Something happened last night that I think is worth mulling over. We have a new PA,, Monika; a very clever woman with a background in photography. All yesterday afternoon we had been discussing art and film so after dinner last night I decided to ask her about the famous Olympic bond sequence: she seems more in tune with contemporary ideas in the art world than I am, and I wanted to know whether there was any intellectual mileage in seriously looking at that scene. Monika replied that of course there was, and that the convergence of fiction and reality was a huge, fascinating area. I showed her some of my blog entries on the subject, and she seemed rather interested.
But when I showed her the scene itself, she laughed: she thought it rather stupid. Interestingly, she would not accept that the queen actually played herself, and was adamant that it must have been a double. I tried to tell her that it was widely known that, while her majesty did not jump out of the helicopter herself, she did indeed play herself in the first part of the film. But it was getting late, and I had no luck.
But here's the interesting part: what if that wasn't the queen? On one level, it does not matter - all that matters is that a representation of her majesty acted alongside Daniel Craig. For all we know, it could indeed have been a double - our reactions would have been the same. Whether it was her or not doesn't matter. Mind you, on another level, it matters a great deal: given the context of this film, where it was screened and it's audience, if that was not the queen, we have all been royally duped. The deception would have had to have gone to the highest level; this country would have had to deceive the IOC and the entire world, just so that her majesty didn't do the small bit of acting she did. I find that scenario very unlikely indeed.
I think the problem was I didn't explain the context of this film well enough to Monika. Had the film had any other background, had it been a joke film made for a television comedy show, then of course, her majesty would never have been in it. But, that night, the world's eyes were upon the UK and London, and we needed to make an impression. We needed to do something big, something unusual, something novel: I think we succeeded.
This film still fascinates me when I think about it. When you try to look at what is going on, it is quite intriguing: I have written before about the structures involved, and the tension between fiction and reality. The fictional world of Bond drawn into reality, at one and the same time rendering Bond real and the queen a fiction. Yet it also can be seen as alluding to the fact that the monarchy is just as much a national narrative as double-O-seven - both are stories we tell about ourselves. Thus this film takes us in an unusual, interesting place where one of the country's oldest, most sacred institutions is opened up to a form of textual play, taken to the level of any other cultural narrative, at a moment when we had the entire world's attention for the first time in sixty years. No wonder the morons of the Daily Mail loathed it: it showed that all they like to pretend is solid can melt into air, the same as anything else. From their point of view, her majesty was forced by populist liberals into participating in something far below her station and rank: if the queen is indeed the embodiment of Britain, then to see that figurehead being made to stoop to the level of just another bit of popular culture would have been tantamount to mocking the entire nation and everything that makes it stand out. After all despite the Britishness of the character, the Bond franchise is essentially American, so I can certainly see how, to some, this sequence represented the selling of the monarchy to American commercialism. Some would see it as the trivialisation of a unique aspect of British culture and history. The irony is, her majesty in fact volunteered to play herself in this film: Danny Boyle assumed they would have to use a double, such as Hellen Mirren. However, far from being forced into it, the queen was happy to play herself.
Yet that very contrast between tradition and mainstream entertainment is why I find this film so striking, so bold. In a moment of utter seriousness, Boyle chose to do something utterly postmodern, something both subversive and reverential at the same time. There is a reverence for the queens authority (note how she makes bond wait at the opening of the piece, demonstrating her authority) and a kind of irreverence for it (note how 007 coughs showing his impatience and impetuousness), a combination which I find quite British. It brings together two of our best-loved icons in a way nobody could ever have expected. That brings me back to Monika's contention that the queen did not play herself, as that ties into the very tension between fiction and reality at the core of this film. The queen did and did not play herself, as, of course, it was a stunt double which jumped out of the helicopter. Thus in the same short film we also have fictional and nonfictional representations of the same person. On top of that we have an interesting juxtaposition of the prerecorded merging with the live: the first part of this film was apparently recorded back in march, but then film suddenly evolves into a live event. I'm sure such a device has been used before, but has it ever been done on such a scale? This is a film which uses a famously fictional character to introduce one of the world's longest-reigning and most highly regarded heads of state into the world's biggest sporting ceremony. There can't be many other pieces of fiction or works of art which have the same context, the same blending of fiction and reality, the same evolution between recorded and live, the same juxtaposition between esteemed head of state and one of mainstream fiction film's biggest icons, and the same subversion of traditional power structures. Framed in such terms, this short film, intended, no doubt, to be something throw away and comic, can be seen as quite important artistically. It tells us something about our culture, about our so-called traditional hierarchy and our simultaneous reverence and irreverence for it. Given the audience it was intended for - that is, just about the entire world - is huge and intriguing. That's why I keep returning to it - a film which at first glance may be throwaway is actually very revealing about British culture.
I must admit that have now become something of a monarchist since the Olympic opening ceremony. It is to her Majesty's great credit that she made this film, as it would imply that she is aware of her true status in our culture, as a figurehead rather than anything more substantial. She does not see herself as above such things, which, in my book, makes her somehow more accessible, more human, and more worthy of my support. This film lets us know that the queen is aware of her true status as one of many pieces of iconography which combine to represent Britain: in making it she has modernised the monarchy; in admitting to her true position as a cultural construct she makes herself culturally relevant rather than aloof and out of touch. That, I must say, has my respect. Moreover, I think it told the rest of the world about our sense of humour, letting them know that we don't take ourselves too seriously after all. Whether the queen played herself or not, has any other film made such a bold statement in front of such a vast, worldwide audience before? Would this dynamic change in the unlikely event that it emerges that the queen did not play herself, though? Either way, that is why I find this film so remarkable, fascinating, important an brave; it was thinking about this which spawned my fascination with the Olympics as a political force, which I began to discuss a couple of days ago, for what other event could give rise to this sort of pseudo-political textual play on such a massive scale?
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