See Sickness

Photo: Jasin Boland/Courtesy of Universal

With The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in a series of paranoid thrillers about an amnesiac ex–CIA agent (Matt Damon) with lightning reflexes and a knack for eluding (or dismantling) teams of expert assassins, it’s time to designate a new genre of motion picture: the motion-sickness picture. The stately static camera, the limpid tracking shot: old-hat, squaresville. Now films (and TV shows, even comedies) are shot documentary style, with handheld cameras transmitting the operators’ jitters, twitches, and sudden swerves. It’s not just vérité—it’s battlefield vérité; it triggers your fight-or-flight instincts. I know people who came out of The Blair Witch Project thinking they had food poisoning. Others had to move to the last row of seats to make it through the second Bourne picture, The Bourne Supremacy. For the new one, they’ll need Dramamine.

The motion-sick mise-en-scène is artistically defensible—to a point. Bourne, who moves from one (picturesque) European capital to another, is permanently disoriented and on guard: Death might come at any time, in any form, from any direction. He looks as if he hasn’t slept with both eyes closed in years. In the first film, The Bourne Identity, he still had a touch of ingenuousness. When his body acted independently—when he found he could shoot, stab, karate chop, strangle, and break the necks of attackers without formally making his mind up to do so—he observed his virtuosity with wonderment. By now, he has grimly come to terms with his lethal weaponhood. His aim in The Bourne Ultimatum is to find out who he is and why he was engineered to be someone else. It’s not that he wants to start a family or see his old mom and dad. Having lost his love (Franka Potente) in Supremacy, he’s driven by vengeance—what soft spots he had have been tanned to leather. He wants to activate the CIA’s fight-or-flight instincts. It’s time for motion sickness all around.

Bourne has an excellent foil in a new character, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), head of a CIA “black-ops” program called Blackbriar. He’s a boob, but a boob with the niftiest surveillance technology, a green light to assassinate anyone who might expose him, and the Nixonian certainty that everyone wants to. Being cast as Ed Murrow was the best thing that ever happened to Strathairn. He was always good but a little lightweight. Now he has gravitas Americanas. When the cool, sensible, Bourne-ophilic Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) tells Vosen he doesn’t have the authority to kill another CIA agent, Strathairn rises up on his high horse and sputters, “Oh yes I do!” And it’s obvious he’s right: He has an A-list ham’s executive privilege.

The most fun sections of The Bourne Ultimatum are when Bourne pulls fast (really fast) ones and Vosen does his Elmer Fudd eruptions. There’s a dazzling sequence in a London train station—where Bourne goes to meet a clueless journalist (Paddy Considine)—with a vertiginous number of variables, with Bourne evading agents, an “asset” (the code name for an assassin), British police, and a myriad of microphones and cameras beaming images and voices to the CIA. (In this movie, even agents’ guns have cameras.) Now we’re ducking in and out of the crowd with Bourne. Now we’re back at CIA headquarters watching banks of video screens—a slew of little shaking, veering, zooming images inside one big shaking, veering, zooming image. Bourne has better sea legs than Vosen and his team; fans of 24 will be amazed to find a hero who makes Jack Bauer seem like a study in sissydom. When Strathairn’s Vosen explains a failure with “Decisions in real time are never perfect,” he’s flaunting his inadequacy; Jason Bourne’s are.

The movie is excitingly well done—yet it’s hard to get excited about the movie. Damon has turned Bourne into an extension of his Will Hunting—the working-class superman standing up to the heartless elites who want to grind him down (or, in this case, take him out). But Bourne is too hooded (and too physically indestructible) to feel much for; the only emotion he allows himself is smugness when he outwits someone. The potential love interest—Julia Stiles as CIA operative Nicky Parsons—is just as emotionally tamped-down. If The Bourne Ultimatum didn’t trigger your neurotoxins, it might put you to sleep.

As with The Bourne Supremacy, the director is Paul Greengrass, who perfected his faux-documentary syntax in Bloody Sunday (2002), the story of the 1972 Northern Ireland civil-rights march that exploded into a massacre. In that film, the you-are-there approach made brilliant artistic and moral sense: You understood the historical forces in play; you also understood at least something of what it felt like to be in the middle of the melee. In United 93, he used the same techniques to re-create the events of 9/11 onboard the only plane that didn’t hit its target. His aims weren’t quite as clear as in Bloody Sunday, but the movie worked as journalism and (arguably) therapy. He took an event that many of us could barely bring ourselves to imagine and gave it form.

I loved watching The Bourne Supremacy and might have loved The Bourne Ultimatum if I didn’t, by now, know all Greengrass’s moves—and if I weren’t so sick of being motion-sick. The on-the-fly documentary style was first employed in fiction films to say, “This is different. In exchange for a handheld camera’s limited vantage, you’ll get the texture of a real place and the urgency of real time.” Seeing someone like Greengrass, whose work had moral authority in Bloody Sunday, use the same techniques so promiscuously, to make the bone crunching crunchier, drives home the bitter truth. “Reality” is virtual—just another tool for bludgeoning you stupid.

Like Richard Linklater, whose film Before Sunrise made her famous, Julie Delpy does the handheld, semi-improvisational romantic-drama thing in her directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris. But the underlying sensibility isn’t Linklater’s. Who knew she wanted to be Diane Keaton in Annie Hall? She plays a high-strung, neurotic Frenchwoman (although her English is almost unaccented) in big glasses with a whining Jewish American boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) who has trouble being in the moment. As they stroll around the city in which she grew up, they meet one ex-lover after another. He becomes increasingly jealous (and does a Ben Stiller–like slow burn): Is she a total slut? She lies or makes defiant excuses. After all, her parents (played by Delpy’s actual parents) were counterculture free spirits who slept around, too. I kept waiting for a female point of view to emerge on this familiar, male-dominated genre. But, oddly, she pretty much concludes she was a slut before deciding she doesn’t have the strength for another breakup.

I wish Goldberg kept more in reserve; he’s so easy to read that you get everything you’re going to in the first five minutes. But Delpy has surprises in her. 2 Days in Paris comes to life in a couple of scenes where she loses it—one in which she drunkenly insists she has food poisoning, another in which she tries to rip the head off a smarmy ex-boyfriend. The movie should be seen with a large, responsive audience—the better to live with it in the moment instead of worrying about where it’s going.

There’s a disarming in-joke at the start of The Simpsons Movie when Homer ridicules the audience at Itchy and Scratchy’s cinematic debut for paying to see something they could get on TV for free. It’s a mystery why the writers who grappled with that issue didn’t go for broke the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone did in the peerless South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut—a true cartoon epic, and the best movie musical comedy of the last decade. The Simpsons Movie is longer, more plot-driven, and has more showy animation than an average episode. It’s intermittently very funny. But it doesn’t make the existential leap to the big screen, and it doesn’t have the density of gags or the lunatic free-association of the best episodes. Like The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, it’s less than the sum of its laughs.

My ideal Simpsons movie would center on the less predictable characters, Bart and Lisa, but for some reason Homer gets the spotlight here. Why build a movie around him? The voracious Cartman on South Park is like a character out of Volpone; he has sleazeball stature. Hank Hill of King of the Hill is a befuddled Everyman who’s somehow both smaller and larger than life. SpongeBob’s childishness is transcendent. But Homer remains a boob, a thickie, a foil for his kids and chiding but devoted wife. His character “arc”—he has to learn to be less selfish and save Springfield from being nuked—doesn’t yield any fresh insight into the human condition. One gag does, though: When what looks like a huge spaceship hovers over Springfield, the people in a church run screaming into the bar next door while the people in the bar run screaming into the church. I thought about that five-second image for a long time—over shots of Wild Turkey 101.

Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died within hours of each other last week. Both were really old. But then, I’m old. I remember when a new film by one of them spurred philosophical debates among average moviegoers. They were two of the most challenging cinematic voices of the post-Holocaust world, and both dealt directly with the absence of God and the breakdown of social connections. Antonioni was more in sync with Camus and the poets of anomie—which made his Godardian flirtation with the counterculture very peculiar (but stimulating). Bergman had a more linear trajectory. The Swedish director and writer was not only our last great link to the late-nineteenth-century drama that helped to reshape modern consciousness, he was also its successor, designing dream plays in a medium that Ibsen and Strindberg died too early to explore.

The major Bergman films bring down the walls of our imaginations. They are lacerating, mind opening, often wearying, and always (alas) solipsistic. (He sometimes turned narcissistic injuries into metaphysical proofs.) How many directors gave us so many masterpieces and near-masterpieces? Smiles of a Summer Night is the finest example of the tragicomic house-party genre after The Rules of the Game. Winter Light has its laughable moments, yet it remains his starkest and, in some ways, most indelible depiction of a man’s loss of faith. Can anyone forget the way he framed his actresses in Persona? Even as he meditated on the mutability of identity, he gave us X-rays of their souls. His Magic Flute is the best of all filmed operas—and also a dialogue between two media, theater and cinema. Shame is the movie ripest for rediscovery: an unyielding portrait of humans in wartime in extremis.

He died on the Swedish island where he’d shot many of his films (the shots low angle for reasons of economy as well as art), his last works memory plays in which the aged artist confronts the disappointed ghosts of his past. Thay have their partisans; I found them narcissistic even in their self-criticism. The important thing is that this faithless master never stopped living by the words of Ibsen: “To live is to battle with trolls in mind and heart / To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”

Moviegoers who prefer Bourne to Bond like their international-espionage thrillers with a realist edge (rainy Berlin over fairy-tale Montenegro, that sorta thing). So they’ll be glad to know that the product placement in The Bourne Ultimatum isn’t of the late-model Aston Martin variety. Instead, a cuter, safer—the drivers survive!—and far more economical Volkswagen Touareg 2 zips through the streets of New York, a perk for which the German automaker paid $25 million. It’s the largest amount VW has paid Universal Pictures since King Kong in 2005—the beast drove a snowcapped VW SUV through NYC in a TV spot.

The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by Paul Greengrass. Universal. PG-13.

2 Days in Paris
Directed by Julie Delpy. Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

The Simpsons Movie
Directed by David Silverman. 20th Century Fox. PG-13.


See Sickness