Head Case: Contemplating Craniums in LACMA’s Collection

June 19, 2012

Perhaps it’s the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to the Mosaic Skull on view in Children of the Plumed Serpent or maybe it’s the museum’s proximity to the Page Museum’s treasure trove of fossils—whatever the reason, I’ve got skulls on the brain (pun unfortunately intended). Once upon a time, a post about skulls would have seemed better suited for autumn. That is, after all, when Halloween haunts us with deliciously spooky skeletons and Día de los Muertos wields memento mori to commemorate both our own mortality and those we have lost. However, the skull’s iconographic popularity now seems to be a year-round phenomenon.

Having the privilege of perusing LACMA’s galleries each day, I’m reminded that skulls have had a longstanding role in art history, long before Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God triggered a cranium craze in the art world and residually throughout pop culture.

Allow me to guide you through a mere sampling of skulls in LACMA’s collection:

Mosaic Skull
On View: Resnick Pavilion

The aforementioned Mixteca-Puebla Mosaic Skull in Children of the Plumed Serpent is specked with turquoise, jadeite, and shell and is thought to have been produced between 1400-1521 in Mexico in veneration of Mixtec  ancestors. Such ornate tributes trumpet the wealth of the commissioner, as they highlight the exchange of luxury goods between Mexico and the Puebloan region of New Mexico, from where the turquoise originated. Children of the Plumed Serpent closes on July 1, so be sure see this spectacular artifact if you haven’t already.

Mosaic Skull, Mexico, Western Oaxaca or Puebla, Mixteca-Puebla Style, 1400-1521, gift of Constance McCormick Fearing

Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose, Georgia O’Keeffe
On View: Art of the Americas building, Level 3

O’Keeffe’s “bonescape” compositions from the 1930s were a result of inquisitive scavenging during her time in New Mexico. Intrigued by fragments of sun-bleached animal skeletons found in the desert and fabric flowers left on graves in Hispanic cemeteries, the artist collected these objects and traveled with them to her studio in New York. There, she began her foray into still life paintings of bones with a particular affinity toward skulls. For O’Keeffe, the durability of skeletons and fabric flowers represented the eternal, parched beauty of the American Southwest.

Georgia O’ Keeffe, Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose, 1931, gift of the Georgia O’ Keeffe Foundation

Head-Skull, Alberto Giacometti
On View: Ahmanson Building, Level 3

In the early 1930s, Alberto Giacometti made significant contributions to surrealist sculpture. In Head-Skull, he flattened the planes of his approximately life-sized subject, thus eradicating the standard curvature associated with the human skull. Instead, his rendition appears Cubist—almost architectural—in its smooth geometry and examines the beautifully complex semiotic implications of a skull in both life and death.

Alberto Giacometti, Head-Skull, 1934, partial, fractional and promised gift of Janice and Henri Lazarof

Skull Rack, Papua New Guinea
On view: Art of the Pacific, Ahmanson Building, Level 1

Despite its smiling face, this one is a bit grim. The sacred agiba—a flat, carved, painted, wooden figure—comes from the Kerewa People of Papua New Guinea and exists to showcase skulls procured by a given clan. Headhunting was a central part of religious practice in historical Kerewa tribes, and raids were carried out, as I read in Island Ancestors: Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection, “in preparation for initiations and for such rituals as the inauguration of a new ceremonial house or the completion of a canoe.” Yikes.

Papua New Guinea, Gulf Province, Skull Rack (agiba), c. 1900, purchased with funds provided by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation with additional funding by Jane and Terry Semel, the David Bohnett Foundation, Camilla Chandler Frost, Gayle and Edward P. Roski and The Ahmanson Foundation

The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, Georges de La Tour

The skull is an accessory in this French baroque masterpiece by Georges de La Tour, helping to set the tone for Mary Magdalen’s contemplation of penance and the afterlife. De La Tour’s iconic painting is not currently on view at LACMA, as it is currently vacationing in Europe as part of the Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy tour.

Georges de La Tour,The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, c. 1638–1640, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation

Luckily, we don’t have to wait long to celebrate its return as the same exhibition opens at LACMA on November 11.

Stephanie Sykes, Communications Manager


Hendrik Goltzius: A Mannerist with an Exuberant Touch

June 18, 2012

On the third floor of the Ahmanson Building, you will find the beautiful engravings of Hendrik Goltzius in LACMA’s prints and drawings collection. Goltzius is long considered one of the great draftsmen and engravers of the mannerist style. Equally amazing is his most ravishing painting, The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter, which displays his exuberant touch and transformation from engraving to painting. For me, he is one of the Netherlands’s greatest artists, and represents the mannerist era as a complete expression of the time more than any other artist.

Hendrik Golzius, The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter, 1603, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation

It’s the mid- to late-sixtenth century, the time of the Counter-Reformation and a militant Catholicism. It was ironically also the Age of Discovery. Religious wars raged across Europe, and to some extent in the arts—religious subjects went out of fashion.  And out of a mix of complex artistic, political and economic reasons, mannerism emerged.  It was seen as “artificial,” and hence “mannered,” being more concerned with pure inner vision and the fantastic.  Mannerism, to me, was one of those marvelous moments in the history of art when tradition and naturalism meet obstinate artistic genius to create an emotional charge and change—a modernist inkling. A new spirit, so to speak, was afoot. It is said all kinds of greats fell within its spell: Michelangelo, Titian (with his ravishing Venus of Urbino), Tintoretto, and the utterly hallucinatory El Greco.

Hendrik Golzius, The Judgment of Midas, 1590, Mary Stansbury Ruiz Bequest

Mannerism’s various attributes, such as unreal light, exalted emotionalism, odd placement, and strange perspective, flew in the face of those twin authorities: nature and the ancients.  One readily sees mannerism’s essential elements in Goltzius’s The Judgment of Midas: elongated proportions and highly stylized poses. These allegories were commissioned not only for their titillating art, but also to send a message—in this case about Pan’s vanity, and Midas’s donkey’s ears (“earned” for his failing to honor the nature of authority). It is a simple, lush engraving, where sumptuous gowns and figures of fable—such as the Muses—surround nude, muscular Apollo as Pan foolishly competes with the god who literally glows.

Beside the engravings, there are the woodcuts of Hercules in the midst of his tenth labor, killing the fire-belching monster Cacus. Or Hercules and Telephos, symbolizing the hero’s spiritual strength which was desired and possibly reflected by those in power.

Hendrik Goltzius, The Emperor Commodus . . . Hercules, 1591, Mary Stansbury Ruiz Bequest

Hendrik Goltzius, for a deeply personal reason, would make a journey from Haarlem to Germany and Italy that would have a profound effect on him.  Nothing so reminded me of Michelangelo and Durer than Goltzius’s engraving Emperor Commodus … Hercules. Pointedly, he no longer used the exaggerated mannerist style.

However, the sensuous and decadent allegorical themes would find bold expression in his paintings, which he took up in his middle age.  His extraordinarily sensitive sense of detail gives one the feeling that here’s an artist using a brush with the same ease as he wielded the burin, his steel engraving tool.

The exquisite, delicate touch he brings to his masterpiece, The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter, is even more impressive when you consider his malformed hand, burned when he was a baby.  Its plainly telling didactic is about sex and money.  Yet Goltzius’s beautifully rendered message is understandably somehow lost to our modern eyes, which focus on the captivating flesh, the plush and exacting details, the floating putti who are of such a lightness that the semi-tragic myth is made somewhat winsome as the gold coins cascade down upon Danae. The sensuously dreamy repose as seen through the eyes and touch of a master is made stunningly present.

Hylan Booker



This Weekend at LACMA: LA Film Fest, Muse ArtWalk, Father’s Day Family Activities, and More

June 15, 2012

Presented by Film Independent, the Los Angeles Film Festival kicked off last night and will show films all around Los Angeles for the next ten days. Tonight at LACMA, director William Friedkin presents his latest film, Killer Joe, starring Matthew McConaughey in one of the standout performances of his career. Friedkin (who also directed classics like The French Connection and The Exorcist) will be on hand for a conversation following the screening.

Film fans, make sure to check out our latest exhibition …Is James Bond—the stunning opening credit sequences for all twenty-two James Bond films, co-organized with the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television in honor of the Bond series’ fiftieth anniversary.

Tomorrow Never Dies (still), © 1997 Eighteen Leasing Corporation & Danjaq, LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Eon Productions

It’s not a Friday night in L.A. if you’re not at Jazz at LACMA. Join the fun-loving crowds tonight for a free concert from the LA Jazz Quartet—bring a picnic, have a drink and a bite at Stark Bar, or make a reservation at Ray’s while you enjoy the music.

All day Saturday starting at noon is the annual LACMA Muse ArtWalk! Live music, dance performances , and interactive projects at LACMA and our neighbors along the Miracle Mile. Check out Chris Burden’s Metropolis II or exhibitions like Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol and Fracture: Daido Moriyama, and head over to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Architecture + Design Museum, and more than twenty galleries in the area—all for free. Don’t forget to head over to Hancock Park at 5 pm for Latin Sounds, too. Saturday’s free concert features vocalist and percussionist Estaire Godinez, who fuses Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz and pop. Check out yesterday’s Unframed post for more ArtWalk details.  

ArtWalk continues well into the night with the Muse After Party at 8:30 in the BP Grand Entrance. Entertainment courtesy Dublab, Silent Disco, and the Joshua Light Show. Tickets for the ArtWalk After Party are on sale now

Muse ArtWalk

If you’re looking for fun Father’s Day activities, we’ll have free art-making activities on the North Piazza, inspired by the ancient American objects on view in Children of the Plumed Serpent. Kids are loving the serpents, skulls, and other objects in the show—it’s a great exhibition for all ages.

Xantil, Mexico, 1200–1521, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: Preuβischer Kulturbesitz, Ethnologisches Museum, photo © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum (IV Ca 10855), Berlin, Germany, by Ines Seibt/BPK, Berlin/Art Resource, NY

Finally, the weekend concludes with a free Sundays Live performance from pianist Inna Faliks and cellist Ani Aznavoorian. Don’t miss it.

Scott Tennent


Adventures in ArtWalk

June 14, 2012

The annual LACMA Muse ArtWalk takes place along the Miracle Mile this Saturday, showcasing the area’s five museums and more than twenty galleries. Each year we work with new artists, galleries, and arts organizations to bring programs in a variety of genres to the LACMA campus and the surrounding community. The projects that take shape give every ArtWalk a unique twist. Below is an overview of what to expect in the 2012 edition.

From Choreography to Silent Disco: Dance in the BP Grand Entrance
To start the day, local dance troupes explore the space in LACMA’s town square–style entrance. Kdub Dance begins the program at noon, which also features performances by Daara Dance, Heyward Bracey, Invertigo Dance Theatre, and SZC Project.

Invertigo Dance Theatre performing “Rococo Baroquo.”

At night, the audience does the dancing to the beats of Dublab DJs Secret Circuit, Ale, and Lavenders at the After Party. We usually have to shut down the music at 10 pm, but Silent Disco’s wireless headphone system keeps the party going without disturbing the neighbors.

Art Here, There, Everywhere
While ArtWalk’s galleries have some distance between them, the quality and diverse array of art make the trip worth it. Jack Rutberg, for example, is a modern and contemporary gallery that has been a staple of the community for twenty-five years. The Merry Karnowsky Gallery showcases work by some of the most innovative and significant artists of today and is widely acclaimed both in the United States and internationally.

Work by Edward Walton Wilcox included in Merry Karnowsky Gallery’s exhibition “Though You Slay Me.”

New neighbor ForYourArt further entices guests to walk the walk with their FYA aMUSEment Hunt, in which walkers will receive stickers from all of the Miracle Mile destinations they visit, which they can redeem for prizes.

The Sounds of L.A.
Local music of all kinds take the stage during ArtWalk. Weekly LACMA series Latin Sounds features vocalist Estaire Godinez in Hancock Park. Flanking her 5 pm start time are sets in front of Chris Burden’s Urban Light by the pulsating indie band Little Red Lung at 4 pm and award-winning blues rock guitarist Jared James Nichols at 7:20 pm.

Little Red Lung, photo by Sarah C. Sitkin.

Enlightening After Party
I am almost as excited to hear stories from Joshua White as I am to see his Joshua Light Show in action. JLS masterminded the light shows at the Fillmore East in the 1960s, providing groundbreaking backdrops to rock gods. Joshua must have some tales. Today his latest group of artists brings incredible visual atmospheres to a new generation using a mix of old school and new wave techniques. With Dublab providing the soundtrack, it’s sure to be far out.

The Joshua Light Show, performance with Supersilent at the HKW

For more information on Muse ArtWalk and to purchase tickets to the After Party, visit lacma.org/museartwalk2012.

Jason Gaulton


Sharon Lockhart and the Complex Life and Legacy of Noa Eshkol

June 13, 2012

Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol, Los Angeles–based Sharon Lockhart’s most recent exhibition examining the life and legacy of Israeli dance composer Noa Eshkol, raises as many questions as it answers. Like an archeological excavation, the exhibition is an exercise in uncovering layers of meaning embedded in time. With each new layer that is peeled away, new mysteries surface.

Stitching together the distinct language and knowledge systems of numerous creative practices – photography, video, architecture, dance notation, textiles – Lockhart insists on the interrelationships among different media. The exhibition is a syncretic merging of competing and overlapping modes of communication, not all of which are immediately comprehensible to the uninitiated. Admittedly, as I began assisting with this exhibition, I struggled to understand how all of these processes of signification spoke to one another. As I listened in, I could not quite make sense of what I heard. I realized later that it is exactly this diffident, enigmatic quality that lends the exhibition its undeniable allure.

Sharon Lockhart, Sphere Four at Two Points in its Rotation, 2011, two chromogenic prints, Courtesy of the artist; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin, © Sharon Lockhart, 2012

Arguably the most crucial of the knowledge systems in the exhibition is one that is perhaps least familiar to the average viewer: dance notation, which defined Eshkol’s career and was the source of her enduring influence. Lockhart came to know Eshkol’s work on a 2008 trip to Israel, a year after the influential dance composer passed away. Through a rigorous process of research that was equal parts artistic process and anthropological study, Lockhart combed archival documents and immersed herself into the world of Eshkol’s living followers. The exhibition is the product of her research into the complex world that Eshkol created around dance.

This was no easy task, especially given the rather abstruse language of Eshkol’s intricate dance notation, Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation (EWMN). Eshkol created, along with her collaborator Abraham [Avraham] Wachman, a visual means of representing bodily motion. Predicated on the idea that every movement of the limbs originates at the joint and circles around an axis, EWMN seeks to map the all potential movements of the body in space.

During a stint in London in the late 1940s, Eshkol trained under Rudolf von Laban, one of the world’s leading dance instructors and creator of the widely used dance notation system Labanotation. Eshkol would ultimately reject Laban’s teachings in the creation of her own system of tracking bodily movement. Viewing Labanotation as overly concerned with dictating how bodies should get from one point to another, EWMN attempted instead to explain and illustrate what happens in the process of getting between those points. In Eshkol’s words, the system was not only a means of visualizing actions, but “describes that primal thing from which actions are created … i.e., movement.”

John Harries, Conical Movement, 1956-57, collage and india ink on paper, Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation Center, adapted as an illustration for Noa Eshkol and Abraham [Avraham] Wachman, Movement Notation (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1958), fig. 8

To illustrate her system, graphic representations of the body in motion (seen in the archival materials on display in the exhibition) and three-dimensional sculptural models (photographed so elegantly against a stark grey backdrop by Lockhart) were created as pedagogical tools. Perhaps inscrutable to the untrained eye, these two- and three-dimensional forms provided the key to unlocking the logic of the body’s movements. The system’s efficacy is evidenced in its endurance and popularity in scientific literature that tracks and hypothesizes animal locomotion.

EWMN was a social practice and way of life as much as it was a visual means of representing human motion. Rooted in a heady synthesis of mid-century utopian idealism, postwar modernism, Jewish communalism, and military discipline, the system developed within a social environment that resembled a Spartan village. It was, in many ways, the communitarian culture of the Jewish kibbutz, into which Eshkol was born, fused with the politicized and highly socially aware form of dance that had been popularized by figures such as Laban, whose notation system had originally been used for choreographing processions of labor unions and other mass organizations. Eshkol’s style of dance was explicitly unadorned and spare, rejecting musical accompaniment or elaborate or colorful costuming.  It was also a communitarian dance form, a process of interaction among multiple bodies in space, not singular figures spotlit on a stage, or soloists performing in isolation. The militaristic discipline involved is apparent in some of the pieces, seen in Lockhart’s Five Dances and Nine Wall Carpets by Noa Eshkol, most evidently in War Dance (Heraldic).

Sharon Lockhart, production still from Five Dances and Nine Wall Carpets by Noa Eshkol, 2011, five-channel installation (35mm film transferred to HD), courtesy of the artist; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin, © Sharon Lockhart, 2012

Noa Eshkol, Umbrella Flower, 1970s, Wool, cotton, corduroy and nylon, Noa Eshkol Foundation for Movement Notation, Holon, Israel

This community of dancers was, in some ways, a cult of personality. A commanding and charismatic figure, Eshkol inspired the devotion of her community of followers. Ruti Sela, one of Eshkol’s early disciples, spoke with rapt language, claiming, “Noa’s rich and imagistic language, her phenomenal clarity of thought, and the unique nature of her movements created a physical and intellectual experience that was completely new to me.  I finished each lesson floating with joy.” As time went on, the community increasingly resembled a worker’s commune, as dancers grew and cooked food, and helped stitch together the many (over 1,800 in all) textile works that Eshkol called “wall carpets.” Dance, in other words, was never just dance. It was also a facilitator of human relationships.

In its complex layering of meaning, and its acceptance of the opacity of EWMN, Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol asks the viewer to enact the very process by which the project came into being. Like Lockhart in her process of discovery, we must decipher the signs and symbols of a world that is inexorably receding into the past. It might not be an easy task, but it is a rewarding one.

Ryan Linkof, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


Contemporary Art of the Middle East: Rostam 2–The Return

June 12, 2012

As I mulled over LACMA’s new installation Rostam 2–The Return, I found myself thinking: “What on earth do Superman and Rambo have to do with one of Iran’s oldest texts? “

Rostam 2–The Return, on view on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson building, is drawn from the museum’s ever-growing permanent collection of contemporary Middle Eastern art. In this sixteen-print series, artist Siamak Filizadeh recounts the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, within the context of twenty-first-century Tehran through a kitsch-colored lens.

The Shahnama is a 50,000 couplet poem that dates back to 1010 AD and is a frequent subject in Iranian poetry, art, literature, music, and cinema. In his series, Filizadeh recounts the popular tale of Rostam, a mighty mythical warrior, who unknowingly encounters his son Sohrab in combat.

Rostam 2–The Return is an extravaganza of playfully contemporary iconography that occasionally mingles with formal traditions of Persian miniature painting.  With its references to pop culture and mass communication, Filizadeh’s body of work reveals the artist’s background in both advertising and graphic design and his consequential penchant for the language of pop-consumerism.

Siamak Filizadeh, Untitled, from Rostam 2—The Return, 2010, purchased with funds provided by Karl Loring and Art of the Middle East Contemporary, © 2012 Siamak Filizadeh

As curator Linda Komaroff puts it, Rostam is depicted as “a bazooka-toting, bare-chested body builder” (with the Superman logo emblazoned on his chest and a Rambo decal plastered on his gun) who fearlessly gallivants upon a Pimp My Ride–style motorcycle-horse hybrid. He is set amid Iranian cityscapes teeming with billboards, apartment blocks, and storefronts (did Rostam buy those pants at United Colors of Benetton?), which are nestled amidst undulating peaks of a more two-dimensional painterly mountainside.

For me, the loud digital collages read like headlines, and indeed, a portion of the artist’s retelling is conveyed through fictional tabloid covers, with a blend of Persian and English alluding to the universal attraction of celebrity culture – even when, as in the case of Rostam, celebrity is a myth.

Siamak Filizadeh, Untitled, from Rostam 2—The Return, 2010, purchased with funds provided by Karl Loring and Art of the Middle East Contemporary, © 2012 Siamak Filizadeh

Bypassing culturally-specific storytelling templates in favor of a globally recognizable visual vocabulary, Filizadeh questions the sociopolitical implications of consumer ideals in Tehran today. He asks the same of pop culture—which is where our friends Superman and Rambo come into play—by highlighting the absurdity of aggrandizing Western icons in a context where ideological liberties from the same culture are not necessarily welcomed with the same warmth.

Siamak Filizadeh, Untitled, from Rostam 2—The Return, 2010, purchased with funds provided by Karl Loring and Art of the Middle East Contemporary, © 2012 Siamak Filizadeh

During my last conversation with Linda, she commented on the way in which contemporary art from the Middle East and its diaspora augment her understanding of classical Islamic cultural production.  Through these works she is able to glean richer readings of older texts, traditions, and objects.

Rustam Approaching the Tents of King Kubad, page from a manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdawsi, Iran, Shiraz, 1550–1575,the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky, photo © 2012 Museum Associates

This comment resonated with me as I meandered from Filizadeh’s installation into LACMA’s Art of the Middle East galleries. Equipped with a new appreciation for the Shahnama, I began noticing more classical pieces related to the epic poem, such as Rustam Approaching the Tents of King Kubad, Page from a Manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings).  (The incongruous spelling of Rostam’s name in different versions of the story can be chalked up to the subjectivity of translation.) I was stricken by the formal similarities between this work dating back to 1550 AD and Filizadeh’s compositions: the flatness of perspective, the tranquil rendering of mountains, the placement of script, even the lean portrayal of horses—although horses in this earlier work don’t have flames roaring from their saddles nor chrome hind legs.  It was a pleasant reminder that contemporary art and history mutually enrich one another if we’re willing to take the time to allow them to do so.

Stephanie Sykes, Communications Manager

 


Elvis Mitchell on the Perennial Appeal of James Bond

June 11, 2012

LACMA’s newest exhibition . . . Is James Bond (opened just this past weekend in the Art of the Americas Building) pays homage to the iconic opening sequences of all twenty-two James Bond films. Organized by actor, the exhibition presents the sequences as unique and groundbreaking art separate from the films they introduce.

The James Bond films occupy an interesting place in our culture. No other tentpole movie has enjoyed the peculiar success that the James Bond franchise has. Likewise, no other character has attracted, at various times, the eye of talent that ended up not committing to the Bond films. There’s Quentin Tarantino (who flirted with making Casino Royale) and Steven Spielberg (who toyed with the idea of burning his brand onto 007; he demurred and later worked with the original Bond, Sean Connery, on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Bond gave Mike Myers a career resurgence; Myers’s love for the absurdity of the premise —that some crazy evil genius investing so much to take over the world that he could just use the dough to start a new republic (or a corporation) was a fool’s errand—led to Austin Powers.

Tomorrow Never Dies (still), © 1997 Eighteen Leasing Corporation & Danjaq, LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Eon Productions

This is what I happen to love about 007: his indomitability as a character, which survives new years and new actors, they always find a way to bounce back from seeming oblivion, and for the oddest reasons. When it looked like Bond was over for the first time, after Sean Connery walked away (he earned his artist’s temperament after surviving the lurid camp of 1967’s You Only Live Twice), the result was one of the best films ever, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. So what if it starred the least memorable Bond ever, the ski action sequences and Diana Rigg’s turn as Mrs. James Bond gave it life. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that she was doomed; Bond would probably have been at more of a loss if his cocktail shaker were misplaced. But given that Rigg had starred in The Avengers—not the version with the Hulk and Iron Man, but the 1960s British TV show about a couple of plucky spies fighting plummy villains bent on world domination, with a budget roughly equivalent to what the big screen Bond spent on cigarette lighters, it made sense to hope that the Bond producers would have kept her around. Any movie starring George Lazenby could use as much of her long-limbed, dimpled brio as it could stand.

After the cold war, Timothy Dalton kept the lights on with charisma that was shaken, not bestirred. Dalton was the most underrated Bond perhaps because he was forced to play the character as brittle and monogamous  (Dalton got to show more Bond-like aplomb as the bad guy in the limp fantasy film The Rocketeer than he ever did playing Bond). Ironically, his approach is the same one Daniel Craig currently employs to much greater success.

GoldenEye (still), © 1995 Danjaq, LLC. and United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Eon Productions

The fun of James Bond movies for me is that it’s a completely unrepeatable phenomenon. He came into being in movies because he embodied a purview that a sitting president adored—it may have been the only time that a president, in addition to his other attributes, could show the same kind of cool as pop culture icons Bond, Frank Sinatra, and Miles Davis and be admired for it, rather than envied. Not only has the opening credit sequence been one of the most inspiring and enduring ideas in the history of motion pictures, but add the fact that a film version of a 1960s Bond TV series imitation has kept Tom Cruise working (the Mission: Impossible films) And it’s even fitting that Bond’s fiftieth anniversary is also the year of the worldwide success of the Marvel Comics film The Avengers, since Marvel itself was touched by Bond in a roundabout way. Nick Fury was conceived as a Bond-like figure. And in the comics, the Black Widow (as played by Scarlett Johansson) was later reinterpreted as a comic-book version of Mrs. Peel , who, as I noted, hails from the TV show appropriation of Bond.

Perhaps the most unremarked upon element from the Bond films is something the series started that still lives on in big-budget action movies. I laugh about an hour into most high-ticket extravaganzas when the filmmakers seem to lose the thread of the plot—and even the cast seems to be standing around scratching their heads. It’s the moment when the movie stops making sense even in the limited terms that it needs to, and we’re so bored we’ve stopped paying attention, biding our time for the climactic action scenes that kick the film back into gear. James Bond was there first—a pioneer in ways that never occurs to most people to acknowledge.

Elvis Mitchell, Curator of Film Independent at LACMA


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