Had to give a public talk about James Bond (at the closing of a “Bond at 50” exhibit co-organized by GQ), so I talked about Bondiana and its on-and-off relationship with camp. It went over pretty well, actually! Here are some quick notes from it, just in case.
The main thesis is that all Bonds, after rebooting with a different actor, start out more earnest than we tend to remember, and lapse farther and farther into camp as they go along. The most jarring example is, of course, the somber From Russia with Love (1963), whose entire plot is “Bond has to steal a decoding gizmo from the Soviets,” followed directly by the crazed nuclear swing of Goldfinger (1964); but each sub-series goes through a similar cycle. The seeming exception is Timothy Dalton, but his two films actually prove the rule: The Living Daylights, campy as a glitter bomb, came from a script intended for the previous Bond, Roger Moore, and License to Kill was the actual, if failed, reboot.
My theory is that this strange dynamic has less to do with the actors’ personalities (Connery, Moore, and Craig could all function in both modes, though Brosnan was a born featherweight), or the mood of the times (the ultra-kitschy Die Another Day came out a year after 9/11), or the film influences of the era (Casino Royale owes a huge debt to Bourne, but it’s just as much of a corrective to the damage wrought by Austin Powers). I think it has more to do with the audience’s own strange desire-and-guilt cycles regarding Bond. Which, in turn, occurs because we’re not entirely sure if these are superhero movies or not. We want Bond to be larger than life, then balk when he gets to that size and demand deflation. Bond has such a unique place in the culture – teaching grown men what cars to drive, watches to wear, and Scotch to drink while also wowing the twelve-year-olds like any caped crusader — that we want to be both adults and children about it, to attach and detach, and our irony switches keep flipping on and off around him, sometimes ten times in the same scene (the genius of Skyfall is that it recognizes this dynamic and plays directly to it). This flux, of course, is the perfect breeding environment for camp, per Sontag’s vintage definition. Which, by the way, came out the same year Goldfinger did: 1964. Sontag would have made a dynamite Pussy Galore, wouldn’t she.