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Looking for Pop

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Jef Costello
The Importance of James Bond & Other Essays
San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017

“Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round broke down?”[1]

“This guy can’t possibly live up to the song they wrote about him… probably just an accountant named Wallace.”[2]

Hearing that Counter-Currents was publishing a collection of Jef Costello’s essays for the Website, one’s reaction is rather like James Bond’s when he wakes up on Goldfinger’s plane bound for Kentucky:

James Bond: Who are you?

Pussy Galore: My name is Pussy Galore.

James Bond: I must be dreaming.

Costello is one of Counter-Currents’ most popular writers, and indeed one suspects he has a small, deeply disturbed following[3] that only shows up when he’s on tap. For many, this book will simply be an automatic, must-have purchase.

Costello articulates the profound dis-ease that most of us live with in modern society, in the much-vaunted modernity; and displays a ruthless honesty in uncovering and rooting out the ways all of us, including himself, try to evade or ignore our dis-ease in the pursuit of just getting through the day.

“Take it easy, Mr. Bond.”

First up in this collection, appropriately, is Cmr James Bond himself, in a trio of essays that take up the first quarter of the book.  Costello has the long-time fan’s mastery of the arcana of the Bond Universe, but also the rarer skill to convey the excitement of fandom (from Latin fanaticus, “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god”; deeply disturbed, indeed).

This is simply the best study of Bond since Kingsley Amis’ trailblazing James Bond Dossier.[4] Like Amis, Costello effectively counters the accusations of “sex, sadism and snobbery” (in the words of Paul Johnson’s infamous review); and while Amis necessarily dealt with the books and the first two films, Costello takes us all the way up to SPECTRE (2015).

But what is all this intense scrutiny in service of? What, then, is the importance of James Bond? I think Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame actually put it best:

Bond movies really represented the adult world, you know; drinking cocktails and being a secret agent and having your skills highly valued and having beautiful women being interested in you, were all things you felt were something I have to look forward to, this is what’s waiting for me at the end of my childhood.[5]

Joel may not come to your mind – nor, I suspect, Costello’s either – as a child of Bond,[6] but surely almost everyone of a certain age has come under the influence of 007, particularly on the subject that “interests” – more like torments – Costello: how to be a real grown up; specifically, a real man in the modern age.

James Bond is a modern hero, a hero for the modern age. [But] in a special sense: Bond is a hero in spite of modernity; an anti-modern hero who manages to triumph over—and, indeed, harness—the very forces that turn most modern men into soulless, gelded appendages to their desktop PCs. This is why Bond is important, and this is why we’ve worshipped at the cinematic altar of Bond for half a century. We long to be as free as he is.

Thus the Bond movies are an index of how the idea of being a man has changed, or how being a man has become more difficult, or problematic.

Costello utilizes several memes from the Traditionalist philosopher Julius Evola to unpack the significance of Bond. Bond exemplifies spiritual virility:

Bond’s pleasure is greater than that of other men—but paradoxically he is free of desire in a way most men are not. His constant brushes with death have given him a unique perspective: he is keenly aware of the impermanence of things, and of what matters and what does not. Bond enjoys food, drink, and sex so much precisely because of their unimportance. Other men, who have never faced death, place too much importance on these things and—again, paradoxically—are less able to enjoy them.[7]

Bond also demonstrates how to ride the tiger of modern society:

Bond has managed to be an employee, a part of a vast organization, without being spiritually reduced by it.[8] Bond does not lie awake at night worrying about office politics. Bond does not suck up to the boss. Bond does not get ulcers. It’s been made very clear to Bond that he is quite expendable—as it’s made very clear to all the ordinary folks working corporate jobs! —but somehow he’s found a way to ride this tiger.

An important aspect of this is Bond’s ambiguous and distrustful relationship with the technology that modernity forces upon us.

Bond regards the real business of spying as a matter of physical stamina and mental agility. He is contemptuous of the idea that what he does could be done better by—or even with—machines. However, time and again Bond gets himself out of tight spots with one of Q’s gadgets. And so he does make a kind of uneasy peace with technology. But again and again when the time comes for Bond to really save the day, he does so with his own wits and guts. In other words, the films wind up siding with Bond and declaring that technology—and technē—is not the answer.

All of which makes Bond suitable as a form of modern mythology: “All the traditional mythic elements are present in Bond, only they have been rather straightforwardly modernized.”[9] And this is the key to the significance of Bond: like the young Costello, we long to see “the present mythologized.”[10] Bond’s adventures are neither “long long ago” nor “in a galaxy far far away.”  These “grand conflicts between good and evil, with extraordinary heroes doing extraordinary things, [are] set in the here-and-now.”[11]

And that mythology is pagan: Bond never asks what Jesus would do, nor is he afflicted with postmodern doubt; “Bond is beyond good and evil—but only in the sense that he’s beyond Christian (or liberal) moralizing.” He exacts personal vengeance, is a racialist, and a nationalist. In short, everything we moderns have been taught to hate and fear.

Costello details the ways the Bond franchise has fought, and sometimes surrendered, to modernity, and finds much to appreciate in the latest Craig incarnation, where Bond seems closer to our own existential perplexity.

Nor does Costello ignore the purely mythological, or symbolic, content of the films, giving us a bravura analysis of Skyfall, demonstrating how it “contains philosophical and psychological depth of a kind I never expected to find in this series.”

“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

Like a true fan, Costello also delves into the shadowy world of the Bond spoof and the Bond wannabes, bringing out the contrasting messages of the Matt Helm and Derek Flint series, which fail to live up to the Bond model, but don’t – and ultimately can’t even – care;

It’s discipline, order, duty, and iron will (the villains) . . . against hedonism, debauchery, and selfish abandon (the hero).

The freedom of Matt Helm is mere license. He’s out to make the world safe not for democracy and individual rights, but for boozing and boinking and sleeping till noon. That’s the American Dream, and he is living it.[12]

The American versions of Bond jettison all that is noble about the character and turn him into a grinning lothario, a self-involved hedonist, a perpetual adolescent, a vulgar operator always on the make. And please keep squarely in mind that this was done so that American audiences would have a character they could more easily identify with and root for. The American soul is rotten to the core.[13]

Television fitfully attempted to cash in as well with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a ‘60s TV series now largely forgotten – even by the makers of the 2015 movie – that was, as Costello points out, a serious rival to the Bond movies.[14]  Here again Costello excels in not only conveying huge chunks of information with ease and clarity, but also kindling some of his own enthusiasm in the reader.

Costello locates the specific difference between Helm and Flint in their respective levels of sophistication, while each shares a very American disdain for “fascist” organization and a preference for individualism. With U.N.C.L.E., we see the flip side: North Americans (Costello reveals that Solo was, as one says today, “secretly Canadian,” which was news to me) and Russians (sidekick Illya) are the narrow-lapelled Organizational Men who serve as executives of UN-style “international order.”[15]

Frontloading the collection with all this Bondiana could be dangerous; one might think that Costello has already taken his best shot. Still, the quality of these is such that the reader is eager to hear Costello on any number of related items of popular culture.

“On examination, there appears to be little definite sign of deterioration.”

The Bond films are a kind of Golden Age (da da da daaaa!) of Manhood, and, as someone observed, since America went directly from barbarism to decadence, the world seems to have gone directly to the Kali Yuga.  The sophistication of the Bond films was no longer enough, and darker, more ambivalent “heroes” were needed.[16] The landmarks in this new era are the film Fight Club, and the epic TV series Breaking Bad.

Costello gives a literally enlightening account of the enduring popularity and importance  of both by viewing them through the lens of Jack Donovan’s distinction between being a “good” man and being good at being a man.  Along the way he usefully disposes of the “homoerotic” disparagement of Fight Club by its liberal critics; author Palahniuk may be a homosexual himself but his work hardly promotes – indeed, directly attacks – the modern consumerist “gay” identity.

Costello is less successful with Breaking Bad than with Fight Club in arguing that its apparent nihilism is covertly a kind of spiritual or hermetic path. It is here, however, that one wonders whether Costello has lost the plot. Figures like Walt or Jack (in Fight Club) may be products of our cultural decline, but are they answers or more like symptoms?

Isn’t Walt, the bald drug lord alias “Heisenberg,” really more Blofeld than Bond?[17] More Marcellus Wallace than Jules?[18]

It seems the world is divided into those who find wisdom in Breaking Bad, and those who find it in its AMC stablemate, Mad Men. Set in the classic Bond time period, filled with iconic clothes, cars, and other examples of the “Fleming effect,” even ending a season with Nancy Sinatra’s so appropriate “You Only Live Twice,” I would argue that Don Draper – the secret identity of Dick Whitman – vs. Madison Avenue bureaucracy is more relevant to the theme of “riding the tiger” than cooking meth, and suggest there are more valuable suggestions about how boys become men in the Männerbund-building episode “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”[19] than in the whole run of Breaking Bad[20] or Fight Club.[21]

“It seemed to Bond that there was an extra small cleft of worry between the frosty, damnably clear, grey eyes.”

As the Dark Age continues, filmmakers can no longer even recreate beloved classics, capable of only such “campy” homages like the film versions of Dark Shadows and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that Costello gleefully eviscerates here. Even worse are the “original” productions: egalitarian, scatological dreck like The King’s Speech; don’t worry about life, just relax and loosen up, baby!

Finally, Costello’s visit to an “art” gallery reveals the truth of Spengler’s assertion that the West could no longer create great Art; and as he encounters the Met’s infamous new version of The Ring, featuring “The Machine,” we reach the end Spengler had warned of: “Technics has taken over.”

In this period of what the alchemist would call “the silence after the clamor,”[22] Costello is – like us, his readers and fans – left alone in “Dystopia Now!”, forced to “Live in the Past,” and haunted by the giant phallus of the Vermont Teddy Bear. Here Costello achieves a certain kind of bitterly won, postmodern heroism, the persona that has earned him that following.

One criticism might be that this remains very much a book of essays rather than a unified work. Although they are grouped in a general sort of way by subject – Bond movies, Bond ripoffs, TV shows, etc. – which I’ve tried to spell out a bit more here into a kind of thematic arc, the essays themselves are presented as originally published. This does preserve the colloquial voice that is very much a part of Costello’s style – he’ll wonder how he’ll feel about a movie that hasn’t appeared yet, or the next season of a TV series, and the next essay reveals the answer, as he reviews the movie or series a couple years later; but one still wishes, for example, that instead of preserving his hesitation about analyzing a series that hadn’t ended yet and promising to write again at a later date, with the new essay following, he had simply revised and expanded the original essay itself. There’s also a certain amount of repetition, originally needed when material about the origins of Blofeld, for example, had to be recounted in a later discussion of fascist fashion, that could have been consolidated as well.

Next time, however, Costello might set himself an even more challenging task: writing a dull essay. Everything here just gleams with wit, intelligence, and above all the unmistakable signs of being a part of a struggle to discover and achieve what it is to be a man.

 

Notes

1. A sarcastic question tossed up when Major Danby makes the mistake of asking for questions at a briefing in Catch-22.

2. Crow T. Robot comments on the over-the-top title theme to the Bond ripoff, Operation Kid Brother, MST3k, Episode 508. I take “Wallace” to be a reference to the heroic runt character in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables; for more on Wallace and De Palma’s version of the ancient Männerbund, see this review.

3. Nick’s (William Hurt) description of his radio talk show career in The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983). See also “I have a small, deeply disturbed following” by Daniel W. Drener, Foreign Policy, January 3, 2005: “Occasionally I think, ‘Exactly what did I post that made some reader decide to purchase these items via my website?’ Unfortunately, most of the time I fret about what I posted to trigger this purchase. The horror, the horror.”

4. London: Cape, 1965; out of print, and not directly related to the James Bond Dossier Website (but see here).

5. Introduction to Operation Kid Brother on the MST3k, Vol. XXV DVD release.

6. Arguably, Deep 13, although technically a sub-basement of Gizmonic Institute, was a kind of “steel-framed rocket base concealed inside an inactive volcano” so loved by Bond villains, among whom TV’s Frank, with his platinum hair and spit curl, might be numbered.

7. “He never quite got around to the traditional facial antic of curling his lip at all the works of man but he wouldn’t surprise us if he did.” Amis, op. cit., p. 36.

8. “Bond is hardly the wandering outlaw of this own dark mind, as Byron and his [Byronic hero] were able to afford to be. M’s dark mind is the one that counts and members of the 00 section go where it decides they shall go.” Amis, loc. cit.

9. Ironically, Costello fails to connect this with Fleming’s much-parodied habit of minutely branding all of Bond’s accoutrements, from socks to marmalade. While correct that there are elements of snobbery, consumerism, and post-war ration fatigue, Costello ignores their contribution to what Amis called “the Fleming effect,” the unique verisimilitude that makes Bond an identifiable fantasy figure rather than just another genre protagonist.

10. “Mr. Fleming has brought off the unlikely feat of enclosing this wildly romantic, almost narcissistic and (one would have thought) hopelessly out of date persona inside the shellac of a secret agent, and so making it plausible, mentally actable and, to all appearance, contemporary.” Amis, loc. cit.

11. Costello points out that when the “old” myths were created, they didn’t seem old, but of the present day. The mistake of Tolkien and others, of crafting self-consciously old tales, reminds me of a critic of the Brideshead Revisited TV serial, who pointed out how all the books shown were noticeably old – because after all, it takes place long ago – even though back then the books would have been quite new. I constantly notice this now, in movies and TV shows, how eighteenth-century aristos apparently went out of their way to fill their libraries with old, moldering volumes. It might be useful to compare Costello’s point to Lovecraft’s contempt for twentieth-century authors still trying to give us chills with tired, old props like werewolves and vampires that we now know aren’t real. Lovecraft eventually pioneered a new form of weird tale, more like science fiction, and Costello notes that modern myths “substitute science fiction for the supernatural. (There seems to be some kind of cultural or literary necessity to this.)”

12. As Watchmen’s Comedian says, “What happened to the American dream? It came true! You’re looking at it!” See Trevor Lynch on the Watchmen book and movie.

13. In this, the Helm/Flint series prefigures the more recent “slobs vs. snobs” genre. Interestingly, the first in this genre, Animal House (John Landis, 1978), is nostalgically set in prime Bond times, and features a  “hero,” animalistically named Otter, who apes the Bond/Helm lifestyle, complete with a frat house room outfitted like a Helm/Flynt bachelor pad.

14. In the style of the day, various two-part TV episodes were released theatrically in Europe and rivaled the Bond box office.

15. Here one must question Costello’s dismissal of Robert Vaughn as “hardly physically imposing” . . . Felton wanted to present what he called “a new kind of hero,” and essentially this amounted to short and scrawny. Vaughn was about 5’9”. In fact, Vaughn was a force to be reckoned with. His debut was in the role of  military school bully Jocko de Paris in Calder Willingham’s End as a Man, a role created on stage by Ben Gazarra, and later in the film, The Strange One (Jack Garfein, 1957; see the review here); the Los Angeles Times described his performance as “glittering evil.” In Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) he also made a believable antagonist for Steve McQueen, a man so macho he could look cool in a turtleneck. And in real life, Vaughn and Ben Gazarra (again!) escaped from behind the Iron Curtain when a film production was overtaken by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Compared to Sean Connery, Connery is, well, Neil Connery. See Robert Vaughn, A Fortunate Life (New York: Dunne, 2008).

16.  As Judi Dench (“M” herself!) observes in The Chronicles of Riddick, “In normal times, evil would be fought by good.  But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.”

17. “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” Breaking Bad, Season 5, Episode 6. To which it’s Jesse who gives the traditional Bond answer: “Is a meth empire really something to be proud of?”

18. See Trevor Lynch’s review of Pulp Fiction.

19. How many times has M said, “Sit down, 007”? Matthew Zoller Seitz says the episode “has the feel of a heist flick” and dubs it Draper’s 11, which connects it to Costello’s world of ‘60s male bonding films; see the recap reprinted in Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical Companion (New York: Abrams, 2015).

20. There’s even some crime: the partners raid the Sterling Cooper offices (which evoke the same mid-century, stainless steel motif as Blofeld’s lairs) late at night over the weekend, taking everything pertaining to the accounts they need for their new firm, as well as their office furniture and personal belongings. Of course, blowing up bank buildings and building a meth empire are more exciting . . . to some. But Seitz and other reviewers have compared the episode to such manly classics as Ocean’s Eleven and The Seven Samurai.

21. Although Lane Pryce and Pete Campbell do get in an epic fistfight.

22. See Michael A. Hoffman II’s Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, whose analysis of the occult cryptocracy likely has more than a few connections to Fleming and the “intelligence community.”

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One Comment

  1. David
    Posted May 18, 2017 at 5:45 am | Permalink

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