Like virtually every other person on the planet who has ever written anything positive about film, I have a fondness for the cinema stretching back to my childhood (legally six months ago, if you’re looking to emasculate me). Going to the pictures has always felt like experiencing some sort of Midas Touch first-hand (ho ho ho): magical, but really a little bit dodgy when you’re on the outside looking in. The entire process is an intoxicating one: buying the tickets, paying over-the-odds for three grams of Pick ‘n’ Mix, striding through the heavy double-doors into the darkened screening. Even watching the three hours of adverts set to roll before the film proper becomes a ritualistic pleasure.
People of a certain age and over have a tendency to complain about one particular aspect of the cinema-going experience above all else, however: the audience. In my home city of [REDACTED] this was never a problem for me. The audience would laugh at the funny bits, cower at the scary bits and shut the fuck up during all the other bits. The trappings of a fine audience, indeed. Having moved to London for University six weeks ago, last Tuesday saw my first cinema-going experience in the capital (beyond The Phantom Menace with my grandparents when I was five – yes, I still kinda like it), and it might just have changed all of that with Skyfall.
The film itself is excellent, bar a few minor quibbles. The biggest, though, was one of humour. I thought it had tried to be too funny. Humour is certainly a facet of the franchise, but just as each incarnation must see different shades of the character and different suit cuts, so must the humour tailor itself to the era and actor. Craig’s Bond is in equal parts faintly disdainful and reproachful; his charm a tool to aid him in his job, and rarely anything more. His humour, as well as the film’s, should be dry, ironic and fleeting. Black comedy, almost. As we meandered away from the cinema, I was adamant the film had set up a few jokes too many that were neither funny nor appropriate for the place in the film in which they appeared – nor, in some cases, for the film they were in.
But then I began to think about the parts I hadn’t found funny, the jokes I thought had fallen flat. Some certainly had. (I’m pretty sure an “exploding pen” quip made me audibly groan.) Others, however, I’m not sure were meant to be jokes at all. And then it struck me, what had really been bothering me: a certain sect of the audience had kept on laughing at those actual, definitively non-jokes.
Take, for instance, the scene from which the header image is stolen. It’s in the trailer, so you’ll find no particular spoilers here. Bond, returning to work after a partially-involuntary hiatus, practices at a shooting range. His first shot hits towards the edge of the cut-out; not the edge of the drawn on body, but the cut-out itself. Even as a person who’s never held a gun before, I’m pretty sure that’s a little bit shit. Especially for a trained government hitman. This garnered quite a few chuckles – a little odd, but not overtly bewildering. What was bewildering was the reaction to the next shot: a close up of Bond’s face, eyes reddened from exhaustion and drink, glazed just enough to imply tears. And with this shot, roughly a third of the audience laughed, and continued to laugh as he shot wildly at the target, marching forwards and missing every single one of them.
This man’s job is his life: a fact the film communicates superbly in the events preceding this particular scene. He has nothing else in the world, and Bond without it is a drink-abusing husk of a meat slab. In Casino Royale he tells us he’d like to escape with, “what little soul [he has] left”. Skyfall’s message is pretty clear: he probably doesn’t have even that anymore. And so what we’re seeing as one-third of the audience chuckles away to themselves is the visual equivalent of a man wanting children being told he’s impotent. Bond can’t perform, and he’s on the verge of losing the only thing he has left to hold on to that can let him lay claim to any semblance of a life.
The question that worries me is this: now that I’ve gone beyond the veil, can I step back out? Or have I been permanently, prematurely exposed to the flaws of an audience experience? I can recognise, at least in part, how the audience’s reaction coloured my opinion of Skyfall specifically, but I wonder further if it’s happened before. How often? How badly?
I suspect and hope that Skyfall was a one off – in fact I am almost certain of it, if only through wishful thinking. But I also suspect that the Midas Touch will be gleaming a little less brightly from now on. And for that I am a little sad.