The Other Fellow,
Directed by Matthew Bauer
“The name’s Bond, James Bond...”
Possibly one of the best character introductions in cinema, Connery’s first appearance in Dr No, at a late-night casino table, has become not only memorable, but iconic, and that particular phrasing of the name has informed this long-lived character ever since; even those who don’t care for the films know that line. But what of the other James Bonds? No, despite the title of Bauer’s documentary, we’re not talking about George Lazenby. Rather Bauer looks into regular people in the real world who happen to share that now-famous name, from the respected ornithologist whose name Fleming cheerfully purloined (he had his book on the Birds of The West Indies by James Bond on his shelf in Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica) to people today who have grown up with this name, and all the baggage it brings with it, from an avid superfan to a man wanted by the police in Indiana.
Obviously to people today, the name James Bond comes with weighted with a lot of baggage, but of course this was not always the case. In the mid-twentieth century it was just another name – unless you had a keen interest in nature and had read the books and essays of the highly-regarded ornithologist, James Bond. In some archive interview footage, we see Ian Fleming being asked about the creation of his Bond novels, and how he selects a name for a character, whereupon he reveals he had Bond’s book on birds on his shelves and thought oh, that’s a good solid but not too flashy name, perfect.
Anyone who has ever tried penning a story will know that naming characters is often quite difficult, and inspiration for names – be it from strolling an old graveyard and noting the names on tombs to picking names from older books or journal articles. And in the normal run of things this is rarely a big problem for others further down the line – unless you have that rare thing, lightning in a bottle, a work that just grows and grows, crosses various mass media and becomes a global phenomenon. Bond – the nature-writing Bond, that is – and his wife are blissfully unaware of the existence of the superspy for the first few years of his existence. It’s only as the books become much more popular and are reprinted in America, and then along comes that first film, Dr No, that they really become aware of it. Uncomfortably aware of it.
Suddenly this respected scientist who has had this name for decades, find that people attach new meaning to it, especially those meeting him for the first time, or attending a public lecture by “James Bond”. I’m reminded of the Scottish lawyer and history writer who has the name Harry Potter, and also would have had no problem with that moniker for most of his life, then suddenly find that his name, through no action of his own, has suddenly become associated with far more. Bond and his wife, on a trip to Jamaica, decide to make an unannounced call at Goldeneye; when asked who is calling for Mr Fleming, they reply “Mr and Mrs James Bond”. After some discussion, and realising there was no malice here, they become friendly, Fleming telling Bond if he ever finds an especially silly looking new species, he is free to use his name for it as it would be only fair, before inscribing a copy of one of his Bond books “to the original James Bond” (it sold many decades later for tens of thousands of dollars).
What, however of all the James Bonds since then? Bauer selects quite a few, of different ages, from an elderly man who, like the ornithologist, predates the existence of the fictional spy, and has little care for or interest in the films, to much younger men who have had to deal with the fact that every single time they introduce themselves to someone new, they get that look and almost always some sort of joke (all of which they have heard many, many, many times before, as you can imagine).
One young African American man finds it even more troublesome when the police take an interest in him – being black in America and pulled over by the police is, as we’ve seen all too often in the news, a dangerous moment. Throw in that name when asked to identify yourself, and the officers deciding you are being cheeky to them, making them angrier… In a later moment the African-American Bond is wanted by the police, and the cache of that name means his case is spread all over the media. Astonishingly there is another man with the same name in the same area, and it’s not long before he gets people asking if it is him, and he has to explain no, it just happens to be another James Bond in their part of the world! (later the two get to meet and share stories about living with that name).
Bauer also introduces us to a number of other Bonds, including a theatre director in the US, who makes it clear how much he hates being stuck with this name, and all the expectation and connotations that come with it – and yet he accepts offers to appear in advertisements to trade on that name (we see him introducing himself as James Bond then endorsing a betting service for TV ads). Bauer asks him if this is a little hypocritical that he says how much he hates the name and yet here he is trading on it for advertising money, but he comments that unlike the name and what comes with it, doing the ads is his free choice. Another chap in Sweden, whose ex-Nazi father had vanished decades before, has become a Bond superfan, with his own Bond museum, trying to live the lifestyle, and perhaps partially substituting Fleming as a sort of spiritual step-father figure.
I have to admit, while I was intrigued when I was first offered a chance to see this film, I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this documentary, but I have to tip my hat to Bauer and his crew – they have crafted a fascinating, human-interest story here, which ties together everyday life (in all its complexities and variations) with mass pop culture.
The Other Fellow is released in theatres and on demand from February 17th
This review was originally penned for Live For Films