From Russia with Snub

Are we obligated to overthink movies? Or can we just take them as they come, even if the result is ironic?

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of my favorite film critics, recapped a recent revival of From Russia with Love, the second film in the James Bond series. It hasn’t aged well, Seitz admits, but that didn’t excuse the audience’s behavior:

I heard constant tittering and guffawing, all with the same message: “Can you believe people once thought this film was daring? It’s so old-fashioned.” The arch double-entendres; the bloodless violence, long takes, and longer scenes; the alpha male attitudes toward women and sex; John Barry’s jazzy, brassy, borderline-hysterical score: all these things elicited gentle mockery. They laughed at Sean Connery’s hairy chest. They laughed at some obvious stunt-double work. When Bond flirted with the secretary Moneypenny and put his face close to hers, a guy a couple of rows in front of me stage-whispered to his friend, “Sexual harassment!”

I hate to be the guy who says “You’re watching it wrong,” but these people definitely were.

There might be a lot of factors contributing to the viewers’ failure to engage (surely including lack of film literacy), but ultimately, that’s their decision and their loss.

It’s up to the individual viewer to decide to connect or not connect with a creative work. By “connect,” I mean connect emotionally and imaginatively—giving yourself to the movie for as long as you can, and trying to see the world through its eyes and feel things on its wavelength.

Like I said, Seitz is one of my favorite critics. I trust his insight on films and TV shows. Which is why it pains me to say he’s off base here.

Training Is Useful, But There Is No Substitute For Experience

Every film, like every work of art, is a product of its time. It arises from the cultural influences of the artists who created it and the cultural expectations of the audience it was made for at the time. When we speak of a “timeless film,” we mean films where the main elements – plot, performances, composition – translate well outside of their original generation. Or perhaps elements that shift in meaning but still work in a new context. Consider Hitchcock’s innuendoes: edgy at the time, cheeky today, different reactions but still effective. Regardless, no film, short of the completely abstract, can be truly timeless.

Seitz admits as much, albeit reluctantly. “For a good many people, movies aren’t art or experience, they’re product,” he writes. “And products date.” Considering what he thinks of “many people” throughout the rest of the article, it’s fair to assume that he doesn’t put a lot of weight on the tendency of films to age. We’ll get back to this difference between experience and product later, but it’s something to note now. While Seitz acknowledges that a film is a product of its time, that shouldn’t detract from its experience.

But the experience of a film is comprised of two variables: the film itself, and the audience watching it. And just as a film is what time and circumstance make it, so are the people watching it. We pride ourselves on being free-willed, intelligent consumers, but the choices we make, free as they are, can only be among the choices made available to us. Liking Stephen Soderbergh more than Michael Bay might indicate a preference for studied cinematography, but odds are you never heard of Soderbergh until he got some real money behind him (George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, 1998’s Out of Sight). And if you did, congratulations – that means you’re an arthouse cinema regular, and your film tastes are a result of whatever your local indie theater had in its rotation.

So we have the film, a product of its time. And we have the audience, a product of its time. If those two contexts are different, there’s a disconnect between where the film comes from and where the audience is willing to meet it. Again, this is something Seitz admits – he gets why one audience member would whisper “Sexual harassment!” to another when watching Bond flirt with Moneypenny; it’s not a complete non sequitur to him – but I don’t know that he gives it enough credit.

So far, the unexceptional stuff. Now here’s where we go out on a limb.

Give a Wolf a Taste and Then Leave Him Hungry

In the era of digital social media, producers make a lot of the additional features that attach to a piece of content. DVDs come with commentary tracks and making-of featurettes; ebooks come with questions for book clubs or class discussion in the back; articles are footnoted with icons indicating how many times they were shared, liked or pinned. The thing in itself is no longer sufficient, we’re told – it all needs to be placed in a greater context.

While this is true, this doesn’t take away from an artist’s responsibility to create a work that stands on its own. A great piece of art can be made more interesting by knowing its context: knowing that From Russia with Love is Desmond Llewellyn’s first appearance as “Q,” but not under that name, for instance. But a good piece of art won’t be made better, nor a bad piece of art good. Learning that Glitter hit theaters the week after September 11th is useful trivia, but doesn’t make the slop more palatable.

The experiences on which a film should be judged have to take place between the first and last frame. To expect anything else shifts the burden of storytelling from the director, the actors, the editors, the set designers, etc., onto the professors, film critics and pundits who discuss the piece. Knowing that From Russia with Love was Pedro Armendariz’s last film gives his performance a touching bit of poignance, particularly certain lines: “I’ve had a particularly fascinating life. Would you like to hear about it?” But Armendariz’s performance, as the gregarious Kerim Bey, has to rise or fall on its merits. (How many other actors have gone out on a real turkey?)

Anything beyond the level of mere experience activates the critical mindset, or the desire to overthink.

This isn’t to say that the critical mindset has no place in the experience of pop culture. But the consumption of pop culture and the subjecting of that culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve are two distinct acts. One is observational; one is infiltrational. The former is passive; the latter, active. Overthinking a work of pop culture enhances the viewing experience, but it can never be a requirement. If it is required, it’s not truly “pop.”

Go On About the Mechanism

With that, let’s get back to Seitz’s piece.

Seitz watches the revival of From Russia with Love in a “small but packed Manhattan theater.” It’s not for a film class – it’s paying customers in a commercial auditorium. We can’t say for sure, but the context suggests that most of the audience, particularly the titterers, were not intimately familiar with From Russia with Love going in. This isn’t surprising. Though considered by some critics to be the best Connery Bond, it lacks the style of Goldfinger, the audacity of Thunderball or the sheer goofy spectacle of Diamonds Are Forever (personally, I’d put it beneath all of those, but I’m only one man).

As such, it’s safe to bet that this was the first time many of the audience had seen this movie, or at least the first time in many years. So why see it?

James Bond, as a cultural icon, transcends the performance of any one actor. He’s as much the sexy Connery as he is the arch Moore, the cold Dalton, the suave Brosnan, the brutal Craig, or, yes, even the sardonic Lazenby. When we fall in love with Bond, though, we fall in love with one of those portrayals in particular. It’s tough to imagine a fan of You Only Live Twice responding to Octopussy with equal enthusiasm, or a fan of the fantasia that is Live and Let Die responding as warmly to the gritty naturalism of Craig’s Casino Royale. And not even every performance within an actor’s tenure can be compared: the rigorous plotting of For Your Eyes Only vs. the sci-fi stunts of Moonraker, both Moores.

So you had a theater full of people, some of whom had probably seen Dr. No as a kid and who remembered Sean Connery fondly. But they clearly didn’t know what to expect. They showed up, were surprised at how poorly the material had aged, and reacted the way smart and insecure people do to surprise: by joking about it. This is normal.

(Granted, anyone who talks loudly enough to be heard in a movie theater has forfeited their right for humane consideration. But Seitz’s complaint isn’t about the disruption as such, but about the attitude that provokes it)

“It’s up to the individual viewer to decide to connect or not connect with a creative work,” Seitz says. “By “connect,” I mean connect emotionally and imaginatively—giving yourself to the movie for as long as you can, and trying to see the world through its eyes and feel things on its wavelength.” Well, okay, but it’s also up to the movie to connect with the audience, by providing lines, images and scenes that will last beyond a few years. Nobody snickers through Casablanca, a movie that’s twenty years older than From Russia with Love. Though I did see it in a theater once where Ilsa’s line “Is that cannons, or the beating of my heart?” produced laughs, but I would be shocked if that line didn’t produce laughs in 1942.

Seitz, a critic, was trapped in a theater full of people who were viewing the movie with a non-critical mindset. They were experiencing it. Seitz’s friend chastises the audience for “not experiencing the movie,” but I would argue it’s Seitz who’s taken out of the moment by imagining himself seeing this movie on a date in 1963, not actually seeing it in 2012. He’s constructing a narrative in his head, in parallel with Terence Young’s efforts to construct a narrative onscreen, in order to let the narrative onscreen engender the feelings in him that it would a man of his age in 1963. If you went to a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and imagined that you were Hector Berlioz himself, performing it for the first time for Harriet Smithson in 1832, you’ve certainly had an interesting experience. But I’d be hard-pressed to say you had a richer experience than someone who just sat there and enjoyed the music, and I couldn’t swallow the idea that anyone who wasn’t doing what you did was doing it wrong.

Actually, it’s odder than that – Seitz is constructing a narrative in his head in order to let the narrative onscreen engender the feelings in him that he thinks a man of his age would feel in 1963. We have little way of knowing how an audience member of 1963 would view a Bond movie. The critics of the time called it “fun” and an “adventure,” but they also called out its “self-mocking flamboyance” and “nonsense.”

So even presuming it’s possible to create an accurate mental image of a filmgoer in 1963, we don’t know whether that Platonic ideal would have even liked From Russia with Love. Our hypothetical male might have found the scene where Bond beckons two feuding gypsy women to his tent with a wordless gesture as ridiculous as Seitz’s neighbors doubtless found it.

Seitz portrays this as a more vulnerable posture – “giving yourself to the movie” – but it’s actually far more defensive. He has to construct an elaborate mental scenario in order to find the film stimulating. He has to armor himself in the clothing of a fictional 1963 male in order to have a satisfying experience with the film. It’s the other audience members, laughing reflexively, who have their guards down.

To reach the point I’ve been working to for some time: Seitz is overthinking From Russia with Love. That’s fine. I and the other writers on this site would say that it’s a worthy pastime. It enriches your viewing experience of any movie. But it’s not a requirement. Overthinking subjects pop culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve. It’s the next level of consumption, not the first. It’s the post-movie conversation over drinks, or the talk with a stranger on the train, or the essay in your film studies class. It’s post-event, not pre- or intra-event.

We love overthinking artifacts of the popular culture, and we’re happy to consider Seitz one of our fold. But we can’t endorse his position that failure to overthink is “doing it wrong.”