FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is not unsophisticated. You are.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is not unsophisticated. You are.

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From Russia With Love was released almost 50 years ago.

I point that out not to make anyone reading this feel old (or young), but because I revisited the second James Bond picture on a big screen recently, in a small but packed Manhattan theater, and it made me painfully aware that for a good many people, movies aren’t art or experience, they’re product. And products date.

Some of the patrons seemed truly, deeply, un-ironically into the film, but many more seemed to be treating it as a nostalgia trip. The very qualities that made the film seem modern and exciting when it came out amused them. The film’s lack of newness prevented connection with the audience.

Scratch that. It wasn’t the film’s fault. It was the audience’s.  

I hate to be the guy who says “You’re watching it wrong,” but these people definitely were.

There might be a lot of factors contributing to the viewers' failure to engage (surely including lack of film literacy), but ultimately, that’s their decision and their loss.

It’s up to the individual viewer to decide to connect or not connect with a creative work. By "connect,” I mean connect emotionally and imaginatively—giving yourself to the movie for as long as you can, and trying to see the world through its eyes and feel things on its wavelength.  

That wasn’t happening here.

I heard constant tittering and guffawing, all with the same message: “Can you believe people once thought this film was daring? It’s so old-fashioned.” The arch double-entendres; the bloodless violence, long takes, and longer scenes; the alpha male attitudes toward women and sex; John Barry’s jazzy, brassy, borderline-hysterical score: all these things elicited gentle mockery. They laughed at Sean Connery’s hairy chest. They laughed at some obvious stunt-double work. When Bond flirted with the secretary Moneypenny and put his face close to hers, a guy a couple of rows in front of me stage-whispered to his friend, “Sexual harassment!”

I saw From Russia With Love with my good friend Stephen Neave. He’s a huge James Bond fan. The audience pissed him off. Afterward he told me the two young men in front of us were snickering and joking so much that he wanted to smack them across the backs of their heads.

“Why pay twelve bucks to see an old movie in a theater, then sit there the whole time and act superior to it?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you act that way, you’re wasting your money. You’re not getting everything out of the movie. You’re not experiencing it. Plus, this is not a black-and-white subtitled movie about sheepherders. It’s James Bond!”

I know what he meant.

I don’t think highly of many of the Bond pictures as movies. With few exceptions, they don’t have much in the way of emotional content, and they don’t knock themselves out trying to create nuanced characters or tell coherent stories. They’re pure escapism—action scenes strung together by cheesecake, gadgets, and banter.

But if you meet them on their own terms, even the worst Bonds are, or ought to be, watchable, if only for their surface pleasures: the clothes, the cars, the explosions, the scenery, the hero’s brawny chest and cruel smile, the curves on the women. From Russia With Love has two of the sexiest images I’ve ever seen: the opening credits with the names projected on belly dancers’ writhing, whirling bodies, and the scene where a bare-chested, towel-clad Bond enters his bedroom and finds Tatiana Romanova in his bed. Images like that aren’t cute. They’re primordial. The Jean-Luc Godard quote “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun” sums up the franchise in twelve words. Films like this are cheeky erotic daydreams. The idea of somebody sitting through a cheeky erotic daydream with a smirk is just sad. Why not engage in some daydreams of your own?

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I like imagining myself seeing From Russia with Love for the first time in 1963 while on a date with a woman I fancied, having no clue what shifts in technology and morality the future would bring, and maybe thinking something like: Hey, the movie just made a joke about oral sex, and then it cut to a close-up of the Russian agent’s lipsticked mouth. It’s filling up the whole screen! I’ve never seen a movie do that. How did that get past the censors? Hey… Look at that. My date isn’t embarrassed. She’s laughing in a sort of delightedly nervous way. She’s cool. Maybe we can get a drink after this.

The 2012 IFC crowd’s reaction reminded me of an experience in college circa 1988. My film history teacher, an associate professor from NYU who’d just arrived on campus a month earlier, kicked off his very first film history course by showing Singing in the Rain. Most of the students laughed and joked from start to finish. They thought it was hilarious.

I expected the professor to shush them, but he didn’t. He later told me that he was so disturbed by the students’ refusal to engage that he wanted to let it continue so he could study it.   

He opened the post-screening lecture by asking the crowd to please tell him what was so funny.

“This movie is a musical comedy,” he explained, “so I expected laughs, but the laughs were in what seemed to me like strange places,” he said. “I picked this movie to open my fall film history class because I wanted to open with something accessible and fun, and it sounds as though a lot of you didn’t think it was either of those things. And I’d like to know why.”

A young woman raised her hand.

“Well, it was just funny,” she said, “because they’d just, you know, be talking, and then they’d start singing, and you’d hear this orchestra suddenly start playing out of nowhere, and then they’re dancing these really elaborate routines.”

Another student volunteered that the characters talked in a “corny” way and smiled so much that their performances didn’t seem “natural.”

Another said that, compared to videos that aired on MTV circa 1988, the film seemed “really primitive and kind of unsophisticated.”

The teacher shifted back and forth on his heels, staring at the ground, weighing words in his head.

Then he looked up and said, “I don’t know if I can ever explain this to you in a way that makes sense, but I just have to say that it disturbs me that you would think a movie like Singing in the Rain is corny and unsophisticated. Music videos can be works of art in their own rights, but they’re not necessarily more sophisticated than Singing in the Rain. In fact, I would argue that a movie that has people standing around having conversations with each other, and then suddenly has them singing and dancing to a score that appears out of nowhere, then goes back to having them talk, asks more imagination from its audience than a music video. You have to decide to be OK with whatever the film is doing at any moment. You have to decide to accept it as normal, and decide to care about what’s happening even though it just suddenly turned into a different kind of movie. It’s like when you’re at a play and you just decide to pretend that the characters are wherever the play tells you they are, rather than looking at the stage and seeing a couple of actors in chairs pretending to be people they aren’t. Any work that would ask something like that of an audience cannot be called unsophisticated. It’s sad to think that there was once a time when Hollywood released dozens of movies like this each year, and millions of people went to see them, and enjoyed themselves, and laughed, and sang along, and got wrapped up in the story, and that if the same kind of movies were released right now, people would laugh at them and call them unsophisticated. That so many of you could sit there and snicker at Singing in the Rain for being unsophisticated depresses me beyond words. This movie is not unsophisticated. You are.”

His contract was not renewed.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The volume of response to this piece sparked the writer to publish a follow-up, which you can read here.]  

59 thoughts on “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is not unsophisticated. You are.”

  1. I saw "Bullitt" on the big screen a couple years ago and was so excited to finally get to see it on the big screen. My viewing experience was ruined by the audience who constantly snickered at the fashion and technology. I was so livid, I wanted to beat the snot out of every last one of them. My reaction was the same as the author's: "Why would you come out and pay to watch a movie you obviously have no respect for." Thank you for writing this article.

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  2. I could not agree more. It's only an unsophisticated *audience* that can't watch a film considerate of its time period and historical context. This is actually one of the many reasons I dropped out of music school – that's how sensitive I was at the time I suppose. I was studying film scoring and we would watch movies like Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and there was laughter at every turn at every mildly antiquated sentiment or idea. And worst of all, the professor made no helpful comment and seemed to only encourage this sort of philistine attitude. Unfortunately I think this problem not only stemmed from ignorance but from students who are more consumerist/profit-minded than artistically minded. These people know that modern music videos sell millions of records and make millions of dollars; meanwhile making a movie in 2012 that looks and feels like Singin' In The Rain would be insane, so they simply reject the latter film as valueless to modern culture, because it seems like there's no money to be made from studying it. There's no doubt that a modern audience might have difficulty understanding or appreciated some random older film from another era. But to see this reaction in film classes or at art house revival theaters is discouraging.

    And another reason why that is depressing, is because if you can't appreciate that older films come from a certain historical context and see how that relates and appreciate it for what it is, you're probably also missing out on what today's modern films are actually saying, even as unintentional subtext, about the society we live in now.

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  3. It made me sad when I was buying my ticket to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" this week and some kid next to me asked if it was "a new one or the old one" before he would buy a ticket.

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  4. While not necessarily in the case of the older Bonds (it's been quite some time since I've seen "From Russia With Love"), it's a simple truth that some movies, especially ones set in the time in which they were released, do not age well and get easily mocked by later generations. I'm sure films I love that debuted in my lifetime will receive the same reaction from later moviegoers — you get that already when you see films made at the beginning of cellphones when they were so huge. Anything that revolves around tracing a call seems absurd to people who grew up with caller ID as they watch movie cops urging people to keep bad guys talking on the line. As far as film literacy goes, that implies that there is a right or wrong opinion about any movie when there is no objective way to determine a film or TV show or piece of music, etc.'s worth. It's all subjective. It's not the moviegoer's obligation to connect with the film — the film must capture the moviegoer. The film supplies the magic, not the viewer, and that magic doesn't transfer universally. If it were the other way around, should we expect audiences to embrace the worst films ever made just because someone financed them and they ended up on a movie screen? I think that's why period pieces tend to hold up so much better. You mentioned Singin' in the Rain — it's not only the (in my opinion) best movie musical but it also happens to be a period piece.

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  5. As a teacher of film and lit, I suppose I'm expected to side with you and your 1988 teacher, but I can't. I've been exactly where he's been–showing an old movie to new students–and gotten that precise reaction. So I understand Mr. 1988's reaction, but he missed a huge opportunity–THE opportunity–to teach these students. He had begun to do just that, as he points out that ALL art contains artifice (hey, they even share letters! in order!). But then he blew it and insulted his students, when instead he should have explained that enjoying more art is about understanding and absorbing conventions that at first seem strange, funny, and…artificial. I understand his feeling, but he blew that. He shouldn't have had his contract renewed if he couldn't see that that was (sorry, Oprah alert) a teachable moment. As for your Bond experience, been there, my friend.

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  6. "This movie is not unsophisticated. You are."

    The bright side to this is that the advent of technology like the Internet, DVDs and Blu-rays are making older movies much more accessible (and without the usual impediments such as poor picture or audio quality) than ever before. The very fact that you could go to a revival screening and it even has an audience interested in watching it (even if for all the wrong reasons) bodes well for older films. I'm willing to bet that FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE connected in just the right way with someone in that audience who'd never seen it before. And I'm willing to bet that even with those that it didn't their will be some among them who will reconsider their kneejerk reaction to the film with the passage of a few days, weeks, etc. As long as these films are getting the exposure they deserve, I'm willing to forgive the unfortunate, attendant, limited thinking.

    Anyway, of the film proper, I curiously feel the opposite of what these philistines did. Of all the older Bond films, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE's minimal use of gadgetry accounts for why it still holds up so well.

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  7. I had the pleasure of the exact-opposite experience last night with two of my buddies and Night of the Living Dead. We're all about 29 and they had never seen the film, one of my favorites, and I was a little worried that they wouldn't be able to really "see" the 44-year old movie. We're all so protective of our favorites, aren't we? But sure enough they both loved it and their love added to my pre-existing love. One buddy even said, "The older I get the more I love older movies. They just seem to have an authority to them." Damn right!

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