Bond films as 'Cinema of Attractions'

In 1986, film historian Tom Gunning published a now famous essay, The Cinema of Attraction. Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde, in which he dealt with early cinema. Until then the first films were considered from the viewpoint of the later narrative cinema as a rather primitive forerunner. Gunning opposes this with the concept of a Cinema of Attractions, which worked in its own way.

The showing was more important than the telling. The exhibited spectacle adressed the audience directly and attracted it literally. Magician bowed to the audience, for example, women winked directly from the screen. The cinematograph, the live music and effects like slow-motion or close-up were percieved as spectacle, too. As films after 1907 became longer, and film technology a part of everyday life, a narration in an own fictional world was increasingly used, based on theatre first. The camera itself became invisible, the look directly into the camera taboo.

'Cinema of Attractions' as a term was since the first publition frequently used for modern blockbuster cinema1, where sensual attractions are also often more important than storytelling, or film technology itself becomes attraction again – like CGI, the bullet-time-effects in THE MATRIX or RealD.² (For further informations see The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded)

According to a popular myth – questioned by film historians however – the audience jumped from their seats at the screening of a film by the Lumière brothers in 1895, showing the arrival of a train at the station (although the train is not coming directly towards the camera). But even if the spectators remained seated, the film should have made a great impression. In 1977, when George Lucas' STAR WARS EPISODEIV – A NEW HOPE was released, the first scene made a similar impression, showing the passing of some space ships – among them an imperial star destroyer. Dean Devlin, co-author of STARGATE and INDEPENDENCE DAY, remembers: „When it was flown by, the audience freaked out. I freaked out! And I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.“ A single shot of a moving vehicle causing impression – that is quite comparable.

James Bond, Star Wars and the Cinema of Attractions (Tom Gunning)
Arrival of a train, and of a Star Destroyer

So although you can create emotions by attractions just like by narration, modern equivalents of a 'Cinema of Attractions' mostly have a negative connotation. Today, narrative cinema is considered ideal, and cinematic attractions like action scenes or special effects have to be as logical as possible integrated into the story, and to be legitimized by it. The narration dominates, or as Billy Wilder (or Alfred Hitchcock, depending on the source) put it, "To make a great film you need three things - the script, the script and the script."

It is often forgotten that film didn't emerge directly from the human need for expression and communication, unlike other media such as painting or theater, but started as a pure funfair attraction. Film is necessarily always at least as much technology and commerce as art. And I believe that the success of the Bond films is based in no small part on not denying this original element of superficial attraction, but on using it consciously. The best example are movies like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER or MOONRAKER, which are often criticized for their thin and implausible plot. But even in the more serious contributions to the franchise the visual spectacle outweighs the narration. There are, for example, no logical or plot-wise reasons why the Soviet chemical weapons factory in GOLDENEYE is connected to the supply premises of a dam. It is only to allow a spectacular stunt.

Bond films are virtually the proof that a great film just not exclusively needs a good script. Many of the teaser sequences have for example nothing or very little to do with the actual movie plot. They are short teasers made to give the audience visual pleasure – just like the films of early cinema. The famous parachute jump at the beginning of THE SPY WHO LOVED MEcaused for example – just like the Star Wars opening scene – spontaneous enthusiasm and applause.

Interesting is in this context also the practice in the Bond films in which Sir Ken Adam was responsible for the production design. When DR. NO proved that Adams design is an attraction for itself, the plot was built around his settings, as described in the German book Macht(t)räume. Der Production Designer Ken Adam und die James-Bond-Filme. There were only so-called planning scripts. Ken Adam said: "Without the strict discipline of having to work with a screenplay, I could begin to dream. And someone would have to write something that goes with this dream.." (p. 25, ibid)

Alexander Smoltczyk even calls Adams achievement the „emancipation of the design from the story“, in his book James Bond, Berlin, Hollywood: Die Welten des Ken Adam. That is the emancipation of an attraction from the narration. A 'Cinema of Attractions' that is not entirely bowed to narration can thus even be artistically liberating, and generate merits strictly narrative films are not able to.

Remarkably, the Bond films even play with direct look through the invisible „fourth wall“ at the audience, which is later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusion of the cinema. In his book Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond film, James Chapman ascribes the famous gunbarrel sequence to another famous scene in Edwin Porters THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERYin 1903, in which a robber directly shoots at the viewer. Normally, this scene is now shown at the end of the film, but according to an information from Porter to the projectionist it could also be edited to the beginning of the film.

The seductive look or the wink that existed in early cinema often in erotic films can be found until today in the title animation of Bond films. Also the direct look of Bond. Interestingly, Carole Bouquet looks in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY into the camera, too, after her parents were killed, because this scene was originally planned to be dissolved into the title.

Look into camera, James Bond movies, Tom Gunning
The look of love, in silent movies, and in Bond movies

But adressing the audience directly also works through the humour in a film. For example, when George Lazenby in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICEsays"this never happened to the other fellow", or Sean Connery beckons to the audience at the end of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Also Bonds looking at his watch while making love with Miss Taro in DR. NO, or his ironic one-liners after the death of an opponent are a winking communication with the audience. These oneliners often appear goofy within the films situations, but they are a part of the success of the Bond character, as Bond virtually allies with the spectator.3

Tom Gunning mentions two more very interesting issues in his 1986 essay. He wrote: „The 1924 version of Ben Hurwas in fact shown at a Boston theater with a timetable announcing the moment of its prime attractions:

8:35    The Star of Bethlehem
8:40    Jerusalem Restored
8:59    Fall of the House of Hur
10:29  The Last Supper
10:59  Reunion

The Hollywood advertising policy of enumerating the features of a film, each emblazoned with the command See!”, shows this primal power of the attraction running beneath the armature of arrative regulation.“

Aren't most of the Bond posters throughout the 1970s and 80s just such an announcement of the prime attractions, only in a graphic way? The poster for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN for example shows the golden gun, the explosion of Scaramangas island, the laser gun, the karate fight, Nick Nack, girls in bikinis, and, on top, the main attraction: the spiral car jump. One of the girls is even pointing at it, just as these pointing-hand-symbols used for 19thcentury advertisements.

Secondly, Gunning writes that the chase film in the time from about 1903 to 1906 was a way to synthesise attractions and narrative. The chase is the heart of an action film. Every Bond film is basically a chase film. And it's interesting that writing instructor Robert McKee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwritingsees the chase as the perfect visualisation of the main conflict of film in general: the conflict between the protagonist and society (novels are perfect for inner conflicts, theatre for personal conflicts).

With the Daniel Craig films, the franchise has more than ever arrived at the cinema of narration. Even the gunbarrel sequence, as a relic of the 'Cinema of Attractions', was in CASINO ROYALE integrated into the flow of the narratition – the audience as the addressee replaced by a character within the closed world of the film. For a franchise in its Golden Anniversary, this is a very interesting and perhaps necessary development. But with the success of the new movies there often comes a review of the earlier Bond films with the strict view of the cinema of narrations, that often misjudges the value of films like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, MOONRAKER or even DIE ANOTHER DAY4. Bond films do not (only) live by a good and exciting story, but above all by visual pleasure and spectacle. Interestingly, as a child one perceives rather the attraction part a film, which also contributes to the success of films such as Bond or Star Wars. With a purely "adult" and narrative filtered view the Bond franchise loses much of its fascination.


1) Other modern film genres have also some similarities to the early Cinema of Attractions, such as musicals, especially Bollywood, or found footage.

2) The film technology as an attraction, like the modified slow motion from THE MATRIX, works less for Bond. Obvious CGI creations, or the deliberately visible edit in DIE ANOTHER DAY or QUANTUM OF SOLACE have been received rather negatively. Therefore it can be assumed that RealD fits less to Bond, at least as long as it has not been generally accepted.

3) I believe that Timothy Dalton as an actor had the most problems with this winking communication with the audience beyond the film universe. He rather tried to evoke empathy through the narration, which explains his emotional acting in LICENCE TO KILL. But I think it didn't met the audience' expectations at that time.

4) DIE ANOTHER DAY, however, commits the cardinal sin of attraction cinema, because the attractions are partly defective or, as written above, focusing too much on technical aspects. Nevertheless, the film does have many good
show values and an interesting subtext. And politically it's still up to date after eleven years, considering current news from North Korea.

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