I’ve often cited Stephen Johnson’s book, Everything Bad is Good for You, an ironic title, since the book talks about how smart pop culture has gotten. And there couldn’t be a better example of his thesis than the new James Bond movie, Casino Royale. I won’t pretend to know how its producers planned it, but I can imagine them thinking something like this: “The James Bond franchise is old and stupid. People feel affectionate toward it, but they know how silly the movies are. Times have changed; people now expect more. What can we do to bring James Bond alive again?”
They might have decided: “Let’s make Bond realistic. What would someone like that really be like? Someone, that is, who carries out impossible missions mostly on his own, and is officially empowered to act as a law unto himself [which is the larger meaning of the famous “license to Their answer might have been: “He’d be a royal pain in the butt. Insubordinate, a loose cannon, almost impossible to control. His Oxbridge veneer would be just that, a veneer, covering deep insecurity. And he’d be lonely, with emotional armor six feet thick.”
So that’s what they show in the movie, which turns out to be thoughtful and touching, at least up to a point. I say “up to a point,” because I’m not going to make great claims for it. In the end, however dark it gets, it’s largely an arousing entertainment.
But I will say this. I’ve been reading the new translation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. And that book, classic as it is, doesn’t have half the thought or emotional depth of Casino Royale. Talk about entertainment — The Three Musketeers goes down as easily as popcorn, and makes very little sense. The characters have a lot of life, and maybe even a little depth, which is probably why the book survives.
But I suppose — because it was written 160 years ago, and, God help us, in French — we’re supposed to call it high culture.
Footnote: dark entertainment is a notably current trope. I’m reminded of one of my favorite pop groups, the Pet Shop Boys, who put serious thought into songs that sound like trashy pop glitz. Of course, they don’t only sound that way. Plainly, there’s depth. But in their heyday (the ’80s), serious rock fans would hear only the surface of their songs, and write them off as (in the words of a friend of mine from back then), “Disco trash.” When I quoted that to the two guys who make up the group, they said, “But we love disco trash!”
And that was the point. Their genuine love of pop ephemera led them to make records that both subvert current life, and exist entirely in the middle of it. The songs felt, in other words, the way living in the current world can feel. And that — again, without making great artistic claims — is a trope that Casino Royale also goes for (and of which classical music is just about entirely innocent).