There are not really many surnames like Bond. Think of most last names, and they could apply to many people. You meet someone called Blair? Do you think of Tony, or Lionel? Smith? Mel Smith? Robert Smith? Kevin Smith? Meet a Bond, however, and no-one is thinking of the snooker player. Everyone has a joke, and they all think they are the first person ever to crack it. By and large, though, it lessens with age. That is just having the last name, though. What is it like living as ‘James Bond’? The Other Fellow is a new documentary by Matthew Bauer that looks, over an 80-minute running time, at the lives of a number of people living with the name.
The first James Bond we spend any great time with is a Scandinavian born Gunnar Schafer. He drives an Aston Martin, wears dinner jackets, refuses to marry, and lives a life as close to that of the agent as possible. Some years ago, he changed his name legally, and in the years since he has even appeared on a regional variant of Britain’s Got Talent, gaining terrible reviews for whatever it was he was doing dancing around dressed like a spy. This is not the most promising start for the film, as it suggests we could be meeting some very emotionally stunted individuals. This James was abandoned by his father early on, never learning the value of family, and now living a life very superficially. As a coda to the film, we return to this James in a cemetery. Any thought that he may be reconciling his feelings for his perhaps now-passed father are quickly dashed as we realise he is at the grave of Bond creator Ian Fleming. Self-awareness is not this man’s strong suit.
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The second major focus is New York theatre director James Bond. Simultaneously, he is the most interesting and the most irritating subject, as he is by far the most intelligent subject in this film but he also comes across as a complainer. He does not like the character or the films, hates the name, hates jokes about his name, hates the fact that reviews of his work turn up on the ninth page of Google search results, complains that for most of his life the films have been every couple of years and that is accompanied by jokes from everyone he knows. Then he decides to do a commercial for an online casino, playing on his name. Then complains about it in the car on the way home. It is understandable that the jokes get tiresome, but this is a successful New Yorker making a mountain out of a relatively small issue, when name changes are possible.
We do meet a couple of further name changers. We meet James Hart, a young British father who was born James Bond but just tired of the name. The most moving section of the film is a female victim of domestic violence who fled her abuser in the early-2000s with her young son. She changed the boy’s name to James Bond, as she figured searching for a common surname, and one that would bring up so many results for the film/literary character would make it difficult to find him. She is probably in her mid-to-late forties now, and we hear from her and her now-adult son (though his face is not shown). This is a tough section to watch, both for the topic and the lingering thought that they cannot be sure their abuser is not still alive and looking for them, and there are certainly clues given, visually, as to where they may now reside. As this is the focus of the last section of the film, it really does add weight to quite a frivolous topic.
There are certainly stories of people having bad experiences with the name. We meet a James Bond who was arrested in Indiana for murder, for which (at the time of making the documentary) he has not been convicted. He, and others, tell of being pulled over by police and getting less than positive reactions when giving their name – the inference of the police being that they were being sarcastic. Certainly, the two Indiana James Bonds have interesting stories to tell, and at least Bauer has sought a decent range of people and geographical spread. Many we meet just as passing acquaintances.
We get some dramatisation. First of the abuse victim, but also of the real James Bond. Fleming took the name from a bird-watching book on his shelf – and we get replayed footage of the interview in which we hear him explain this. The late-Gregory Itzen (the corrupt President from season 5 of 24) portrays him in a dramatised section set in 1964, where his wife complains bitterly about her husband’s name being appropriated in this way. Fleming’s response to the couple is class personified.
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The recap above highlights the biggest problem with the film: a complete lack of any real theme. It is easy to describe, but difficult to draw any inference. It is the story of a fairly random selection of people carrying the name James Bond, some of them happily, some unhappily, and only one of them particularly a fan of the property. They carry few similarities that may have developed from having the name, and they cut across social classes and generations. That said, the variation in type of person is a strength as when we have heard enough from one (as is certainly the case with Gunnar), we are moving on to a different story. Bauer does not let budget stop him, as we certainly have interactions where the interviewer seems to be talking over a remote connection, even though the subject is shot properly in some kind of studio. With modern technology, he is able to get everywhere without breaking the bank.
In short, this is a reasonably diverting 80-minutes, covering a wide range of people with different stories to tell. It requires no knowledge of the property in question, and the tales told range from fascinating, to moving, to utterly self-indulgent. There is nothing here specifically for the Bond fan, so it is not required for the completist, but it is a watchable look at living with a name that not only draws jokes, but brings with it connotations of masculinity.
The Other Fellow is out in cinemas and on demand in the USA from 17th February.