Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 5: True Believer

I thought the theme of watching and being watched was big in the last couple of episodes, but now I see they were just getting started. This episode’s central conceit is that Echo’s being wired up with a brain camera which will hijack her sight and send it off to the ATF. I am a camera (is this a reference to the line in Isherwood, to the play and movie it inspired, or the Yes/Buggles song they inspired? – in each case, of course, it points to the state of passivity that Echo embodies, and in turn suggests that Echo’s passivity may, like the camera, contain intense observation). Of course this leaves Echo temporarily blind – as Topher so aptly puts it, “Echo herself will see no evil.”

But that’s not all. Look at all the watching we have besides: Agent Ballard watching footage of Caroline given him by Alpha; Ballard seeing Caroline/Echo on TV news coverage of the siege; Langton turning to security-cam footage to unravel the ATF agent’s scheme; and most intriguing of all, Topher and Saunders watching Dollhouse security-cam footage to see what’s up with Victor, which reveals that what’s wrong with Victor comes from watching, too – his watching Sierra.

I don’t want to make too much of this. A certain amount of this emphasis on surreptitious observation is par for the course in a paranoid techno-thriller. But combine all this with the careful geometry of the Dollhouse itself and it’s pretty hard to escape the feeling that all this watching means something.

The presentation of the cult here was extremely careful. I don’t mean cautious, I mean well thought out and meticulously modulated. The story prepares us to assume the worst about them: we’re told that the leader’s an ex-con, that they had to leave their previous compound, that the community and the feds have all sorts of vague suspicions, and that someone has sent a message out that says “save me.” So when we see their cache of weapons, we know they’re nasties, right?

But do we? The show doesn’t give us any further proof that the cult is up to anything illegal. The leader is an ex-con, but we have no evidence that he’s doing anything worse to the cult members than encouraging them to live apart from the world (and dress in an Abercrombie & Fitch version of pioneer duds). It really may be true that they have the guns only because the feds are harrassing them – we know the ATF agent is willing to bend any rule to nail them, and therefore we don’t know if we can believe anything he says. Certainly the cult leader goes nuts at the end, but the question the show wants us to ask is, would he have gone nuts if the feds had left him alone? Did they have any right to intervene?

Old questions in cases of this sort, of course, but here they’re put to a new use because of the obvious paralleling of the cult and the Dollhouse. DeWitt admits that they’re analogous situations: groups of people living in perfect (illusory?) security because they’ve surrendered their egos. The corrupt senator says this can’t be happiness, because for happiness you need self-awareness – but he’s a corrupt senator, so can we believe anything he says, either?

The paralleling goes deeper. The cult calls their compound the Garden. In the Dollhouse, meanwhile, Topher discovers that Victor has started getting aroused looking at Sierra in the shower. This is a problem: the dolls are supposed to be so empty that sexual desire is not an issue for them. When DeWitt finds out she gives a startling speech about how the Dollhouse must be kept a pure environment, free of temptation – she all but calls the place the Garden of Eden. And Saunders as good as names sexuality the Serpent. Lots of interesting questions here. How deep does a wipe have to go to eradicate the sexual instinct in an adult – what Topher calls the “man-reaction”? And why does DeWitt think that once introduced, such a temptation would "spread like a cancer"?

And are we now supposed to see the Dollhouse minders as God and the dolls as Adam and Eve, waiting to be kicked out of the garden? But the fact that the process is repeated suggests less a Judeo-Christian template than a Hindu/Buddhist one, where each doll is an entity undergoing endless reincarnations, going forth from the cosmic oneness into atomized individuality, but always returning to the cosmic oneness again, like the spark that jumps from the fire and falls into it again. This in turn would give an interesting twist to the awakening that Caroline/Echo is so plainly heading toward. A Matrix-like awakening from a dream of commodification, certainly, but also a Buddhist awakening from the karmic nightmare, an escape from the chains of samsara.

Is it time to talk about Eliza Dushku’s acting, since everybody else seems to be doing that nonstop? Here are the issues as I see them. I don’t think she’s one of these chameleonic actresses like Julianne Moore or Cate Blanchett, who are capable of totally submerging their own personalities in a role; she’s more the Hollywood star type of actress, who makes each of her performances an elaboration on her own persona. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Dushku; I think both are valid approaches.

On the face of it, the role of Caroline/Echo/This Weeks’ Girl seems to call for the chameleon rather than the star, because that is in fact what the character literally does: assume a new personality each week. But as we’ve noted, Mutant Enemy is already running a big risk there: viewers want to identify with the main character, but that’s next to impossible when the main character has no identity at all. An actress who was a better chameleon might just make the show impossible to watch. I know it might sound like I’m making excuses for the show, but I think it might have been part of their calculations that allowing Dushku to make each week’s character recognizably Dushku might help offset some of the audience-alienation built into the premise. The benefits, in other words, might be offsetting the risk of people thinking it’s just bad acting.

But it’s weirdly appropriate on a thematic level, too. As we notice with Victor, part of what the show is doing is asking how deep personality goes. Granted the sci-fi premise of the brain-wipe, how far does it have to go in order to eliminate what? When we notice Dushku-isms in Eleanor Penn, in Taffy, in Esther, how different is it from noticing bits of Caroline showing through in Jordan, or Jordan in Taffy – which is what we really want to see, no? And when we wish for a more versatile=chameleonic actress, aren’t we really wishing for someone capable of a more thorough personality suppression – a more complete scrubbing? A better doll?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Horace Silver: The Blue Note Years

Let's talk about record covers.

As part of his ongoing periodic exploration of jazz he doesn't know (which is still basically of it), the Tanuki recently decided to pick up a Horace Silver compilation. How does one choose a compilation? By what you know, is one way to do it. The Tanuki knew just enough of Horace Silver to know about three songs he definitely wanted ("Song For My Father," "Filthy McNasty," and "Nica's Dream"). That settled it, because only one comp had all three, a Japanese import called The Blue Note Years, part of a 20-disc series of anthologies of Blue Note artists released in Japan in 2004.

Now if you're at all into jazz and you've traveled, you quickly realize that some other countries pay a lot more attention to jazz than the U.S. does. This is certainly the case in Japan, where the classic American jazz labels' back catalogs often receive more respect (i.e. more and better reissues) than they do Stateside.

That's definitely the case with the Horace Silver disc in question. Musically, I think it's a better selection, and a fuller disc, than what I saw available domestically, but you can always debate track listings. What we're here to discuss is the cover, and the Japanese disc wins there hands down, and in a way that tells you about the respective attitudes.

The thing about Blue Note is that in their heyday they had an impeccable design sense. Some of the most evocative jazz photography ever, combined with innovative approaches to typography and sleeve design, made them pretty much the index of cool in the '50s and early '60s. This Japanese comp respects that. Note first the photo: black and white, in the best Blue Note tradition. Horace hunched over the piano, gazing off to the side, tie loose and hair in his eyes, looking young, earnest, and hip. He's subtly reflected in the piano lid; some sheet music (?) is blurry in the foreground, and the background is pleasantly nondescript. It's a fine photo, telling you that here's an artist who's both casual and dignified, hard-working and laid-back. Or something. Superimposed on the bottom right corner of the photo is the Blue Note logo, and at the bottom is a strip of turquoise with the artist's name and the title of the disc. The color is restful, and the strip is wide enough to be bold but thin enough to avoid overpowering the photo. The whole thing is evocative of the fine visual traditions of Blue Note.

Now let's look at what's available domestically. There's a four-disc set that's pretty attractive, but I want to confine this discussion to apples and apples: single-disc comps. The most widely-available one seems to be this 1990 disc called The Best Of Horace Silver. It's subtitled The Blue Note Years, but the tracklisting is different from the Japanese edition.

Again, though, let's forget about the tracks and look at the cover. The photo is nice enough; maybe not as attractive as the one on the Japanese comp, because Silver's expression is less complex, less intriguing; but nice enough. But the photo is overwhelmed by the color band that half frames it on the top and left. But the real problem is the lettering. Why is the S in Silver so damned big? Why is it alone given a white shadow? Why is Silver written with caps-and-lowercase when everything else on the cover is written in all caps or small caps? Above all, why are they using a serif typeface (a very serif typeface) when Blue Note was known for its sans-serif? The kicker is that uneven strip of dark blue at the very top. It's not quite a fade, not quite a stroke of paint or a piece of torn paper: what is it? And why is it there?

In short, the message this composition sends is confused. It's off balance, but not in a pleasing way, and it doesn't send a confident aesthetic message. It's not cool, and it never was, not even in 1990. But it looks like it might have been trying to be cool in 1990, and that's the problem. It suggests a crisis in confidence - a desperation. The very opposite of what the Japanese cover suggests.

There was a sequel to the 1990 disc, and it's even worse. Same layout, but an even less impressive photo, and now the half-frame is two-tone, with an awful peach color. The less said here the better.

There's a newer disc, but it doesn't seem to be that easy to find. It's on the big river site, but it doesn't come up early in your Horace Silver search. It's Horace Silver The Very Best, and its cover suffers from similar problems to the 1990 design. This is not an unattractive cover, although it has its puzzling elements. Why the almost psychedelic yellow-to-pink fade? Why is the photo treated so heavily? Why the cowboy movie font? But most of all, why doesn't this look in any way like a Blue Note record? No Blue Note logo on the front, an even more serify font, wacky colors, and photo that distances us from the artist. Once again we have a total lack of confidence in the whole proposition, a desperate attempt to appeal to clueless kids with a contemporary look, or a lame facsimile thereof.

Okay, so here's "Nica's Dream." And here's United Future Organization's version.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 4: Gray Hour

Dollhouse is proving to be particularly adept at playing with our heads. The way they set up this engagement so that we think it’s another sex gig, a rich man’s gift to his son. And then with the faked rape – we remember Episode 2, and think, it’s happening again. But no.

I also love how they have us expecting that Echo’s going to come through in the end. She’s wiped, sure, but we keep thinking she’s going to summon some hidden reserves of memory, some residual core of consciousness, her own or borrowed, and remember how to get herself out of this. We’ve come to expect this, because in every new episode she’s shown a little more ability to free-associate between her imprints, to read the palimpsest that is her brain. But it doesn’t happen this time. Even her spasm of action at the end, neutralizing the guy with the gun, is ambiguous. It could have been a reflex. And note that again, Echo’s moment of autonomy, of transcending her programming or lack thereof – her fumbling toward awakening – is an act of violence.

Topher. “I’m scared like a little girl.” Yes, Topher definitely has his creepy side. Like the way he talks to his cute Asian assistant. “Humility is part of learning. I break you down and build you back.” This is how he interacts with women. The whole Dollhouse thing is his sick brainchild, no?

Langton. So far he’s the closest thing we have to a point of view character, since he’s new to the Dollhouse, and since he strikes us as basically a good guy. Certainly his and Echo’s bond of trust is the only thing the show has resembling an emotional center right now. Of course on her part that’s fake. What about his? He’s clearly come to care about her – not in a romantic or sexual way, but a fatherly way. He’s protective. This sets him apart from the other handler we’ve met, and from Dominic the security guy, who seems to despise the dolls.

Why do any of these people work at the Dollhouse? The series began with tantalizing hints that Echo is here because Caroline did something she needed to escape from or atone for; either being a doll is her “consequences” or it’s a way to evade them. Is the Dollhouse a prison, a form of rehab? Remember the cages and prison motifs in Episode 3…

Sooner or later I’m sure we’ll be exploring her motives, but I’m just as curious about the motives of the others. We know nothing about Langton’s background except that he’s an ex-cop, and this gives him a little more instinctive interest in solving clients’ problems than some of the other handlers have; perhaps not coincidentally, this makes him a better Dollhouse employee, since his desire to complete missions coincides with the Dollhouse’s desire to satisfy its clients. Why isn’t he still a cop, though? Is it just money? Is his ready trigger-finger a factor? Is he hiding from something, too?

And what about Saunders and DeWitt? Unlike Dominic, but like Langton, they both seem to have some sympathy for the dolls. They share Topher’s scientific interest in their capabilities, their behavior when unprogrammed. But they also – especially Saunders – seem to have some concern for the dolls’ welfare. Dominic’s eager to send Echo to the Attic; DeWitt gives the impression that she wouldn’t hesitate to do that if it was necessary, but she wouldn’t like it. Is she really the idealist after all?

Nice use of “I Go To Sleep” there at the end. I think this is the version they use, although I (predictably, I fear) kind of prefer the Pretenders’ (which Sia’s version is a pretty close copy of), and I like Ray Davies’s original version a lot too.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 3: Stage Fright

This episode might be my favorite so far. The engagement, as bodyguard to a pop idol, is rich with ironies that the writers are careful to exploit. In fact, the parallels between Rayna’s situation as a manufactured star and Echo’s as a “lab-grown” personality are brought out in some daringly on-the-nose dialogue. And the metaphorical dimensions of Echo are expanded even further. That she’s a stand-in for the general exploitation of women is confirmed here, but in this episode we begin to see how the show is exploring both the more specific exploitation of starlets and the more general exploitation of workers.

Does that sound too ivory tower (“she seemed so earthy with Katie Couric”)? Well, how about this? Don’t most jobs require some sort of suppression of the personality in order to please the boss and/or the customer? Some sort of sacrifice of what you want to do in order to do what you have to do? Some sort of filling your head with things that are irrelevant to your life outside work? In this light, isn’t Echo the perfect employee? She knows what you want her to know, and forgets it when you want her to forget it. And once the job is done you can forget about her: she’s a temp.

And, come to think of it, isn’t there a bit of personality-suppression in most relationships, too? In healthy relationships, it’s just a matter of learning to accommodate your partner, balance his/her needs with yours. But how many relationships are healthy enough that neither partner takes advantage of the other? And how many of us, deep down, would rather not accommodate the other at all? Of course this is why Echo’s the perfect girlfriend – she’s the perfect prostitute, willing and able to be whatever the customer requires.

(So what’s the difference between a prostitute and any other wage-slave?)

Topher: another in a line of Joss Whedon geek-boys: Xander, Jonathan, Warren, Andrew. With all of the above in line, at the moment he seems closest to Warren: he’s genius enough to be able to create a perfect woman, and sick enough to define “perfect” as “completely pliable.” But the show hasn’t told us to hate Topher yet; we’re still torn between finding him charming (or at least annoying/charming), pitiable (if anything goes wrong, it’s always his responsibility in the end), and creepy.

I liked the final scene of this episode. Langton and Saunders on the balcony, discussing what Echo – not any of her programmed personae, but Echo, the woman in her untutored state – is capable of, while the subject of their conversation does arts ‘n’ crafts below. The architecture of the Dollhouse is highly symbolic, I think; we’ve already noted the curiously centripetal sleeping arrangements, and I’m not sure we know everything about what they mean. Now we notice how the actives live their lives in what amounts to a pit, with handlers and controllers above. The power differential is obvious, but it’s not just a question of height. It’s about observation, vantage point. It’s the panopticon model of power differential. Echo is like the subject of an experiment (inquiries into what human capabilities are left when you strip away a subject's subjectivity?).

Being watched is, of course, a big theme in the series. Langton is there to “handle” Echo, which means to watch her (he’s her Giles). But of course he’s being watched, and not just by DeWitt and Dominic. As Dr. Saunders avers, there’s always someone else watching. In this episode, the watcher-watched dynamic is underscored by the obsessive fan/hemmed-in star idea. And notice how we viewers are consistently implicated, too: in three episodes, how many viewscreens have we been confronted with? Alpha watching yearbook video of Caroline, Rayna and “Jordan” watching webcam footage of the Fan tormenting Audra, and of course all of Topher’s and Langton’s readouts of Echo’s status. We’re often watching someone watch someone else.

The endpoint of all this watching? Echo and the other actives. And Echo knows this: that’s why, at the end of this episode, she has to signal Sierra not to let on that they recognize each other. They’re being watched.

Ebert on snark

Here. He's writing apropos of this year's Oscars (about which I respectfully disagree with him), but his remarks on snark have a much wider application.

Potosuraimu no fune

My review of Potosuraimu no fune ポトスライムの舟 by Tsumura Kikuko 津村記久子, winner of the 140th Akutagawa Prize, for late 2008, may be found here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 2: The Target

“I wanna do everything,” Caroline says, as Episode 1 ends.

Echo gets to do everything – she’s a party girl, a hostage negotiator, a mountain climber, etc.. But at the same time, Echo gets to do nothing – she’s always someone else when she’s doing something. There is no Echo, not really. Except that in this episode we get more indications that this isn’t really true. It’s supposed to be true – her owners want it to be true, and the emptier she is the more they both love and hate her – but when she’s tripping, she gets to confront all her submerged selves. Echo, Caroline, and who else?

Echo gets to do everything, but then she wakes up, as if from a dream. Did I go to sleep? For a little while. All of us get to inhabit other worlds, other selves, in our dreams; but Echo’s only really alive in her dreams. Or is it that she’s only really awake in her dreams? After she’s been wiped, returned to her “self,” she’s like a sleepwalker or a lotus-eater; and since we’re getting more and more hints that Caroline’s not completely gone, like the science promises, but remains somewhere deep inside Echo, maybe Echo’s existence as Echo really is Caroline’s sleep, a forgetting.

Will she wake up? That’s the question, then. Is this a Matrix scenario, then, chronicling the struggle of one consciousness toward a higher awareness while surrrounded by powerful forces that want to keep it asleep, and therefore pliable? And what about Alpha? He keeps targeting her, but leaving her alive. Is he trying to shock her into wakefulness? Is this what happened to him? Will “waking up” turn Echo into a killer?

Targeted. Echo is targeted: in this episode by the client who engages her, but also, seemingly, by Alpha. This targeting is, of course, not so different from Echo’s essential state, in which she’s bought and sold, used and abused, exploited, manipulated, manhandled. Echo is the nubile young woman that’s the focus of all of our society’s fantasies and fears. Again this is Joss subverting the Fox house style: Echo and Sierra are both hotties (as the term once was) who show plenty of skin, but this just emphasizes their role as symbols of the objectification of women.

It’s a concern that seems to have gripped Whedon ever since the Buffy days – remember how it turned out that being a slayer was just one more way men had used women? In Dollhouse he’s tackling this head-on. Echo, by being nothing of herself, is capable of being any woman, and thus she’s a stand-in for every woman.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 1: Ghost

Disclaimers/subject-position confessions: as Joss Whedon fans go, I’m a Tanuki-come-lately. Just finished watching Buffy and Angel about a week ago, and haven’t watched Firefly yet. But as a happy denizen of the Buffyverse I was excited to see Dollhouse, and even more excited to find I could watch it on Hulu, because even I have enough of a life that I can’t always tune in on Friday nights. Further disclaimers: I’m only a few years younger than Joss, and if the pop-cultural references on Buffy are any indication, I was only a little nerdier than he was in high school. When Giles and the rest are playing D&D on the last episode of Buffy? C’est moi. And Mutant Enemy? We shall certify. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Dollhouse is not Buffy, and Echo is not Faith. But Caroline, in the prologue to Episode 1, may as well be Faith. She’s done something – "actions have consequences" – and now she needs to disappear. But more than that she needs redemption. And that’s what DeWitt is offering; others in the show think DeWitt believes this, that what the Dollhouse does is good, and she may indeed believe it. We’re not supposed to, not a hundred percent, but the idea is there, thanks to this prologue. Losing yourself – quite literally – in serving others. Heady subtext for a Fox show.

But this is a pretty heavy show for Fox all around. It looks and feels like a Fox show at first, with its fast motorcycles and short party dresses, its glitzy production values and pulse-pounding action. A lot of people, myself included, are wondering if this means Whedon is under pressure to make a Fox Show, rather than whatever he originally had in mind. Maybe, maybe not. We can only judge what we have in front of us, and so far – and I mean from the perspective of Episode 4, when I’m writing this – I think he’s managing to make all this Foxosity work for the show.

Take this episode: it’s really quite a tight little action drama. You have a kidnapping scenario, a tough negotiation, a botched handover, and a shootout at the end. It’s told with a lot of suspense, a lot of cool visuals and cooler acting – it works as an action show.

But at the end they pull the rug out from under it. None of it matters. We’ll never (probably) see Divina or her father again; we’ll never see Eleanor Penn again; in fact, the person whose experiences make us care about “Eleanor Penn” is already dead. It matters to the Dollhouse as an organization, but only because they made a profit from it.

But it doesn’t matter to us, because what we really want, as viewers, is to understand more about Echo – about Caroline. Since none of this happened to Echo, it’s meaningless to her, and therefore to us.

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty wicked little metaphor for your average dumb TV action show. You tune in, you watch a bunch of stuff happen, but in the end, nobody learns anything, nobody grows, so you can tune in same time next week and see it all happen again.

In short, I think Joss is playing with our expectations of a “Fox show.” He’s daring us not to get hypnotized by slick surfaces, asking us if we’re really immune to all the machinery that manufactures thrills. ‘Cause let’s face it, this is thrilling stuff.

If we do think he’s daring us to look beyond surfaces – to resist getting interested in Eleanor Penn – then that means we must believe there’s something there, some sort of ghost within all that machinery (or in the shell). And of course they’re playing with that, hinting that Echo is developing a subjectivity, recovering Caroline.

But for the most part, there is no there there. Echo is not a subjectivity. She’s not a character, even though she’s the main character. This makes for a severe narrative challenge – a lot of critics have noted that it’s difficult to sympathize with Echo, and therefore difficult to get into the show.

That’s what I find most fascinating about the show so far, though. She’s a complete void at the center of the show (like the emptiness at the center of the sleeping chamber – all the actives’ beds radiate from it like spokes from a wheel, but there’s nothing at the hub). From a narrative standpoint, I’m looking forward to seeing how Mutant Enemy deal with this, but more than that I find it a really provocative concept. It brings up all sorts of questions about consciousness and what constitutes it, about personal autonomy and social construction, and it does it in such a way as to really implicate the viewer. If you enjoy seeing Eleanor Penn triumph over the Ghost, how do you then deal with the wiping of the Penn personality and the restoration of Echo, the blank slate, who triumphs over nothing?

James Bond review: Octopussy (1983)

CUT TO THE CHASE: One for the kiddies.

BOND, JAMES BOND: The title is the raciest of the series, inspiring embarrassment in adults and sniggers in adolescent boys everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s attached to a movie that’s safe for the whole family.

Octopussy is 007 as Indiana Jones. This is true in ways both obvious and not-so-obvious (I’d say subtle, but that’s not an adjective one feels like using in connection with the Bond series). Octopussy, with its Indian locations, its circus-train fight scenes, its human safari, is clearly borrowing from the type of adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark had revived: old-fashioned he-man outdoorsy ‘30s-serial action (in choosing an Indian setting, the producers are actually anticipating the second Indy Jones movie; but they lose anyway). That’s the obvious part.

The not-so-obvious part (maybe because the action is fairly entertaining, on a basic level) is that the producers are also adopting the family-friendly tone of the Raiders franchise. It’s all primary colors, obvious jokes, and earnestness. Raiders was an adult’s idea of a boy's fantasy of adventure – a ten-year-old’s sense of wonder as recalled by a thirty-five-year-old, with all the understanding of age. Octopussy is like a ten-year-old’s idea of an adult fantasy of adventure, with all the disadvantages of youth – it can’t really imagine what it would be like to be an adult, to want what an adult wants. It knows grown men are supposed to be interested in women, but it can’t for the life of it figure out why.

Also, the jokes suck. Humor has its place in Bond. But it should be sardonic and sarcastic, proceeding from character and situation. It should be witty. Humor in the Moore Bonds, certainly from Moonraker on, is jokey. Lame. Bond makes wisecracks, not because the situation calls for it, because the producers have determined that they need a laugh line every two point five minutes. Most of them aren’t funny. In fact, most of them don’t even bother to try. Moore is game as always: he’s taken to raising his eyebrows, as if to suggest that this is all terribly arch. But it just doesn’t work.

Finally, at this point (because of the impending release of Never Say Never Again) it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Moore is simply too old to play Bond. It’s not a question of chronological age – after all, Connery is older than Moore. It’s that Moore now looks wrong for the part. He’s an Old Guy, increasingly unconvincing in both the love scenes and the action scenes – in everything that makes Bond Bond.

What Makes Bond Bond: Bond’s libido is so powerful that it gives him instant regenerative capabilities. It’s like Popeye with his spinach.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: He wears a clown suit. He wears a clown suit. He wears a clown suit.

BAD GUYS: General Gogol’s back, for the third time in four films. It’s another Cold War plot, only this time, a Russian really is the bad guy. This is the rogue general Orlov, who’s trying to (what else?) start World War III.

He’s just one of several bad guys, though; Octopussy is kind of bifurcated on the baddie front. Which is another way of saying it’s confused. We’ve got Orlov smuggling treasures out of the Soviet state collections, selling them at auction in the West for hard currency; he’s working with a wealthy Indian named Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), who has a scary Sikh bodyguard named Gobinda and a sexy smuggler ally called Octopussy… How all of this is supposed to fit together is beyond me: if you concentrate real hard while you’re watching, you can work it out, and since there’s so little going on in this film besides the plot, you just might. But why would you want to? If you haven’t got anything better to pay attention to in a Bond film than the bad guys’ schemes, you know you’re in the wrong Bond film.

Louis Jourdan is the closest we get to a righteous Bond villain here, his charming but steely manner a perfect counterpoint to 007’s own charming but steely manner. Or rather, he should be a perfect counterpoint; the problem is that Moore’s past his prime, so Jourdan out-suaves him easily. Meanwhile, Gobinda the Evil Henchman is merely ordinary; he’s just Oddjob in a turban.

Octopussy, on the other hand… But we’ll get to her in the next section.

GRATUITOUS SEX: The Gratuitous Sex quotient in Octopussy is 2, and that’s a problem. Not just because Bond should be getting a little more action, although he should, but because for part of the movie he’s surrounded by a bevy – I believe that’s the technical term – of beauties. Octopussy’s smuggling operation seems to be staffed entirely by nubile young women who live at her floating palace and wander around in diaphanous robes (except for the guards, who dress like Thing One and Thing Two). If this were 1969 and Roger Moore were George Lazenby, he would certainly make the most of this situation. But nothing happens.

Parents, your daughters are safe with James Bond.

Which leaves us with the two main Bond Girls for Octopussy, Maud Adams in the titular role and Kristina Wayborn as her main lieutenant, Magda. Moore’s interlude with Wayborn is tremendously awkward, as his double entendres seem dreadfully forced, and the vast acreage of her forehead threatens to swallow the movie whole.

Adams, on the other hand, is luminous. She’s perfectly cast as Octopussy, who turns out to be a standard-issue Ian Fleming waif fatale, kind of like Honey Ryder all grown up, or Tracy di Vicenzo if she took over her father’s business. Adams supplies the requisite mystery and poise, and she’s old enough by this point (she previously appeared in The Man with the Golden Gun, of course) that Moore doesn’t look entirely skeevy standing next to her. In fact, their scenes together are the closest this film gets to classic Bond territory.

AND VIOLENCE: Lots of action here, but the old-fashioned tone of it often makes it feel out of place for 007. Fighting on top of a circus train? With Bond dressed up as a gypsy knife thrower? Bond in jungle khakis fighting tigers, snakes, elephants, crocodiles, and leeches? Not quite there. Remember what I was saying about stories that have Bond dressing in something other than suits and ties? This is one of them.

On the other hand, the fight on the outside of the airplane at the climax is legitimately exciting.

BOYS WITH TOYS: When I was fourteen, in 1983, I still thought digital watches were cool. Evidently so did the producers, because that’s what James Bond is wearing here.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Well, India. Sure. But somehow I’ve always thought that this film managed to make India seem surprisingly drab.

ETC.: John Barry was back on board for the score, for another classic 007 score. In this case, “classic” means traditional, as all the dance-music experiments of Hamlisch and Conti were jettisoned. Not a problem. But the theme song is. Rita Coolidge is a fine singer, but “All Time High,” despite boasting that sax lick that everyone used to signal “sexy” in the ‘80s, is the least sexy Bond theme song to date. Safe for the kiddies… This installment saw the first casting updates of any kind since Moore joined the series. The old M, Bernard Lee, had died, so they hired Robert Foster to replace him; he’s a good M. And they introduce Miss Penelope Smallbone, an assistant for Moneypenny; she’s young and pretty, and was obviously intended to replace Moneypenny herself, who was really getting too old for all that flirting with Bond. Unfortunately the scene with the three of them together only reminds the viewer of Moore’s age – he looks like he should be retiring along with Moneypenny…

RATING: 003.