The He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society meets monthly to view promising high-budget mainstream shoot-em-ups in the context for which they were designed — big, loud movie theaters (although at $17 for an 11 AM matinee, it’s unlikely we’ll be patronizing the Arclight Pasadena again any time soon! No wonder we were the only ones in the place except for that one guy.) Actually, this was our inaugural screening, so we’ll see if the concept has legs.
I really loved the first Bourne movie, and the two subsequent entries were satisfying extensions of the premise — I guess I’m a sucker for movies that give people the impression that MKULTRA is some kind of fictional trope. And since I heard Matt Damon had been all “Never again unless it’s a quality project!” I figured this one could be solid. I try not to read reviews before I see a movie, so I had no idea how it had been received out of the gate. I’m actually still pretty much in the dark, though I heard us critics didn’t like it.
I have to say that I’m still processing the experience. In a nearly empty statish-of-the-art theater in row G, with the screen hovering at maximum engulfment eye level, the action was dizzying enough to send my vertigo-prone HMAMAS colleague scurrying to the back row (and apparently the 3D version has been exploding heads in China). But I toughed it out, since I probably haven’t frequented one of these joints in three years or longer, and it’s a formidable sensory environment worth embracing on its own terms.
The movie starts with a sequence that is as deftly carved a block of fromage as I’ve ever seen. We catch up with the titular ex-asset hiding off the grid in some grimy Mediterranean traveling Fight Club, as he grimly and silently prepares to go mano a mano with a flexing tattooed Chechen ex-con, whom he knocks flat with one swat before spitting in the dust and demanding of the gathered looky-loos “Are you not entertained?!” So far so good.
Actually I made that last bit up. But the thickly sliced genericism of this Gladiatorial homage bookends the film along with an even more outrageous appropriation, though I can’t put my finger on it — what movie is that with the super-destructive car chase through Vegas ending up with the bad guy clambering out of a stolen SWAT-mobile among the smashed-up nickel-slots of the Riviera lobby, brandishing a machine gun? Die Harderest?
In between (and intermingled with) these already remarkable bursts of post-modern cribbing is what seemed to me like a frenetic 90-minute experiment in avant-garde editing, camerawork — and, I began to suspect about halfway through — post-production digital enhancement (“Enhance!”). Now, I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of action movies — the whole handheld camera, jumpcuts, zoom, focus method of creating a dynamic action sequence. Bourne #1 was one of the first to do that, right? Not counting Bullitt and The Battle of Algiers. And #s 2 & 3, which were directed by the same dude as this new one, were responsible for escalating the Vertiginous into a mainstream action movie lingua franca.
And that in itself was an extraordinary envelope-pushing development — moving the bulk of the action inside the camera, imposing a mechanical phenomenological interiority on the hypnagogic movie-watching mind, demanding at least a tolerance for (if not full literacy in) structuralist and cinema verité narrative forms from the viewers — montage via high-speed shredder, owing more to John Cage than John Ford.
But initially those sequences alternated with relatively placid character-driven interludes, and even at their most fevered, didn’t seem to pack as much mulch into each square second as this reboot. And it’s relentless! There was one scene where Bourne’s getting in a taxi or something, totally innocuous, but they used like 6 rapid-fire angles of blurry, swooping whoop-de-do to communicate that. That’s not storytelling. That’s Cubism! And I’m shocked and impressed that this is generally intelligible — considered acceptable or even essential as a contemporary narrative visual language.
Not that they actually managed to come up with a compelling storyline — they followed the apparently sacrosanct sequel strategy of skimping on the script to pay for Matt Damon and repairs to Las Vegas. Or maybe it was committee-regarbled so many times it lost all its vitamins. Something about the internet? How shutting off your wifi while opening stolen encrypted CIA black op files on your laptop would not prevent them from tracking you? Yeah, there’s a couple of plot holes in there. But hey, Stan Brakhage didn’t need no stinking plot. And I kept flashing on Brakhage in that documentary, walking around his rural property swinging a super-8 at the end of his arm? But like here there’s a half dozen cameramen with state-o-the-art hardware executing carefully choreographed whoop-de-do.
Or are there? That’s when I started wondering about the actual improvisatory content of this rococo cinematic bebop. Obviously the editing is intricately orchestrated with little left to chance, and that simple truth is what started me down this speculative path — the percussive pacing is so blatantly manipulative, with such a predictable course of physiological impact, provoking and soothing the fight-or-flight response, that I wondered if there wasn’t an algorithm at work behind the decisions, some Fibonacci Sequence of duration, chop, chop, chop chop, chop chop chop…
Then I realized that in these days of industrial light and magic, all the actual texture that was being parsed so carefully was most probably digitally tweaked, layered over existing — relatively pedestrian — footage, or summoned out of whole cloth. “Defocus that shot of the text coming over the phone. Now add a zoom, and make it come in focus, then swipe to the left! Disenhance!” Retroactive spontaneity. And if enough data has been collected from enough focus groups, couldn’t a few lines of code determine exactly how much lack of focus to apply, how unsteady the cam should seem, how disintegrated the pictorial information, to produce the desired anxiety levels in the average viewer? Or to disrupt rational skepticism or a host of other specifically targeted cognitive functions?
I was a grand mal epileptic during my formative years, and during that time and afterwards, I fooled around with strobes and a Burroughs/Gysin/Sommerville Dreamachine so I know from optically induced altered states. Maybe this is old hat; maybe this is what’s taught in film school these days. Being self-consciously formulaic is hardly a new development in Hollywood. What struck me as new about this, though, was the possibility that it had reached a level of clinical physiology.
As such would be in essence mimicking the central historical narrative engine of the series’ mythology in its own cinematic structure — MK (Mind Kontrol) ULTRA’s attempts to rearrange or obliterate human personality on a neurophysiological level — using drugs, sensory deprivation, electric shock, and audiovisual reprogramming elements including verbal tape loops, strobes, and deliberate overloading of visual information. This doesn’t come from the Voices haranguing some foil-hatted fringe theorist, BTW, but from the Freedom of Information Act. Look it up on wikipedia.
Now aesthetically, this seems to be a brilliant masterstroke, and inevitable in retrospect. In fact this apparent melding of form, fiction, and function can be read back into the first three installments — but it took until this one for me to make the connection. I can be thick sometimes. But the earlier iterations didn’t make me so suspicious as regards their hidden agendas, prompting the question of what exactly the content of the brainwashing consists of. Which brings us to politics.
In the first installment, Bourne is essentially a runaway iSlave, a wanderer off the Manchurian reservation, pushed to awesome violence only because his former masters are relentless in their attempts to recover or destroy their property. From what I remember, this formula held for 2 & 3. In the new picture, Bourne is drawn out of his perfectly comfortable life of vagabond fisticuffs by his former handler, who is a babe, and has stolen those aforementioned Black Op files for slimy phony creepy reptilian Julian Assange. Jason tells Julian Assange that he’s been “exploiting” the babe. Jason tells Julian Assange “I’m not on your side.” Julian Assange tries to kill Jason with a barbell, but Jason’s too fast and strong! Julian Assange is defeated! (But he lasts a lot longer than that Chechen, which is impressive for a foppish Eurotrash cyberterrist.) But the bad guys are coming! Run, Jason Bourne, run! Jason Bourne runs.
OK, my WTF-meter just popped a gasket, so we’ll put that on the back burner for now — actually Julian Assange completely disappears from the plot-like-thing from this point, so we have to move on anyway. So there’s this other digital cultural icon dude, a sort of mash-up of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, except brown, and he has been colluding with the CIA since start-up-in-the-garage days to spy on the users of whatever it is he already invented — some social networking platform? Whatevs.
Speaking of whatevs — hold, on, let me get this off the back burner — what exactly is Bourne’s motivation this time? His Dad was more involved in MKULTRA than he thought? Whoa. “I must go play smash-up-derby on the Strip!” If anyone needed to deploy the mighty engine of detachment that is “whatevs” it’s Jason Bourne when he gets that news. “Thanks, I’ve actually been trying to put all that behind me. There’s gladiatin’ that needs doin’!” How hard is that? OK, maybe he says something like that, but then BANG! – it becomes all about revenge. Escalating, snowballing, pulse-pounding, bubblicious revenge upon revenge.
WhatEVS. OK, back to Samir Zuckerjobs — he’s all Silicon Valley smarm and “We’re making the world a better place!” to his adoring legions, but to CIA director Tommy Lee Jones, he’s all like “These Black Op leaks to Julian Assange are too risky! I’m not going to let you use my new improved social media platform to data mine my clientele!” and Tommy Lee’s all like “Grrrr!” because that messes with his plan for ultimate world domination. So it’s ON.
The third party in this let’s-get-all-jiggy-with-the-kids-and-their-devices triumvirate is the ambitious young whippersnapper babe gunnin’ for Tommy Lee’s job. And she’s got an edge, because she like writes code and yells “Enhance!” and Tommy Lee fumbles with one of those big-number phones they advertise in the back of The Nation as he soils his Depends. He’s a dinosaur, man, and he killed Jason Bourne’s dad or something. So Digital Babe starts running a counter-counter on Tommy Lee, protecting and offering covert succor to Jason.
Now, this lady’s a real conundrum. Naked political ambition rooted in that authentic kind of patriotism, apparently the product of a left-liberal hi-tech ivy league education — she went to MIT with Samir — and she’s helping our guy. And in so doing, she gives Jason Bourne permission to trust again. Maybe we can trust her too. But there are so many things on her permanent record that bear contradictory interpretations, and so many ethical strings are left hanging at the end of the movie!
It’s just too soon to tell. But no, she really puts it on the line for JB. She’s a good egg. Down deep. She even makes a speech about how the New CIA is going to be way cooler, because it’ll be made up of digital people who want to make the world a better place. Maybe we should give her a shot. It’s clear that Silicon Valley is taking over, and with whom are we to cast our lots? Well-meaning but weak, hypocritical, and already compromised Samir Zuckerjobs? Evil evil Julian Assange? Maybe we should give Digital Babe a chance! Cue “First We Take Manhattan” (Oops! Of course I meant “Democracy is Coming“)
I can’t believe that I’m telling you all this. I can’t believe I remember it, actually — it’s been a couple of days (weeks) since I started writing this, and, as you can probably tell, the story doesn’t really make a lot of sense or inspire much emotional or psychological investment. And there are way more unresolved loose ends than needed to allow for another sequel. And even the meaning of those elements that are conclusive remain ambiguous — particularly in their political implications.
The biggest, loosest string is the hypnotically repeated suggestion that Jason Bourne is damaged goods, and will be a psychological cripple incapable of “finding peace” until he’s back with the agency killing bad guys who threaten our feelings of comfortableness. It’s just that crazy thing of his that he does so well! Coming from Tommy Lee it’s creepy, all like “Luke I am your Father – join me!” but when Digital Babe slings it, Jason’s all like “Mmmmmmmmaybe…”
It appears that there’s a glimmer of hope, that the dream that was USA! USA! USA! was ever so slightly derailed by a few bad eggs, but when the Digital People take over, the crack in the Liberty Bell will be photoshopped out like a bad dream. “Come in from the cold, Jason Bourne! It’s ever so warm inside! We have periodicals on microfiche!”
And Jason Bourne is considering it! So by the time the credits roll, we’ve got the Disenfranchised Everyman Anarchist Ninja contemplating going back to the Winning Team, on top of the 3-count-em-3 rival avatars of the Brave New Digiworld. Of course only two of these are viable stewards of the global information power structure — basically decent but nobly obliged to negotiate compromises. The 3rd is evil, naive, exploitative, nihilistic, and evil! Plus we’ve got the Bad Daddy out of the picture, leaving everything up in the air.
I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! Julian Assange BAD! Torrented Bourne movies BAD! Got that much. But is Matt Damon really endorsing a kinder, gentler machine gun hand? If so, why not just say it, give a fella some closure? It’s almost as if the purpose of the film is to leave the viewer in a state of anxious narrative destabilization. Why would that nice young man want to do such a thing? He cited Chomsky and Zinn in Good Will Hunting!
At first I put it down to laziness and greed, which account for so much contemporary culture. But a few hours later, I had a small epiphany. I always wonder why more celebrities don’t plunge into the electoral arena. Take Ronald Reagan… please! Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jessie Ventura, Clint Eastwood. And Al Franken! LOOK AT THEM! Patriots to a man. But I get that they feel they should try to effect change through their chosen sphere — and when you’re talking about the enormously profitable, unprecedentedly influential business of global mythmaking that is Hollywood, it’s a fair point.
But we saw how Hollywood’s best shot at discursive propaganda – Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 — could not save us from four more years of The Decider. Something more intuitive was called for in the face of the Trump Inevitability (or the Jeb Redundancy, or the Bern Ultimatum). My epiphany consisted of two parts: that Matt Damon and his friends knew exactly what they were doing; and that Digital Babe is Hillary Clinton.
Think about it — she’s strong, ambitious, politically savvy to the point of Machiavellianism, she has deep sympatico with Silicon Valley — and she’s a Babe! They even give her a Benghazi-like failed mission costing the lives of several American operatives and threatening to torpedo her career (though the audience knows all along that it’s the Bad Daddy trying to throw her under the bus). Julian Assange represents Julian Assange, but he also represents Bernie Sanders and the entire Generation Occupy, who are clearly the target demographic here.
Generation Occupy grew up with Bourne, identifying with his bafflement and rage at the hypocrisy and corruption endemic to government and business. The first Bourne movie was originally scheduled to be released in September 2001, so its arrival six months later actually coincided with the first delayed waves of widespread cognitive dissonance generated between the protectionist rhetoric of the 9/11 response and the actual predatory behavior of the ruling military industrial complex.
I had to back-engineer this logic from my epiphany, and I believe it’s solid, but it’s a mistake to take these correspondences literally. “Jason Bourne” operates subliminally — or at least liminally, in an optically and sonically triggered twilight state of neurological receptivity — and the actual details are promiscuous, polymorphous, and fuzzy. The characters are dreamlike, blurry composites — you know when you dream about some one and they don’t look or act or talk the way they do in real life, but in the dream you know it’s them?
But this is the message I think is unmistakably embedded in this deliberately cartoonish mythology, and delivered deep into the viewer’s unconscious using state of the art psychotronic mind-control technology (at least as far as what’s legal to deploy openly on a paying audience): “The cold war military industrial complex — and its attendant paranoia, corruption, and prejudices — has been removed from power. Set to replace it is a benevolent global digital corporate empire still in its birth throes, but unavoidable. And made in America!”
“The terror threat, the threat of violence inflicted on our bodies and those of those we love, is a very real and present danger. The radical left — while it may use rhetoric that appeals to our fondest ideals about society and our species potential — are at best dangerously naive and at worst up to their usual no-good commie bastard tricks. Hate our freedom. Way of life. Conomy. Taxes taxes taxes. Won’t somebody please think of the children? They are craving electrolytes!” But I digress. Ahem.
“Hillary may have made some mistakes in the past, she may have compromised with the cold war military industrial complex, but it was only to get to a position of power so that she could help and guide her real friends, the Digital People, in the responsible and ethical establishment of a digital global power network that will very probably transform the nature of nationhood and government forever. In or out? Which side are you on?”
So that’s this month’s report from the He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society, we hope we’ve helped you sort out the ol’ bang-for-buck ratio. Stay tuned for the next He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society report, when we will be looking at The Accountant, a film that finally addresses the question “What if Good Will Hunting was a chick and Jason Bourne banged her and they had an inbred baby that was all like Shine-meets-Transporter and turns out to be the other guy from Good Will Hunting?” Whoa.