'The Bourne Ultimatum' Success Is Not About the Action


“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