Thursday, October 4, 2012

"When You Got a Job to Do...You Gotta Do it Well..."

My love of the movies largely began with ABC's Monday Night at the Movies when I was five or six or so.  The funny thing was that I wasn't allowed to stay up late enough to ever finish anything they showed, with the exception of Star Wars (which I eventually saw in the theater, the summer after seeing The Empire Strikes Back).  So I saw the first half or so of Young Frankenstein and the Carpenter version of The Thing multiple times without knowing how they ended until years later.  When I moved to Michigan, however, there was a great UHF channel that showed blocks of everything from the classics to utter trash, and in a time range where I'd get to finish them.  If memory serves, it was there that I first encountered James Bond, in the form of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973), which coincidentally was Roger's first turn as Bond.

And yes, yes, I know, only Sean Connery was Bond, and Roger gets blamed for everything cartoonish about the series.  But I'd suggest you revisit the last couple of Connery's and Lazenby's one go, and see if you can still tell me straight-faced that it wasn't already headed that way.  Granted, I'll give you Moonraker (1979), as the apex of any an eight or nine year old, Live and Let Die was (and mostly still is) a thrilling adventure, worth it if only for the boat chase scene and what's still one of the best Bond theme songs.

...and one of the best Bond posters thanks to Robert McGinnis.
The books, on the other hand, tell a different story as it were. Thanks to VHS and a helpful father, I had seen all the Bond films by the time I was in my teens, but not until my 20's did I actually pick up any of the source material.  Figuring that Goldfinger (1964) was the gold standard in Connery's run as Bond, that was the first book I picked up. About halfway through, I was baffled that one of the most exciting of the movies was one of the dullest books I'd ever read. If it wasn't for the internet, I likely would have never picked up another one, but several reviews of Fleming's canon said much the same, and made their own rankings and suggestions as where better to dive in.  Since then I've read and enjoyed several of the original Bond adventures, both novel-length and short story.

So this past week, as you may have already figured out, I delved into Fleming's second Bond adventure, Live and Let Die (1954).  In it, rare gold coins have been turning up in New York City pawn shoppes, and the U.S. government has contacted the British government over several of the pieces which have been traced to Mr. Big, a Harlem gangster. Bond is sent in to join American agent Felix Leiter in tracking the source of the coins, believed to be the treasure of the infamous pirate Henry Morgan, and distrupt Mr. Big's operations. Big, a practitioner of Voodoo, seems to have an infallible eye and network set up to stop the super-spy from foiling him.

Not my copy, but one with a far cooler cover.
When looking at any of the Bond books, you have to put aside your memory of the movies (if you've seen them obviously), because the books are far more straightforward action/suspense tales and feature far fewer gadgets and hilariously named henchmen than the movies...well, some hilariously named henchmen, but not as many.  Having done that, this book makes for a decent adventure and does a great job with atmospheric description to build some fine suspense. One thing I have noticed, though is that Fleming seems to have trouble holding up the middle. The first third and last thirds of the books are usually action-packed, but a drag always sets in before the finale. The main problem with the plot, however, was that it was very similar to a later Bond novel that took 007 to the tropics, Dr. No (1958), which I had already read. The biggest difference was that Dr. No was a far better developed villain, whereas Big is only dealt with enough to make him intimidating but not very well rounded.

Which leads to a very important point: in today's politically correct world, this book will likely be offensive to new readers. I mention it for two reasons. The first is how far the PC trend has gone: that Huckleberry Finn either gets whitewashed or banned for its coarse racial language and I've read reports of To Kill a Mockingbird being banned for RACISM.  It's more than a little horrifying to become so sensitive so as to miss the point entirely. Are Fleming's somewhat frequent references to "negroid features" and his use of stereotypical "negro" dialect in the dialogue racist?  Absolutely. But other than pointing out the usual (it was a different time, etc.), I won't make any apologies for it. It is what it is.  Big is an interesting villain in that he's physically imposing, cunning, ruthless, able to pray on superstition and fear to subjugate others, philosophical and highly intelligent. In terms of at least three dimensions, he gets a pass. Unfortunately, that's not enough to bolster how more or less stereotypical every other black character around him is.

Believe or not...far less offensive than what's in the book.
Ultimately, it stirred in me the echoes of a great class I took in college on the representation of minorities in film, taught by the great Charles Ramirez-Berg.  At the start of the semester, the professor posited an interesting query: in today's sensitive and politically correct world, can you have a villain? His point being that no matter who you cast as an antagonist, chances are it will ruffle someone's feathers in one way or another.  But he also countered it with the wonderful point that at the same time that didn't mean you couldn't see value in a work just because it had elements that could be construed as racism, nor would every moment or character that might be racist invariably make a negative mark on the mind of the viewer about this or that group. And so, through that lens, I was able to enjoy what was enjoyable about Live and Let Die and lament what was lost to a less considerate age.

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