Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Other JB, But not James - or Jackson - Brown(e)

My childhood friend Mike always got to see the movies I couldn't go to. He'd tell me the next day about "Planet of the Apes", "Easy Rider", "The Godfather" or whatever. Whatever, though, was usually the latest James Bond movie.

I remember "Goldfinger", or rather Mike's retelling of it, most clearly. Something about a naked woman painted gold. Now, there were at least two things in that sentence that I'd never seen before. And the promise of vastly more.

One aspect of my childhood, and maybe yours, was that, as much as we had, there always seemed to be something else a little out of reach. Back before VCRs and DVD players, you either caught a movie in the theater or, if you were lucky, a mangled version of it on TV years later. Some obstacles to luck were the movie being on too late, your parents still not letting you see it, or your siblings wanting to watch something else. (I dimly recall such a conflict. I don't remember what everybody else wanted to see, but my choice was "I Dream of Jeannie". "Well, you can dream of her later" mom said. Dream I did, and more.) So by the time you got to see it - whatever the damned thing was - you were older, and wondered what all the fuss was about. One exception was "Night of the Living Dead", which held up to expectations once it came on late night TV, thankfully not too long after some friends raved about it.

But certain TV series, or movies that were part of a series, always fascinated me. Did you know anyone who went in at 8pm on Saturday night to watch "The Prisoner"? Well, now you do. (I still managed to miss the last episode, though.) Whenever there was more than one part to something, I became fascinated in finding all of them. "Origin" stories were of particular interest. And back then, the chances of seeing all of them were close to nil.

Such fascination recently drove me to renting the first (but only the first) "Lost in Space" DVD. I had been told about it numerous times by friends who had seen it and then gotten on with their lives. Not me. But now Netflix would be my salvation once again! But, you know, it kind of sucked. Big surprise. Well, I'm finally past it. And how.

As an avid comic reader, I was always missing one of the parts of a series (Damn you, Marvel! At least your lame competitor DC kept the stories to a single issue.) I would address this in a manner much too embarrassing to detail even here. But that's the story of my life – always missing a piece, always obsessed with finding it.

Then there were the trading cards which basically canonized a movie or TV show. Besides JB, there was "Planet of the Apes", "The Monkees" and, oh yeah, baseball. The JB cards even had trivia questions on the back.

Question: How did Goldfinger die?

Answer, from full-of-crap friend: "He swallowed a jet"

"Swallowed A JET?" I asked. "Yeah, it's a small pill that...blah, blah, blah." No wonder I was obsessed.

So, for me, James Bond was special. There was all that sex (or, to my eight year old mind, all that being cool around girls) and violence. And the fact that James did a lot of his secret agenting while wearing a suit. This gave us something fun to do on Sundays after Mass, since our parents made us stay dressed up. We could play James Bond (or Man from UNCLE)! I wonder how many father's hats were ruined by a kid who borrowed it to play "Oddjob"?

Apparently I was not alone in feeling this way. I just finished reading "The Man Who Saved Britain", by Simon Winder, which is about one (other) man's ridiculous obsession with the whole James Bond phenomenon. He, being about ten years younger than me, got sucked in by "Live and Let Die". While I find that hard to believe, I'm the last one who should talk. It's an hilarious confession, and an fascinating history of post war Britain. It goes a long way to explain JB's popularity then.

If not the abberrant behavior I'd occasionally display. Like ten years ago, back before Netflix, when one of the cable channels, as a Thanksgiving treat, ran "all" of the James Bond movies back to back. Now, I'm not a complete idiot. I wasn't expecting "Citizen Kane", but I did see this as a great opportunity to tape them and then, finally, watch and savor(?) them one by one at my leisure. This would resolve all the mysteries, fill in all the blanks, put all the puzzle pieces in place. My life would be officially complete, what with the wife and kid thing already checked off.

So I set up the basement VCR, and kicked it off at 8pm that night. Unbeknownst to me, at about 8:02pm my then six year old son Michael went down to the basement and changed the channel. Luckily(?) for me, at 8:03,he came up and asked if I was taping anything (What a great kid, huh?) But it was too late. Now my anticipated 8 or 16 hours of pure JB had been irretrievably ruined by this precious minute of over-taping. How would I even follow the plot now? What deep insights did this one minute at the start of "Dr No" hold that would strengthen my appreciation of the subsequent sixteen hour's worth of movies? IT WAS ALL…TOTALLY…RUINED!

So I might have overreacted a little.

I yelled a bit, and Michael got upset (Sorry, Mikey!). He drew a heartbreaking picture of him leaving home "so that all the problems would go away". This picture is still kept and treasured, and continues to remind me that even if Mikey were to mug an old lady or set our house on fire - with me in it - I can't yell at him.

My wife told me that I came thiiiis close to getting the "Complete James Bond" Movie Collection that Christmas - which I must tell you I definitely DID NOT want. Why not, you might ask? Well, as I explained to my wife at the time, I wasn't watching these movies to enjoy them so much as I was trying to satisfy my curiosity. By the way, I never got past "Goldfinger".

Even I began to figure out that the things that fascinate you as a kid don't hold up very well later. (Exception: Little Rascals. But I will now try to determine if there is anything here to warrant such fascination.

Let's try the movies:

Dr No

A friend from Jamaica told me that he was living there when they were filming this, and actually met Sean Connery. He described the pre-SNL Connery as "nice and friendly". Aside from the scenery, the only thing here is the basic formula: mad scientist, beautiful woman, dying minority henchmen.

From Russia With Love

If memory serves, this ended up on a double bill with Dr. No when the Goldfinger hoopla was dying down. This one holds up the best, which, sadly, isn't saying much now. It also marks the first of many occasions when JB turns a bad girl good. (How, I wondered?) And there I was wasting time trying to turn the good ones bad. It has a plot, a few henchmen and some gadgets. The latter would get totally out of hand later.


Well, there's no getting around it. This is the grail. The lodestone. The source of all the allure and mystery. The Daily News, even years later, would call it "smashing entertainment", and, okay, it's not too bad. It's also unfair of me to expect it to be much better. I'm more of a John le Carre type, so there's only so much I can like this stuff,

But to hell with it. Here goes: First, there are all the self sacrificing, yet incompetent henchmen (the benefits must have been great) another bad (and butch) girl turned good (and less butch), the numerous gadget's that are introduced and methodically checked off as the movie progresses. Really, Goldfinger couldn't have been more accommodating. And who knew there was such a large population of Asians in Virginia? Oddjob was pretty cool, though.

Overall, a prime example of the movie in my head being better than the one on the screen.


This is the first one that I got to see IN THE THEATER WHEN IT WAS FIRST RELEASED. I proceeded to brag about it for weeks afterward at school. I haven't seen it in a while, and all I can remember is a lot of water. Occasionally it shows up on cable, but one look at Donald Pleasance in scuba gear is enough to make me turn this one off immediately.

You Only Live Twice

Ah cruel fate! I was home in my room when I heard my brother and friends calling me from downstairs. I decided to play hide and seek with them. So I hid, but unfortunately, no one seeked. It turned out that they were calling me because they were going to see YOLT, which they made sure to tell me "was great". And of course, the same full-of-crap friend was there later to tell me how James Bond dies in it. At the beginning. ("Dies?" "Yeah. Really!" followed by some utter nonsense I believed, and thus, became re-obsessed over. Really, he should have been a writer.)

It all starts to get hazy now. I haven't seen "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", and it may never make it to the top of my Netflix queue. "Diamonds are Forever" had the requisite explosions and Jill St. John, so it "was great".

The only thing I remember about "Live and Let Die" is how bad the grammar is in the title song ("In this ever changing world in which we live in..." Really Paul? That's the best you could do?) I tried numerous times to watch Roger Moore but just never get beyond the first five minutes. Ditto the rest of them.

Until Daniel Craig did such a great job in "Casino Royale".

This, of course, threatened to wake the monster again, and I did end up reading the book, which is the first of the JB novels. It wasn't bad, so I went onto the second book, "Live and Let Die" which was pretty good, too. But not good enough to keep me going.

I'm a mature adult now, so I think it's time to stop this nonsense and move onto something more grown up.

Like "McHale's Navy".

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