It only takes three words for this museum exhibit to conjure up a whole world: "Bond. James Bond." Few artists have this kind of name recognition, let alone fictional characters. If the longevity of James Bond proves anything, it's the way a true pop culture icon not only captures the public's imagination, but also keeps us coming back for more.
The particular genius of the Bond series is the central character's ability to adapt to changing times (not to mention different actors) while remaining essentially the same.
It's up to the keepers of Bond's cinematic flame -- EON Productions, the company formed by producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Romolo "Cubby" Broccoli in 1961, and MGM, the long-time distributor of the Bond films, to keep the fire stoked.
Bond. James Bond, now on display at The Henry Ford Museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Mich., is an homage to Bondage, organized by England's National Museum of Photography, Film & Television along with EON. It's also priceless publicity for the veteran spy, unless the idea of a museum exhibition is too old-fashioned for a character desperate to be perceived as cutting-edge.
When Saltzman and Broccoli joined forces to bring author Ian Fleming's immensely popular James Bond spy novels to the screen, they never imagined their creation would take on its own life, or wind up behind a glass case.
The Bond formula, perfected over the course of 20 films, is a heady blend of sex and violence, beautiful women and dastardly villains, outrageous gadgets and outlandish stunts. These films are created as pure escapist entertainment, yet each manages to be solidly grounded in the attitudes, fears and hopes of its time.
Die Another Day (2002), the most recent of the Bond movies, was in production when the Bond. James Bond exhibit was being put together (the Motor City stop, open through Dec. 31, features three cars from the film). Surprisingly, the film and the exhibition share a common attitude towards the Bond legacy -- referential and innovative, reverential and cheeky.
Walking through Bond. James Bond is like stumbling into Q's secret storehouse, just as the current 007 (Pierce Brosnan) does in Die Another Day.
That scene, full of sly humor, finds Brosnan admiring objects from Bond's past exploits. Not surprisingly, these items also appear in the exhibit: the flick-knife shoes worn by Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love, Bond's jetpack from Thunderball and the alligator submarine of Octopussy.
The fact that James Bond is the subject of a major museum retrospective raises a number of questions about the role of these once toney institutions. This year alone, Detroit has hosted exhibits featuring Titanic artifacts and the social/cultural legacy of Bruce Springsteen. Should pop culture be afforded this much attention? The administrative staff at the Henry Ford Museum thinks so.
Billing itself as "America's greatest history attraction," the museum is located in the heart of the massive Ford Motor Company complex, although it's a separate, nonprofit entity. Along with the newly restored Greenfield Village, a sprawling re-creation of the kind of provincial, rural America, which Ford's own Model T would forever alter, The Henry Ford Museum (www.thehenryford.org) is a Smithsonian-style collection of Americana. Here, education and entertainment happily coexist and the American character is explored by observing the objects that shaped our particular consciousness.
At the Henry Ford Museum, you'll find objects like the fantastical Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, an example of advertising and automotive design at its most whimsical and inventive. In sharp contrast is the fully restored Montgomery, Ala., bus on which Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat, the event that triggered the 1955 bus boycott which became a touchstone in the Civil Rights movement. Then there's R. Buckminster Fuller's groundbreaking Dymaxion House, a circular, aluminum-sheathed marvel created as a model of compact, affordable, environmentally conscious post-war housing. Fuller's vision for humanistic design for the masses never made it past the prototype phase. Fleming's creation, 007, on the other hand, became a global phenomenon.
Happily, the creators of Bond. James Bond offer more than a wax statue of 007 under glass. They effectively display sketches of set designs and detailed storyboards to illustrate the preparation needed for these massive productions. Three galleries put visitors into Bond's shoes. There's a detailed re-creation of M's wood-paneled office and a nuclear reactor control room, which noisily simulates a meltdown. More adventurous visitors can climb a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge to simulate the climax of the 1985 film A View to a Kill.
But what makes Bond. James Bond a truly 21st-century exhibit is the show's interactive element. The exhibition's entrance tunnel echoes the famous gun-barrel opening of the films and is flanked by a replica of the graffiti-coated Berlin Wall. Cold War newsreel footage is projected on the wall, putting the creation of the quintessentially 20th-century James Bond in historical context.
Before entering the tunnel, each visitor is issued a personal spy card, a sliver of plastic that looks like a simple credit card with a magnetic stripe. All spies-to-be can swipe their cards and test their Bond knowledge on touch-screen kiosks scattered throughout the exhibit. The card reveals their MI6 rating at the show's end and grants the visitor special access later to the "classified" section of www.jamesbondexhibition.com, a site created to complement the exhibit. This component of the experience shows what the keepers of the Bond legacy have wisely learned: In our information age, a movie is just not enough.
Movie tie-ins have always been a forte of the Bond series, but the extras audiences now demand is information. In addition to this exhibit, EON Productions maintains a detailed history of the Bond films and their spin-offs (including merchandise and gaming software, like the forthcoming James Bond 007: Everything Or Nothing) on their Web site, www.007.com.
MGM, in addition to being the Hollywood provider of new Bond movies, controls the Bond library (www.jamesbond.com). MGM Home Entertainment, the largest provider of theatrical catalogue releases on DVD, has seen to it that Bond films have kept up with the times. Their initial Bond DVDs were bare bones, but special editions with commentary tracks and tailor-made documentaries soon followed.
What's interesting about MGM's approach is that while they give individual attention to each Bond title, they also see the series as a whole.
The first seven Bond DVD set came out last fall. Scattered throughout the DVDs are documentaries about Ian Fleming, Cubby Broccoli and other essential creators of the Bond mystique. Only true completists would have everything, and that's the point behind their box sets. The black sheep Bond film, Casino Royale (1967), isn't included, but it did make it to MGM DVD last October, with the 1954 television production as an extra.
Now MGM has announced that the remainder of the Bond titles will arrive in two new box sets available on Nov. 18, and then go into a moratorium. This is the same device Disney has employed to spurt sales: After a certain date (for Bond films, it's Jan. 19, 2004), these library titles will no longer be available from the studio.
It's a bold move for MGM, but they're looking forward. The exception to this forced obsolescence is Die Another Day, their first two-disc Bond release, which contains a host of extras (including DVD-ROM/internet content) and showcases how this Cold War dinosaur is being reinvented for the digital age.
Today, after four decades of being shaken and stirred, the resilient Bond looks no worse for the wear. Even in our volatile world, few things are more certain than the promise placed at the end of every film: James Bond will return. Who knew that reliability would become Bond's greatest asset of all?
Serena Donadoni is a freelance writer in Detroit.