Saturday, November 10, 2012
Skyfall, like all Bond films, has as its central secret subject the decline and fall of the imperial version of the British nation. Most of its predecessors dealt with the problem of loss, disappointment, what Paul Gilroy calls 'postcolonial melancholia', with forms of denial, compensatory consumption and flashy technology, with the British agent imagined as physical superhero, and with the Americans providing back up. Skyfall instead confronts the loss-- there, in a Hong Kong, whose return to China in 1997 marked a poignant coda to decolonisation, here in the old ancestral home in a cold, irrelevant Scottish wilderness, that old house, now almost abandoned, now to be obliterated in a confrontation between two bits of the self, in which the ego is physically diminished and mentally weak. It tries to negotiate a new kind of British (masculine) self, a new kind of patriotism and loyalty. Literally and metaphorically, the ceramic union jack bulldog piggybank is passed clumsily from one generation to another, with the recipients not quite sure what to do with the legacy.
At the centre of that enterprise, for this film, is a renegotiation of the relationship of the child to the mother. Skyfall, whether its writers were conscious of it or not, is a dramatization of the psychoanalytic ideas of Melanie Klein. We have 'M', Judy Dench, at once an avatar of the Queen (repeatedly addressed as M'aam) and of the mother, with her two sons: the loyal golden Bond and the angry disloyal older brother Silva, he who is masked in foreignness in order to alienate his shameful rebellion as much as possible, a self actively repressed in the memory, but now rising up to find a kind of revenge.
Bond and Silva are really the same person, representing the personae which constitute themselves relative, first, to feelings of contentment and need and loyalty to the 'good breast' mixed with shame about dependence, and second, to other shameful feelings, but within which lie the beginnings of an ego autonomy, of anger, intense desire, disappointment, and frustration towards the 'naughty breast' which denies the milk of love. The trauma of teething, imagined by the infant, who correlates it with weaning, as caused by the changed relationship if not abandonment of the mother, is represented in the moment when Silva accusingly presents his ruined mouth to M who did, indeed, abandon him at the moment of China taking over Hong Kong, because of his covert dealings with the Chinese 'other' (the infant imagining itself being punished for its first projects of relationships of desire to objects outside of the mother). Bond himself is punished, in a way, for his relationship with “the other woman”, the beautiful young african-caribbean woman who is the antithesis of mummy, M's desire to punish naughty Silva leading to a shot, and a deep plunge into the watery unconscious for Bond, a moment of deprivation of self. Silva, on the other hand, abandoned by mother, now turns to the compensation of technology and of power at a distance through machines. Bond's father and mother died when he was very young, something about which he feels an inarticulate discomfort--- an echo of the child assuming narcissistically that its own episodes of rage to mother and father have had lethal effect (remember Silva late in the film, confronting the tombstone with their names, and chuckling mirthlessly). Now, this time, gold boy is instead going to rescue M(ummy) from Silva, who wants to kill her, and win her love, by taking himself and her in a journey 'back in time' to the original scene, the childhood home.
The confrontation in the ancestral home makes some interesting allusions to the current negotiations of the British imperial self. When Silva rides in – to do what, is it to kill or to capture M? - he does so, apocalypse now stylee, on helicopter, blasting with heavy machine guns, and loud music from the air. Afghanistan and Iraq, anyone? The plucky British guerilla fighters on the ground then resist! Bond himself, going home with M(ummy), is surprised by gamekeeper/dad proxy, who is going to equip him with his (real) Dad's rifle, and with a dagger. Yes, Bond is going to be entrusted with Daddy's dagger: the Oedipal crisis is going to be resolved through and with the Kleinian one. The infant house with all its tensions is obliterated, and the three key characters have their final confrontation in a chapel- a place of baptism or funeral, you might say, but also one of marriage. The final confrontation is about sex as well as death, which self gets M, and it is with Daddy's dagger that Bond finally kills Silva, and has this longed for, but deeply embarrassing (witnessed by gamekeeper Daddy, who's still got a weapon and means of revenge!) moment of exclusive intimacy with M. Fortunately, to save embarrassment M conveniently dies at that moment, and the libido may now be invested where it “should” be in the father figure who is the new M, and in the anti-mother figure of the african-caribbean British Moneypenny, with Bond back in his resolved location. Patriarchy and patriotism both safely back in the saddle.
Skyfall offers not only a post-industrial, but a strangely post-economic world. Britain is a country without production, there are no workers, if you forget gamekeepers and policemen. The Austin Martin is a relic of the 1950s, itself to be destroyed in the final confrontation. Shanghai is clearly the climax of contemporary capitalism, and Macau of contemporary high consumption, but even in China the only visible economic activity is art dealing or gambling. The new Q supplies Bond with tools which depend, we all know, on things imported from that mysterious hidden world of China's industry. What survives however from British capitalism is class privilege, but its reason for being is not made clear.
But Skyfall offers glimpses of another Britain, the democratic non-hierarchical world of public transport, the underground – that radical egalitarian unconscious – in which there are public ideas of justice, for which the police uniform is an ambivalent symbol. Silva in a critical episode wears those robes of public justice, and comes to confront the political overground, that establishment, so disconnected from the public, with guns and with those mysterious crowds of supporting rebels who arrive with him both in Whitehall and in Scotland. There is a confrontation of hierarchy, unreasoned dominance, with a rebellion, the meaning of which is left enigmatic. But that rebellion is well enough rooted in the urban spaces of England, such a seething many-headed-hydra of danger, of unknown enemies who are part of the self, to make necessary a retreat to the pre-industrial, pre-urban spaces of Scotland.
Parenthetically, I'd like to suggest that M, as Judy Dench, is not only an avatar of the Queen. There is also the shadow of Margaret Thatcher. This should not surprise, for when Margaret Thatcher was being readied for market in the 1970s, her hair was carefully styled and her clothes chosen, so that she might echo visually the Queen, who had just celebrated the Silver Jubilee. The Thatcher political persona was created, in psychoanalytic terms, to be that of the “strict mother”, she whose discipline must be submitted to, who will restore order in a turbulent home. It was a symbol to which all those who were in shock from the immigration and culture change of the 1960s and early 70s, and from Britain's “decline”, could attach themselves. The casting of Dench as M in 1994-5, like the real life appointment of Stella Rimington as head of MI5 in 1992, was an echo of the Thatcher ascendency, taking on both its form and substance, and linked to its compensations for loss through pluck and leaning on the Americans. The death of M as Dench, in this film, is a declaration that the mind world of Thatcher, the ways in which the post-colonial crisis was negotiated in the 1980s and 90s, is also dead. The new black Moneypenny is not just the anti-M, she is that which was unacceptable in the Thatcher moment. Miscegenation is one of the hidden themes of the film, the possibilities of racial exogamy for which Sévérine in Macau, as much as the new Moneypenny, is a signifier.
The film ends with Bond accepting his subordination to Gareth Mallory (Rafe Fiennes), who we were told is a veteran of 'the Hereford regiment' in Northern Ireland, a wounded symbol of the post-colonial civil war of the late 20th century, so strangely absent from the Bond films of that era. His arm is wounded, but Bond is, of course, its extension. But outside that chamber, the city still seethes with that unresolved challenge of the public to hierarchical privilege. Rebellion, unspoken, is still alive. And that desire for the other, envy, possibly even sympathy for the Chinese devil, is its expression.