In an interview this week to Time magazine, director Sam Mendes disclosed part of his work behind the lasted James Bond movie, Skyfall. Skyfall is the all-time highest grossing 007 movie ever, and I, personally, loved it. Mendes seemed to draw inspiration from a number of past successes, with a Silence of the Lambs– inspired villain and an interiority amidst action reminiscent of the Bourne series. Maybe I liked it so much because it was almost an year since I had been to the cinema, but the movie grabbed me at the beginning and carried me throughout.
Half-way through this interview, Mendes is asked if he has drawn at all on current events for the movie’s plot. He answers:
No, but you know what scares you now, in the modern world. At least I do. You sort of have to do it in a way that’s specific and yet nameless, which is quite difficult. You can’t say Al Qaeda. You can’t use particular nations. It’s easy to do that and also somehow cheapens the real events. You have to find a way to hover a foot above reality, at the same time acknowledging our collective fears about where the dangers in the world really lie at the moment.
To hover a foot above reality. This sounds like an ingredient of successful writing, storytelling, and personal conversations. For human interaction, on the page, screen or face-to-face, if it is to resonate with us at all, it has to be specific, it has to touch, grab, smell. It cannot soar to generalities or tiptoe on clichés, it has to name feelings, fears and hopes and let the full weight of their specificities sink in. We have to visualize what is talked about, feel the power of its seduction or repulsiveness, and decide to close in or face away. Concreteness draws active engagement and the choice to stay put.
But, then, if we arrive too close and things become too sensitive and vulnerable, if intimacy is explored, we pull away. We want to protect the reality we see and most of all protect ourselves, so we increase the distance if our feelings become hurtful or overwhelming.
That’s why this sentence, to hover a foot above reality, struck me. For a movie of fiction like James Bond has to suspend reality to let in villains, testosterone and technologies which don’t usually color the streets, and yet remain sufficiently close to engage us. It has to address our collective fears but include some balm too. It has to hover above reality, but not too much, lest we unplug from the storyline.
If there is an extreme we tend to today, between proximity and distance, I would say it is distance. The pain of the world overwhelm us, the cacophony of narratives distract us, and we prefer to safeguard our intimacy by keeping away. Sociologist James Hunter writes:
The very nature of modern life is its fragmentation and segmentation into multiple constellations of experience, knowledge, and relationships with each constellation grounded in a specific social and institutional realm of consciousness – what some has recently called, ‘continuous partial attention’ … often reinforced by a world of hyperkinetic activity marked by unrelenting interruption and distraction… In other words, the context of contemporary life, by its nature, cultivates a kind of absence in the experience of ‘being elsewhere’.
For us who don’t hover close to reality but hide with the head in the clouds, anxious for distractions that will protect us from involvement, my guess is that this James Bond-inspired advice would be: draw closer. Get involved. Relate to others. Let yourself get hurt. There is danger in that but there is danger in keeping our space too, as C. S. Lewis puts it.
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
To love is to be vulnerable. Not to love, to decay.
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 252.