(Less than) Six Degrees of Separation

Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy (1887 – 1938) is recorded in 1929 as being the first person to remark on the shrinking of the modern world and how this might mean any two people can be linked through no more than five acquaintances.

65 years later, and after 33 recorded screen appearances, students at Albright College, Pennsylvania, noticed that Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon had worked with a staggering amount of people and used him to illustrate this small world theory in the beautifully conceived game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The rebranded theory, having gained a massive popularity boost, became more accessible in the form of a website devised at the University of Virginia where the “Oracle of Bacon” helped people calculate the “Bacon Number” of any other actors they chose. If Karinthy is to be believed it should be possible to link anyone on the planet to Bacon. All we need to do is know an actor, or someone in the film industry. Or in my case an ex-member of the entertainment industry, my Bacon Number is 4:

1. I worked on Doctors with Christopher Timothy.
2. Christopher Timothy worked on All Creatures Great and Small with Robert Hardy.
3. Robert Hardy worked on Frankenstien with Robert DeNiro.
4. Robert DeNiro worked on Sleepers with Kevin Bacon.

Easy. Actually I’m more pleased that I’m only three steps away from DeNiro. And of course being that Robert Hardy has been a staple of the supporting cast in 4 Harry Potter movies I’m probably connected to all sorts of weird and wonderful folk. We can call Hardy a “node”, or connection point.

Another “node” revealed themselves to me as such the other day, without realising it, through the wonderful medium of Facebook. Whilst flicking idly through the contacts of one of my “better connected” friends on Facebook I found to my amusement that they’re friends with one Piers Morgan. Yes, that Piers Morgan.

I’m not a huge fan of the man but it goes without saying that he has an enormous amount of “friends” on the site (let’s refer to them as acquaintances to support Karinthy’s theory) and, being as this is what got me thinking about the whole Six Degrees of Separation thing in the first place, I couldn’t help having a cheeky look at PM’s friends. If there was anyone particularly notable or infamous it would mean they would be a simple three steps away from me.

Names thrown up in a cursory look down the list included a bewildering array of folk, some of which were terrifying to behold; James Murdoch; Jeremy Clarkson; Jimmy Carr; Paul McKenna. Others less so; Krishnan Guru-Murthy; Rageh Omaar; Sarah Brown; Yoko Ono (yes those were in alphabetical order and, no I don’t believe I’ll try and befriend them as it’d be a bit weird).

Because you’re reading this and you know me, all you need to do is add 1 for your Bacon Number (or Clarkson Number if that’s your thing) and you’ll know how many steps away you are. Of course the way this whole thing works, you may be part of an alternate more immediate chain linking to you to any of the people referenced above; one that doesn’t involve me at all. That’s the beauty of the theory. If you aren’t aware of any other route then it’s good to know that in my own small way, and without having any control over it, I have become a node myself.

James Bond Will Return

Bond producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have said: “Due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the future of MGM and the failure to close a sale of the studio, we have suspended development on Bond 23 indefinitely.”

It was the word “indefinitely” that made me wonder if anyone was really all that bothered. With all the talk of delays and the arguable dissatisfaction with Quantum of Solace comes the inevitable talk of rethinking the franchise. I was under the impression that the franchise had been rebooted quite successfully. It would surely take a lot more than one weak instalment to necessitate yet another back to basics reboot. I came to conclusion that I was bothered and that I just wanted the producers to make the next film better.

Quantum of Solace managed the impressive achievement of being the only official Bond film to date to not feature the character of James Bond in anything other than name. I’ve mentioned before that The International (starring Clive Owen, who was heavily rumoured to be taking the role of 007) was almost as good, and whilst it was a particularly unremarkable film it is comparable since both it and Quantum of Solace were heavily derivative of the Bourne films; both were directed by largely humourless German directors; both contained very driven protagonists similarly with no sense of humour, and both were concerned with evil multi-nationals using either the environment or the economy to propel the interests of terrorism. World domination, just not with sharks and frickin’ laser beams.

A little note at this point on Bourne. I can’t really continue without addressing the success of this franchise…The Bourne novels by Robert Ludlum, which I haven’t personally read, are by all accounts thrilling, gripping, can’t-put-them-down-they’re-so-fucking-good spy yarns. 2002’s The Bourne Identity was all of these things. Directed by one of my favourite filmmakers, the immeasurably talented Doug Liman (who had previously made Swingers and Go!) this film had intrigue coming out of its ears, a superb soundtrack; it was pacy, well edited, featured the ever-gorgeous Franka Potente and above all it reminded audiences that this genre could be presented in a way that made it all appear vaguely plausible. In fact it was so good that two years later they remade the film almost shot-for-shot. And again in 2007. As I’m writing this I can’t remember in which order The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum come. I know they’re both quite indistinct and directed by Paul Greengrass who fails to excite me on any level, and I know that the second one featured nearly all the exact same set pieces as the first film (including Bourne fighting a hitman in someone’s kitchen and a car chase through the streets of a major European city) done in a slightly less diverting way (was it supposed to look like a documentary?). After Bourne learns who he is the mystery was lost and by the time the third film came round my interest had evaporated.

The producers for Bond obviously didn’t feel the same way. They felt panicked enough to try and emulate the style of the Bourne films for some of Casino Royale which wasn’t necessarily a problem because they could use this style for the scenes in which it counted; namely the stunt sequences, fight scenes and other explosive bits. The rest of the film could then rely on Fleming’s original story and the sterling work the screen writers had done in getting all this on screen (such good dialogue) and also through Bond and Vespa’s relationship (Vespa herself is by far and away the most fully realised Bond girl ever – to the point where it’s hard to describe her as such). With Casino Royale there were two films in one and you almost don’t notice it because it was so well marshalled by Martin Campbell (who had previously relaunched the franchise with GoldenEye 11 years earlier).

When I heard the events of Quantum of Solace would take place directly after Casino Royale ends I thought this would be an exciting idea, even the suspect title didn’t especially bother me because it was taken from a Bond short story Fleming had written (even if James Bond features absurdly briefly) and it suggested that Bond would be caught up in grieving for Vespa’s death (and by “grieving” I mean “killing a lot of people”).

So what went wrong with Quantum of Solace? It was fairly slick; one of the shorter Bond films clocking in at 106 minutes (compared to the usual 2 hours), it had decent locations (even if a few were recycled from Casino Royale) and familiar characters. My prime concern as mentioned above was with those characters; Bond seemed weirdly absent, as though he could have been played by a stuntman. The villain was equally as anaemic and the Bond girl almost an utter non-entity, so much so it seemed this film was half the film Casino Royale had been. This was a desperate shame because there was room in Quantum of Solace for more character, especially of Bond. Daniel Craig proved that he could fully embody Ian Fleming’s spy in Casino Royale and now that this novel’s storyline has been thoroughly exhausted by both Casino Royale and its sequel let’s just move on…

…As long as the tone and flavour of the next film are that bit more inspired. As Casino Royale proved, there’s room for Bourne style antics inside a more satisfying story. It might not be a bad idea for Craig to leave some of the more dangerous stunts to the actual stunt men this time – although it’s great to know he’s game for leaping across roof tops, it does slightly limit what can be achieved, especially if the script originally called for something even more exciting. We’re all knowing viewers and are aware the actor might not have been dicing with death in quite the way the character seems to be (if a freak accident occurred it would be a shame to lose such a talented actor – an accident that might not happen if a professional were involved). Certainly I remember not being especially excited by the involvement of Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road) but then it’s been argued that Bond films are essentially director proof and it’s great news that Peter Morgan (who did such great work on political screenplays such as The Deal and Frost/Nixon) will be co-scripting.

Many bond films have demonstrated the thrills to be had with Bond using his initiative rather than novelty gadgets, e.g. Goldfinger’s electric heater-in-the-bath scrap, and although Quantum of Solace was good for this approach (with the sublime moment when Bond hurls a guy from his motorbike merely by over revving the accelerator) it shouldn’t be to the exclusion of fun, iconic gadgets such as the Aston Martin DB5 or “Little Nellie”, and some advice for you Campbell – if you are going to feature a gadget-laden car, don’t neglect to actually use it; how much of a let down it was in GoldenEye when the BMW Z3 drove off into the sunset without us having seen the wonder of the “Stinger missiles behind the headlights…” that we were promised or Bond destroying his Aston Martin DBS in Casino Royale having only utilised the defibrillator and the slightly-supped-up glove compartment…

Some of the best Bond films have proved that the villain doesn’t need to look freakish to be 007’s match for eccentricity or charisma; Roger Moore was particularly fortunate to get a lot of the best villains e.g. Scaramanga and Zorin and poor old Pierce Brosnan whose villains were larger than life, were arguably the least successful (many of the Brosnan era villains were undermined by something unfortunate: Xenia Onatopp had a ridiculous, carry-on name; Janus/006 had an unnecessarily haughty accent and staff who frequently wouldn’t obey his instructions; Elliot Carver was possibly the least threatening damp-squib of a megalomaniac ever…).

There are plenty of little touches you could inject to advance the series and yet make a nod or two to what’s worked in the past. The next theme tune might benefit from a return to vocals from Shirley Bassy – the mighty Propellerheads who reworked the theme from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” on David Arnold’s Shaken and Stirred collaborated with her to great effect on the supremely enjoyable “History Repeating” and her voice would create that instantly recognisable Bond vibe. The Brosnan era films did such a great job in making me realise the possibilities for quality title sequences and they could be conceptually developed well beyond projecting different coloured texts onto semi-naked women holding water pistols (well, the projections anyway).

It was immensely satisfying to be shown Bond’s apartment in both Dr No and Live and Let Die, the introductory films of the two actors who’ve played Bond most often on the screen, and to see a little more of the private life of Fleming’s character. These moments are always especially intriguing passages in the books: Bond tends to enjoy the brief time he has off between assignments frequenting “Blades”, his private club in Mayfair and his flat off the Kings Road in Chelsea, with the odd visit to the golf course thrown in. Our spy actually consumes far more whiskey than any other alcohol and is rarely seen without an accompanying cigarette; indeed it would be difficult to be seen any other way when you smoke 60 a day on average. More could be made of our character through behavior that was shaped at Eton, Fettes College in Edinburgh, The University of Geneva, and Cambridge. There are probably endless ways to enliven and broaden the franchise, which is why it was unforgivable that Quantum of Solace turned out the way it did. As the Bourne films have proved, there’s no mileage in their approach. If there is ever this level of debate about Bourne 23 I’ll reconsider, right now I just hope MGM find some cash from somewhere.

Something in the Air…

Returning to work this morning after being away last week, I expected to be immersed once again in the serious business of Intranets and Virtual Learning Environments, and I was. But not without being wrong footed by the slightly surreal atmosphere… Apart from the odd member of staff missing due to their being stranded in far flung locations, ranging from Dubai to Greece, I was struck by the eccentric nature of the e-mails that were sent last week. Certainly during the previous week of the Easter break the college was largely desserted and some members of staff might have found they weren’t experiencing the usual number of demands made of them, but I had no idea that this had lead in some cases to extreme paranoia and schizophrenia…

The first in an epic and gloriously irreverent thread began simply with the plaintive “Just sending an email in the hope of a response and confirmation that I am not the only person working today?

The sender turned out to be having issues with the college’s lighting which is designed to sense movement and so remain on (to allow work to be possible in the windowless bowells of college), except that last week there was no movement so they would periodically be plunged into darkness. Someone else suggested that they had heard “Reports of Gremlins in [the] new building going around switching off lights“. When it was suggested that the weekly badminton session be observed (despite only about three people working last week) it was someone else’s inspired comment “Maybe the gremlins would fancy a game too, you never know?!” that prompted this superb announcement and piece of photoshoppery:

Security have just informed us that the surveillance cameras in the main sports hall were mysteriously vandalised last night sometime after midnight. In an attempt to identify the culprits, security have released the following screenshots from the time of the attack“:

Gremlins

So far so daft. Quality use of time – morale is boosted. This was apparently not an isolated instance of slight madness and excessive creativity. A new member of staff made the questionable descision to ask a colleague for my whereabouts so that I could carry out a spot of training for the software I help maintain (Microsoft’s SharePoint) before receiving this rather curt reply:

I am glad that you are… ready to seek the ways of the enlightened.

The oracle of wisdom that you seek is James Leahy, the Sharepoint Administrator who dwells in the dark forest (aka the Quality Department). Enter the great white Tower block and there you will find the portal to the clouds. Press floor 5 and pass through the doors on this level. You must not turn left, no no, as this will take you to Performing Arts and this is a land of whirling dervishes and creatures so alarmingly different from other mortals you blood will turn cold. Do not look upon them for their spells may entice you to break out into spontaneous interpretive dance and then I fear you will be lost. No, turn right fair maiden and proceed through the gates of wisdom and into the realm of quality and assurance. Once you have passed through these gates you will encounter the gatekeepers. These are solemn, tired creatures feasting on stale coffee and biscuits (and maybe a cheese and pickle sarnies if on sale at Sainburys). The one you seek is behind the file cabinet to your right. He can be identified by the very pretty Mac computer that he greedily hoards to himself.

Raise thy hands to the stars and speak clearly ‘I seek the ways of Sharepoint!’ and he will set you free.”

Does volcanic ash have properties akin to opium? Possibly. It’s just excessively pleasing to return to work and yet, return to nothing like the standard day you were expecting. Thank you colleagues for brightening my day… You absolute weirdos 🙂