From Russia With Love was released almost 50 years ago.
I point that out not to make anyone reading this feel old (or young), but because I revisited the second James Bond picture on a big screen recently, in a small but packed Manhattan theater, and it made me painfully aware that for a good many people, movies aren’t art or experience, they’re product. And products date.
Some of the patrons seemed truly, deeply, un-ironically into the film, but many more seemed to be treating it as a nostalgia trip. The very qualities that made the film seem modern and exciting when it came out amused them. The film’s lack of newness prevented connection with the audience.
Scratch that. It wasn’t the film’s fault. It was the audience’s.
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.
That wasn’t happening here.
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 saw From Russia With Love with my good friend Stephen Neave. He’s a huge James Bond fan. The audience pissed him off. Afterward he told me the two young men in front of us were snickering and joking so much that he wanted to smack them across the backs of their heads.
“Why pay twelve bucks to see an old movie in a theater, then sit there the whole time and act superior to it?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you act that way, you’re wasting your money. You’re not getting everything out of the movie. You’re not experiencing it. Plus, this is not a black-and-white subtitled movie about sheepherders. It’s James Bond!”
I know what he meant.
I don’t think highly of many of the Bond pictures as movies. With few exceptions, they don’t have much in the way of emotional content, and they don’t knock themselves out trying to create nuanced characters or tell coherent stories. They’re pure escapism—action scenes strung together by cheesecake, gadgets, and banter.
But if you meet them on their own terms, even the worst Bonds are, or ought to be, watchable, if only for their surface pleasures: the clothes, the cars, the explosions, the scenery, the hero’s brawny chest and cruel smile, the curves on the women. From Russia With Love has two of the sexiest images I’ve ever seen: the opening credits with the names projected on belly dancers’ writhing, whirling bodies, and the scene where a bare-chested, towel-clad Bond enters his bedroom and finds Tatiana Romanova in his bed. Images like that aren’t cute. They’re primordial. The Jean-Luc Godard quote “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun” sums up the franchise in twelve words. Films like this are cheeky erotic daydreams. The idea of somebody sitting through a cheeky erotic daydream with a smirk is just sad. Why not engage in some daydreams of your own?
I like imagining myself seeing From Russia with Love for the first time in 1963 while on a date with a woman I fancied, having no clue what shifts in technology and morality the future would bring, and maybe thinking something like: Hey, the movie just made a joke about oral sex, and then it cut to a close-up of the Russian agent’s lipsticked mouth. It’s filling up the whole screen! I’ve never seen a movie do that. How did that get past the censors? Hey… Look at that. My date isn’t embarrassed. She’s laughing in a sort of delightedly nervous way. She’s cool. Maybe we can get a drink after this.
The 2012 IFC crowd’s reaction reminded me of an experience in college circa 1988. My film history teacher, an associate professor from NYU who’d just arrived on campus a month earlier, kicked off his very first film history course by showing Singing in the Rain. Most of the students laughed and joked from start to finish. They thought it was hilarious.
I expected the professor to shush them, but he didn’t. He later told me that he was so disturbed by the students’ refusal to engage that he wanted to let it continue so he could study it.
He opened the post-screening lecture by asking the crowd to please tell him what was so funny.
“This movie is a musical comedy,” he explained, “so I expected laughs, but the laughs were in what seemed to me like strange places,” he said. “I picked this movie to open my fall film history class because I wanted to open with something accessible and fun, and it sounds as though a lot of you didn’t think it was either of those things. And I’d like to know why.”
A young woman raised her hand.
“Well, it was just funny,” she said, “because they’d just, you know, be talking, and then they’d start singing, and you’d hear this orchestra suddenly start playing out of nowhere, and then they’re dancing these really elaborate routines.”
Another student volunteered that the characters talked in a “corny” way and smiled so much that their performances didn’t seem “natural.”
Another said that, compared to videos that aired on MTV circa 1988, the film seemed “really primitive and kind of unsophisticated.”
The teacher shifted back and forth on his heels, staring at the ground, weighing words in his head.
Then he looked up and said, “I don’t know if I can ever explain this to you in a way that makes sense, but I just have to say that it disturbs me that you would think a movie like Singing in the Rain is corny and unsophisticated. Music videos can be works of art in their own rights, but they’re not necessarily more sophisticated than Singing in the Rain. In fact, I would argue that a movie that has people standing around having conversations with each other, and then suddenly has them singing and dancing to a score that appears out of nowhere, then goes back to having them talk, asks more imagination from its audience than a music video. You have to decide to be OK with whatever the film is doing at any moment. You have to decide to accept it as normal, and decide to care about what’s happening even though it just suddenly turned into a different kind of movie. It’s like when you’re at a play and you just decide to pretend that the characters are wherever the play tells you they are, rather than looking at the stage and seeing a couple of actors in chairs pretending to be people they aren’t. Any work that would ask something like that of an audience cannot be called unsophisticated. It’s sad to think that there was once a time when Hollywood released dozens of movies like this each year, and millions of people went to see them, and enjoyed themselves, and laughed, and sang along, and got wrapped up in the story, and that if the same kind of movies were released right now, people would laugh at them and call them unsophisticated. That so many of you could sit there and snicker at Singing in the Rain for being unsophisticated depresses me beyond words. This movie is not unsophisticated. You are.”
His contract was not renewed.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The volume of response to this piece sparked the writer to publish a follow-up, which you can read here.]