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Sudden impact

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A stunning shot from "The Bourne Supremacy" that does preserve spacial integrity: It begins from the inside of the car, looking out the rear window.

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A whip-pan to driver Bourne puts us in the passenger seat.

"['The Bourne Ultimatum'] has been described as bare-bones but it’s actually quite flashy. All the crashing zooms (accompanied by whams on the soundtrack), jittery shots, drifting framings, uncompleted pans, freeze-frame flashbacks, and other extroverted devices call attention to themselves." -- David Bordwell

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A beautiful example of indirection: Bourne is still looking in the rear-view mirror at the cop cars that are chasing him. His attention is not focused on the road ahead of him -- or the side-street visible to us out his driver's side window, as he passes through the intersection.

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The police car is already trying to brake/swerve to avoid collision, but Bourne's attention is still behind him.

It is possible that there are four non-moving-camera shots in "The Bourne Ultimatum." That's how many I thought I saw, anyway. I wasn't taking notes, but I believe the only shots that weren't shaking, dollying, zooming, tilting, panning, refocusing or some combination of all those things are: two consecutive shots as Bourne breaks into Daniels' CIA office in Madrid; a high-angle flashback image of Bourne sitting in a chair in The Room; a shot from behind the desk of a committee in a hearing room. There could be a few more tripod (or non-telephoto, carefully hand-held) shots -- a brief establishing shot of Turin (which may have been taken from a hovering helicopter), a really quick interior or two during a chase through some buildings in Tangiers, a couple dark underwater night shots where there are no fixed visual bearings -- but that's out of approximately 3,200 shots (by David Bordwell's count) in a 105-minute movie. They really stood out. Bordwell determined the average shot length in the film to be about 2 seconds, and the stationary shots I couldn't help but notice were probably in the one- to three-second range.

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Bourne turns his head away to look back. He doesn't see what's coming, though we do, and that makes it feel all the more suspenseful and shocking -- all in less than a second.

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Crash. This is a hand-held shot (lasting only 2-3 seconds), but it feels logical and natural, like the head-motion of a passenger looking back and then to the side at the driver, which magnifies the impact.

I sat in the third row, as usual, in a fairly big auditorium at Seattle's Oak Tree Cinemas (maybe 500-600 seats?), and I found Paul Greengrass's style in this film to be distracting almost to the point of self-parody. I was a big fan of "Bloody Sunday" and "Bourne Supremacy," but this one (and "United 93") didn't impress me as much. "Supremacy," I thought, was stronger because it was better at establishing your (and the characters') bearings. "Ultimatum" made my eyes hurt a little, but I didn't get nauseous -- as some reportedly have. I hung around and listened to ticket-buyers exiting the theater, and while I overheard a couple of say the movie had made them extremely "nervous" and "edgy" (and that's by no means a negative reaction to a thriller), I didn't hear anybody complain that they felt like throwing up.

My problem with the film was that the "look-at-me!" technique kept whiplashing me right out of the picture. This kind of camerawork, with its rapid and disorienting glimpses of abstract motion, is often effective during a chase or an action sequence, but Greenglass chose to shoot every moment in the picture this way, including simple dialog scenes around a desk or a table in a cafe. (The repeated use of the back-of-the-head eclipsing half a person's face in close-up, for no particular reason, was so silly it made me laugh inappropriately.)

People's heads, of course, are not usually perfectly steady, but we're not conscious of every single move our eyeballs make, either. If we were, well, we'd probably puke a lot more often. The exceedingly self-conscious camerawork in "Bourne Ultimatum" didn't feel organic or (as Peter Debruge calls it, "immersive") to me; it actually felt studied, like a formal strategy that was simply being pursued to the point where it became counter-effective. Maybe that's in part because of what I'd already read about the movie -- and also because of my customary vantage in the third row, I don't know.

In the middle of the movie, when I should have been into the movie, I found the pile-on style so abstract and distancing/alienating (a Brechtian espionage thriller?) that I began to wonder if Greengrass had actually shot the movie with an eye for the small(er) screen rather than the big one. Perhaps on a reduced scale, even on a large HDTV set, the illusion would be less distracting and more involving. Disorientation can only be pushed so far before it all becomes a blur, like taking a hand-held video camera on a roller coaster. The illusion tends to be more dizzying and exhilarating if the camera is mounted on the front of the car, so that it positions you in relation to the forces of gravity -- like some of the fixed-camera shots using the "Go-Mobile" rig in "Bourne Supremacy."

In an post entitled "[insert your favorite Bourne pun here]" that delves even deeper into "Bourne Ultimatum" than his previous entry, "Unsteadican chronicles," Bordwell reports that a second viewing of the film has only confirmed his reservations about it:

There’s every reason to believe that the success of the series, plus the critical buzz surrounding the third installment, will encourage others to imitate Paul Greengrass’s run-and-gun style. In an earlier blog, I tried to show that despite Greengrass’s claims and those of critics:

(1) The style isn’t original or unique. It’s a familiar approach to filmmaking on display in many theatrical releases and in plenty of television. The run-and-gun look is one option within today’s dominant Hollywood style, intensified continuity.

(2) The style achieves its effect through particular techniques, chiefly camerawork, editing, and sound.

(3) The style isn’t best justified as being a reflection of Jason Bourne’s momentary mental states (desperation, panic) or his longer-term mental state (amnesia).

(4) In this case the style achieves a visceral impact, but at the cost of coherence and spatial orientation. It may also serve to hide plot holes and make preposterous stunts seem less so.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" didn't bug all that much (though I thought it was a come-down from "Bourne Supremacy," and I did think it wasted a lot of its locations by not giving us much of a feel for them), but I don't disagree with any of Bordwell's observations or criticisms.

And I love this:

In general, the run-and-gun look says, I’m realer than what you normally see. [...]

I’d say that the style achieves visceral disorientation pretty effectively, but some claims for it are exaggerated. So far Greengrass has matched the style to hospitable genres, either historical drama or fast-paced espionage. But isn’t immersion something we should try for in all genres? Wouldn’t "High School Musical 2" gain energy and magic if it were shot run-and-gun? If a director tried that, some critics might say that it added intensity and realism, and suggest that it puts us in the minds and hearts of those peppy kids in a way that nothing else could.

And Bordwell finds a perfect quote from Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive," "Holes"):

When you think about the beginnings: everything was very formal and staged and composed, and then years later people said, “We want it shaky and out of focus and have some kind of honest energy to it.” And then it became a phony energy, because it was like commercials, where they would make everything have a documentary feel when they were selling perfume, you know?

In the end, Bordwell says: "Whether you agree with me or not, I’m glad that 'The Bourne Ultimatum' raised issues of film style that audiences really care about."

For much more, and some shot-by-shot analysis of "Bourne Supremacy," go here.

P.S. Has anybody written about the spiritual/psychological kinship between Jason Bourne and Roy Batty? (No, not because they both appear to be anthropoids with superhuman strength, stamina and agility, though poor Matt Damon may has well have been replaced by a cyborg for all he gets to do in "Bourne Ultimatum.") The Replicant from "Blade Runner" becomes virtually human through the accumulation of experiences and memories:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Bourne is almost the reverse: His memories have already been erased (or at least repressed), perhaps along with his personality, yet he's still physically alive. All he says he can remember are the faces of every person he's ever killed. He just doesn't know who they are or why he killed them. Unlike "Blade Runner"'s Rachel, Bourne knows he's a Replicant, but he also knows he was once human -- or, at least, someone else. He's trying to get back. That's the poignant, human heart of the Bourne series.

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