Good films have subtext. What do I mean by subtext? On the surface Raiders of the Lost Ark is about an archeologist seeking to find the fabled Lost Ark before the Nazis do. That's its TEXT. But is that all it's about? Is this basic "plot" enough to tap into the worldwide public consciousness and produce a phenomenon? No way. What makes Raiders resonate, the reason we find ourselves saying, "That was a really good movie," is we are having an unconscious reaction to the SUBTEXT. What Raiders is REALLY about is an atheist's search for God. Now, you're not necessarily supposed to know this is what Raiders is about, but you ARE supposed to feel it. It's one of the ways movies manipulate you emotionally. And despite what some people will argue, good filmmakers use subtext the way they use lighting. It's all very specific and intentional but designed to be invisible.
As a rule, subtext is communicated with metaphors. To continue with the Raiders example: In the beginning, when confronted with any mention of spirituality, Indy flatly says he doesn't believe in "all that hocus-pocus" and even calls the lightning coming from the Ark "the power of God OR SOMETHING." He communicates skepticism without ever using the word atheist. But the Ark can prove the existence of God; therefore, metaphorically, the Ark IS God. By the end of the film, Indy has been "converted" by his experiences and commits the ultimate act of faith by closing his eyes when the Ark is opened. "Don't look at it!" he screams to Marion. Indy demonstrates that he does not seek proof. HE BELIEVES, and therefore, God spares his life. Now, if this movie were about its text, the ending would be a letdown. After all, Indy loses the Ark. But that's not the feeling we have at the end of Raiders because the REAL story has been resolved. Indy got what he needed and a girlfriend to boot! Raiders uses subtext masterfully as do most good films.
So for my Bond brethren here at CommanderBond.net, I've jotted down what I see as the subtext in three James Bond films: You Only Live Twice, From Russia with Love, and GoldenEye. What follows may forever change the way you look at these three films. Like Indy, you don't have to believe in all this "hocus-pocus," but I'm going to open the Ark of the filmmaker anyway. It's up to you whether to look or close your eyes.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) — James Bond in the Afterworld
You Only Live Twice is a perfect title for this Bond adventure. Having been "killed" in the beginning of the movie, it's as if Bond is having an out-of -body experience. After the megapic Thunderball, where else could Bond go but to the afterworld? Never has a world seemed so out of Bond's control; yet never has Bond seemed so utterly resigned to his fate. "I just might retire to here," he tells Tiger. If one thinks I'm reading too much into YOLT, one only has to be reminded that the author of the screenplay is Roald Dahl, who wrote such psychedelic journeys as “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” and “James & the Giant Peach.”
Bond starts the movie in familiar 007 surroundings — in bed with a woman — except this conquest is Asian, a fact unusual enough for Bond to comment on it: "Why do Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?" His instincts prove correct when this woman turns out to be his Angel of Death. Bond is "killed" before our eyes, and we drift into the title sequence. But are we seeing puffy clouds and harps? No. We're in a world of volcanoes and lava. James Bond has gone to Hell. Or, at least, Purgatory. The movie opens with Bond being buried at sea. The movie, as a metaphor, really begins here as Bond's corpse is retrieved by two divers (flying angels) who bring it not back to the surface but aboard a submarine (the first of many phallic symbols in this film). "Permission to come abroad?" asks Bond.
After a briefing (where M and all are dressed in white uniforms and Bond is in black) 007 is ejected from the sub's torpedo tube. 007 as sperm? You bet. Appropriately, Bond surfaces in a world that's entirely unfamiliar to him, a world in which he is constantly trapped and fooled usually by women. In this strange new upside-down world, Bond is called "Zero Zero" instead of 007, and even his martini order is mysteriously reversed, "stirred, not shaken," which Bond confirms as "perfect." Bond admits to Tiger that he's never been to Japan, which is odd for a man as worldly as James Bond, and didn't he mention an affair with "Ann in Tokyo" in From Russia with Love? Also revealing is the fact that YOLT is the only single location Bond film. Even Dr. No has scenes set in London. There's no globetrotting here. He's stuck.
Things get even more surreal when Bond must "become Japanese." Die a little deeper? He's operated on in a womblike room, married, and given a home in a pearl diving village where, strangely enough, he seems perfectly content! But a violent reminder of his own death (again in a bed) snaps Bond out of his passivity, and it's off to the volcanic lair of the villain. Here, for reasons not fully explained, Bond thinks the answer to the crisis at hand is to go into outer space (ascend into the heavens). But just as Bond is about to finally leave this world, the master of the volcano recognizes him and shouts, "Stop that astronaut!"
It's appropriate that Blofeld is seen for the first time in YOLT. Up to this point in the series, Blofeld has only been an unseen, omniscient presence, who motivates other men to commit his evil deeds. The clearest metaphor of the film is that Blofeld is the Devil. Who else would live in a volcano? The obviousness of this prompts Bond to pretty much admit to the subtext of the film when he tells Blofeld, "This is my second life."
Of course, it all ends in a fiery destructive explosion caused not by Bond but by Blofeld, and Bond finds himself back where he was at the end of Thunderball: in a raft with a bikini-clad woman. Back to the familiar world of 007. Back to the surface. Resurrection.
This is the first article in a three part series. Coming soon: Below The Surface: The Subtext Of From Russia With Love