and Bond are blowing intelligent connections to smithereens, and fetishistically venerating the most kitschy, meaningless, superannuated, evacuated, symbolic junk of ersatz-‘patriotism’ in the land… The following dialogue between Q and Bond on their first meeting at the National Gallery looking at the painting of a warship is also indicative of the theme of time and history, and the different levels of sensibility and awareness (or lack thereof) the protagonists have (I believe the fact that the dialogue centers on the interpretation of a work of art is not casual): [Q] Always makes me feel a bit melancholy. A grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see? [Bond] A bloody big ship. Excuse me. [Bond starts to get up] A telling exchange, where once again Bond is shown as not particularly perceptive, since he obviously was supposed to meet Q. But also because the warship symbolically seems to represent British imperialism, its self-importance, and pre-historical barbarism in terms of both ends and means. Later in the dialogue, time, history, age and competence/efficiency, sense of purpose again come into play:

Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.

James Bond: Your competence is.

Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.

James Bond: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Q: I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.

James Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?

Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.

The line about “efficiency” being of course particularly accurate and telling in the case of this Bond in this movie..

The theme of “going back in time” is quite explicitly a dominant theme for the final part of the movie, after Silva’s first attempt on M’s life at the inquiry. It is also a return that in terms of plot (I believe an intentional decision on Mendes’ part) seems barely plausible. Returning home, using more primitive technology, including the Aston Martin from “Goldfinger”, as well as the weapons and communications (or lack of them) deployed in Bond’s ancestral mansion of “Skyfall”. The line about “leaving a trail of breadcrumbs” also refers to a more primitive, childish, phase of story-telling, fairy tales, though this one is a particularly dark overturning of the genre. As we shall see, “going back in time” also means being aware of one’s cinematic history, and how this knowledge also contributes to the layers of meaning in the movie.

The Multiple Meaning(s) of M

Though the character of M has obviously been a fixture in the franchise, never has decoding very richly layered references to this letter/character been as important as in this movie. Understanding and decoding M is in one sense the most important point of the movie, both in terms of the ‘surface’ plot (Silva’s revenge) and in terms of the viewers’ decryption of the movie and gaining intellectual and moral bearings. The fact that M is a woman obviously works symbolically to Mendes’ advantage in establishing symbolic connections to the ‘supreme’ head of the Empire, Her Majesty, representative of the Monarchy. At a lower institutional level the head of MI6, a central institution in the projection, defense, coordination and projection of Empire.




Even only at the most superficial level of plot, M is the centre of the film, since she is the object of Silva’s vendetta, against her personally, but also against MI6. In addition to the ersatz-Mother component we discover as M and Bond talk about his childhood and recruitment as an orphan into MI6, there is also the very intentionally over-the-top competition for “affection” (or institutional recognition) by M between Silva and Bond (Silva boasts of his being the much better agent early on). Of course the letters’ associations are much much more extensive and deeper in this movie. From Murder (a word association elicited from Bond himself, as well as the somewhat upside down, parodic, reference to Eliot’s “Murder in a Cathedral” when Bond ‘stabs’ Silva in the back in the family chapel), to the director’s own last name Mendes, to the use of graphics sent to M by Silva during his hacking that are an explicit homage to Monty Python, to the Granborough Road tube station being on the Metropolitan line, to the victim of a particularly vicious, atrocious, incredibly incompetent, bungled, thuggish, homicide of a Brazilian citizen by the British “national security” apparatus in the London subway system, which in its turn was covered-up in an enormous number of different ways by different UK agencies, from the removal of surveillance tapes, erasure of computer files, despicable “blame the victim” weasel-maneuvers, etc. after a botched London-subway bombing attempt, where more than legitimate questions remain about who the ultimate ‘organizers’ of this job were, as in the case of 9/11: the victim’s name was Jean Charles de Menezes (a certain assonance with Mendes, as also with Silva’s “real” name, Thiago Rodriguez, in the film), whose father’s name was/is Matosinhos Otoni da Silva. Finally in terms of cinematic history of course there is the reference to Fritz Lang’s classic “M” and “Metropolis” (the underground symbolism).

If we consider how important the underground is both visually and symbolically/metaphorically in “Skyfall” we can also understand how it is not so much the reference to the attempted bombings in the underground that is important, though it is obviously there and relevant, but the underground, or underside, underbelly (“Metropolis” precisely…), of what “official” allegedly transparent government does in “our” name… The many chase scenes in and through the underground are even cinematically and visually much more parallel to the hunting down of de Menezes, than the bombing(s). The fact that Silva disguises himself in a police uniform to escape is yet another ironic twist by Mendes of the facts in the de Menezes case. And the killing of de Menezes with all the lies that followed (on an individual level not dissimilar to the kind of endless deception the UK government engaged in, in collusion with the US, as a pretext for the invasion, assault, pillage, and destruction of Iraq, at the level of “international diplomacy” or “humanitarian imperialism”) is precisely a very blatant example of the kinds of incompetence, bungling, and cover-up the “secret services” routinely engage in and get away with…

The rigged trial that exonerated most of those responsible (Ian Blair’s resignation was a consequence, but there were hardly any legal or institutional repercussions due to the killing or the “shoot-to-kill” policy that there should have been) and gave de Menezes’ family only an (intentionally) insultingly token material compensation for his death, is of course also a subtext of the pseudo-inquiry in the film that centers on M’s performance but is really about more encompassing and higher standards of justice, about the National Security State itself in fact, and the pretexts, lies, corruptions, it is built on and thrives on (in one of the better reviews of the movie, Tom Cutterham, does actually make some critical points about M and the inquiry, and is the only other critic I have seen to mention de Menezes, but he doesn’t follow through (to Silva…):

Another more important subtext to the inquiry itself has to do with some other trials, namely those depicted in Fritz Lang’s “M” (notably a child-murderer, and M’s enthusing about the enlisting of orphans in MI6, and her subsequent serial sacrifice of those same agents, certainly qualifies her for the role of child-murderer, both in the sense of not allowing them any other, ‘normal’, or freely-chosen life, and literally in the sense of leading these never-grown-up children to their death, and these never-grown-up viewers to their ‘moral death’). In Lang’s movie the Monster, M, is finally first captured by the criminal underworld and put on trial by them (let us think of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” and the comparisons between thieves and founders of banks, in terms of the reflections about ethical values their respective authors want to provoke in their respective publics…), a comparison of his “compulsions” and the freely-chosen crimes of the underworld used in his defense, and then later he is again tried by “official” law-enforcement. This reference to Lang’s “M” and its trials, as well as the underground reference to de Menezes, are once again strong invitations by the director to reflect on the ethical issues involved vs. ‘official justice’.

Of course awareness of cinema history is also key to an understanding of this movie. From personnel that Mendes shares with the Coen brothers, and choosing Javier Bardem also seems to be a homage to them and him for “No Country for Old Men” (therefore indirectly, ironically, using this title in the way he uses the topic of history and time, and treats Bond’s aging…), to the connection between the character “M” and the movie by Lang of the same title, this is an important factor in guiding us in our aesthetic and ethical interpretation and appreciation of this film, it sharpens our awareness.

Welles also has an important part in this movie: both “Citizen Kane” (Kane’s mansion) as a model for “Skyfall” (Bond’s home of birth), and the ‘loveless’ protagonists similar reactions in each case (“Rosebud”; when Bond is asked for an association to “Skyfall” by the in-house shrink, first Bond is silent, then he walks away…), “Lady from Shanghai” throughout for the graphics of reflections, mirrors, shadows, most obviously of course in the stalking and fight with Patrice in Shanghai, and finally M’s and others use of the “shadow” analogy, Welles being famous for his radio interpretation of the “Shadow”… When one focuses on this choice of directors and films as Mendes’ references, they do not seem very compatible with a positive homage/picture and glorification of British imperialism, an assessment so many reviews in both the corporate mass-media and the alternative press have found themselves in agreement on. Welles was no friend of corporate moguls or US imperialism, though like Mark Twain he had his own ways of dealing with them artistically, which didn’t necessarily fit into neat, and often stereotypical, ideological and political little boxes. The Coen brothers, though perhaps overestimated in this author’s opinion in the US, are also not the closest friends corporate Amerika has. When you add this to Silva’s comments about targeting multinationals, or spy satellites over Kabul, the overall impression is not one that plausibly seems to fit with a paean to Anglo-American imperialism(s) and war-crimes (Nagasaki included…). Of course one first has to understand that “Skyfall” contains both a ‘surface’ film and a ‘deeper’ film, and that Silva is the key to accessing the latter, understanding that he is only a ‘villain’ in the most superficial respects, but quite the opposite at the deeper levels.

The complexity and multiple layers of M, are part of the “intelligence” game Mendes is playing with the viewers. In other words he is asking them to put their own ethical, intellectual and value-systems into question also in decoding the film, in judging for themselves where the decisions of authority are justified, where not, and simply taken because power is unchecked and unaccountable. The decoding and reconstruction of meaning that both Silva, and ultimately the viewer undertake, are meant in some way to be independent of both the fictional M, character of the Bond franchise, and the real Mendes, director of this specific film in the series. The very thin justification/pretext of luring Silva to a place of confrontation (the “trail of breadcrumbs”) is instead given much deeper, more foundational and plausible meaning if we think of this as a “voyage into the past”, both Bond’s past (an immersion into “country antiques” and a re-Bonding with a servant who somehow has survived there along with the other antiques), the franchise’s past (Scotland/Connery for instance), cinematic history (theatre and opera as ‘antecedent’ forms of cinema, and the films Mendes refers to, from Lang’s to “Apocalypse Now”), and the past of ‘imperial justifications’, of a less hypocritically varnished brutality in the justifications, enforcements, and impositions of authority and Empire.

Islands, Utopias/Dystopias and Rats

Note that in the fiction the island on which Silva lives is off the coast of Macau, but when shooting they thought of the island of Hashima off the coast of Nagasaki. So ‘underneath’ the dystopian island is yet another “horror” produced by the West, in this case the US, which Silva (Rodriguez) has rescued.

In keeping with the symbolic color scheme that contrasts Silva and Bond (and the usual color associations are not to Bond’s advantage…), the island where we first encounter Silva is a faded, or bleached white. Whereas in the movie’s fiction Silva told the inhabitants a story about a disaster to take possession of the island, the fact that for those who made the film it was meant to recall Hashima, is I believe yet another sign the director is giving us that Silva is actually identifying with/standing for the victims of the British Empire’s, and its even more horrific colonial offspring’s, machinations.

Upon first meeting Bond, Silva tells him the most significant story in the entire movie, and one which, because it is seemingly unrelated, most critics and viewers seem to pay no attention to. Since it is a story about islands, and we first encounter Silva on an island (we guess it is off Macau, but we don’t know exactly where…), that alone should make us pay attention. Silva tells a story of an island, small, an almost paradise we can guess, that was invaded by rats. Here is the original dialogue:

Silva: Hello, James. Welcome! Do you like the island?

[Bond doesn’t answer, Silva starts walking slowly towards Bond]

Silva: My grandmother had an island. Nothing to boast of, you could walk along it in an hour. But still it was…it was a paradise for us. One summer, we went for a visit and discovered the place had been infested with rats. They’d come on a fishing boat and gorged themselves on coconut. So how do you get rats off an island? Hmm? My grandmother showed me. We buried an oil drum and hinged the lid. Then we wired coconut to the lid’s base and the rats would come for the coconut and…boing, boing, boing, they would fall into the drum. And after a month you’ve trapped all the rats. But what did you do then? Throw the drum into the ocean? Burn it? No? You just leave it. And they became to get hungry. And one by one, they start eating each other, until there are only two left. The two survivors. And then what? Do you kill them? No. You take them and release them into the trees. But now they don’t eat coconut anymore. Now they only eat rat. You have changed their nature.

[Silva is now standing in front of Bond]

Silva: The two survivors, this is what she made us.

James Bond: I made my own choices.

Silva: Hmm. You think you did. That’s her genius.

James Bond: Station H. Am I right? Hong Kong?

Silva: Um-hmm. ’86 to ’97. Back then, I was her favorite. And you’re not nearly the agent I was, I can tell you that.

So the story is not only one of the transformation of utopia into dystopia, it is also one of how living things are conditioned to behave in a certain way by more powerful ones. In fact Silva then will once more underscore the analogy of the two of them in relation to M as rats. But as a wider analogy to social systems (which is after all what the genre of utopias and dystopias ultimately deals with) the competition of rats (the “rat-race”) seems a fairly clear allusion to capitalism, as is the behavioral conditioning to the system (advertisement, consumption, etc., fratricidal competition), both in the micro (MI6) and the macro (the economy of which even the consumption of movies in the Bond franchise is a part). Where M and Bond, and most members of MI6 interact with one another on the basis of bureaucratic, banal, and cold rules (think of M’s ‘welcoming’ of Bond, ‘returned from the dead,’ when she discovers him in her apartment), Silva, perhaps almost as a form of traumatic, pathological, compensation, takes an excessive interest in the wounds and well-being of others: Bond and M. Following the superficial ‘villain’ interpretation, this is just part of his psycho-pathology and ‘depravity,’; on a deeper and interconnected interpretation, it could instead be seen as an almost expressionistic highlighting of the need for human love by Mendes, something almost entirely excluded in an ethical and human sense from most action-movies, a need Silva, the victim of torture and bodily devastation, can only express in this distorted fashion. A need for love however that Silva recognizes, but that Bond, in destroying Skyfall and the traces of his own personal history, goes one step further than Kane down the road to self-blindness to avoid acknowledging.

One should note that this analogy of the rats is continued later in the film: first of all when Bond is taken to the underground “new” quarters of MI6, which used to be also, significantly enough, Churchill’s, Bond is told that the area is also “infested with rats”, which given Silva’s story we might now interpret somewhat differently. And of course after killing Silva by stabbing him in the back in the chapel/church/cathedral (Eliot, “Murder in a Cathedral”, Silva even remarking on the ‘appropriateness’ of the setting, and in the context of a ‘return to origins’ finale that is marked by an almost over the top, quasi-operatic, theatricality), Bond actually adopts Silva’s analogy and story as his own saying he is “the last rat standing”, not really comprehending how the irony of his adopting the simile is completely on him.

But the fall from ‘Eden’ (Eve Moneypenny), from utopia to dystopia, is also a temporal one, it coincides with the recognition of time and history, something neither Bond or M seem very capable of. That is why Silva is the only one who actually tells a story. And to emphasize the point he is making, once again comparing his own locale to Bond’s (symbolic/metaphorical) situation, he tells him how he is also living “in a ruin” without realizing it, in his devotion to “England. The Empire. MI6. You’re living in a ruin, as well. You just don’t know it yet. At least here there are no old ladies giving orders, and no little gadgets from those fools in Q branch.” (and of course “Mommy” “M”…). Silva is at another level of comprehension and access to the story that is the film, and he is the character who constantly also points out, or makes evident, the literalized metaphors (such as the ruins) to the viewer. Silva is only too aware of his historical context and the passing of time, and the changes it entails. For Bond and M time and history are simply quantitative, “the passing of…”, and therefore what they cannot understand and come to grips with well… they destroy… Bond is once again shown as the mechanical embodiment of “repetition-compulsion”, someone who never learns from his mistakes or his experiences… And in fact M especially (basically exclusively…), but also Bond just proceed from one mistake to the next…

But Mendes’ focus on islands as utopia/dystopias if of course also yet another way to subvert the Bond franchise: in most of the Bond flicks many beginnings, middles and ends involve Bond cavorting with some gorgeous scantily clad babe on a tropical island, in a manner that has become almost indistinguishable by now from the more explicit travel advertisements and commercials. In this Bond film there is no gorgeous tropical island and gorgeous babe except for the very brief period after Bond’s “resurrection” where he is drinking himself into oblivion and being macho with scorpions… But it is a very brief sequence, not very colorful, and the babe hardly appears at all…

As a contrast we are then brought back to the gothic darkness of another island, England itself, and its imperial hubris… And later to Silva’s meditations on islands and ruins. So both the cinematic, ideological, and commercial foundation of one of the iconic cheap Bond thrills is completely undermined…

It should also be noted that it was Silva who rescued Severine from the Macau “sex-trade” only to be betrayed by her as well, whereas it is Bond who knowing that she came from the sex-trade steals into the shower to have sex with her (again: what does that say about Bond?)…?

The Alleged Patriotism

The Churchillian kitsch ceramic bulldog, quoting Tennyson, the flags waving on the rooftops… All just so much aesthetic camp, especially for a director with as keen a sense of the aesthetic as Mendes. For M to quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is not only to dredge up rhetorical garbage, but is quite obviously so since she had no time for her allegedly literary husband, and also since there are few figures so little like Ulysses in experience, world-travel and daring as M… The Churchillian bulldog at the more superficial level of the movie obviously relates to Bond’s love/(hate) relation to his job and institution. The ‘hate’ being mostly of the variety the mass-audience identifies with: not wanting to go to work, hating the boss’s unjustified impositions, etc. etc. On the one hand he hates this bulldog, rightly seeing it as M’s pretentious kitsch, on the other, at a deeper level, like that of the “rats”, we are meant to see he is also a “dog”, in his mechanical, unquestioning, obeisance of authority… In fact in one of the usual Bond sexual moments, Eve Moneypenny tells him that is a way of “teaching an old dog new tricks”.

The choice of this poem by Mendes is quite brilliant, because on the one hand it shows up the shallowness of the bank of memorized cliches’ that constitute “M”’s culture, while on the other the poem itself is extremely rich in references to the literary (and mythical) tradition of the West and Empire, with some of the canonical heavyweights par excellence, Homer and Dante. Not only but Ulysses is a key figure of imperial, and ‘adventure’ mythology, and the Odyssey is recognized in this manner even by cultural critics like Adorno and Horkheimer.

The poem itself is the subject of significant differences in interpretation and critical appraisal. On the one hand there are those who underscore it was written at a time when Tennyson lost a dear friend, and that Ulysses is meant to be shown in a positive light. Others instead emphasize the connection to the figure of Ulysses in Dante’s “Inferno”, where he is being held for aspiring to ‘excessive’ knowledge. Mendes’ use of the specific quote he has M mouth at the hearing of course highlights the contradictions and differences. M’s quote is one that was part of the “learn by heart”, almost clichéd passages that were part of scholastic literary ‘knowledge’ in the UK. And it emphasizes values of endurance, being stoic, a certain rather unquestioning obeisance, etc. These are values that M almost self-hypnotically employs in her self-assessments, rationalizations and self-justifications, not only to herself, but also to the world. Of course the other side of the Tennyson poem, the much broader, deeper, more contested and problematic one, is that of ‘knowledge’, the degree to which it can be “excessive” and the uses to which it is put. This is of course also a way in which Mendes very cleverly plays on the multiple ironies, conundrums and responsibilities of “human intelligence” (cf. the section below). And who is using “intelligence” to “excess”? Silva or MI6? How is this connected to our political, ethical and intellectual responsibilities and the quest for truth?

In addition the film itself is like a series of “Chinese box” traps, “rat-traps” for the reader (cf. Agatha Christie’s theatrical play “The Mousetrap”, with its complex conditions of (non)reproduction related to the literary on the one hand and the cinematic on the other, whose title had to be changed to accommodate a previous playwright, the new title referring to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, its’ own play-within-a-play, whose purpose is to … capture the conscience of… a king, not the audience…; this allusion in turn brings reflections about “longest running series” to the fore, and the artistic, aesthetic, moral issues that are bound up with ‘serialism’; finally the plot of the play AGAIN revolves around the DEATH OF A BOY, this time in foster care…), where the superficial interpretation is rapidly enclosed by layers of more encompassing “big picture” ones. These “Chinese boxes” are there at the superficial level of the plot in the ‘surface’ movie (the fact that Silva has planned his capture by MI6 all along, and correctly calculated/anticipated M’s and MI6’s reactions in every instance, leading to the sequence of “who has captured whom” for the viewer from Silva’s capture on the island, to his escape into the subterranean labyrinths of London’s tube), but also and especially at the movie’s ‘deeper level’, where the viewers must constantly resolve which frame(s) of the ‘bigger picture’ are those most important for moral, social and political judgment. So the moral compass (or lack thereof) of the viewer who identifies with Bond, is ultimately shown as being a profoundly immoral and amoral one by the ever more inclusive big picture provided by Silva’ s information and references… Analysis of “Enlightenment”, myth and its projection of a will to dominate…

The Brain and the Body

In another sense the film’s reflective nature is also a reflection on the mind/body dualism, and which of these two film(s) engage the most. Here Silva represents the brain, reflection, reconstruction of meaning, time, history, whereas Bond represents the (aging, ever more degraded, (ab)used) body.

Following the terms used in the movie, Silva represents the most central meaning of “Skyfall”, as revelation, piecing together of history and meaning. Twice Silva could have killed M and hesitates. At the surface level of the film and plot one could think these hesitations are part of the almost cliché of the ‘villain’ relishing his kill. At the deeper level of the movie both hesitations I would argue can be seen as invitations to the viewer to reflect on the relation between Silva and M, especially of course in the case of the second, and fatal (to Silva) hesitation. This is an extremely theatrical moment, that as in many other moments that are basically parodic of Christian ritual, reverses the “mother and child” iconography, having one child holding the mother and inviting her to a murder/suicide or ‘double-suicide’ and ultimately her other ‘child’ committing murder in a sacred place, in his family’s chapel… So while superficially “Skyfall” is associated with Bond and his birthplace, and also the continuous “falls” and “resurrections” in the movie, his “falls” in actuality are debased to the level of ‘water-falls’, a very cold blue, very far removed from the celestial, but very close to the ocean surrounding the Empire, and the color of Bond’s eyes… The Bond franchise propagandizes “sky” but ultimately delivers particularly cold and chilling imperial oceans (those of gunboat diplomacy and ‘sanctions”…), while Silva delivers the “fall”… into really HUMAN intelligence…

In the course of the movie’s dialogue Bond in fact confirms to Silva (also a very blasphemous and parodic moment) that his purpose is indeed “resurrection”… As we can see a “resurrection” reduced to bodily recovery and Bond’s endless repetition-compulsion.

Silva’s gentle but insistent mockery of Bond’s “running around”, the intentional representation of Bond’s very mechanical, puppet-like, running during the chases in London, all the different ways his aging, valuing, and (ab)using of his body are represented, are numerous ways in which Mendes emphasizes the opposition between the two agents. M in her turn really is a personification of ‘authority’ as bureaucracy, mindless imperatives, she is certainly not an alternate ‘brain’ for Bond’s body, but instead a behavioral conditioning mechanism.

Even the respective locales associated with Silva and Bond are contrasted not only along the usual color lines (light/Silva, dark/Bond), but also according to the brain vs. body opposition: Silva’s island of routers and ruins, vs. Bond’s gothic mansion of hunting prowess, death, etc.

Bond’s saying his aim is “Resurrection” apart from being intentionally blasphemous, also reduces a religious symbolism, to the most degraded, mechanical, endless, ‘reproduction’ of the ‘fall’ and ‘resurrection’ of character/hero in fictional series. Bond is constantly “resurrected’ because the franchise must continue and make a profit, not because he has even the vaguest ‘inner’ motive to explain the NEED of this ‘resurrection’, one that he could persuasively offer the public. He is in fact, as his ‘lost childhood’ after the 2 days hiding in the secret passage in the family mansion lets us know, no longer a child, but not a responsible adult either really. Simply a programmed (rather psychopathic) killer/consumer/’seducer’ (the connection to MI6’s programming him as an orphan could also be seen as an indirect homage to the films in the “Bourne” series), and in each area, Mendes has managed to underscore the drab mechanical nature of his repetition compulsion and “success”…

His relation with Severine is manipulative, part of his mechanical, serial, bodily, sexuality (in which he is probably even more prostituted than she…), and the same goes for his serial killing, or being an ‘authorized’ serial-killer (cf. Bardem “No Country for Old Men”), an act which more than any other emphasizes the bodily nature of human life, if only as a foundation. The serial and calculated nature of this killing is emphasized in Shanghai, where Bond has been trailing Patrice, and while waiting for him to enter the skyscraper, starts fondling his very personal (fingerprint coded ‘authorization’ for shooting…, couldn’t get more bodily, personalized and ‘individual’ than that…) Walther PPK handgun. And while he is fondling it, Patrice just kills the security guard/doorman in cold blood, to access the elevators… Mendes is dwelling on this: Bond vs. Patrice, a distinction without much difference, and also a difference without distinction…

Of course the mass-audience’s (average) expectations for these mass-culture products, especially in the ‘action’ genre, is complicit in this fetishism of the ‘body’. So here too it is complicit when it laps up the sections dedicated to Bond’s ‘bodily performances’ if/when it does not understand the irony and distance with which they are treated. An example of this directorial irony at its most explicit might be the musical score that accompanies both ‘helicopter’ scenes, that of Bond on the dystopian island, ultimately being aided in grand style by the UK’s fleet of helicopters, or Silva’s grand entrance at Skyfall itself. In both cases we have a score where songs chorally intone the word “Boum” (Charles Trenet, French) or “Boom Boom” (The Animals/John Lee Hooker, UK/USA), the latter rock and roll from loudspeakers in Silva’s helicopter, which could be seen as a parody of psychological warfare ‘in reverse’… Also perhaps an echo of scenes from “Apocalypse Now” (think of what I wrote earlier about “Skyfall” ‘s many ‘negative apocalypses’…).

The Play on “Human Intelligence”: Viewers Decoding and Moral Codes

Mendes’ also plays covertly (pun intended…) with the theme of “human intelligence”. Both the jokes about its being an oxymoron when referred to governmental intelligence agencies, but also referring to the debate about the relation between “human” and “technological” intelligence, and last but not least taking the viewer back to the root meanings and problems associated with the phrase: i.e. “intelligence,” real or imagined, about what and for what, ‘intelligent’ (i.e. understanding, compassionate, inclusive) or ‘shrewd, smart’ (i.e. manipulative, instrumental, calculating, cold)? The other term in the phrase is obviously key in understanding and ‘qualifying’ these kinds of ‘intelligence’. Is it intelligence for human and ‘humane’ purposes, or is it intelligence for personal, institutional, national domination, for self-promotion, and the subjugation of others?

I believe this theme is therefore closely connected to that of Silva (brain) vs. Bond (body) and the ways they think of their ‘intelligence’ work, and the manners in which the ‘human’ employs the ‘technological’. The fact is Silva in his ‘decoding’ activities is pursuing the truth as one of his values, where Bond really seems pretty indifferent to it. Silva masters new technologies to this end, Bond is actually rather dismissive of them, and in the ending actually in some sense is proud of the “old” technologies of death, harm and destruction, but precisely because that is probably the major, if not the only, purpose he associates with them. Very tribal, violent, vindictive and primitive purposes, where Silva uses and sees those also, but limiting them to his (justified) revenge against M’s and MI6’s betrayal of him.

Ultimately of course the ‘play’ and reflection on the meanings of “human intelligence” and what its decoding brings to the viewers/spectators, and the consequences of the implication(s) of knowledge and ethics, is what Mendes is actually hoping the film will provoke/achieve….

Mass-art, Mass-culture and ‘Aesopian Language’

The constraints of being an ‘artist’ or a ‘producer’ (in the creative sense, not the technical or commercial one) within the domains of mass-culture are many. One of the most important is of course the constraints placed on the artist(s) by the companies that fund or commission a product or series. One of the other important ones is the negotiation that occurs between the message the artist would want to convey, and the expectations, desires, sometimes emotional, psychological, ‘entertainment’, ideological ‘needs’ of the ‘average member(s)’ of this mass-audience.

Normally forms of ‘Aesopian language’ have been associated with more or less overtly authoritarian or totalitarian societies. It is interesting that in the last several decades in what many still consider (‘advanced’ Western) ‘parliamentary democracies’ (characterized by electoral representational mechanisms and bodies, rather than by democracy), a number of celebrated products of mass-culture, and their authors, have evolved various forms of ‘Aesopian language’. I would argue that two of the most celebrated series of the last several decades in the US, namely “The Simpsons” and “The Sopranos” (I believe not entirely unrelated to one another either, as the titles themselves might hint…), and their creators, Matt Groening and David Chase, have evolved various forms of Aesopian language. This is more obvious even graphically and aesthetically in the case of “The Simpsons” where animation allows for even greater “creative control” than in more traditional film and TV fiction. This Aesopian language is connected to the complexity and layering of meaning in these series. “The Simpsons” is also an encyclopedia (mostly or often parodic) of US popular culture, but also uses the complexity of graphic, ‘intertextual’ (or cross-reference, inter-episode) allusion, and references to current events to create ever deeper and more complex layers of meaning.

One very good example is an episode in the series where oil is discovered on the grounds of the Springfield high-school (“Who Shot Mr. Burns (Part One)”, originally aired May 21, 1995; the Iraqi accusation dated from 1990). As the perfect monopolist and raider that he is, Mr. Burns, who owns the nuclear power-plant, desperately wants get his hands on the oil as well. But the high-school’s principal, the redoubtable Mr. Skinner, refuses. To get his way regardless of the legal niceties, Mr. Burns decides to resort to slant oil-drilling equipment. Many readers may not remember, but this episode was produced not long after the first Gulf War, where the pretext for Western intervention had been Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. What most readers even at the time did not know, because it was never reported in the mainstream corporate mass-media, was that in reality Kuwait had used slant oil-drilling equipment close to its border with Iraq, to actually tap in to IRAQI oil-reserves, and essentially steal them from underground (the fallback Western position now is that this may not be true, it was an Iraqi pretext for war, etc.). This very real “casus belli” was of course never mentioned, because it would have shown the considerable justification that existed for Iraqi retaliation. Instead the good old imperial and totalitarian mass-media manipulated/fashioned fake stories of babies dying in incubators, fabricated to demonize the Saddam regime (those who are old enough may remember the old anti-communist, I believe Nazi-originated, propaganda, that communists ate babies…) were dutifully trotted out. So Groening’s reference is a complex, and Aesopian reference to then current manipulations of Empire.

David Chase, in a rather interesting interview he gave to Peter Bogdanovich (part of the extra material released for the “Sopranos” first series), whose (Bogdanovich’s) occasional role in the series, is, significantly, the analyst’s analyst, responding to the rather uninformed, uncomprehending (ultimately based on forms of internalization of the dominant WASP culture by elite segments of the “Italian-American” community) criticisms of his series, reveals how in reality his intention was to make it an allegory of the realities of US life and power, in other words those features we associate with the behavior of the Empire globally. In this case (as with the analyst’s analyst) the key to the “Aesopian language” is actually revealed, but only in this interview. So many viewers who have not watched this interview, are often completely blind to this layer of Chase’s Aesopian language in the series. A confirmation of his intent is given in the only episode that takes place in Italy (Naples, “Commendatori”), the only episode I believe where Chase himself has a cameo role at a café; reference is then made to the 1998 Cavalese cable-car massacre (“Strage del Cermis”) where US airmen massacred 20 civilians in northern Italy, while on a “training mission” in their plane, resulting in the severing of the cable-car’s wires, leading to the death of most of the passengers (20) inside (true to the US “justice” system, of course the US prevented an Italian prosecution of the guilty parties, who instead faced “US military justice” (an oxymoron if ever there was one….), which of course meant they essentially got off scot-free…).

In these cases creators of extremely successful mass-culture series have actually included a series of meanings in their works which clearly undermine or go against the perceived values and marketing strategies of the major players and financers in the production of the series themselves.

Hence the peculiar form of allegorical Aesopian language(s) that results… Knowledge of these other layers, then of course in its turn can both enrich and change our perception of the more ‘superficial’ or obvious layers, such as Homer Simpson’s food mania, or Tony Soprano’s relations with his family and associates…

I believe that it is in the context of this tradition of complex layering of meanings and Aesopian language in our superficially ‘democratic’ societies, that one has to understand the layers of “Skyfall”, and the almost inverted relation (in terms of structures of meaning) that exists between the ‘surface’ layer, that relates (and integrates…) to the Bond franchise, and the ‘deep’ layer that instead lies much closer to ‘authorial intent’: in this case the relation Silva – Sam Mendes, or the self-irony in the many meanings of “M” in Mendes’ view of the “boss”…

Declining Bond: Bond Unbound, Bond and the Pond, Your Word is Your Bond, (re)Bonding, Bonded, The Empire Bonds Back, Bondage

Ultimately the Bond franchise, as is the case with many corporate mass-art or mass-entertainment products and series, is intended to keep its mass-audience in bondage, rather than engaged in a form of dialogue predicated on and ending in, critical appreciation. It is these serial ‘hooks’ , including the ideological ones, that most principled critics, including those I believe misunderstood both Mendes and “Skyfall,”, object(ed) to…

Mendes, who initially was not inclined to accept the invitation to direct the feature, has instead taken it to another level, turned it upside down, and fairly thoroughly undermined it… Though layered and complex works like these, including those in series that resort to Aesopian language I discussed above, often pay a heavy price with mass-consumers in terms of both the degree of accessibility/comprehensibility for individual spectators, and hence also in the number of layers and nuances these spectators have access to, they do demonstrate that one form of critical art is possible even within mass-art. These are products whose intent is ultimately to both liberate and constitute a foundation for the viewers’ greater critical independence.

The counter-example to “Skyfall” in terms of relations to Anglo-American audiences, and action-movie genres, especially as they relate to Empire(s), is Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”. An enslaving movie, whose result (whatever the degree of authorial intent in arriving at it…) is blunting and blinding the mass-audience’s often already very minimal aesthetic, moral, political, social and intellectual capabilities even further, delivering them into an imperial bondage that (certain powers-that-be would certainly wish this were a permanent condition…) they are unaware of. Pseudo-feminist macho “bonding” that ultimately results in their being delivered bonded into perennial dronedom and drudgery…

The aesthetic, intellectual and moral work of ‘decoding,’ revealing, uncovering by the viewers is something that Mendes not only invites but basically requires, whereas in the case of Bigelow the quasi-documentary form, and the “immersion” in the action (the ultimate form(s) of being “embedded”…), the faux-complexity of the ‘pragma’ of the present, the more viewers feel exempted from any form of critical distance, the better…

Ultimately in this critic’s view the difference between “Skyfall” and “Zero Dark Thirty” is that between art and propaganda…

Mark Epstein can be reached at:


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