Day By Day

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bourne Again

I promised this review several days ago and then forgot about it [old age, I guess]. Well, here it is for what it's worth.

“She Who Must Not Be Named” and I checked out the latest Bourne flick. Based on some idiotic statements made by the star (Matt Damon) and the director (Paul Greenglass) I was prepared to dislike it, and the film did not disappoint.

Both here and abroad the “Bourne Ultimatum” has met with broad critical approval. At “Rotten Tomatoes” website the elite critics gave it 97% positive reviews while the general critical response was 93% positive. That’s pretty close to unanimity. The critical community, and the general public too judging from box office numbers, found the “Bourne Ultimatum” to be a satisfying, even an exhilarating, experience.

But two things struck me about the critical response to Bourne. The first had to do with the political content of the film. In this regard there is nothing unusual about the Bourne series. It simply puts forth one of the hoariest of left-wing paranoid fantasies – that the American government or significant portions of it has been taken over by evil right-wing conspirators who use the mechanisms of the state to ruthlessly destroy anyone who interferes with their nefarious designs. This kind of plot situation has been a Hollywood standard for decades and is so unremarkable these days that none of the mainstream critics saw fit to mention it.

But in today’s politically charged environment many commentators outside the critical community did notice and denounced the film as being “anti-American”. This led to a discussion as to whether the charge actually fit. Some pointed out that the bad guys represented only a rogue element of the American intelligence community, and that the women in the film [Julia Stiles and Joan Allen] represented a better, more moral America that did not waterboard or assassinate people. These are valid points, but the iconography of the film makes it clear that director Greenglass intended it as an indictment of America. In every scene in which the bad guys are plotting their evil deeds, an American flag is prominently on display. Clearly Greenglass intends to convey the understanding that the rogue conspiracy is representative of what he perceives to be a fascist American government.

If it were not for the ubiquity of such plots in post-Vietnam films I would suspect that Greenglass was consciously trying to appeal to an international audience, but it is more likely that we have here simply a case of sloppy writing – plugging in tried and true templates rather than trying to create interesting characters and situations. And this is the greatest failing of the Bourne Ultimatum. The plotting of the film is preposterous, filled with logical discontinuities; the characters are absurd, lacking not only depth but any plausible motivation for their actions; and the dialogue is so cramped that even fine actors are given no scope in which to develop plausible characters.

The second distinctive and controversial aspect of the film – the one most commented on by mainstream critics – is its visual style. Variously designated as “queasicam”, “unsteadycam”, “shakycam”, or simply “roughhouse” cinematography. It consists of fast editing in which images pile in upon the viewer almost too quickly to be comprehended, and a confusing mélange of pans, zooms, abrupt cuts, extreme close-ups, partially obscured images, and rapid camera movements that disorient the viewer; some people have reportedly become nauseous watching it.

Most critics have hailed this “run and gun” camera technique as a daring innovation, one that takes the natural bounciness and instability of hand-held cinematography to a whole new level. But, as David Bordwell notes this technique is nothing new – its roots trace back to the silent era and it is a common feature in Asian and some European action films. Even some Hollywood directors -- Tony Scott is a good example -- have experimented with roughhouse cinematography in recent years. None, though, has applied the technique quite so enthusiastically as Paul Greenglass.

And what is achieved by adopting the “run and gun” techniques of roughhouse cinema? Director Paul Greenglass suggests that it allows us to view the world as Bourne himself does, but this is patently absurd. Any character so disoriented could not function at any level of efficiency, and Bourne is ruthlessly efficient. Moreover, by intercutting between Bourne and his adversaries, the film reveals to the viewer far more than the character himself could ever know. No, what the technique provides, and what fascinates the critics, is what Bordwell calls “intensified continuity” – propulsive relentless action, a breathless pace, an almost assaultive kinetic drive. Stephen Rea, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, exults:

This is a film about momentum, gravity, trajectory. It's a physics lesson wrapped up in an espionage thriller, and when director Greengrass yells 'Action!' he means it.

But what is gained in intensity and pace is more than matched by loss in clarity. For the director this is not necessarily a bad thing. David Bordwell quotes Asian practitioners of the run and gun style as saying it covers three mistakes: bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing.

And such a cover-up is certainly needed in the Bourne Ultimatum. When you have an incoherent script, banal dialogue, and a star who cannot act, obscurity and confusion is a virtue. To some extent this is characteristic of most action thrillers. Matt Seitz has made an astute point when he notes that Run Lola Run (starring Franka Potente, who appears in the first two Bourne films) was a brilliant commentary on the meaningless of action films. In Lola, Potente runs madly from place dodging obstacles in an attempt to forestall imminent disaster. Time and again she fails, only to reboot and start running again. So it is with all action films. Essentially the main character must repeatedly rush from point to point while obstacles are placed in his or her path. And that is what the second and third installments in the Bourne series are – meaningless, propulsive action.


And that’s really all there is to Bourne. To the extent there is a theme it is reflexive and incoherent anti-Americanism. The characters are cardboard cutouts, particularly the title character, as played by the talentless Matt Damon. Bourne is a superman, able to absorb incredible amounts of damage and keep on ticking. The closest thing he has to a human relationship is with his former handler, Nicky [played by Julia Stiles], and consists of little more than her saying that dealing with him had been “difficult”. His confrontation with the big bad [the psychologist who had damaged him], played by Albert Finney, is laughable. The resolution to the story is just plain silly. The big reveal at the end is that the CIA has used assassins to kill foreign nationals. The bad guys are undone by faxing secret documents to the press [shades of the Condor]. The only clever bit was repeating the concluding scene from the second film to introduce a crucial plot point in the third. But, as David Bordwell points out, this clever device is so commonplace these days that it is used in commercials. Basically this is just another seventies-style conspiracy film with its numerous deficiencies covered up by non-stop huggermugger

One final point: I have reconsidered my earlier conclusion about the international market. This may not be just sloppy writing and film technique – it could be intentionally dumbed down writing and film technique designed to appeal to a world market. The crude dialogue, the one-dimensional characters, the visceral, kinetic action, the globe spanning locales, the absurd conspiracy, and most of all the incoherent anti-Americanism, all are shaped by the dictates of the international market. This is a lowest-common-denominator film that easily transitions across national and cultural lines and will appeal to audiences everywhere. If so this is canny film-making and it seems to have paid off.

The Bourne films have generated lots of money in both domestic and international receipts and, David Bordwell estimates, will end up being a 2-3 billion dollar franchise. Remember, at the top end, film-making is all about money. Be prepared to see a lot more of this dreck in the future.

Sources cited in this review.