Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The other day, I was saying, vis-à-vis some scenes in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni & Jean Eustache, that they “showed me how art, any temporal art, at its very greatest slows down time.” Which got me immediately into trouble with some close-readers out there, who noted that in both of the examples I was giving, time was being slowed down to something akin to “real time.” Which of course only points up that in narratives of almost any type, not just film, time is telescoped out of all proportion, anything akin to “accuracy” is thrown overboard almost instantly. If you go back to the dawn of the English novel, with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the first thing you note is the problem of time, that the actual recounting of an ongoing life is perpetually being delayed by this or that digression. In some sense, the first trope of English prose is of the impossibility of its relationship to time.

Anyway, over the weekend, Krishna, Jesse & I (Colin’s at camp), decided to take in an argument for the other position, pro speed mas o menos, in seeing The Bourne Ultimatum at the local gigaplex. Ultimatum is Latin for “third film in the trilogy” I do believe. I’ve commented before that

in more formulaic Hollywood flicks, I sometimes think that there is a three-part structure:

·        Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.

·         Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B

·         A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion

which Ken James informs me is known in Hollywood as the three-act structure, a phenomenon he traces back to the publication of Syd Field’s book, The Screenplay. To quote James,

In any given 120-minute film, the first 30 minutes are devoted to the set-up of the situation and characters, the middle 60 minutes focus on complications of the situation, and the last 30 minutes focus on the resolution of those complications

The Bourne Ultimatum plays with this formula in that it’s all chase, from the opening moment of the show to the last. All other elements of the motion picture is tucked into small moments – one almost wants to call them breathers – in this single ongoing structure. With Bourne, sort of a James Bond with amnesia, the question of why is this happening is in fact the mystery of the film, so letting it out slowly, in dribs & drabs, makes some kind of sense. Because of this, however, the question of character becomes far more complex, because it entails so many different versions: who is Jason Bourne, who am I really, and what do I mean by really. In one scene, Bourne, played with remarkable understatement by Matt Damon, dispatches a CIA hitman with his bare hands – Krishna calls it the longest, bloodiest fist fight she’s ever seen in a film, tho she tends to avoid films known to have them – then afterwards stares at his swollen hands & bemoans the person he’s had to become. In another, he makes a small decision that seems to be against character, so much so that even the person who is trying to kill him has to ask about it. In a third, finding out who he “really is” turns out to be the non-event of the film – patently so – while the real event, the twist in the narrative, is learning why Bourne became Bourne. All of these details take up less than 11 minutes in this 111-minute film.

The rest of it is spent in one chase sequence after another. We have tracking chases, attempted assassination chases, running through third-world homes chases, running over roof top sequences, bad-ass car chase scenes, jumping off rooftop escapes, jumping into the East River escapes, bombs in backpacks, motorbikes-up-the-stairs chases, breaking-and-entering, multiple (at least three by my count) scenes where the local police get boggled up in the middle of a chase scene having to sort out which side is which. And lots more.

The interesting thing here is that these aren’t the sort of spectacular chase scene acrobatics that led off, say, the most recent version of the James Bond flick, Casino Royale, where hero & villain are choreographed leaping from crane to high rise to car-top like gazelles with guns. Nor are these the sort of heavily stylized slow-motion erotics of combat in the mode of Chinese cinema (imported into the west via The Matrix & Quentin Tarantino). These are scenes that are deliberately jump-cut, hand-held (with a twitchy, palsied hand at that), sped up to maximize your experience of the chase as out-of-control confusion. If you read the discussion boards at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), you will note that this is the most controversial part of this film. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, for which he received an Oscar nomination, The Bourne Supremacy – but not The Bourne IdentityBloody Sunday among others) has deliberately made a motion picture in which you can’t fully follow 100 of the 111 minutes or so of film. How did that car get upside down at the bottom of that ramp? I felt constantly throughout the film that looking at a given scene two, three, four times was not going to answer questions like that. This is particularly true with the one long chase scene that takes place in Tangiers. The army of stunt men listed in the credits at the end is longer than any I’ve ever seen before for a motion picture, Lord of the Rings included.

This is so clearly a decision on Greengrass’ part that it’s interesting. It’s not that the action starts out confusing and gets more clear as you adapt to it during the course of the film. In fact, the one halfway intelligible chase involves Bourne, a reporter for the Guardian (best product placement in the movie), in Waterloo Station in London shortly after the film’s beginning, but even this becomes chaotic as the reporter panics & is “taken out” by the “asset,” which is how this film talks about a bullet in the forehead at 200 yards. Not staying “in control” in the midst of all this data overload has lethal consequences, yet this directorial style makes staying “in control” impossible. Greengrass’ approach has its pros & its cons. The main thing going for it is that it never “cleanses” the violence as violence throughout the movie. It looks & feels bad intentionally from start to finish. The down side is that you can half-hide a lot of sloppy film making through such ragged editing, deliberate or not. Think of all those chase scenes in old cop shows like Streets of San Francisco where the good guys roar up the Fillmore hill going south from Union, make a right turn and are descending toward China Basin & the South of Market from Potrero Hill, a geographically impossible sequence. I think, just going by the discussion board at IMDB, that a lot of viewers see this film as basically taking the style of Streets and amping it up a little with a handheld camera. In fact, I don’t think that’s happening, but I also don’t think it’s very easy to distinguish the two, precisely because increasing the speed of action carries it further away from real time, which means going faster than viewers can react. It’s the opposite strategy, say, of Red Desert. Is it psychologically “more accurate”? My own experience is that at some point the person has to “let go” and just react – I took my glasses off for the entire motion picture, which turned out to be a useful response.

But it’s not NASCAR, even if it sounds like it at times. And I won’t be surprised to see a deeper backlash against this film over time as those who go back for second or third viewings separate themselves out from other film goers who at some moment in the process simply disengage.