Braving Barbican: Visiting Designing 007

Note: photography was not allowed in the exhibit, hence I will be using stills from the  Bond films.

Barbican, a museum/exhibition venue for various forms of arts and entertainment, is currently running a James Bond exhibit. Entitled “Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style,” the exhibit displays a number of props, costumes and documents from and related to the film. And there are clips of the movies playing everywhere.

Having gone through all of the Bond film’s last year, I found myself perusing through the exhibit with a familiarity with almost everything I saw. Sure, a few names didn’t sound familiar and I swear some of the gadgets on display didn’t make it into the movies, but on the whole it was cool to actually have the background on these items.

It also means I went through the entire thing rather quickly, not because there wasn’t a lot, the entire thing is split up into three separate section, but that a lot of things were so familiar it was like, oh, I remember that, well I’ve seen it now. That’s cool. Unlike an art gallery, looking at artifacts from a series of movies, especially action films, isn’t likely to endue a lot of reflection and contemplation when viewing. That being said, I did feel like I learned some things from the exhibit.

The most interesting tidbit I took away was a statement one of the costume designers said about designing costumes for Bond Villains: their clothes must make them other and be in direct opposition to Western style. Now, of course, there are exceptions, but looking through the costumes you do pick up on the theme that a lot of these costumes are visually marking the villain as other, as not in line with the values Bond represents and protects.

Sure, these film’s aren’t subtle about playing with political and cultural fears of the era, but I thought it was interesting how this was a conscious choice when it came to making costumes for the villains. Even on a basic visual levels, these are deliberate though-processes that factor into the look made for a character.

And while I’m sure many will argue this is problematic, villainizing cultures on a basic visual level, what is even more overt is the sexualization of women in the costume design. The exhibit is extremely open about this, even noting the breast size of one actress as the key design feature that went into a particular costume. And it’s quite frank about Xena Onnatop’s sexual sadism as a deliberate design choice in both the illustration and costume phases.

I do appreciate that the exhibit is frank about this, not trying to shroud one of the more problematic elements of the series. I think it allows the display to be frank and apparent about what thing are instead of trying to romanticize them. I also though it was cool seeing how the more recent costume designers try to be a bit more sophisticated and classy with their costume designs. One designer cited Casablanca and classic noir as a point of reference for the costume design for Vesper in Casino Royale.

I hate to use the exhibit to rag on more about what bugs me about the Bond series, because I did quite enjoy it and there were a number of times where I would see something I forgot about or see a clip for a film and find myself remembering why I came to the exhibit to begin with: there’s just something gleefully fun about James Bond when it works.

Speaking to that, there are a great number of storyboards, notes and drawings of the various stunts in the film. The best display is a wall that has fantastically detailed storyboards of two action scenes: The airport fight in The Living Daylights and the skyscraper escape in Tomorrow Never Dies.

The Living Daylights storyboard shows a great sense of how the motion of the action will be carried out while leaving enough space to allow the camera freedom. In contrast, the Tomorrow Never Dies storyboard is more about capturing how the camera should flow from action beat to action beat. And it’s also drawn in color. It looks good enough to be its own comic book.

A couple of completely random, but interesting, notes: if the models that fill the costumes are any indication Daniel Craig is a small man. Even on a foot high pedestal I stood above his suit by a good few inches. Also, a lot of the costumes are actually recreations as many of the original costumes used to be owned by the actor or actress, per their contract, and I guess they either didn’t have the access or the money to get those own by the actors.

Also, none of the unofficial Bond films are mentioned in any way whatsoever. No big surprise there. In term of what shows up the most, the film does a good job of having something from just about every film, and a substantial representation of every Bond, even good old Dalton, but for some reason Die Another Day came up a lot. I think there were twice as many props, clips and costumes from that film than any other. I’d say the second most represented film is GoldenEye. So if you’re a Brosnan Bond fan and you’re in London, you should especially see this exhibit. That being said, any Bond fan, and even someone on the fence like myself, should be able to find enough to enjoy in the exhibit.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing