Representing the Sensation
“I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I can” Francis Bacon once said in Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. “Perhaps if a thing comes across directly, they feel it as horrific.” Imagine a James Bond that would in John Berger’s words in relation to Bacon, in an essay ‘The worst is not yet come’, “arrive at this rawness which speaks directly to the nervous system”, and we have basically Daniel Craig in the role. It is entirely apt that Craig came to cinema playing one of Bacon’s best known models, George Dyer in Love is the Devil (1998); he is an actor who suggests there is always more tension in the body than there can conceivably be in the situation, and it is this raw surplus that was so often the subject of Bacon’s paintings. When Berger says “that the worst that has happened has nothing to do with the blood, the stains, the viscera. The worst is that man has come to be mindless”, we may say of Craig’s Bond that he is without mind. Yet this would be too strong. It is enough to say that the mind is less present than the body; that the rawness of the nervous system takes precedence over the “clothed situation”.
What we mean by the clothed situation is anything from the narrative coordinates to the carefully coutured figure: the degree to which the body as a Bacon-like nervous system is covered over by culture. What makes Craig so interesting a Bond is that he seems to have reversed this hierarchy, and it needn’t be an idle point to mention a comment Stuart Jeffries makes in an interview with the actor in the Guardian. “Surely it is symptomatic of something or other (the mores of post-feminism; the commodification of homoerotic allure; the inflated vital statistics deemed necessary for the plausible spy of the new millennium)…[that] his body is fetishised more than hitherto…” It also indicates a body over a suit, and indeed the costume designer on Casino Royale, Lindy Hemmings, said that Bond’s evening attire is a different shape now with Craig in the role. This is not so much the suit wearing the man, as the pumped up nervous system clothed but somehow not constrained. In Bacon’s Study for Figure VI (1956-57) we see the suit inadequate to the pressure of the bodily force. In Craig’s Bond it isn’t only the violence that is greater than the situation demands, but the body more forceful than the suit can constrain.
Now while it is true there have been tough Bonds (Connery and Dalton) and soft Bonds (Moore and Brosnan), no one more than Craig has quite taken Ian Fleming’s claim in For Your Eyes Only that Bond was a “pest control officer” and a “public executioner” so readily to heart. The traditional film Bond is a figure balancing tasks and perks; in Craig’s interpretation he is a Sisyphian figure where the tasks never end. Even if it is so that in Casino Royale Bond seems to fall in love, we can hardly call this a perk. And, as we see by the end of the film, and into A Quantum of Solace that passes for a sequel, Bond is still nursing pain, whether that is the pain of realizing he was never loved, or the pain of realizing he never cared whether he was or not. This is a character finally more in the problem of his nervous system than in the social whirl.
It is partly the prominence of tasks and the relative absence of perks which give the two Bonds Craig has appeared in a sense of the inexorable, a kinetic world without exit where the notion of retirement contains no release. In A Quantum of Solace Bond drags an old colleague played by Giancarlo Giannini out of retirement, but though the character has the trappings of the retired life in a sea-side home, he is also trapped in the body that worked as an agent. As we hear about all the pills he takes to get through life, we realize that he may have retired geographically but he has hardly retired emotionally, psychologically and nervously. Craig’s Bond exemplifies why at the end of one’s career there would still be no space for relaxation.
This however is not only an article about the Bond films; it is chiefly about Craig as an actor generally given to the exploration of nervous exhaustion, of a life filled with tension. Whether this is externally generated by events, as in Bond, internally evolved, as in Sylvia, playing Ted Hughes, or somewhere in between, as we find in the college lecturer hounded by a stalker in Enduring Love, we have a man not so much tired with life as by life. Daniel Craig we should remember is no more than forty, and five years younger than Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise. Yet he seems to have lived life while they have surfed it: Craig’s felt the pounding of the waves, and his etched features, with the cheeks drawing in and the blue eyes often bloodshot, may remind us of an earlier generation of actors: as if suggesting Richard Burton on the one hand; Charles Bronson on the other.
In such comparisons lies a sense of Craig’s range. We should remember that Burton was also capable of playing poets (his fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood), but never really action figures, no matter his occasional foray into the genre in films like Where Eagles Dare and The Wild Geese. Kinetic energy could surround Burton, but he wasn’t an actor to generate it. While he could convey internal anger certainly (in anything from Look Back in Anger to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), this was closer to a kinetic domesticity, with Burton projecting rage in an enclosed space, where Craig gives the impression of eating up chunks of spaces that cannot exhaust his fury. In an early scene in A Quantum of Solace in Siena, where Bond chases after a double agent, he eats up huge swathes of space as he is determined to get his man. As he runs through corridors and over rooftops, this is a figure one feels that has as much rage as there is space to express it.
We might also think of a scene from The Mother, where Craig’s character offloads his frustration on the house he is working on, and with the aging mother of the friend whose house it is. As he expresses his disbelief that the mother he’s been having an affair with could have believed he loved her, and his general irritation with where his life is heading, so he starts to demolish the work he has done. In many a film with a different actor this would be absurd melodrama, but in Craig the director Roger Michell (who would also use him again in Enduring Love), possesses someone who doesn’t so much melodramatise his emotions, as require a broad enough canvas within which to act that rage out. Often when we criticise a film for its melodramatising of anger, are we not simply saying that the actor does not suggest in their bodily presence the requisite tension; that consequently the rage seems so much more a product of narrative expectation than bodily release? Here as Craig starts destroying his own handiwork, the destruction of mise-en-scene seems consistent with the inner tension that finds external eloquence through the body’s actions.
In both Casino Royale and A Quantum of Solace there are moments where Judi Dench’s M talks to Bond about his capacity for piling up bodies, and she comments on the deaths of an almost one night stand in Casino Royale, and a character with whom he has a night of passion in A Quantum of Solace. As we see the dead woman in Casino Royale in the foreground of the shot lying in a hammock and 007 a few yards away in the background, so we may notice a chilling impassivity in the framing. Bond doesn’t move towards the body; he stands where he is, before the film cuts to the man beside him vomiting. As M comes up to him she mentions that the woman was tortured before being killed. Again his face remains unflinching. In A Quantum of Solace, where his one night stand has been drowned in oil and then left on the bed she shared with Bond, M provides the emotional dimension missing from 007. She tells him the young woman was basically an office worker who didn’t deserve to get involved, and that it was Bond’s charms that cost the woman her life. In each instance we might think not only of Bond and M, but perhaps also Craig’s role in The Mother, with Craig’s virility contrasted with the mother’s sensitivity.
We invoke The Mother in relation to Bond not for lazy comparison, but rather to pinpoint the way that Dench’s M provides an emotional focal point at one remove from the character himself. As in The Mother, the older woman contains a sort of emotional nervous system in contrast to Craig’s kinetic nervous one. If the mother would be likely to breakdown and cry; Craig would be more inclined to break objects that surround him. We may have proposed that Craig’s eyes are frequently bloodshot, but this isn’t an index of tears; more late nights and drink. If we insist that Craig’s Bond is thoughtless we do so also in relation to heartlessness. It is the case that in Casino Royale Craig attends to the sobbing and nervously exhausted Eva Green’s character Vespa as she sits in the shower. It is also true that the music and the reverse track out of the bathroom implies sensitivity on Craig’s part, the sort of sensitivity he was looking for when he says in relation to the role, Bond’s “vulnerable and falls in love”. (Guardian) But is this Bond’s pain or an emotional obligation towards a woman to whom he is undeniably attracted? After all Bond only a short while before has practically told Green that he wants her to phone someone to get rid of the bodies of the men he has dispatched.
When we think of Bacon pictures like Three Studies of the Human Head, the link between the head and the heart is absent: the pain is in the brain, a brain as if escaping from itself and its possible thoughts. This is the sort of thoughtlessness we’re proposing in relation to Bond: as if Bond were really to confront his role as a ‘pest control officer’ his mind probably couldn’t hold the internal contradictions without exploding. Craig’s Bond seems like a combination of Bacon’s triptych and Fitzgerald’s famous passage in The Crack-Up: “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Bond may have to hold half a dozen contradictory ideas in his mind at the same time, but not so much to function; more that he functions so he can keep these opposing ideas in his mind without cracking up.
This is of course the case with all Bonds, but the others seemed to possess less rage and more pleasure. The age of consumerism collided with the pleasure principle, and the traditional Bond is like many a citizen of late bourgeois capitalism who turns a blind eye to the compromises and focuses on the perks. This seems absent from Craig’s Bond, evident in the moment when he is asked how he likes his Martini and says as if he gives a damn. This is a man for whom alcohol assuages the nerves; it is not a metonymic pleasure: a pleasure that defines his place as near the top of the social heap. We may think here not only of the scene in the bathroom in Casino Royale after he’s strangled someone to death and washes his face, changes his shirt and takes a large swift drink with no concern for its social value, but also of a moment of possible metonymic pleasure denied: the dress his fellow agent Vesper wears at the casino. “Weren’t you supposed to enter so the others could see you” Bond says as she comes up to his table and kisses him. Certainly there is a hungry desire in Bond’s eyes as a woman he hasn’t yet slept with comes towards him in a slinky item, but this is the look of both raw lust and functional purpose: he desires her and yet she hasn’t quite done her job – to distract the other card players. What is missing is the intermediate pleasure so central to many Bond films. This is the product placement sense of an identity predicated on the good life and noticing its presence in others. It is evident in A Quantum of Solace when Bond quickly books himself and his lover-to-be into a top-notch hotel room after taking one look at the run-down hotel they were planning to stay in, but this is still presented from Bond’s point of view as perfunctory luxury: a mandatory part of a generally hard life; not the entitlement of a good one.
In the Stuart Jeffries Guardian interview the writer says that the producers “wanted to start Bond from scratch with a new adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale. They would make him voguishly vulnerable, hint that he was an orphan and give him a proper love affair…” Jeffries offers a rather more social Bond than we are proposing, but not especially inconsistent with it. These are aspects of the character as he becomes close to Vesper, and here we can talk of vulnerability paradoxically in relation to what emotions he refuses or is unable to show. Where Connery, Moore and Brosnan seem to regard emotion as irrelevant to the job to hand, Craig looks like a man for whom emotion has been sublimated and comes out through impassivity or rage: his heartlessness and mindlessness have been suppressed not ignored. When in one early scene in Live and Let Die, after a car chase that leaves a man dead, Roger Moore’s Bond makes a call that shows no more a trace of disturbance on Bond’s visage than if he didn’t get the expected table at a restaurant, an equivalent moment in a recent Bond would show Craig raging down the phone. There is no surplus energy to Moore’s Bond, and he remains a man of urbane equanimity no matter the situation.
But Craig is good as an actor showing disturbance. This is not the same as being moved, exactly, but he is an actor for whom the accumulation of misery witnessed etches itself on the face as the reality of a life lived. We can think of the early scene in the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, where Craig’s character and others witness a man falling from a hot air balloon and we hear the horrible crack of bone breaking as the man hits the ground. Craig gives the impression that he hears and notices every broken bone, every cracked rib, even every emotional scar in the films he is in, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to react to these moments sensitively. Whether it is the scene in Casino Royale where he consoles Green, the moment where a woman explains where the burnt tissue on her back came from in A Quantum of Solace, or the way he responds in Enduring Love to the inevitability of a man’s death – they all indicate someone for whom sensitivity cannot reside in appropriate behaviour, but at best in a realization that people suffer.
There is an early passage in McEwan’s novel that could say much about Craig’s characters generally. Here McEwan’s main character, played by Craig in the film, says “…my emotional responses were non-existent or inappropriate…I looked out across the field and the thought scrolled across: that man is dead.” McEwan’s narrator adds, “The corollary seemed to be: and I am alive. It was a random matter, who was alive or dead at any given time. I happened to be alive.” In Flashbacks of a Fool, Craig’s character, a Hollywood star, returns to England after hearing a friend from his childhood has passed away. He’s missed the funeral, but goes to see the wife as she’s visiting the graveside. The spouse was once the possible love of his life, but he screwed up and, following another messy incident, left the village for good. Here he returns and offers his condolences to a woman he hasn’t seen since he let her down many years before, and he has let her down again by missing the funeral. “How are you he says” – quickly followed by acknowledging to himself and to the mourning widow that it was a “stupid fucking question”. “I don’t know what to say” he adds, a further cliché that works within the context of the role, and Craig’s work generally, where an awareness of pain is not quite the same as possessing sensitivity towards it.
We might propose that Craig is a very fine actor of an empathy of nerves rather than of emotions. While some actors can shape themselves around a fellow feeling of the heart – Robin Williams in films like Awakenings and Good Will Hunting, Kris Kristofferson in Blume in Love and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Philippe Noiret in much of his work – Craig is closer to someone like Nick Nolte in films like Q and A and Affliction. It is a persona that seems to realize we are made up of nerves, muscle and bone. When we look at an early seventies Connery Bond film like Diamonds are Forever and compare it to Casino Royale, we notice that though Connery might have been a tough Bond, that toughness resided in a certain indifference to the violence he meted out, and in the light-footed way he would get out of situations. In the opening sequence as Connery threatens to strangle a beach beauty and takes out the villain and his henchmen, there is little sense of impact on Connery’s body, or on the mind that is responsible for the deed.
It is one of the ironies of the action film that the more seriously the hero takes the violence, the more dehumanized he will seem to be. This is because the hero starts from a position of the human that can be dehumanized, where in many an action film derealisation is so strong that there is little room for the dehumanisation to take place: the film is about the violence as a movie trope, not an allusion to a violent reality. It was a point Craig addressed in an interview in Movie City News around the time of making the gangster film, Layer Cake in 2004, and before getting the Bond role. Talking about many scripts he received which didn’t interest him, he said “what they do is horrible – they shoot three people in the first scene, then you’re going to start having to pull people’s ears off in the sixth scene, or whatever it is, because the escalating violence is sort of what that kind of film is.”
Basically what Craig is offering here is the problem of derealisation over dehumanisation: so that what would seem to interest him is not the escalation of violence, but how violence impacts on the self. As we’ve proposed above, this doesn’t make Craig’s a sensitive persona, but it does create the space for examining dehumanisation through desensitisation and not through the derealised. The sort of interior comment made by the narrator in McEwan’s novel is not that of the oblivious action hero, but could be consistent with the man of action who faces the reality of his situation whilst knowing that feeling – the sort of empathy of emotion – has no place. Craig is an interesting actor and an ideal ‘realist’ Bond partly because he can register the pain of muscle, blood, nerves and bone, without too readily falling into pathos on the one side, or indifference on the other. If we look at the action sequence in Casino Royale, where it looks like a baddie is going to have an oil tanker explode against a spanking new top range airplane as it is taxiing along the runway about to make its first flight, we can explain more clearly. Here Bond jumps on the roof of the tanker as the villain tries to shake him off it, and, after succeeding in doing so, Bond jumps on again. Every bump is registered in close-up cuts of Craig landing on the runway, and in a soundtrack that makes the bumps audible. There may be a human dimension to Bond’s purpose – to save the passengers – but the film chooses not to cut to the interior of the plane to register their obliviousness and impending possible death – but holds instead to the necessity of action. Now many an action film would work with the humanity of the passengers as well as the task accomplishments of hero and villain, but part of Casino Royale’s strength is allowing the human to exist not in an editing approach that would cut between the hero, villain and the innocents, but chiefly between the villain and Bond, with Bond’s humanness evident in the blows he receives as he tries to save others. At the end of the scene, as Bond has managed to oust the baddie from the truck, and jack-knife the vehicle so it avoids the plane, so he sits in the truck for a moment as we see his bruised and cut face. This isn’t the human side of Bond emotionally, but physically – we see the lengths he will go to to save lives. This is not the humanity he brings to a situation: but the human body willing to be cut and bruised for the sake of other people.
This raises a final point, and perhaps the very thrust of this article. To what degree is the notion of being human a question of the heart or of the body, of the emotions or the nerves? One thinks here of two very different approaches to making a character human, with the first rather the more common. How often is a secondary character sympathetically removed from the proceedings to make us aware of either the ignorance of the leading character or the problem of villainy? One thinks of the buddies in Top Gun, Basic Instinct and Speed – all of whom can be dispatched with minimum nervous exhaustion on the viewer’s part, but maximum emotional manipulation: the deaths are sad in relation to our hero’s grief and his need to avenge them. This is cathartic drama rather than immediate violence. What matters is not the humanity in relation to the body, but humanity in relation to the heart: the hero’s feelings of loss. However, in gruellingly violent films like Casino and Irreversible we have not so much cathartic emotional release, but the sensation of violence done to a body. In the former film we have no identificatory relationship with the character whose head ends up in a vice – he is neither a character we have followed, nor would his death have any emotional impact on the film’s leading figures. What matters in the scene is that we are seeing a human life at risk, and our relationship is on an immediately – as in non-mediated – visceral level. We aren’t especially morally involved, yet we are very physically engaged.
This is also evident in the fire extinguisher scene in Irreversible where we see in graphic detail a character with whom we’ve had no relationship thus far moving from a living being, to a body with a head ground into stray matter. Will Self reckons in an essay in Screen Violence that in relation to the Casino scene that he “was considering whether a dramatic work in which catharsis is effected by a series of acts, the representation of which cannot actually be viewed, could be said, in any meaningful sense, to be cathartic.” This is the extreme end of what we could call representational sensation – where the image has such an impact on the nerves that the viewer needn’t even witness the entire scene. It is usually very different from representational emotion, where the emotion resides more in the reaction than in the action – the feeling of loss rather than the sense of pain, as we find with the characters in Top Gun, Basic Instinct and Speed.
How does this connect to Craig, and especially his role as 007? It does so not least in relation to Craig being the first representationally sensational Bond, the first character for whom the human exists in at least the body. Before we had a Bond who was indifferent physically and removed emotionally from the events he found himself enduring. This was central to the lazy charm of the films as Bond prepared to have his finger cut off or be fed to the sharks without breaking into a sweat. If the suit wears the man, then it is important the man wears it with equanimity: a sweating Bond does a great disservice to the couture. But Craig’s Bond offers us a Bond of strife, one who does not emotionally humanise the series but nervously re-energizes it. Think of the moment near the end of Casino Royale where Bond has realized Vesper cannot be resuscitated. Certainly this is a man grieving, but in the film’s close-up this is a man who looks like he is ready to burst out of the frame through the nervous system’s implosion. Only a scene later, though, Bond appears to be back to his old self believing that Vesper was hardly innocent anyway. This is evident when M says “You don’t trust anybody do you?” Earlier in the film, after Vesper explains she is very complicated, Bond says, “I need someone to be afraid of”, as though love can never be more than the fraying of nerves. It is this fraying Craig captures so well, and one proposes that few actors have done more to humanise character through an acceptance and realisation of the nervous system, over the human, all too human dimension of moral arcs and do-goodery. Bacon once proposed “that most people…have large areas of undisciplined emotion…” and we might say that Craig has found that un-discipline, and turned it into the nervous rage that passes for a certain type of humanity.