Sunday, August 19, 2007

Who the hell am I?

Went to see Bourne Ultimatum last night with no real expectations. The previous two films had been o-k, although I struggle with the ludicrous plot frankly. However i thought it was worth giving a shot because more than one review has described the film as the "best action movie ever". Which is a dangerously high place to set the bar in my view.

There has been some rumbling on the comments made by the movie's star Matt Damon dissing 007. "Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it, and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes" as if this alpha male violence fest with its total absense of unsympathetic women had been penned by Germaine Greer's older, more militant, sister.

Just to say, at the start, neither Bond nor Bourne represent in any way shape or form real spies (right) but are films meant to entertain and make a profit. Despite reports to the contrary Bourne is not a new feminist manifesto.

Bourne continues the long running theme in US dramas of the secret state within a state with its dark and terrible secrets, ruthless to a T and willing to do anything to achieve their shadowy ends (see for example X Files, Enemy of the State, or even Minority Report). Somehow the agencies of the state have gone wrong - the perpetrators must get their comeuppance for the natural order is reasserted.

My main difficulty with the plot is that the inner department of the CIA that the films revolve around seems to have no purpose other than to serve and protect itself. Which rather begs the question how did it come into existence? There's no financial corruption or alternative agenda that's apparent (although granted part of the thrill is what we don't know, not what we do). It kills to exist, it exists to kill.

Bourne also continues a long running themeof violent men who are haunted by their unremembered past. The list of similar films is long but includes (in different ways) high profile films like X-men, Memento, Total Recall, Jacob's Ladder, and High Plains Drifter.

In all these films the "hero" derives great power from that darkness beneath the surface, as well as great misery. In all these films the question "who the hell am I?" becomes the driving force that spurs our male protagonist further back into the memory hole.

In some, like Bourne, X-Men and Total Recall we know that the good man we see before us was not just the product of unadulterated evil, but complicit in it. Whilst in Jacob's Ladder we see a good man who is dogged by the memories of the days when he was forced to take part in someone else's evil these films see the amnesia as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and become good - although becoming a good person appears to involve a lot more murder than one might naturally assume.

Partly I think plot lines like this can be successful because they tap into our inability to deal with our own unconscious in anything but semi-mystical terms. It also says that no matter how mundane the outer reality is perhaps something monstrous lies below, just waiting to hurl itself into our lives (and rescue us?). Killing our enemies, abhorring fear and capable of super human feats of athletics that we are currently incapable of, constrained as we are by the norms and values of liberal society.

I absolutely see the appeal of these ideas, although I'm not a wild enthusiast of watching films which restate old themes without adding anything to them. Don't get me wrong the chase sequences in Bourne are phenomenal and when people die they are not throw away puppets like in a Western or Star Wars but they're flesh and blood bodily torn apart, gristle snapping, eyeballs bulging, fingernails tearing on the walls and floors and ceiling. I think it's good to give death its due.

But the philosophical question - who am I - what's my real identity? - is both intriguing and, as one might expect, a question I'm at odds with. These films rely on the assumption that there is a "real" you separate from the person who does the shopping, idly thinks about sex with the neighbours and dances like a rather inebriated chicken. That there can be a you other than that, one that even you do not know about, is a very problematic idea for me.

It seems to me that we all have potential to reshape who we are and are all products of our past. We are simultaneously in a process of change and continuation. We are not identical to our past and yet do not have the possibility of becoming *anything* only those things we can get to from where we are now.

Does that make sense?

What I'm trying to say is that you are what you think and do. That is the only meaningful you there is. Tommorrow you will be someone else. What these films explore is the idea that, somehow, there is an existential category of "you" that you may or may not conform to at any one time, that exists outside of you yet expresses who you are completely and fundamentally. I think that's wrong.

Fun, but wrong. It comes from an attmept to grapple with all that deep murky water that we do not have immediate access to inside our heads. That swirling mass of contradictions, dreams and discarded fragments of memory that swell and stir beneath the conscious mind.

Hegel talked about how in a deep, fast running river it was easy to mistake its essence for the spray and foam on the surface. But that spray exists only because of the deeper currents we cannot see. It's still real, of course, but it's only one part of the river, not its key motivating factor. I think this is a concept that can help us understand the connection between our own parts, even when we cannot tangibly express all of them ourselves.

What I like about the film is that whilst Bourne is grappling with his own obscured depths he is simultaneously grappling with the West's hidden guilt. It's knowledge that have we all been complicit in terrible acts and that we have volunteered to be brainwashed to cover up those difficult truths that aretoo horrific to live with. We have to look away because if we were to stare deep into the mirror we'd be compelled to act, and to act risks defeat at the hands of a merciless enemy - ourselves.


Louisefeminista said...

Hey Jim,
Just posted my review up at Union Futures (shameless plug). The other interesting aspect is the comparison between Bond and Bourne. There have also been comments in the last couple of days from Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon about how dated and reactionary Bond is (plus the makers of Bond have pinched a lot from the Bourne films)

I think also it is interesting what you say about identity. But also the real life mind control experiments orchestrated by the CIA during the height of the Cold War (MK-ULTRA).

Circumstances surrounding these "experiments" are still partially shrouded in secrecy as former CIA boss, Richard Helms destroyed all the information. Something like 6% of the CIA budget was spent on MK-ULTRA and "experiments" were done on psychiatric patients by Dr Donald Cameron who later became president of the World Psychiatric Association.

But did you notice at the end credits that there were countless stunt people (Philip French in today's Observer counted 169!!!!!)?

Blinking hell

Phil BC said...

Sorry Jim, totally off topic. Just writing to see if you got those attachments I sent you?


Jim Jay said...

No phil I haven't - how exciting! what is it?

Dave Marlow said...

For the most part, I am in agreement. You make some excellent points about film, especially what it has evolved into in the last few decades. Good post.

Phil BC said...

Bloody internet! lol I'll send you them again, Jim.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, especially the “examples in this post” portion which made it really easy for me to SEE what you were talking about without even having to leave the article. Thanks