Intersections: Istanbul And James Bond
Continuing with the theme from our latest Flamingo Expo Intersections, our semiotics practice have put together another ‘semiotic snack’ for you to enjoy, looking at the way Istanbul has been represented in James Bond films.
The clips in which the team were analysing can be found at the bottom of the post.
ALFIE: Flamingo have just returned from Istanbul and we thought that, in honour of the great city, the biggest in Europe, we would do a quick ‘temporal comparison’. This will involve discussing the depictions of Istanbul within the world of James Bond, an icon of Western cinematic and popular culture. We will look at two depictions of Istanbul which appear in Bond films that are 49 years apart from one another: From Russia with Love (1963) and Skyfall (2012).
This will hopefully allow us to draw broader conclusions about how the West sees Istanbul. Where to begin? What are we coping with when we’re coping with Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Cecily?
CECILY: In lots of ways, we’re coping with classic Orientalism. There is the fact that we see the labyrinthine cisterns beneath the city, with a focus on darkness everywhere. There is also the way that everything is quite murky, difficult to navigate, and vaguely sinister. And all of these depths and recesses, presented as impenetrable to the Western eye, are very threatening.
JAMES: Yes, I agree completely. I think it’s important that both of the major landmarks we see, the Hagia Sophia and the Cistern, are snuck into. They are not entered directly, in fact they are not ‘knowable’ at all. And this is reflected in the camera angles, particularly in the Hagia Sophia, which are almost always around corners or across from one balcony to another. There’s always some sort of gap or ungrasp-ability I suppose about what you’re seeing.
SIMI: I think it’s also interesting that the mosques often feature in the backdrop as these kind of strange symbolic systems that we’re unfamiliar with, again contributing to that sense of the unknown, the unknowable and the exotic.
CECILY: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. The Hagia Sophia is especially interesting because it was a cathedral first and then it became a mosque, so it presents all these different layers of meaning but it has always been the site of some kind of strange, spiritual power. You see that a lot in the film in the way that people are being taken on a tour around it as well as in the things they’re talking about, for example the ‘wishing column’ which is mentioned by the tour guide. There’s also the paper which gets unfolded – it’s all quite low-tech but in a way which conveys a sense of Other spirituality and a mystical power, I suppose.
JAMES: I was just going to say mysticism, because again in the cistern scene there’s almost something of a medieval Dungeons and Dragons feel with the close-ups of the rats on the end of the stick… so it’s very ‘fantasy’, in the old-school sense of an unknowable, mystical, dragon land [laughter].
CECILY: Yeah, there’s something very ancient about it.
SIMI: there’s also the voice of the tour guide inside the Hagia Sophia which has this amazing reverb to it because of the acoustics of the room, and it gradually becomes more echoey until it disappears.
ALFIE: I’d like to pick that up actually. So we have a classic Orientalist framework: we have the unknowable, we have the Other, we have echoes, and visually we also have shadows. Can I just draw your attention to two things. Firstly, in the narrative Istanbul seems to be a site for meetings and interactions with the Other, but it also seems to be a site of history, historical inscription and writing. Writing is everywhere: writing is in the note that is passed inside the Hagia Sophia, which is relentlessly inscribed, and there is this idea that we are constantly having to decode. Would anyone like to pick up this idea of historicality or of writing?
CECILY: Well I think that strange writing, such as the Arabic which you find in Istanbul, creates a profound anxiety for Western eyes, because writing is the system of knowledge by which Western people think that they can conquer the world, and so to have writing which is indecipherable to you and which you can’t recognise is a very anxious thing and reinforces that sense of occult strangeness because it’s symbols not writing. And also, especially in the context of the Cold War, where things like code become extremely important…
JAMES: I think the plot of From Russia with Love is that the female lead has a ‘coding machine’ which decodes Russian messages, so there is definitely an emphasis on coding and unknowability.
CECILY: And I suppose that links into Alfie’s other point about meetings, because Istanbul becomes a site of coding and decoding, it is the point at which these two sides of the Cold War reach this uneasy centre point where they suddenly can’t understand each other, and things are being coded away from them.
ALFIE: And something I find very interesting is that it gets encoded in a historical place, so when we’re in the Hagia Sophia there is a tour going on about the history of the place, and a comment is made about the waterways, the cisterns underneath the city. It’s like you’ve got the writing of Western capitalism – Bond being the representative of that – as well as the inscription of Russia and the Soviet system, but they need to go to this third space, which is the writing of history, in order for codes to be mixed up, and for illicit readings and writings to happen. It strikes me that here you have somewhere which, because it is an otherness to any kind of modernity, forms a place in which modern antagonisms can start to learn to speak with one another.
JAMES: Yes, it’s almost a kind of reverse synthesis, in that it’s taking these two antagonising things and putting them into conflict in a place which is constructed as wholly past, which is partly why it’s so primitivised in terms of the primitive technology which we see, and also the ‘cat fight’ between the two ‘gypsies’, which ends as soon as one of them picks up a weapon and sort of ‘modernises’ herself. Istanbul is presented as being incapable of modernity in that way, or at least distanced from it.
ALFIE: And it’s also a site within which modernity is inscribing itself.
JAMES: Yes; a site where a Western modernity – or at least an Other Soviet modernity – comes to impose itself.
CECILY: Istanbul seems to represent some kind of deep past…
ALFIE: Now ‘the history of the Western representation of Istanbul in 49 years’. What is going on in Skyfall; Daniel Craig on the roofs of the Grand Bazaar?
SIMI: Well I suppose it’s a different side to Istanbul that we’re seeing in Skyfall. Whereas you’re in this spiritual space in From Russia with Love, this is a space of commerce in the Grand Bazaar, a space of trade. And yet it’s still underpinned by a dustiness, an earthiness, again the old-school signs of ‘tradition’.
JAMES: Yeah. I mean, for me, there are still big whiffs of Orientalism coming through. I think what’s interesting, and this may just be a thing about James Bond, but what happens is that the space is navigated in a way which is clearly not how you’re supposed to navigate it. However, there is a shift from it being about going underneath and secret to being on top and overt, and very public. One of the interesting things about the Hagia Sophia scene in From Russia with Love is that the building is empty, whereas in Skyfall the Grand Bazaar is very full.
CECILY: Yeah, actually the Grand Bazaar is full of people and Istanbul appears as this vast capitalist system, albeit an ‘Othered’ capitalist system, and James Bond is disturbing it. Everywhere he goes, he’s making people scatter. He’s imposing rather than infiltrating. And also the cuts back to London, where they are trying to map out the city as he goes, are very interesting. This is presenting an enormous challenge to their data systems and their knowledge systems. Istanbul appears very systematised and difficult to understand.
ALFIE: Yes, but it is, in the end, accessible to the systems of the modern and ‘map-able’ in those terms in a way that it isn’t in From Russia with Love, where we don’t even get the beginning of a map, we get shadow zones.
JAMES: I think there’s something really interesting in From Russia with Love in the idea of Bond moving away from a tour – which offers this official, public history – and doing something very secret and private, and almost ignoring the system as opposed to throwing competing versions of it against each other, as we see in Skyfall.
CECILY: And I wonder again in terms of the political, social, cultural context of the time, if that notion of a Western influence crashing through an ancient and modernising Turkish system, completely disrupting everything it comes into contact with, feels like quite a timely narrative [laughter].
ALFIE: From Russia with Love was being made across the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so we’re at the peak of Cold War anxiety. We’ve noticed that in the film, Istanbul becomes this place where competing versions of the ‘Modern’ – Soviets and ‘the west’ – meet each other, come into contact. What do we learn about contemporary globalised capitalism in Skyfall?
CECILY: Whereas in From Russia with Love there is the language of espionage and therefore it is incredibly shadowy, here there is the notion of breaking and smashing stuff.
JAMES: From Russia with Love constructs a situation in which there are two systems, and then gaps. There is a Russian ‘world’ and then a western ‘world’, and then an emptiness into which they can both go and have competing business against each other. However, the version of Skyfall is one in which there are constant systems in different places doing different things, and it’s about navigating or fitting systems together, or even finding ways through them…
CECILY: Yes, and that’s a very ‘Internet Age’ way to think about it as well; data systems that have to constantly encompass new stuff.
ALFIE: So, in From Russia with Love we have a space that is fundamentally about secrets, about the possibility of translation and about the layering of historical information and knowledge; layering and mystery. In Skyfall we have a space of movement, of navigation. So, would it be fair to say that in From Russia with Love Istanbul is a space which conceals and in Skyfall Istanbul is a space to move through, to navigate?
JAMES: I think that’s very true. There isn’t anything fundamentally unknowable about Istanbul in Skyfall, the knowledge that they have is all relative knowledge about who is where at any one time. It is not the secret fortress that you need to infiltrate, it’s ‘they’ve turned this way so you need to change direction’. It’s much more flexible.
CECILY: Istanbul is accessible to systems of modernity but it has systems of its own, which are just as complex and very capitalised and very fast. They are less occult, slow-moving and dark.
ALFIE: And that’s where the dust comes in: Istanbul represents something that you can recognise but which you don’t see clearly. So, from shadows to dust – that’s the story of Istanbul over 50 years!
By Flamingo Semiotics Practice
Film clips referenced:
From Russia with Love: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVtwNzF1BP8
From Russia with Love: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-vBFzqKu8
From Russia with Love: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loSOM3BFzLc
Image sources (screenshots from links below):