2017 NEEDS 007 [Special Editorial]: On Loss, and Holidays, and James Bond.
News flash, fellow geeks…the year 2016 has been really, REALLY shitty. I’d started this year writing about the loss of two great actors, and now I’ll be ending this year writing about more personal losses (and hopefully that’ll be that). On Thanksgiving of this year, my older cousin, who’d helped watch and raise me when I was a much smaller, younger geek, was killed not a block away from my parents’ home. It was large and tragic enough to make the news rounds for a few days, and it was wildly traumatic, to say the least (there are certain details I’d witnessed that will most likely remain with me forever).
And now…with the close of the holiday season drawing near…my girlfriend and I are awaiting another impending loss, as her older cousin is succumbing to his battle with cancer, and is currently being made as comfortable as possible. Much as I’d written about in my previous article about loss, my girlfriend and I’d coped the best way we knew how: by throwing ourselves fully into our favorite holiday movies — and drinking.
Together, my girlfriend and I had gone to Brooklyn’s excellent Nitehawk Cinemas twice in the past few weeks, to watch first Die Hard, and then Elf just last Saturday. We’d decorated, and blasted various renditions of holiday songs. We’d invited friends and family over to visit, and cooked, and threw on Krampus, White Christmas, Love Actually, Christmas Vacation, the episode “Glim-Glim” from the rare TV show Monsters, and so many other specials and movies (including our favorite bad movie director, David DeCoteau!) that I can’t possibly list or even remember them all. We sought out art, both high and low, to help reorient ourselves. But this week, I sat down alone and watched…for Lord-knows-many-many times in 20 years…the Christmas-set 1969 James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The plot is simple: in 1969, James Bond tracks down his nemesis Ernst Stavro-Blofeld, who has been masquerading as a renowned allergist researching bacteriological warfare from his Swiss Alps hideout, and must stop him before infecting the world’s crops and livestock with an infertility virus. Along the way, Bond rescues a manically depressed countess, Teresa de Vicenzo, the daughter of a rival criminal organization, Marc-Ange Draco, and falls in love with her. Together, they stop Blofeld (although he escapes), and Bond marries her. This being the sixth film in a series that is still going strong nearly 50 years later…we can imagine where that marriage headed and what happened afterwards. Remember that long essay I’d written about the importance of tone? Well, this film is a prime example of how the right tone elevates a film when it is consistent and the characters remain true to the story.
This is the first Bond film to have an epic (proper definition of the word) scope, scale, and thematic undercurrent. The story sprawls several months: from September through New Years’ of 1969, and the pace is deliberately set to maximize the emotional payoff and get the audience to not only understand, but care about each character. George Lazenby did a number to snag the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, who’d retired from the role after growing tired of the publicity and unwanted attention following 1967’s You Only Live Twice (seriously…Lazenby in the Donald Trump of James Bond actors: he was woefully inexperienced, petulant, arrogant, and basically connived his way into the role. But it paid off for us all!) He’s amiable enough in the role, not doing quite an impersonation of Connery, but not making as much of an impact as he perhaps could have had he remained in the role for more than one film, and grown to actually add some nuance into it.
However, thematically, his casting is apt: only a young, naive, unfamiliar Bond could work with this exact story; here, Bond is stripped down, at times unsure he would even be able to escape alive. He’s frightened, uncertain, at times desperate, and more than once, Tracy comes to his rescue. Had Connery remained in the role, there is no doubt that the production would have become another over-produced smorgasbord of gadgets, fantasy, and over-the-top characters (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but with Bond having blown up a volcano base in the prior film, it is a good place to reset.) Never in a million years would audiences believe that Connery’s Bond would ever marry, and never would we buy that he’d be out of his element.
And what Lazenby lacks in acting chops, OHMSS more than makes up for in supporting cast, action, music, and cinematography. This…along with Skyfall…remains one of the most visually stunning and distinctive Bond films made thus far. Diana Rigg, as Tracy, more than sells her character’s independence and quick wit: dangerous, but with an air of class that matches Bond’s. She’s complex, driven, and more than once proves herself in an action scene. Her star power (she had co-starred in The Avengers television show back in the ’60’s) more than helped to prop up her costar, as well as Telly Savalas as Blofeld,who takes over from Donald Pleasance and adds a much needed arrogance to the role.
Blofeld is menacing, yet more laid back, and his vanity belies his ruthlessness. This is an interpretation of Blofeld without the stick up his butt, with a bizarre plan, and with the ability to put him and Bond on equal physical fighting grounds, and the film is much better for it. The action is fantastic (it helps that driector Peter Hunt honed his action skills by editing the prior Bond films), and John Barry’s score is arguably the best in the entire series, and even the excellent title sequence by Maurice Binder resonates thematically (and, this time around, made me well up: the motif of clocks ticking backwards, and going back in time to Bond’s earlier adventures, deeper mirrored how I’d been feeling the past month).
But it’s the ending that makes this such a unique Bond. The film doesn’t end with a quip, or a wink to the audience, or even a promise of things to get better. Even Casino Royale, which ends with Vesper dying and Bond broken, ends with him suited back up and ready to kick ass. Here, the film ends with Bond broken and weeping. And this year, with everything that had gone on, this film had resonated so much more.
It resonated so much so this time around, that I actually wept. Sitting, in the dark, with just the last few shots and lines of the film, and the melancholic score, my TV reflecting the blinking lights of my tree, and my girlfriend asleep, this film…which I’d seen thousands of times…brought me to tears for the first time.
Much like in the film, my family experienced a tremendous loss on the same day when we should have been celebrating and laughing. She left us unexpectedly, quickly, and also while in a car. And now there’s an emptiness, one that we’ll be fighting to fix, but from which we can only evolve. It’s a rough time, out there, and though my loss will tarnish this year’s holidays, I know that feeling of hope and love and anticipation will return in time.
As if by providence, I actually got to meet George Lazenby this year, briefly, at the 2016 New York WinterCon in Queens. It took place mere days after burying my cousin, and I wasn’t much in the mood, but I went anyway. She would not have wanted me to pass up meeting someone I’d admired (a James Bond, no less!), nor could I ever be sure I’d ever have the chance to meet him again. So I went, solely to meet him. And I did. I blubbered and gushed (I’d met dozens, if not hundreds, of celebrities and dignitaries in my time as a freelancer, but rarely ever got star-struck. This time? All bets were off!), and shook his hand. I didn’t know what to say, so all I said was thank you. Thank you for making this, my favorite Bond film, the one that means the most to me. He thanked me, and signed a photo, and we took one together. And that was it. I left immediately after, but I left happy and fulfilled, having set aside grief for just a few hours and been happy to be alive.
We don’t always know what the fates will allow, and we don’t know whether we’ve got another decade, another year, or even another hour. But we’ve got the now, and right now, I hope you spent your holidays with your friends and family. If you couldn’t, for whatever reason, even get that, I hope you, dear reader, spent your holidays happy and healthy and safe. Because the end of the year is a signal for change, and sometimes that change can be scary. Or sad. Or tragic, and tinged with unexpected loss. But, in spite of that, I still put up my tree, and put up my lights, and drink my nog, and sit around watching my favorite movies. Because to me, that’s what the holidays are about: friends and family gathering and shouting together in the cold that we are alive. And we go to bed knowing that the day…like James Bond…will return.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and the happiest and most prosperous of new years, fellow geeks. Let’s make 2017 better.