'The Bourne Ultimatum' Success Is Not About the Action

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“The
success of The Bourne Ultimatum is not about the action,”
writes Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller in “It’s
(pant) not just (pant) a chase movie (whew!).”
“People
may be drawn to the film by the promise of thrilling chase scenes,
but what makes it deeply satisfying are three words of dialogue.
The three words: ‘This isn’t us.’ They’re spoken
by CIA officer Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), when asked why she’s
helping the bamboozled fugitive known as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon).”
“The three words summarize the national discomfort over the
Abu Ghraib prison scandal, over the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo
Bay, ” she writes. “A movie is just a movie. Occasionally,
though, in the midst of a fiction that’s slicing through the
streets on hyper-drive, something odd suddenly shows up in the rearview
mirror: reality.”

Ms. Kelly has
that exactly right and is to be commended for saying it. Unfortunately,
a movie is not always just a movie. It is far too often a device
for making the obscenely gross and disgusting somehow seem perfectly
reasonable, indeed, good and proper.

Anita (my beloved
bride) and I became addicted to Alias, when it was on re-runs
here in Mexico. The show is an absolutely perfect demonstration
of Siegel’s First Law of Media: if it looks right, it is right.
Alias doesn’t make much sense. None of that matters
because the people are so beautiful, the acting is so great and
the photography is just plan outright sublime (although the new
seasons are not quite as consistently good).

Unfortunately,
the characters themselves are mostly what we will politely call
Really Sick People. If they didn’t have such beautiful teeth
we would have to describe them as utter scumbags. Every once in
a while as we were watching this show I turned to Anita and said,
“Whew. That was disgusting.”

Well, it’s
just a movie, right? Maybe not.

When I was
a kid, police in British movies always read the suspects their rights.
I later felt that made the Miranda decision inevitable in the United
States. Seeing Alias, I realized how all this spy stuff sets
the context for the American acceptance of government lawlessness.
It is expected that secret agents will torture and kill people with
perfect impunity. They see it on TV all the time.

I am also noticing
the pervasive necrophilia on American TV. I don’t mean people
getting killed, but the morbid fascination with blood stains, dead
bodies, ghosts, the morgue. There are several series with these
themes. I guess as the baby boom faces death, necrophilia replaces
sex as the principal obsession.

In one Alias
episode Sydney gets bitten by a CIA agent (already rotting) who
is infected with a virus/drug that causes all the symptoms of amphetamine.
Her hallucinations are depicted in exquisite but ghastly images
worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. It was the absolute essence of the amphetamine
psychosis on film, paranoia made visual. One of the main characteristics
of paranoia is how beautiful everything looks, how important you
feel.

It’s the
same quality as the impending disaster syndrome. Time is almost
suspended. Focus narrows down to only the most significant details.
Everything becomes beautiful. Survivors comment that it all looked
like a movie and they felt as if it were happening to someone else
and they were just watching.

There are several
clearly defined components, among them:

  1. The field
    of audio and visual concentration shrinks.
  2. Time expands
    and significant events are magnified way out of proportion.
  3. Everything
    is bathed in “photographic” light.
  4. Events take
    on the dramatic qualities of a movie or a play, but especially
    a movie, with each movement having “cosmic” significance.

I’ve adapted
these observations very broadly from “Emotional Reactions to
the Threat of Annihilation,” by Claus Bahne Bahnson, The
Threat of Impending Disaster: Contributions to the Psychology of
Stress
, (Grosser, Wechseler, Greenblat, Editors, MIT Press
1964).

Bahnson comments
(very astutely, in my opinion) that this syndrome resembles the
“schizophrenic’s experience of the world as an emergency
situation.” It’s also familiar to any drug user.

To me, the
attempt to imitate these qualities – rather than expressing
them from a well of real emotion – results in kitsch, among
other synthetic genres, such as the kind of obviously commercial
photography of people with glassy smiles you see in stock photography.
They’ve got all the factors right, but something’s missing.
Many stock photographs, especially the landscapes, are really very
beautiful, but they look like artists’ renderings, not real
pictures.

The term kitsch
was invented in pre-Hitler Czechoslovakia to describe artifacts
created with great technical polish in which everyone was always
ridiculously happy or sentimentally sad, but lacking any real emotion.
One has to know a little of the country’s history to appreciate
this fully. Suffice it to say that Kafka was merely being realistic
when he described Prague’s pervading sense of anxiety, falseness
and logic carried beyond insanity.

Prague is one
of the world’s most beautiful cities. Alias is perhaps
our time’s most beautiful television series. There’s a
connection here, but you don’t want to know it. J. J. Abrams
is our Leni Riefenstahl and Alias is our “Triumph
des Willens.”

August
13, 2007

Jules
Siegel’s [send him
mail
] writings have been published in Playboy, Rolling
Stone, the Village Voice, and many other publications. His latest
book, Mad Laughter, Fragments of a Life in Progress is now
available at http://www.lulu.com/jules.

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