Sunday 21 May 2023

A common Bond: "The Other Fellow"

The Other Fellow
 is a documentary with a strong concept and a fair bit of human interest to recommend it. For the past decade, the filmmaker Matthew Bauer has been touring the globe interviewing those who go by the name of Bond, James Bond. (In this, he's clearly been inspired by the fictional character's origin story: Ian Fleming half-inching the name from the cover of a guide to birdwatching - a borrowing that, as Bauer records, the original James Bond was initially none too happy about.) It's a common enough name to yield a representative cross-section of the planet's male population: in the course of the film, we hear from lawyers, theatre directors, a soldier (who looks as though he could handle Bond's stuntwork), politicians, a retired oilman (who confesses he doesn't much care for the franchise), a preacher, a doctor and an ex-con, plus an entire dynasty of J-Bonds (who've allocated themselves different middle names by way of a distinguishing feature) and those who've changed their name to James Bond for various reasons. (Foremost among them: the former Gunnar Schäfer, a tuxedo-sporting Scandinavian who runs a James Bond museum in the snowy wilds of Sweden.) There are gay Bonds and straight Bonds, black Bonds and white Bonds, Bonds who look as if they'd know their way around a gun and Bonds who look like they'd run a mile if an engine backfired; the only limitation in Bauer's sampling is that there are visibly more Americans and Brits than there are, say, Slavs or Asians. Most agree the name is at once a blessing and a curse: it's instantly recognisable, and yet it means putting up with the same jokes from strangers, four times a day.

It makes for a scattershot 80 minutes, but there are interesting pockets of information and wrinkles in the narrative. One is historical: the bulk of Bauer's interviewees are men of a certain age, born in that 60s/70s moment when parents could still imagine this Bond thing was a novelty that would eventually wear out. (In the meantime, any playground teasing would toughen the mites up.) Two demographics are chiefly notable by their absence: women, obviously - presumably Bauer felt including Jamie Bonds would be a cheat - but also the under-18s, doubtless as the cultural baggage attached to the name is now considered too burdensome. Yet both groups are central to the film's most compelling stretch, couched as an 007-like getaway plan: the testimony of an anonymous British woman who renamed her son James Bond so her abusive ex could no longer track the pair down online. Here, as elsewhere in The Other Fellow, Bauer does a workable Errol Morris impersonation: he sits his subjects down in front of a neutral background, lobs questions from behind the camera, and reserves his creative energies for recreations of key moments in his subjects' stories, converting anecdotes into Bond-adjacent spectacle. He even happens across one very Morrisian coincidence: two James Bonds living in the same small American town, one of whom ended up wanted for murder. (Bauer tracks them both down, which is a coup; speaking from behind bars, the wanted James Bond shrugs that no-one much objects whenever his fictional namesake kills.) The Bond thing, you soon realise, is really just a commercially appealing hook, a pretext to go out and talk to people from relatively diverse backgrounds, using a widely shared touchstone to break any ice. As the New York theatre director Bond puts it, wearily waving off another comparison to Daniel Craig: "He has a six-pack, and I have a keg." A useful calling card for Bauer, who gets to traverse a whole spectrum of stories, it's also an enjoyable diversion for the rest of us, even if the film can't finally move us past what we already knew going in: that the human experience is vast and varied, whatever name you go under.

The Other Fellow is now playing in selected cinemas.

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