Hasslein Blog: Titles... Bond Titles, Part Three—Featuring Guest Blogger Ed Erdelac


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Titles... Bond Titles, Part Three—Featuring Guest Blogger Ed Erdelac

We present the third and final part of novelist Ed Erdelac's three-part retrospective about the James Bond films' opening title sequences. Be sure also to check out Parts One, and Two if you haven't already done so. I'd like to offer my thanks to Ed for taking the time to write these insightful articles. As a lifelong Bond fan myself, I have always appreciated the opening title sequences, and Ed has done a wonderful job of describing what makes each one a hit or miss. I find that I agree with pretty much everything he has written. —Rich Handley

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The James Bond Title Sequences as a Genre of Short Film
Part Three: From GoldenEye to Skyfall

by Ed Erdelac

My review of the James Bond title sequences concludes with the modern era, starting with Pierce Brosnan and ending with the current 007, Daniel Craig.

You know their name.

The modern era starts off with an immense bang—literally. This is the first Bond movie I ever sat through, and maybe I'm biased, but I think it has the coolest, most interesting opening title sequence since Goldfinger (I won't even go into my obsession with the classic N64 video game), and it's certainly the best of the Brosnan run. Much had happened in the real world since we last saw Bond in action. The Cold War had officially ended, and in 1995, there was much debate about whether the character could remain relevant in a post-Soviet world with no superpower left against which to match his wits and considerable hardware. Daniel Kleinman, who directed the music video for Gladys Knight's License to Kill opening credits, took the reins from the late Maurice Binder and brought modern techniques, as well as a thoughtful aesthetic, to his title sequences—something that had been lacking in recent presentations. To change things up, the sequence opens with the audience staring down the business end of Bond's Walther PPK, the camera following the bullet's progression as it spins blazing down the barrel. As the muzzle flash curls in slow motion, the classic half-lit dancing, sensuous Bond girls appear positioned on a reflective surface (along with Tina Turner's opening lyric, "see reflections on the water"), and a silhouetted Bond fires at a woman's face, causing her to briefly exhale flame. Soviet-era iconography begins tumbling down the screen, with immense sickles, stars and hammers crashing down in a virtual graveyard of Lenin and Stalin statues (directly referring to a scene in the movie, as did many of the classic-era Bond sequences) atop which the women undulate suggestively. A two-faced woman is shown, representing the Greek god Janus (also the criminal nom de plume of the film's double-agent, Alec Trevelyan), a firing pistol barrel projecting from her lips at one point. Nude women sway on the barrels of ascending pistols and—in an acknowledgement of the film's most daring attempt to bring the outdated Bond into the modern era with the inspired casting of Dame Judi Dench as M—an immense woman's high heel comes slamming down, as though putting an end to "all of that misogynist nonsense," and the female figures heft sledgehammers and attack the Soviet statues. I've also got to talk about Tina Turner's brilliant, sexy title song, written by U2's Bono. It recalls the classic Bond theme in its refrains, and reinforces the empowered female ideal being put forth in the credits with its strong, commanding vocals—and, of course, the selection of Turner herself as the artist, a woman with a heroic history of taking back the reins of her own life from a domineering man. Overall, it's perhaps one of the best, and arguably the most multi-layered title sequences of the entire series.

Tomorrow Never Dies
The second Brosnan outing is about a media mogul attempting to achieve economic domination by inciting a war and providing exclusive coverage. The sequence opens with the camera apparently digitized, racing through a telecommunications line into a sea of randomly floating women, apparently representing information. The film's urgency is relayed (and significant product placement is achieved) through the appearance of a series of high-end Rolex watches, and Bond's PPK appears in X-ray, its moving parts exposed as a clip slams home and a round is jacked into the chamber. In one of the sequence's more memorable effects, a flat microchip swells into a three-dimensional woman with circuitry painted across her body. A bullet shatters its way through a series of static-y television screens and, in my favorite image, women dance within cartridge casings. The diamonds on a woman's necklace become satellites. I've got to say this one is a little disappointing compared to the strong debut GoldenEye had. Sheryl Crow's song is pleasant enough, but like the credits, it just feels superficial and a bit slapdash, like the worst of the Roger Moore-era titles. It doesn't have much to do with the film (I understand the song was selected via contest, and wonder if Crow actually got to see a cut of the film prior to recording it). It doesn't have GoldenEye's implicit references. And the imagery, while interesting, is a little too high-tech, winding up cold and sort of dated…. much like the rest of the film. From the title (Tomorrow Never Dies? What the heck does that even mean? Apparently the title was originally Tomorrow Never Lies, a sensible reference to the villain's newspaper, Tomorrow, but an inter-office studio fax mucked up the last word and some producer thought it sounded "cool"—oi.) to the story itself, it just feels like they scrambled to come up with something at least as good as what they'd done with GoldenEye, and fell far short of the mark, producing instead a generic Bond movie with generic titles and a generic song. (And it pains me to write that, considering the very talented Michelle Yeoh, Jonathan Pryce and Vincent Schiavelli were all in it, with Schiavelli playing an awesome character that was criminally underutilized and quickly killed off in favor of the same old boring big blonde henchman.)

The World Is Not Enough
Taking its title from the supposed Bond family motto (Orbis non sufficit, actually the motto of Sir Thomas Bond's family), The World Is Not Enough, at first glance, seems a bit cheesy with its rainbow-hued women, a little hard on the eyes, until you realize the movie is about oil. The rainbow colors are actually that rainbow effect you get when sunlight hits pooled gasoline. The theme is driven home by the fields of pounding derricks, black globules of oil dripping and, of course, the black-coated and black vinyl-clad female forms writhing. (Are they covered in oil, or caviar? Probably the former.) When I first heard Garbage had been selected to perform the title song, I balked, but really, they surprised me. Lead singer Shirley Mason gives a seductive performance of a sophisticated, mournful song. Most Bond songs, it seems, tend to be about Bond somehow, usually from the point-of-view of some heartbroken woman. Occasionally, you get a song about the villain, as in Thunderball, Goldfinger or The Man With The Golden Gun, but these, to me, feel as if they're sung by an outside observer. This one is interesting because once you've seen the movie, you realize it's Sophie Marceau's Elektra King character singing to her lover Renard (Robert Carslyle), essentially proposing their plan to "take the world apart." The sequence still doesn't approach the greatness of GoldenEye, but it's definitely a step up from Tomorrow Never Dies.

Die Another Day
First off, ever since Tina Turner did the theme to GoldenEye, I hoped they'd tap Madonna to sing a Bond song. She seemed like the perfect fit. Unfortunately, I think they waited too long. They got Ray of Light Madonna, when they needed Like a Prayer Madonna. Don't get me wrong, Ray of Light's pretty good, but it ain't Bond, and while the lyrics to Die Another Day's theme are appropriate considering the title sequence, the pulsing dance beat, the auto-tune and the house sound just don't fit. What's interesting about this sequence is that it is meant to directly take the place of and represent Bond's fourteen-month incarceration and torture at the hand of North Korean troops. Just prior to the titles, Bond has been captured, and we see representations of him being beaten, tormented with scorpions, plunged into ice-cold water, and apparently subjected to awful dance music. OK, no, not really. It's not badly constructed, but it doesn't really set the tone well for a Bond movie. Do we really want to start the movie seeing Bond being beaten to music? Where's the class and the style? Where's the aloof coolness and sophistication? The women are made of fire and ice, apparently representing Bond's agonies, and perhaps alluding to the ice palace seen in the movie, maybe even to the hot and cold women in this outing—the appropriately named MI6 turncoat, Frost, and the "fiery" NSA agent, Jinx. But overall, it's not a great entry.

Casino Royale
Casino Royale marked the debut of another new Bond, the blonde Daniel Craig, and opened with a brilliant flashback sequence showing how James earned his 00 prefix, assassinating a Pakistani mark in a bathroom and a rogue MI6 section chief. I talk about the scene only because it flows so well into the title sequence, as Bond's classic turn and shoot framed by the wavering, bleeding pistol barrel is here established as an incident stemming from his first kill as an MI6 agent. Almost without exception, Bond titles introducing a new 007 are killer, and this one is certainly no exception. Daniel Kleinman outdoes himself with kinetic, action-packed, minimalist hand-to-hand combat sequences, as a rotoscoped (or, rather, mo-capped—I'm dating myself), tuxedoed Bond literally smashes his enemies to bits. In keeping with the high-stakes gambling theme of the movie, the titles are rife with flying clubs, diamonds, hearts and aces, blossoming across the screen in Busby Berkely-esque kaleidoscope patterns. Bond reclines on the whirling, fanciful design from the back of a playing card. He plucks a spade from an assembly line of suit symbols, loads it into his pistol, and fires it into the chest of an enemy, causing him to break into brilliant red hearts. Pistols launch projectile hearts in clouds of exploding clubs bursting from the muzzles in audacious fashion. The tubular, kingly designs mimic a spread of blood vessels, tearing and spilling hearts, in sync with the lyric "the coldest blood runs in my veins." A searching crosshair passes over the face of a Queen of Hearts (briefly uncovering Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, interestingly the only female form suggested in the sequence, masterfully showing off that this is a leaner, younger, more heartless Bond, more concerned with dropping bad guys than his trousers). Bond fires at an unseen opponent who plummets into a sea of crosshairs, sending one spinning into a roulette wheel. Again matching the lyrics, a body falls to the floor with a diamond sticking out of its chest ("I've seen this diamond cut through harder men"). And to cap it off, two bullets in a Seven of Hearts spell out "007," which turns into a pager screen reading "James Bond—007 Status Confirmed," effectively raising the viewer's arm hairs. The song, "You Know My Name," sung by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, is an excellent pick, with hard, lone, tough-guy lyrics ("I've seen angels fall from blinding heights / but you yourself are nothing so divine…" and "Arm yourself because no one else here will save you / the odds will betray you / and I will replace you"—an interesting lyric. Is this the Bond we know addressing his younger self? Is it directed at Vesper?), and a sort of primordial or proto-Bond fanfare. Combined with the outstanding visuals, the end result drips coolness, and probably surpasses even GoldenEye. The whole thing, in the vernacular, is just a feast of epic awesomeness for any Bond aficionado (it's so cool I can't even bring myself to type "geek").

Quantum of Solace
I've read a lot of complaints about "Another Way to Die," the theme song Jack White and Alicia Keyes turned out for Daniel Craig's second Bond outing, and I've listened to a couple of the rejected theme songs, including the great Shirley Bassey's "No Good About Goodbye," and I can't help but feel they went with the strongest, most interesting one. No, it's not classic Bond. I would love to hear a new Bond song from Shirley Bassey, but it's difficult to reconcile the classic Bassey sound with the new ultra-modern and violent Bond whom Craig portrays. I don't think it's impossible. I wonder if a partnership with Rick Rubin could make it happen. Craig's Bond is less of a sophisticated womanizer like Moore or Brosnan, and more of a thug, the way the best Connery forays and probably George Lazenby portrayed him (I really think Dalton struck the best balance between the two), close to the literary character. Anyway, as a result, "Another Way to Die" marks the second Craig movie without the song in the title (though really, the song title might've made a better movie title), the second featuring Bond himself as the focal point, the second without a titular song, all driving it further from the tried-and-true Bond formula. But I like it. It's hard-driving, Bond-as-gangster stuff, with aggressive lyrics and instrumentation, and makes more sense as a follow-up to "You Know My Name." As before, Bond himself is a major part of designer MK12's titles, wandering through a half-lit desert. The sensual imagery returns us to familiar Bondian territory, as women roll beneath the dunes and rise, sand cascading from their limbs. There's a nice little touch in the dancing ball graphic from Dr. No becoming names in the credits. The shots of Bond in silhouette, pointing his pistol against a blazing sun, orange lit, remind me of old '60s and '70s pulp paperbacks—a cool allusion to James Bond's origins and domination of the men's adventure genre. It's nothing deep, all style, but by no means a bad entry.

It's nearly impossible to fully appreciate Daniel Kleinman's Skyfall titles without discussing the plot of the movie, so if you haven't seen it yet, consider this a SPOILER ALERT.

Still with me? OK. For Skyfall, Kleinman entirely summarizes the progression of the character and the events of the movie, dropping tantalizing hints and clues that left me smiling as I recalled them while watching the story unfold. Seemingly disparate images come together in a sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish sequence, all under Adele's beautiful title song (which didn't really impress me on its own until I saw it with the credit sequence). Bond has just apparently plummeted to his death from a railroad bridge and tumbled over a waterfall. As soon as he strikes the water, like the titles for Die Another Day, the audience is plunged into the main titles, which are perhaps a glimpse into Bond's dying/unconscious mind. The themes of Skyfall are complex, and include resurrection, matriarchy, renewal, and facing one's origins or childhood. A tremendous female hand (representing not only the women who dominate Bond's life, but most especially M) draws Bond deeper into the water and into the dream. Silt roils in fascinating patterns on the river bottom, and cutout targets emblazoned with Bond's image sink, punched with bleeding bullet holes corresponding to the wound he's just received. Walther PPKs descend through the water, becoming a forest of tombstones, a direct reference to the end sequence in the Bond family cemetery/chapel, a point literally driven home by the daggers, the same knife that will later put an end to Silva (Javier Bardem). In a great fakeout, we zoom in on a tombstone with the name Bond on it, a tombstone we really will see later. As Adele's refrain begins, the first time we hear the title, we actually see Skyfall, the manor house, backlit in angry red (the fire) and zoom into Bond's eye, then the London underground, full of shifting shadows. In a memorable image, Bond shoots a hole in his own armed shadows—four of them (perhaps the four tests he has to ace, or the four weaknesses in himself he has to conquer in order to return to active duty). One of the shadows, the only one standing, becomes Silva, perhaps representing that he is only a dark version of Bond, who, having also been "betrayed" by M, is in the same psychological state, only a step away from being the same creature. What looks like intricate tendrils of blood floating in the water is actually the psychomorphic computer representation of the London subway tunnels, which we will see later outlined in red on Q's computer display. Flames become wavy Chinese dragons (anticipating the Hong Kong and Macau scenes). This gives way to a black-and-white kaleidoscopic sequence that really does feel like a look into Bond's subconscious. We can pick out decidedly feminine shapes and images, pistols, and the stag head of the Skyfall estate, a direct reference to the psychological word-association test Bond undergoes, and tellingly ends with the Dia de Los Muertos-type skull Silva puts on M's computer, the teeth becoming tombstones, with Bond walking carefully across the frozen lake into a wall of mirrors, like the kind Kincade employs in the house to distract Silva's men. Bond shoots the mirrors, smashing the images of himself. We return to the underground. Bond spins, and the camera dives into his bullet wound, back once again to the manor house (the place to which Bond's mind always returns), where raining blood drops splash-like acid, melting away the tombstones and house (Bond must put away that last part of his old self, that attachment to his own childhood). To sum up, the titles for Skyfall are possibly the most intense, impressive sequences of the series thus far. It brings in everything we expect from the Bond titles, while managing to twist it, making it all more than a cool show. The Skyfall credits act as a kind of forward to the film, inseparable, indecipherable without the context, and a kind of miniature Bond movie told in metaphors.

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