I have paid to see exactly one James Bond film: 1987's The Living Daylights, a project that starred Timothy Dalton and involved a highly sexualized female cellist. This, of course, does not mean I'm unfamiliar with the other nineteen movies; I've seen them all, kind of. I can't recall the plot of any of them, and the only details I can remember are that Dr. No involved Jamaicans, Live and Let Die involved voodoo and Paul McCartney, and at least two (or perhaps seven) of the other films involved downhill skiing.
As such, I am not a James Bond expert. I am not even a fan. But this is precisely why I understand what makes James Bond significant, particularly in an era when he should be irrelevant. The only people who can ever put ideas into context are people who don't care; the unbiased and apathetic are usually the wisest dudes in the room. If you want to totally misunderstand why something is supposedly important, find the biggest fan of that particular thing and ask him for an explanation. He will tell you everything that doesn't matter to anyone who isn't him. He will describe paradoxical details and share deeply personal anecdotes, and it will all be autobiography; he will simply be explaining who he is by discussing something completely unrelated to his life. Asking a Bond fanatic about the import of Bond is like asking a Phishhead why Trey Anastasio is awesome. The answer will be exhaustive, but not necessarily clear.
Details and anecdotes are beside the point; what matters are the universals we share. That's why the most imperative things about James Bond are the things we all know, even if we've never considered their larger meaning or worried about their symbolic value or paid money to see any Bond film except The Living Daylights.
These things are as follows.
1. JAMES BOND IS A TERRIBLE BOYFRIEND. In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Sean Connery strangles a woman with her own bikini top, a staggering fusion of primitive violence with Girls Gone Wild. This (somehow) makes him more desirable to both genders, which (obviously) is fucking crazy and depressing, particularly since the core clichÃfÂ© everyone uses to explain Bond's appeal is "Women want to be with him, and men want to be him." This essentially suggests that a) women like being dominated, and b) men derive pleasure from being mean. And I think those notions are mostly false. But on some bizarre subconscious level, they must be partially true, because they seem to be the principal qualities keeping the Bond series alive. This appears to be the singular personality trait both men and women find most compelling about the Bond character: He interacts with all attractive women as if they are hookers. And at this point in history, it doesn't even matter what the dialogue is. In the upcoming Bond film, Casino Royale, Daniel Craig could emote like Alan Alda, but his words would still feel leering and pointed. Whenever James Bond looks at a woman and says, "That's a nice dress," we all know that what Bond really means is "If I throttled you with your own bra, you'd love me more." Bond's misogyny is now in code, which makes people comfortable with reactionary ideas they would normally never support.
2. JAMES BOND HAS ONLY ONE EMOTION. Bond looks and acts exactly the same in every situation. He offers only one facial expression, and it's a subtle combination of stoicism, detachment, bemusement, understated confidence, and mild boredom. I suppose "Britishness" isn't (technically) an emotion, but that's the best designation. Considering that he's been portrayed by six different actors over a span of forty-four years, James Bond is a remarkably flat character, which is part of the reason another Bond clichÃfÂ© is that his enemies are always more interesting than he is. But this one-dimensional charisma is critical to his iconography. Bond has absolute control over his own feelings, and this is what makes him the definitive personification of the ideal spy.1
I have contempt for emotion. This is probably unhealthy, but it's true. I never cheer at sporting events or rock concerts, and I'm annoyed by people who do.2 I was unable to cry at the funeral of one of my best friends. If I'm having a barroom argument and I feel myself growing authentically upset, it immediately seems like I've lost the debate. And my suspicion is that lots of people (and certainly lots of men) share this worldview, even though they would undoubtedly deny it to their wives and girlfriends. Emotion is intertwined with weakness.
As nonfictional mortals, we all know (and accept) that we cannot control how we feel. But this is not an issue for Mr. Bond. It does not matter if he is winning at baccarat or trying to avoid having his genitals obliterated by a laser beam: He is always the same. This is another reason why Bond is timeless. He represents the potentiality of a person devoid of passion on purpose. And since that goal is unattainable in reality, its depiction on film will never go out of style.
3. JAMES BOND IS A HIGHLY SPECIFIC CONCEPT WITHIN A RADICALLY UNSPECIFIC UNIVERSE. I am told that Casino Royale will be a "rebooting" of the Bond series, which means it is being written and directed as though the previous twenty installments do not exist. This news strikes me as curious, since that seemed to be the case with all previous Bond movies, too. I realize there have been references to previous films. For example, 1981's For Your Eyes Only opens with Roger Moore visiting the grave of his wife, Tracy, who died when she was married to George Lazenby in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. However, I don't think anyone ever considers the possibility that while Bond was running around the Eiffel Tower in 1985's A View to a Kill, he may have been recalling a vaguely similar situation from 1967's You Only Live Twice.
In other words, each Bond film exists within its own reality. Continuity is a nonfactor; some things change, and some things don't. The enemies, technology, and music in each film reflect whatever year that film was released, but Bond stays roughly forty years old and never gets a promotion. If he needs to be an astronaut, he becomes an astronaut. Nobody fucking cares. It's just a movie.
However, there is one rule that cannot be changed, regardless of the year or the setting or the sudden inclusion of Remington Steele: "James Bond" has a meaning outside of film, and that meaning is always the same. It describes a person who is obviously cooler than a) you and b) everyone you know. If you're at a cocktail party and someone mentions that one of the expected guests is "kind of like James Bond," you will not assume he works for the government or likes his drinks shaken or shoots people without remorse. You will simply assume that this person won't talk about himself, he will be exceptionally well dressed, and he will be good at whatever everyone else at the party is doing (even if it's Jenga). And you will not be happy if you see him talking to your girlfriend from across the room, because she will be laughing too much, even though he is probably not telling any jokes. In fact, he might even be saying, "That's a nice dress." And we all knows what that means.
This is a direct lift-off from this esquire article I was reading by this guy called Chuck Klosterman. Even though he has a weird sounding and a bit difficult last name to call out, the guy more or less hits the nail on the head, much like M suggesting Bond to "Pump her for more information". ;)