Tuesday, July 12, 2011


an old piece I dug up; the line "it really has nowhere to go but up" seems, in retrospect, a bit near-sighted. The rest, however, seems relevant still.

A cipher with a deeply imbedded soul, Jason Bourne is surely the odd action hero. His rare utterances are terse, brutal, specific. His monochromatic behavior obscurely confrontational --- dangerous. There is no pleasure in his mission. But in the surprisingly successful film series centered around him, and based on Robert Ludlum's Cold War-era spy thrillers, he has become American audiences most sympathethic 21st century action movie surrogate. This would seem to have to do with the fact that the amnesia Bourne has been struggling to overcome for four years (in film time) is a subtly resonant mirror of the currently relentless confusion of American social ethos. As the public here finds itself ever more disconnected and challenged by political action, Bourne's stubbornly self-centered quest for truth + absolution enacts a visceral, ritualistic cleansing. Though he is a Superman of sorts, he is lost, like all of us, in a rejuvenating lizard's tail of conspiracy (in The Bourne Ultimatum it is compactly closed, high-tech circuited, in the new Simpsons Movie, it is sprawling, evoking King Vidor's The Crowd in its labyrinthine tragic-comedy). Director Paul Greengrass, who brought to vivid life the crash of pre-9/11 American systems in United 93 here hyper-activates the paranoid corruption of their replacements. It makes an odd sort of sense that it is a foreign filmmaker who has most acutely tracked the feelings the "global war on terror" has bred in the national identity --- and its subsequent breakdown on the world stage.

Though no one would dare believe it, with this series Matt Damon has become Hollywood's most dollar-for-dollar bankable star. Intellectuals and action buffs alike respond to his stolid blankness – a driving force shorn of the cocky pretense of his Ocean's 11 buddies Clooney or Pitt. In Ultimatum, Damon probably has less than ten full lines of dialogue and is in constant motion, almost tangentially picked out from the surrounding action by the roving, verite camerawork. This by now patented style of director Paul Greengrass obscures a deliberately precise aesthetic agenda, with every shudder of the lens, every bawling jump cut a purposeful, muscular contraction of Bourne and the film's body. This is the antithesis of every other action film you're likely to see out in theatres this year. These other works are the crude, incoherent showcases to Bourne's precisely choreographed ballet. The typically nausea-inducing "effect" is seductive precisely because it operates not as an effect, but as a physically alive, penetrating recording of action in reaction, and thus, it comes closest to replicating the physiological sensation of a brilliantly engineered, high-powered roller-coaster ride.

As Michael Phillips wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Greengrass sees the world as morally chaotic, albeit defined by a sense of life-or-death options made in extreme hurry. That chaos demands a visually corollary." This shaky-cam aesthetic, once an easily mockable spotlight of amateurishness (see the debate surrounding 1999's The Blair Witch Project) has been plundered by high-concept storytelling in the post 9/11 upsurge of novice media (YouTube, et al.) as a relevant surplus of up-to-the minute "reality". Now, Hollywood's surreally violent fantasies are given the same relevance as hard-hitting, war-time newsmedia.

But veterans of the world cinema beat know better the well-tread lineage of this style, and can recognize how the continental subsumption of the "new" has lured in uniquely personal, no-bones storytellers. It is these outsider raconteurs who have become the usual standard bearers of progression. This trend emerged in the late 60s, as Hollywood was transitioning from a tight-knit, apprentice based conglomeration of production, distribution, and exhibition into strictly independent production entities (Greengrass developed his technique in documentary + news-media, as did Stanley Kubrick, William Friedkin and Brian DePalma; John Frankenheimer shot film for the Air Force during the Korean War and later directed live television; Robert Altman got his start in industrial films; James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese all graduated from the no-budget exploitation film school of Roger Corman, key ingredients of which still flavor each of their process). Greengrass is most like Altman in this breed in his odd birthing of narrative, where the usual requirements of plot and character development are the first tendons cut from the script. In Ultimatum, it is momentum that houses the simple skeletal structure of a dead-eyed simple plot – Bourne's puzzle of an existence down to its last piece, the remembrance of his training/brainwashing induction into the black-ops division of the CIA, codename Blackbird. It has a logical elegance that allows the high-tech metaphors to seem organic – much like the MacGuffinized framework of Hitchcock (in fact, the free-wheeling globe-trotting of the series – in Ultimatum, Madrid, Paris, London, Germany, Turin, Tangiers, and New York all chalk up scenes – is most reminiscent of pre-Cold War films North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Character development is replaced by the casting of voices + faces with an instantly recognizable cinematic anxiety - Joan Allen, David Straitharn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney have all played numerous variations of their characters here. We understand the landscape we're in not through suspense stalling exposition, but rather the collision of our cinematic memory --- say, for instance, what we remember about Edgar Ramirez from Domino. His bulldog nose, counter-pointed by pursed, feminine lips tell us all we need to know about the blurring of personal ethics and violent task that forces/allows a man to commit himself, and be successful in, operations where brutality must come (often at the same time) in both open and closed packages.

Ultimately, Bourne accomplishes the simple tasks that few other franchises have, by sticking closely to its own set of rules---and an ultimately rigid, base ambition despite the ever-expanding canvas. As the series has now wrapped up its origin story with a few quick, effortlessly graphic strokes, it really has nowhere to go but up.

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