Austin Powers as a disposable gag (making ludicrous the insidious ‘charm’ of golden era Bond) inadvertently entered the pop cultural landscape of 1997 appearing to channel as much as deride the ‘new dawn’ of British optimism. What Myers thought was safely of the past was in reality being grasped for by a fervent now-time ready to brand itself according to the same material. International Man of Mystery thought it novel to ask what would happen if an artefact of the sixties was summoned into the nineties, but the answer was everywhere: to be new, to be young, was to yearn for and simulate the pop exports, sports triumphs, and governments of England’s past. Euro 96 anthem Three Lions‘ ‘Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming’, was echoed by a young Tony Blair, ‘Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming’ for a chorus of national victory. The spirit of new Britain as a clean pastiche of the sixties was infectious, and for a time, a dream that made it abroad.
Cool Britannia is a period remembered with wet eyes and longing, because back then it was remembering with wet eyes and longing too: of course it was never going to be sustainable. The artificiality of a national rebranding campaign employing only very specific (middle-class, white) pop cultural voices, built from the detritus of dadrock minus even dadrock’s politics, co-opted by a new iteration of a party minus the old one’s values (a turn from the left to ‘pragmatism’ (or Thatcherism)) could only have been the most exciting thing in the world until wasn’t any more. Its rapture and self-implosion is traced through the lunkhead Don’t Look Back in Anger which providentially chimes in with the sentiment of that season’s Labour and football victories. Evoking the shambling apocalypse of All the Young Dudesit blissfully yet ominously sings, and has us sing, those words to a setting sun, a fleeting moment of ecstasy before an uncertain future.
Uncertainty is key in an inorganic dreaming. Had Geri Halliwell stayed in The Spice Girls and Blair shifted Labour leftward there still would have been the point where the period’s dyschronia revealed itself as unhealthy, and the forces behind it deliberate, cynical. History tracks the story through the new millennium to discontentment and then apathy, but Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me exists on the threshold of mania and its collapse. Myers found at the peak of Cool Britannia that the present itself was the answer to the question of time-travel from the sixties, and so two years on The Spy Who Shagged Me asks how the opposite passage would appear- to the sixties. The answer was, of course, the nineties, to the extent that it was a freak version of a past that never existed as it was being revived and remembered. Which sounds knotted, and it is, but as a work of the time The Spy Who Shagged Me captures its recursion while managing to feel perfectly weightless.
Rupa Huq describes Britpop as the ‘post-ideological soundtrack to post-political times,’ and we can see The Spy Who Shagged Me as its fallout. This is not to say that the film stands out as an abomination- quite the opposite. The world already had its anachronistic time traveling spy in the form of James Bond, and by the time of Austin Powers he had long been accepted as a clown version of himself. Like a sleazy uncle Comte de Saint Germain, Bond appeared with tattered imperial baggage in every period, trying to get revenge on the present. He was after all the wish fulfillment of a flailing empire which would send the spy to fuck and murder through exotic territories as it lost influence on the world stage. Myers may have conceived of Powers as the monkey pulling at the coattails of Bond, but Bond was always the monkey pulling at the coattails of empire, its own mockery. So similar were Bond and Powers that the former’s consciously grim rebirth in 2006 was later reflected on by Daniel Craig as the only viable pathway for the character after ‘Mike Myers fucked us’- aside from Powers’ bad teeth and dandyish costumes, the two were basically identical.
It is difficult to determine by the time of The Spy Who Shagged Me which is the deformed doppelganger, which is the original, and whether being able to claim that authenticity would even be desirable. The sun daily set on the empire the same as anywhere else, and its ideology was lifted from the parade of colonialism to the promise of a new dawn of social and economic freedom. The push and pull of the forces surrounding Bond as cultural export and empire avenger are not present in Powers who simply embodies this moment of infatuation with British artifice minus the violence of its persuasion. This is why he feels so weightless. The Spy Who Shagged Me is less a scene by scene parody of the Bond formula than its predecessor, because Powers is already an unshackled Bond. Only one scene involves infiltrating a lair, the rest seems to happen automatically without any sense of friction.
The majority of the runtime is spent with Myers riffing on nothing and sometimes less with nothing, because provided he is dressed like a hero or villain of the sixties and Seth Green is nearby with spiky blue hair, baggy cargo pants, and a stainless bead necklace, then everything is well. What the film loses in (regrettably) evocative sets and (fortunately) crass genre reflexivity it makes up for in drifting weirdness. Like a lonely comedian in front of an unappreciative audience, Myers repeats a bad line until it’s no longer funny, and frequently scrapes at nothing trying out unusual timings and pronunciations of ordinary words. The energy of the film propels it where Myers paces through an iconography as absurd as it is completely natural.
Madonna’s (sadly underutilised) Beautiful Stranger doesn’t so much plagiarise Love’s She Comes in Colors as reimagine its kaleidoscope epiphany in a time both deliriously retrograde and pronouncedly air-conditioned. Post-ideological, post-political. Although the song appears only once in the film it permeates its every plastic texture, and comes with the sense of remove that is Madonna’s mastertouch. This is not detachment necessarily but a veteran’s openness to the fact that this will be another thing that comes and goes. Compared to the Orbit-centric Ray of Light sessions and impossibly gorgeous What It Feels Like for a Girl on either side of the year, Beautiful Stranger is a work of earnest professionalism in pursuit of the perfectly disposable. It, like the film, is a cache frozen in time, something that was in its time ubiquitous but is no longer, an artefact that exists in meagre pieces that can only suggest different tangents of remembering. We feel as though we can hold it, but it is always slipping through our hands.
Concurrently with new millennium futurism (and following that, fear and malaise), is this weird thing that looks back even as it makes fun of looking back. Compared to its musical counterpart in Beck’s Midnite Vultures (which also predicts the New as an ongoing selection of fetishised pasts), only the record deliberates on the horror of capitalist realism, of the realisation that with no discernible future there is nothing to fight for or care about. Myers’ work is set to turn to dust, but Beck’s is sticky, smelly, half-digested, and thinks its soullessness demonstrative of the fate of the human soul. It’s fiercely moral, but freaked out, and rarely lands any of its jokes. On the other hand The Spy Who Shagged Me has this sense of hope even as it caricatures hope’s counterfeit, of a flippant sense of Okay what’s next? It’s a work that’s more stupid than wise, but the way it redirects the period’s optimism in another direction feels wise any way- Beck says we will only try and fail to find meaning in the new millennium, Myers maintains that we’re not yet trying hard enough.
I could and would not argue that this is the same for everyone, particularly those who lived in the United Kingdom during the late nineties, but as a person becoming increasingly aware of the world at the time I felt as though I was living in the world of The Spy Who Shagged Me. New Zealand’s New Labour parallel, Clark’s Labour government, lead a number of popular reforms aimed at mitigating the perceived damage of National’s decade long tenure, re-strengthening unions, establishing a state owned bank, reorganising the public health sector, and introducing initiatives for Māori and other disadvantaged groups. Pop import was either from the United Kingdom or United States, and both held the weight of cultural identification- still now educated families make a point of following British rather than American media and affect Received Pronunciation like their class position depends on it. For reasons outlined above, The Spy Who Shagged Me came at a time of blurred boundaries, where there were no winners as far as taste and prestige were concerned. New Zealand was still geographically remote but it was no longer pop culturally isolated, and the new saturation of turn of the century lifestyles abroad accelerated changes in popular self-perception. This happened for better and worse, but at this stage it was still perfectly naïve.
The symbols and iconographies of The Spy Who Shagged Me‘s hyperreality are all connected to a vivid energy of sensation, sent in new directions whenever it drifts past. The opening seconds of Beautiful Stranger bring to mind a chiropractic waiting room playing All Is Full of Love which turns up occasionally to the water park whose soundtrack mainly revolves around Robert Miles’ Children, Tamia’s So Into You, and Enrique Iglesias’ Bailamos, the smell of chlorine so strong you can only just make out the opulent scent of leather wafting from a phantom BMW 7 series to be activated by a Sony Ericsson advertised in a super seedy but Professional Men’s Lifestyle magazine illustrating business success narratives, grooming tips, post-ironic and for that additionally toxic chauvinism, and in depth product reviews including one of the new Dual Analog controller for the Sony PlayStation which argues that you haven’t played Gran Turismo until you’ve played it with the precision afforded by analog sticks, the backgrounds of which (in Gran Turismo) unlock a whole host of worlds at thirty frames per second that sprawl out with lives and mysteries for the very way they’re cropped (we can only navigate them on a track, so the rest is left to our imagination), the hills you gaze from, the trees you run through, the grass that’s impossibly thick and springy and which at night smells exactly like the football fields with the floodlights of the Euro 96 games you never attended, in the stands with the suspended hopes and dreams of a drunken singalong you never had to either Three Lions or Don’t Look Back in Anger, it doesn’t matter which, it’s late but it’s still warm and you know how you’re getting home.