No Laughing Matter: Thoughts on Bourne

On the question of Paul Greengrass's direction in The Bourne Ultimatum, there seem to be no moderate opinions. People either love his action scenes violently, or hate them with an equal violence. I'm in the latter camp. The quick cuts, out-of-focus and off-center shots, the almost complete absence of continuity of space and motion, all come together to create an effect that I found not simply incoherent and vaguely nauseating, but downright alienating. By the end of the film, having given up on the possibility of making heads or tails of what was going on, I was simply waiting the action scenes out. In between the car and foot chases, I found a lot to like about The Bourne Ultimatum. Script-wise, it's an effective and well-put-together thriller, tense and unrelenting, and the central character strikes an excellent balance between toughness and vulnerability without going to extremes in either direction. Between this film and Casino Royale, 2007 has been an excellent year for intelligent action films, but I think the contrast between Greengrass's pseudo-documentary style and the more traditional look of the Bond film might speak to the director's attitude towards his genre.

In significant portions of the film, Greengrass's style is a savvy and effective choice. It conveys a sense of chaos, and therefore puts us in the same headspace as Bourne's pursuers as they are bombarded with information and forced to wade through it in order to figure out his motivations and next step. It's a masterstroke in the Waterloo Station pursuit scene--probably the film's most accomplished sequence. Like Bourne and the CIA agents, the viewers expect to be all-seeing and all-knowing. The camerawork brings home the impossibility of that omniscience, for characters and audience alike. Both Bourne and his pursuers are stymied by the complexity of the system they've entered, emerging from it with only partial victories, and Greengrass's direction brings that complexity across perfectly. The pseudo-documentary style is less suitable for the film's quieter, emotional scenes, in that it rarely faces the actors head on or gives them time to convey any but the simplest emotions, and it is downright disastrous in the action scenes. Here, as in the Waterloo scene, one senses that Greengrass is trying to put the audience in Bourne's head. The action scenes are chaotic and incoherent because that's what it feels like to be caught in the middle of a frenetic chase or a fight for one's life. Not having a sense of the overall layout of your surroundings, not knowing what's happening from one moment to the next--that's what being in those kinds of situations is really like.

Which, to my mind, begs the question: what's so great about realism, anyway? As fiction readers and viewers, we're not looking for reality--which is generally ugly, incomprehensible, and plotless--but for the illusion of reality. We want a story--which has components that reality doesn't, such as plot, theme, catharsis and resolution--but we want it to feel real (for various and ever-changing values of 'real', depending on the reader and the genre in question). When the pseudo-documentary style started showing up in mainstream entertainment (I think I first encountered it in Firefly and Battlestar Galactica), it caught on because it was visually striking--in the right setting, even ugliness can be beautiful--but mostly because it removed a layer of the audience's suspension of disbelief. We had all gotten used to handwaving the fact that there were somehow sweeping pans of the Enterprise as it went into warp, and here were shows that suggested an internal story reason for the footage we were watching--a security camera catches the crew of Serenity in the midst of committing a robbery; survivors of the Cylon genocide are filming their escape; a film crew is making a documentary about Dunder-Mifflin. The pseudo-documentary style, in other words, makes the viewing experience easier. When it's used as Greengrass uses it in The Bourne Ultimatum's action scenes, it has just the opposite effect. The audience has to work harder to follow events, and whether or not they succeed, their enjoyment is undercut.

But that is, of course, assuming that we're meant to enjoy the action scenes, or for that matter any part of The Bourne Ultimatum. I'm hard-pressed to think of a mainstream action film less humorous than this one--even the unrelentingly grim Children of Men had room for a few jokes in the face of certain doom--and there is simply no sense that the audience is supposed to come away from the action scenes excited or exhilarated, which are generally the reactions that an action film tries to evoke. The Bourne Ultimatum is far too serious for such frivolity. It is a Serious Film about Serious Issues, the most significant of which is a repudiation of violence, and one gets the impression that Greengrass thinks letting the audience have fun, or depicting violence in a pleasing, exciting way, would undercut those themes.

Which is a valid, if slightly condescending, approach, but one that is completely unsuited to the Bourne franchise and its inherent ridiculousness. Like Casino Royale, The Bourne Ultimatum (and The Bourne Supremacy before it) is an utterly serious film centered around an utterly ludicrous character. Casino Royale, however, had enough self-awareness to end by descending into the camp from whence it came. Bourne pats itself on the back for being transgressive, when in fact, after a mere three installments, each of which has had the exact same plot, it is just as formulaic as the Bond franchise (and a great deal more so than Casino Royale, which breaks with the Bond formula in several significant respects). Greengrass's earnestness--and his equally earnest camera work--might suit a story like United 93, which depicts real-world heroism and its tragic consequences, but if the Bourne films were truly interested in telling a realistic story, Jason Bourne would have been killed an hour into The Bourne Identity. The fact that he wasn't, that he emerges from that film and its sequels alive and triumphant, stands in direct opposition to the seriousness with which the films take themselves, and to their reluctance to enjoy his triumphs.

Like horror, action is a genre at war with itself. Politically and morally aware directors have to struggle to depict violence without glorifying it, to entertain their audiences without endorsing a worldview that divides us into goodies and baddies and sees violence as a genuine solution. There are, I believe, films that accomplish this: Casino Royale, within the confines of its formula, Children of Men, even Brick, which so viscerally conveys the punishing brutality of a single punch. None of them are perfect--the genre is still waiting for its 20th Century Ghosts--but I think Paul Greengrass's choice to eschew entertainment for the sake of finger-wagging is a step in a completely wrong direction.


Alison said…
Really enjoyed your review, though I got a lot more fun out of the violence than you did.
Anonymous said…
> Really enjoyed your review, though I got a lot more fun out of the violence than you did.

As did I. I didn't find the action sequences, save for perhaps a section of the final car chase, all that confusing though.
Bobby said…
I'll just chime in and say I also enjoy your reviews (I came to your blog by way of your incisive Crowley critiques), but similarly I found the fight sequences to work fine for me on a visceral level. If anything, the gritty, subjective nature of the fights caused me to let my guard down all the more when otherwise I might maintain more of a distance as a viewer. It was if Greengrass, by addressing my moralistic qualms about violence, allowed me to surrender this defense and simply enjoy the film. I understand that this doesn't exactly validate the approach from a purely aesthetic perspective, but that was my initial response regardless. Perhaps in a second viewing I would be more critical. Have you read David Bordwell's take on Bourne? I'm not a critic, just a simple film lover - and as such I found his reflections on "intensified continuity" and "run n' gun" enlightening:

It was if Greengrass, by addressing my moralistic qualms about violence, allowed me to surrender this defense and simply enjoy the film

That's an interesting observation. Whether of not I'm right about Greengrass's aims in the film (and I certainly seem to be in the minority in terms of the enjoyment I took out of the action scenes) I have to believe that he was trying to do something with his choice of style. This could be it.

I've read Bordwell's essay. You're right that, especially for laypeople, it provides valuable insight into the film's technical aspects.
Anonymous said…
"Politically and morally aware directors have to struggle to depict violence without glorifying it, to entertain their audiences without endorsing a worldview that divides us into goodies and baddies and sees violence as a genuine solution"

Frankly this trend in filmmaking (or what have you) is one i find no sympathy with. not only because i agree with your point about a believable "version" of reality as apposed to actual reality being what most movie goers are looking for, but also it generally comes out as a statement that (in a much simplified way of course) says violence is always bad and is never never useful. Frankly this is as much a black and white approach to the world as the good guy's against the bad guy's mind set. now i think you can say that in a given situation violence would not be the answer, but there is a point comes in many situations were it is not only a viable option but in many cases (and this can be the real rub) it can at that specific time be the only appropriate response.

Example: police negotiator, swat team and police sniper. All have specific part's to play in a response to a hostage situation. The hard part is that if you don't correctly identify witch one is needed at any given time then you are probably only going to worsen the situation.
Anonymous said…
i read your review opposing Mr. Greengrass' pseudo-docu style.. honestly, i really like greengrass' style. i've watched the first two installments of bourne,he gave a little life to the action. i mean it's like you're actually there with jason bourne, tracing his pace.. he said that he didn't want another spy having a secret gadget in his back pocket. as i've mentioned before, it's your opinion, it's how you perceive mr. greengrass masterpiece...

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