The Spy Who Saved Me
This month we’re writing about movies for which we’re thankful. To no one’s surprise, my pick is a 007 flick: 2006’s Casino Royale. I’ve never really talked about why that film, or Bond films in general, mean as much to me as they do. In doing so, a disclaimer might be in order: if you’re not a fan of autobiographical, oversharing diatribes on film sites, please know I can completely relate, and please accept my invitation to read no further. But in thinking about the film from a “thankful” perspective, things couldn’t help but get pretty self-reflective.
Confession time: before 2006, the last Bond movie I’d seen in theaters was A View To A Kill. I’ve been vocal in the past about how the Pierce Brosnan era just wasn’t for me, and how I never warmed to what I called Brosnan’s “Roger Moore 2.0” portrayal, or to the '90s action film aesthetic in general. That’s all true, but those complaints have more to do with what happened when I sat down and watched those films, not why I skipped them when they were released. The real reason my theatrical 007 viewings ended in 1985 is simple: that’s when my father stopped taking me to the movies.
Between the ages of five to fourteen, my dad took me to see literally anything I wanted to see at the movies. Anything. That’s a parenting approach I can’t imagine flying today, but one which very much shaped me as a person. Going to the movies was our thing, and my dad (who worked two full-time jobs, so his spare time was in pretty short supply) was always amenable to taking me to whatever I asked to see. Of course this meant Star Wars and Superman and Krull and what have you, but the R-rated Stripes and Caddyshack at age ten? Sure thing. Escape From New York at age eleven? No problem. Porky’s, Creepshow and The Thing at age twelve? You get the idea.
As I approached adolescence, it must have been clear to my father that I was terminally uninterested in sports, whereas movies were slowly consuming me. Dad, never a big sports guy himself, seemed fine passively encouraging my zeal by driving me to the movies, week after week. Plus, by the time I was twelve my dad had caught enough of my older siblings getting into such a wide spectrum of serious trouble that enabling the mild corruption of my mind via cinematic sex and violence must have seemed an infinitely lesser evil. It also helped that Dad was friends with the managers of both the local drive-in and the nearby four-screen multiplex. This meant free admission to everything, and piles of leftover one-sheets with which I promptly covered the shitty 1970s black & silver wallpaper of my bedroom. When George A. Romero’s Day Of The Dead premiered in 1985 - unrated, with no one under 17 admitted, period - Dad took me to the midnight screening. He knew I’d been obsessively watching Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead on VHS, counting the months until Day opened, and there wa sno question that he was going to make sure I got to see the new one. In short, my dad ruled. I don’t know how much he really enjoyed these movies; he was always ducking out for a cigarette, or heading outside to shoot the shit with his manager pal. I suppose I was vaguely aware that I was, in all likelihood, dragging him to these films.
But whenever a new James Bond movie came out, it was my dad who did the dragging.
Dad was a child of the '50s, the decade Ian Fleming’s novels were first published. I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that he was probably a lifelong Bond fan, a theory supported by the dog-eared old 007 paperbacks quietly trespassing onto my mom’s Stephen King- and romance novel-heavy bookshelves. My dad did not “geek out” or “get excited” or “express visible enthusiasm” about much of anything per se, but I remember these movies being a Big Deal to him as he’d attempt to upsell them to us as absolute events (“Who wants to go see the NEW James Bond movie...?”). My earliest moviegoing memories stretch back as far as 1973 (The Exorcist); it’s very likely I have theatrical viewings of everything from Live And Let Die through to 1981’s For Your Eyes Only somewhere in my substance-addled subconscious, though I have no specific memories of them. In any event, 1983 definitely had Dad and me in the theater for both Octopussy and the non-Eon entry Never Say Never Again. (Dad’s headcanon did not discriminate in this regard, and today I share my father's belief that when Sean Connery plays 007, you show up to that shit.) In between these trips to the theater, we caught up on past Bond films as they screened on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie (the ski jump from The Spy Who Loved Me was a particularly eventful broadcast moment at my house.) Those viewings were rare all-skates, with Mom, Dad and all siblings in front of the TV, and it’s pretty much the only time I can remember my dad watching prime-time television back then.
I couldn’t tell you what my father liked so much about the 007 series, besides the obvious: it was for him true escapist fare, a fantasy world in which a blue collar ex-Marine, working 80 hours a week to keep his family fed, could lose himself now and again for a couple hours. It wasn’t some “special” connection for him; he didn’t obsess about it the way movie fans live and breathe their favorites. He’d give himself over to the movie and then get on with his day, but those two hours made him happy, and so few things did. Dad watching these movies was, perhaps, the purest ingestion of the 007 adventures as intended by Fleming: a quiet, unassuming working stiff in the suburbs, being transported to exciting adventures in faraway lands filled with beautiful women - literally the reason the stories existed. If I were to guess, I’d say those books lying around our house hit him in his teen years at just the right time, and when the movie franchise began it must have been akin to my generation seeing our comic book heroes finally coming to life. And since those comic book movies were still a few years away in the early '80s, I was happy to join Dad for the one thing I knew he dug. My interest in the films was at that point mostly centered around the cool gadgets from Q branch, but watching my larger-than-life hero watch HIS larger-than-life hero was all cozy bliss and happiness, and between that opening gun barrel shot and the end credits everything was just swell.
Around 1985 cable came to our household, and I became old enough to have friends with cars, and the combination of the two events effectively ended my dad’s theatergoing period. (You could smoke at home, after all.) I think I can remember walking past him watching The Living Daylights or Licence To Kill on HBO while sitting in the large comfy recliner he bought himself, the one that matched literally nothing else in the living room. But now I was up my own ass being a surly teenager, and the tempestuous havoc of puberty had by then created a seismic shift in the movie-buddy relationship I’d had with my dad. It was a mostly normal shift, I think; as a teen the world gets bigger and you suddenly don’t “need” this one guy, this absolute titan who until now has been your sole conduit to everything fun, cool or important in the world. Everyone’s a stranger when you’re changing every day, and my dad and I organically drifted apart as I grew up. By the '90s I had moved out of the house, and my father was someone I saw once a month, maybe. A guy I called when I had good/big news: hey Dad, I’m getting married; hey Dad, I got a new job; hey Dad, I’m buying a house. Still a great guy, a man I loved dearly, but no longer the giant of my childhood. We settled into an easygoing father/son friendship, but we definitely were done going to the movies together. I have no idea if Dad got around to the Brosnan era of Bond.
When announcing his terminal lung cancer to the world, Warren Zevon famously said “I’m OK with it, but it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it until the next James Bond movie comes out.” It was what someone on Twitter recently referred to as “measuring time in nerd increments,” and we’ve all done it with the stuff we love. For Bond fans, Zevon’s sentiment rang especially true, but 007 can be easily swapped out for your own personal favorite: what’s the last Batman movie you’ll ever see? Will you live to see the next four Star Wars? How many Godzilla movies will they make after you die? You eventually realize that all your beloved properties will outlive you; all you can do is hope that you go out on a win.
Sadly, like Mr. Zevon, the last 007 movie Dad could’ve possibly seen was 2002’s Die Another Day. He died on December 21st, 2004 at age 64, not wholly unexpectedly but still too early for my liking. “His lungs are just crap,” the doctor told us flatly. He took a long time to die, and his last few months were spent in a hospital room with a mess of tubes going in and out of him, connecting him to a half dozen machines that endlessly beeped or hissed or both. He was awake and alert for most of that time and we talked some, but most of the things we needed to talk about were things neither of us wanted to talk about. So we watched movies. The crappy CRT TV above his bed played an endless stream of old movies, with the volume cranked up to be heard above all the beeping and hissing. We watched stuff like Tombstone, Magnificent Obsession (?!) and that most Dad-ly of Dad Movies, Ice Station Zebra. (We spent Thanksgiving in that room; was there a Bond marathon that year? I can’t remember. I don’t think there was.) But just as when he was well, at his end in that hospital room movies were something to take his mind off bigger worries, an escape from situations he was powerless to change. During the final week, he was on a ventilator and no longer conscious, so we turned off the TV and just listened to the machines.
This all happened three years after my mom had died, and it suddenly felt as if I was entering the 21st century without the ground under me. I went through all the normal grief-related stuff: drinking too much, reaching for the phone to call him (and later getting anxiety over not putting his phone number into a new cell phone), being caught off-guard by the ambient sound of a hospital room on television, etc. I spent the next few months in a fog; I do not remember large chunks of 2005. Eventually this chaotic period kind of quieted down to an ill-fitting new normal. Nightmares about Dad dying gave way to comforting “hanging out with Dad” dreams to which I’d eventually come to look forward. But feelings of guilt would still flare up - I didn’t call him often enough, I wasn’t an assertive enough advocate for him at the hospital, I didn’t say all the things I wanted to say. I craved ways to stay connected to someone who was no longer there.
Ten months after Dad died, MGM and Eon announced a new actor would be taking over the role of James Bond. It was just background noise for me at first - the 007 flicks were “dad’s movies” - but it sounded as if the next film would be a fresh start for a franchise that had kind of run aground during the years I was ignoring it. The news kind of woke something up in my brain; it was the first time I gave any real thought to the series in years. As I followed the news about the new Bond reboot, I wasn’t consciously connecting any of it to my dad. The timing was pure serendipity, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this itch came on when it did. In the months before the new film’s release, the producers talked about how it would be a return to the novels - it was, in fact, the first real adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel since 1969. I started gradually buying up the paperbacks, trying to figure out which of these books were the ones I remembered from my dad’s collection. I became intrigued by the idea of a cinematic Bond that was closer to the one described on the backs of those old books. It was a rabbit hole, but one that I kind of needed. It gave me something to think about/learn about/obsess over, instead of dwelling on my feelings.
Or so I thought. I was surprised to discover the books contained long passages in which James Bond morbidly pondered his own mortality, sometimes while having full-on panic attacks during commercial flight turbulence. Other times he’d sit at a bar and quietly mope about how the guy he’d just killed had instantly and horribly turned from a living, breathing person into a lifeless sack of meat. What the hell!? Instead of escapism, Fleming’s pages threw my grieving self-absorption back in my face, and I rolled with it, or maybe wallowed in it. Around the same time I also began casually tracking down all the old movies on DVD, scouring record stores and Gamestops for used copies of the then-out-of-print series (Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever were the toughest to track down, for some reason).
Eventually I dove into ALL of it: the novels, the non-Fleming continuation novels, the critical essays and making-of features and commentary tracks and banned Criterion commentary tracks. I used this renewed interest to simultaneously distract myself from my dad and feel connected to him, absorbing the franchise in a way he surely never had the inclination, and in which he definitely never had the time. And I fell in love with it, with this singular institution that spanned 50 years, a cottage industry built on a fading empire’s fantasy of itself. I loved the intentionally and unintentionally fascinating ways the franchise twisted and turned, reflecting the periods in which each film was made, even when it stubbornly tried to resist them. I fell in love with the often-gorgeous aesthetics of it all: Ken Adam’s and Syd Cain’s production design, John Barry’s scores, Peter Hunt’s editing (and eventual direction). I ate up the clothing, the gadgetry, the franchise's habit of casting so internationally that massive amounts of dubbing were required. I came to appreciate what each actor brought to the role of 007, even the guys whose turns at bat I didn’t initially enjoy. It was all familiar, for sure, but high-definition, digital restoration and my time away from it made it all quite new. The film nerd part of my brain became obsessed with details, dates, facts, figures and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, going over the whole thing once again on an historical/archaeological level.
As a bonus, I was getting out of the 007 movies something kind of cathartic, and maybe almost spiritual. Although engaging the films with an adult, critical eye for the first time was rewarding in all kinds of new and interesting ways, under it all was a strange, primal sense of connection. There was a tangible sense of reaching back in time and restoring what my father and I did together twenty-plus years earlier. I felt like part of a continuum, enjoying this thing my dad enjoyed, and enjoying it in his stead. I have a very spiritual friend who once suggested that the cause of his ravenous appetite while stoned could actually be the manifestation of hungry spirits from another realm, channeling their desires through him. The dead missed eating, he posited, and when he was high as shit he was honored to be their vessel as he put away half a chocolate cake and a pint of ice cream. As an atheist, I’m not as prone to that sort of thinking. But I won’t deny that rediscovering the Bond movies, these things that I so closely associated with my dad being happy, gave the films a kind of shamanistic import, and in revisiting them, I felt a little closer to his happiness. It didn’t - and doesn’t - make a ton of sense, but I was keeping it to myself and so I didn’t really need for it to make sense to anyone. They say as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, there’s no wrong way to grieve, so I kind of ran with it.
That’s not to say I became some indiscriminate, drooling fanboy. I don’t think I did, at least. Wanting to absorb all the history and minutiae of the franchise didn’t metastasize into being unable to discern good from bad. To this day I’d say about ten or twelve of the 007 films are actually “good movies,” and no amount of wistful nostalgia about seeing them with Dad will make me believe Octopussy and A View To A Kill are upper level entries in the franchise. My father was not as critical, but nor was he blindly nostalgic. He didn’t watch movies over and over if there was something new to see instead. He was the kind of guy who would only browse the “new release” section at the video store, as susceptible to all manner of “latest and greatest” razzle dazzle as anyone. That was on my mind on November 17, 2006, as I watched Casino Royale, the first showing of opening day, an empty seat next to me. Watching that first Madagascar foot chase, realizing what an absolute shot in the arm this film was for the franchise, I couldn’t help but feel like it was the movie Dad was waiting for his whole life, and never got.
What Casino Royale brought with it was an attitude that finally lined up with the one I had as a kid. Back then, Bond wasn’t camp or silly to me; like Adam West’s Batman, at age 11 that’s not the level on which I was engaging it. It was just cool. (I mean, so was Megaforce, but you follow.) With puberty the road split and I was suddenly too cool for Bond, delving into first horror, then the film school darlings of the New Hollywood. In my 30s I was fortunate enough to discover some voices in film criticism that snapped me out of my snobby posturing, and I was able to find a renewed joy in mainstream entertainment. When 007 and I reconvened in 2006, we were in a strange sense on the same page again. As a child, you’re mostly immune to irony, and so a kid takes Bond seriously. For the first time in my life, here was the whole world taking Bond just as seriously. Daniel Craig smashing through drywall to chase down a terrorist, or using a defibrillator on himself to counteract being poisoned, was not arch or winking. It wasn’t reveling in its corniness. It was legitimately fucking awesome. This was the James Bond my father had promised me in the theaters and on the Sunday Night Movie. It made good on the badass allure of my dad’s paperback covers, whose copy teased a dark, pulse-quickening adventure. Curiously, it also made good on the insides of those same books, offering up a two-fisted hero who hurt and bled, and who was not above moody introspection. For the first time, 007 had an inner life.
And that’s where the second half of this unintentional “007 As Grief Therapist” experiment kicked in. As comforting as the old films were, Casino Royale and its follow-ups offered something else, engaging me through this strange, mournful, post-Dad filter. In a weird way it felt like they were tailor-made for where my head was at that time. Think about it: after watching my dad take his last breath, I try to lose myself inside his favorite escapist movie franchise. Right then the series (or the universe?) serves up three movies in a row in which James Bond actually weeps over a loved one who is dead or dying in his arms? A decade-long stretch in which the formerly unflappable 007 is confronting mortality and loss over and over again? That's weird, right? It still boggles my mind that this iteration of Bond, delivered to me when it was, was exactly the mopey, introspective adult orphan I needed, all the “we want a PROPER Bond film!” fanboys be damned. This one was for ME! The resurrection of my dad's cozy, reassuring ritual of going to see “the new James Bond” dovetailed perfectly with a kind of weird emotional exorcism. Even the much-derided Quantum Of Solace - in which Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, sporting Dad’s exact haircut), dies ignominiously while Bond holds him - gave me some measure of comfort. (That's right: I got a quantum of solace from Quantum Of Solace.)
Some of my favorite filmmakers create deeply personal stories about life and love and loss, about the messy, horribly real world of human interaction. Though I still love to engage small, emotional cinema, sometimes material connects to you in unexpected ways, and something about the Bond series taking the turn it did, when it did, wired the whole thing to my psyche in a very real and profound way. Since my dad died, 007 and I have been working through our personal shit together. Seriously! I have been oddly soothed by this dour, grief-stricken 007 who’s been trying to find his place in a strange new world, to get his footing back under him. From a critical and dramatic standpoint, certainly this take on Bond is perhaps in danger of being over-mined, and the allure of the “new” will always carry a universal, promising appeal that can make it feel as if we’re rushing the incumbent out the door. But since 2006 these movies have provided therapeutic, cathartic touchstones throughout a pretty uncertain decade for me, and it will be bittersweet when this run of the franchise ends. “Thankful” is most definitely the word that comes to mind when I think of it.
I’m now the same age Dad was when we saw A View To A Kill, our last Bond film together. The next actor to play 007 will most likely, for the first time in my life, be younger than me. Blame it on my own baggage, but I think that’s a fundamental shift in the dynamic of how one enjoys these films. It’s a shift which means my time with 007 might be nearing its end. (For all I know, Dad might’ve tapped out after Timothy Dalton, the last Bond who was HIS own age.) That will be an adjustment, but as life (and the last three Bond films) teaches us, one way or another, everything ends. Whatever comes next, I will remain thankful for the ten years I got to spend enjoying 007 again, for the many opportunities writing about the franchise has afforded me, and for the pockets of happiness I experienced as I watched these films, imagining my father’s reaction to it all.