First of all, fuck spy films. For that matter film in general for their psychotropic manipulation of our emotions and senses, but it is on this level it should be acknowledged that films, on some level, have taught us what we want, what we desire, and have introduced us to the mythological social archetypes that have shaped our lives. And really why I am writing this is probably because I have some sort of techno-addiction or reversion to a never dying social habitus that keeps me turning to film—continuously luring me with the same hook and sinker—even though I have become so bored—watching the same five or maybe six different film plots that amount to five different types of Matlock’s that just change the variables in the story, but reproduce the exact—literally—exact same dynamics and stories. That is not saying there are not exception in this generalizing of film, but the exception proves the rule.
Nevertheless, I did it again, I was bored, wanted to figure out how to rest and stay in bed, so I streamed the film: The Kingsman: The Secret Service. My drift towards watching this film began when I overheard my friend’s-friend describe it to them on the street when they were on their way to see it in the theater and that is how I heard of it and eventually looked at the trailer, then I decided, when I was ready for some disappointing entertainment it was going to be The Kingsman. And really venturing back to watch a mainstream film was likely an attempt on my part to fulfill my need for a technological feed—the electronic warmth and stimulation that is the foundation of techno-addiction. Then to my surprise I got it with a lot less disappointment than I expected, in fact, I enjoyed it! This is something I did not expect, especially with a spy spoof.
So many of us grew up watching James Bond films and their army of precursors and cheap knock-offs that subsequently flooded the screens of this planet. As we all know, to some degree and especially if you are susceptible to hyper-masculine archetypes, Bond was amazing, especially before we questioned any of the premises of what those films presented to us and taught us. Oh, the intoxicating lure of Action, adventure, romance, and an overall smooth operator who does not panic in extremely stressful situations. The smooth talking good guy who gets the girl(s!) has to stop/kill the eccentric bay guy trying to rule the world in a way that generally forfeits some of the less traditional routes to world domination— they lose interest in finance taking his dictator complex to its extreme, which is usually world domination. You know, it varies and this is just such a nice easy and entertaining narrative and you cannot forget the cool gadgets—like super watches, killer pens, spikes that come out of the hub caps, or the oil that spits out of the back of the car and of course headlight machine guns—I mean let’s be honest being an unstoppable secret agent ready to handle any situation is pretty cool. Then as one grows up and life goes on, one of the many fundamental problems arises with these films, which could be put simply as: fuck the state and its shitty myths and lies that keeps us on a tread mill of total economic production/consumption, total control and by consequence total environmental destruction. This creates feelings of betrayal and foolishness, realizing the bad guys is sometimes closer to good than we first thought and the good guys are a lot more evil than we first imagined (as impressionable youths). And the feeling erupts: Fuck the demagogic narratives and premises that are crammed down our throats with slick gadgetry and special effects that systematically work to affirm corporate/state control, its paternalism, its sexism and even the insecure hero/savior mythology that is so delicious to the insecure young and old males—the classical target audience of which I am now a willing victim before watching The Kingsman1. However as time goes on, the target audience has nuanced to include women, people of color and will even appropriate queers into the narrative of super spy. Still waiting for Transgendered people to be accepted by spy professional culture for greater social control of the hearts and minds, but I detract from the film that could have been better, but was surprisingly not as disappointing to the point of enjoyment. Yeah, enjoyment, but my film heart has been broken too many times and maybe my standards are just low2.
So in terms of revisiting the James Bond model of this film, it is spectacular and done really well. Appropriating and reworking the bond structure and even extended to play with some of the more interesting story line that made aspects of this movie worth dissecting and useful for understanding the onslaught of modern slavery.
The characters were astounding. Samuel L. Jackson character—Valentine— played the “bad guy,” who was an unbelievably successful dotcom Mark Zuckerberg type, but with a healthy dash of black culture and style. Gazelle, his henchwomen hit the mark, who had Jaw’s metal in the form of prosthetic blade legs, but was largely adapted from the more tasteful Goldfinger chauffer Oddjob , who instead this time was a female assassin with an astute demeanor and the razor sharp mental prosthetic feet that combined with some Kung Fu would slice her victims into pieces. Then the hero—Eggsy— a son of a poor women living on the dole (welfare), who was a clever pickpocket, loyal friend and lacking opportunity (for cultural assimilation/success), but was spirited and of course “had potential” as this type of story goes—a clever and ambitious young man ready to be manipulated or “given a chance.” And yes, it is a story of becoming, the poor riffraff from the English housing estates (project) becoming a prestigious super spy—something the film itself acknowledges referencing the classics Trading Places, Nikita, Pretty Women, and My Fair Lady, these are films of personal transformation and changing sociopolitical roles to become “the chosen one” in any given test of “life success.” The thing parents, teachers and adults talk about: “to be something.”
The way this story is presented is Eggsy Father worked for this elitist spy agency seemingly above the MI5 known as the Kingsman Secert Service, but early on in Eggsy’s life his father’s career ended when he jumped on a grenade during an interrogation, and saved the lives of his spy colleagues. The guilt of what would become Eggsy mentor/handler Harry, who personally gave Eggsy’s a get out of jail free card as a consolation prize for his father’s death—notably, he gave it to Eggsy because the mother refused it and found it insulting after she lost her husband. Seventeen years later after stealing some local thug’s car that was bulling him and purposefully ramming the car head on into a police car, Eggsy found himself in jail. This created a situation where his get out of jail free card would come in handy and secretly initiated Eggsy’s recruiting process into the Kingsman Secret Service and subsequently provided him an opportunity to get out of the projects or in this case a Le Corbusier style counsel estate that was modeled after World War II bunkers to become a super spy.
Common to these transformations and their films of becoming they are littered with all sorts of messages. This film, like Charlie in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory had a strong class war discourse throughout the film, but was a little less subtle. Eggsy is poor and rightfully despises the “posh” and bourgeoisie demeanor of the English spy world, he is trying to conform into and is slowly taught how to be a “gentlemen.” This is where his ambition to “be someone,” escape the counsel estate, and help his family, is reconfigured into a desire to become a smooth talking agent of the state. Where the “poor kid”—underdog—is forced to compete in an elite spy training camp against all of the offspring of the Oxford and Cambridge aristocrats. This class tension is littered throughout the film, calling his handler Harry a “snob,” making a sarcastic comment over Harry’s foiling of Margret Thatcher’s assassination—“Everybody would thank you for that”—and an overall insecurity about being able to become a gentle men. And it is here when Harry describes being a secret agent says:
Harry: …We are first and for most gentlemen.
Eggsy: So me fucked then. It is just like Charlie [the rich kid competition] said, I’m just a pleb.
Harry: Nonsense being a gentleman has nothing to do with the circumstances of one’s birth. Being gentlemen is something one learns.
Eggsy: Yeah, but how?
Harry: Alright, first lesson, you should have asked me before you took a seat. [pause] Second lesson: How to make a proper Martini.
Eggsy: Yes! Harry.
So, like any appeal with being a spy it is about the things you get to do—travel, blow things up, be a skilled fighter, kill people without state imposed consequences, go to fancy parties and of course get drunk—“shaken not stirred” or in this film “Martini, Gin, not vodka obviously, stirred for ten seconds while staring at an unopened bottle of Vermouth.” Throughout the movie, Harry’s cleverly and honestly (from his perspective) is marketing being a “gentleman” to Eggsy and this becomes the criteria of his transformation. This message of being a gentlemen is always mixed with a certain value system that decontextualized and on an individual level is appealing and noble: well-dressed, strong self-defense skills, charming, and a Robin hood sense of justice, but this systematically confuses the order and function of political economy and society—the purpose of this assemblage—which ends up circulating and reaffirming the same broken mythology we are told our whole lives— some variation of social contract and liberal democracy. Likewise, in addition to these new skills of being a spy, it is the ability to drink or know how to make good Martini’s to woooh the women that solidifies this transformation. And it is a reminder that in the end, all classes can agree alcohol, sex, and violence (depending on its form) is attractive and it is through this common desire and ambition Eggsy’s transformation is facilitated. Drinking in this film as in most is frequently framed as positive, interesting and necessary—it is the oil of our industrial cybernetic society.
More interesting and appealing is the villain—Valentine and his plan to save the world! And that is the beauty of this film—the bad guy is plotting to save the world and heal the earth from climate change. His motives reveal some of the most interesting content of the film and here he explains to the audience his logic behind his motives:
Valentine: When you get a virus, you get a fever. That is the human body raising its core temperature to kill the virus. Planet earth works the same way. Global warming is the fever, mankind is the virus. We are making our planet sick. A cull is our only hope. If we do not reduce our population ourselves there is only one of two ways this can go: the host kills the virus or the virus kills the host, either way [switches character]
Spy Agency head (SAH): the result is the same: the virus dies.
Eggsy: So Valentine is going to take care of the population problem himself?
SAH: Well if we do not do something nature will. Sometimes a culling is the only way to make sure this species survives. And history will see Valentine as the man who saved humanity from extinction.
Eggsy: And he gets to pick and choose who gets culled, does he? All of his rich mates get to live and then anyone he thinks is worth saving he is keeping them safe whether they agree with him or not.
SAH: And you Eggsy, in Harry’s honor; I am inviting you to be part of the new world. It is time to make your decision.
SAH: I would rather be with Harry [dead], thanks (89:30)
So the evil plan is actually rooted in a very real and present problem and our villain even takes on an indigenous ontology for making sense of the situation, which is an important realization. A Zapotec friend of mine in Southern Mexico explained in an interview about climate change: “I think in my mother’s tongue that global warming is the sickness of the earth—Mother Earth is sick, but those people who have money are taking advantage of the illness of Mother Earth….” This hipster dotcom villain is onto something, his assessment is correct, but his theory is broken and is essentially just going to do what civilized thought has always done and is following the natural trajectory of industrialism with a cull—selective and in this case a class based extermination. What Valentine was doing to “save humanity form extinction” was setting up an elaborate and painfully clever system of participatory technological strangulation, which we are watching happen today in maybe, a less extreme or more accurately a less direct and slower way than killing all of the people on the earth that have not talked Valentine and will have a place reserved in his luxurious Arctic mountain bunker, which is fit with a dance club, a luxury prison and in general is draped with the best of intentions and comfort.
The most noteworthy aspects of this film are how it displays techniques of social control. First, he is trying to save the world (his way) based on a reasonable assessment of climate change. Second is how he is going to do what amounts to global class genocide. Valentine is by far one of the most realistic bond style villains that display’s the slippery nature of villain-hood in the 21st century. He is an MIT, techno-genius hipster with good intentions! He does not like killing, cannot stand blood, but is laying the foundations for global genocide in the name of saving the world. How telling of our current circumstances—it is like Green peace, Google and Black Water wrapped into one—he is the NGO-Techno-Mercenary Complex that emerges from the state system. This is what people are up against: cybernetics reinforced with an Eichmann complex that propels an amorphous spread of wires, plastic and Styrofoam across the planet and the people who inhabit it.
In a another scene after he tries out his knew technology on an extreme right-wing Christian church in the middle of the United States, his character and by extension his technology of genocide is justified when he actually directly kills someone in the parking lot of this church after he orchestrated a massacre.
Valentine: Is he dead?
Gazelle (Hench women): That is what happens when you shoot someone in the head. It feels good, right?
V: [Distressed] No! No! It does not feel good, it feels fucking awful!
G: What? You just killed how many people in that church? This is one guy!?
V: No, no, no, they killed each other. (88:00)
This man is hands off, keeps himself at a distance and could rarely if ever kill directly, but can provide free Sim cards in all of his altruism to everyone in the world so they could have “Free Calls-Free Internet-For Everyone-Forever!” Valentine, through his care and charity is going to save people tons of money, make lives easier and more comfortable in this modern world, while simultaneously installing levers into people’s lives that when he presses a button it will initiate, in his words: “a neurological wave that triggers the centers of aggression and switches off inhibitors.” This means when he presses the button people will lose their minds and start freaking out and trying to kill everyone around them, which looks oddly like Black Friday at Walmart, but on a large-scale turns into the most violent riot of people not attacking the structures of their control, but going for each other’s throats. I think it was what Hobbes imagined or what some people want us to imagine Hobbes meant when he said a “War of all against all”—or fear of Total Anarchy that was the justification for the Leviathan (state) that now produces the Mark Zuckerbergs and other equally deranged technologists who’s names we do not know developing drones, robots, nano and biotechnology weapon systems. So we are looking at techniques of participatory or inclusionary control using information technology that despite some subtle exaggerations and a centralized figure head(s)—to be villain poster child—we have a situation that is not far from our own.
The narrative in this film and Valentine’s theory suffers the under addressed narrative of Lord of the Flies. Behind this films class analysis and becoming an honorable and righteous gentleman to govern—so British—is this need to have structures to govern the people and oversee their relations and abuses of power with Spy agencies like Kingsman against villains like Valentine—goodies vs baddies. The message is the same as the Lord of the Flies where a group of kids are left to their own devices on a tropical island. On the island “human nature” emerges, the strong will inevitably organize hierarchical social structures to manage resources and subdue the weak and in this case the fat ginger kid with glasses got offed with a rock—poor Piggy ( . . . it could be any of us). This is a fiction against anarchy that delimits human cooperation, but what people always forget about those kids trying to kill each other on that island is that they were all from a British boarding school—inculcated with discipline, competition, classism and the list goes on. How could the kids act any other way if everything in their lives has been reaffirming authority with a class system and total submission to teachers and headmasters? Then add an island survival situation—of course shit is going to get like that, it is probably the only scenario Western culture can see as that is the trajectory it is on and constantly projecting on its subjects and the world. The kids are crammed into a violent and industrial mold that certainly was not going to give them living on island skills and probably left them with a whole lot of emotional baggage—probably more than we can comprehend. This is what was between the lines, or possible interpretations outside the author’s intentions, but people jump to the easy narrative to justify a twisted and one-sided “human nature,” which is deeply conditioned by our industrial culture, which transcends being strictly Western—especially with the onslaught of information technologies in the era of globalization and beyond.
This means two things. First, the all too common good governance narrative is long broken, because if anything governance usually ends up creating a rotten relationship that leaves people either materially deprived, psychosocially fragmented and their lives mediated by different authorities and technologies that typically manifests in physical and psychosocial decay. Often rendering us just like piggy panicking scrambling around looking for his glasses (GPS, etc) as we struggle to understand who we are, what we want, and why we are systematically discontent. Secondly, does Valentine really think taking some of the most successful and “smart” people in the world and putting them in a bunker is not going to end up creating a global Lord of the Flies situation all over again when he let’s all the “smart” and “important” people out of their mountain bunker to take up their countries and domains? It is going to get ugly, as it already is, but how is taking what are some of the most ruthless, power hungry and delusional—aka the most fucked up people in the world and saving them—even if many of them are the champions of cybernetics going to help the world? It sounds like a recipe for disaster that is an all too familiar past and reality.
In short, this film is rooted in a liberal narrative, exemplified in its finest scene of justice ragging on Middle America’s fascist Christians that portrays the image that England likes to project against its rebellious colony who made them their accountants. In all honesty, liberal narratives meshed with the action and excitement of mainstream film makes it less disappointing and even enjoyable because there is action—education turns into action, but of course it is the super elite spy agency saving the world that is constantly reaffirming a statist narrative. Nevertheless, the climax is a colorful explosion of beautifully explosive images of social justice, which becomes satisfactory—especially when you realize it is some of the most fucked up people in the world and then the liberal fantasy of social cleansing is realized. This anti-corruption fantasy is paraded without any real reflection about the systemic problems of governance—structure that reproduce systemic corruption, which means it is rotten. However, unlike most liberal analyses this film contained a useful depiction of techniques of social control that operate in our lives today. The modern industrial human sits in a double-bind in terms of political social narratives—stuck between political parties and ideological poles—that are systematically reinforced by film. In this current system of climate change, people forget that most people—typically “uncivilized people”—have always worked to improve their environments and now the industrial or civilized mindset, which has made industrial problems, only sees things like culls as solutions to environmental problems. Rarely, if ever reflecting on the systemic problems of market logic and the consumption that goes with it— like films and their industry that have emerged from campaigns of war and internal social pacification3. That is unless, challenging market logic begins to create new and expensive consumption habits (consumer politics) that reinforce the market structure often responsible for environmental degradation that is compounded by the “political economy of people”4 that has engineered population booms to reinforce the power and richness of states with their human resources.
With all of this said, the last cull I heard of was a Badger cull in England. Here some individuals or individual faced with a similar situation as Eggsy, but on a much smaller scale—like Eggsy saw that the cull was fucked up—and instead retaliated by burning down a 16 million pound inter-agency police-military training center, which was going to specialize in training military and police in foreign and domestic counterinsurgency. An action possibly as nerve racking or as “easy” as the group who did it claimed, but as dangerous as some of the feats paraded Kingsman5, except this time in real life with a real cull against Badgers, but with some substantial and important differences. Aside from not being a film, like Eggsy these people or person made a choice to go against the cull, they acted for the Badgers, who might have been a class of people they identified with, but was not strictly human in the case of Eggsy trying to save the world—they acted on their own and for the badgers, but they were not acting in the name of the state or their interest nor where they delusional about governance (judging by their actions) and those are two things Eggsy and the film completely missed. These are indicators that Eggsy and the rest of humanity with their obsession with progress and confinement will be forever desiring and doomed to a new form of modern slavery that will just keep them clicking and spectating until they are transformed into the pulses of energy running the wires and roads that keep this social machine spreading its “Free Calls-Free Internet-For Everyone-Forever!”
1 But I chose to see it, does that make me a victim anymore?
2 Notably, I had such high, and yes miss founded hopes for terminator 3 and 4. It still hurts, they still failed.
3For fun readings, see Virilio P. (2009 ) War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, New York: Verso.
4 For fun readings, see Foucault M. (1998 ) The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality: 1, London: Penguin Books, pp. 25-28
5 See http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/aug/28/anarchist-fire-police-firearms-training; http://www.channel4.com/news/informal-anarchist-federation-bristol-arson-attack-anarchist