An action film is never just an action film: Studying The Bourne Ultimatum

22 January 2013

Released on Thursday 24 January, 'Studying The Bourne Ultimatum' is a welcome addition to Auteur Publishing's helpful series of study guides.

Studying The Bourne Ultimatum
Neil Archer | Paperback | £9.99
ISBN: 978-1-906733-59-9

There was always an implicit and often an explicit prejudice against myself and several other students who opted to take the Media Studies A-level when our sixth form first introduced it. Back in 2004, the clich├ęd and reductive term, borrowed with disdain and superiority by the short and portly Head of Year himself, was that Media Studies was a "Mickey Mouse" course; by the time I graduated with my first degree in 2009 (Film and English Studies at the University of East Anglia), capitalism, having failed us once again, was in its vengeful, anti-intellectual stride in reinforcing hostility towards an area of study that seemingly falls short of directly supporting its labour market. If your degree isn't in numbers, or in strategic marketing, or in business planning or the commercialisation of yada yada yada - any degree, in other words, that teaches you into fitting into the blueprint of a working life built upon exploitation and self-preservation - then you're doomed, apparently.

I've very little idea if or how the Media Studies Stigma at A-level has progressed; and my experience as a postgraduate student (Film at Newcastle University) was one of communal insularity, where the publish-or-perish universe is confined to the dreary corridors of careerism, self-congratulation and cut-throat competition for research funding. But I expect that a book like Neil Archer's Studying The Bourne Ultimatum (Auteur Publishing) is something of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it takes as its main focus an ostensibly "Mickey Mouse" text - a popcorn adaptation of an airport novel - the very kind of film that our sixth form's Head of Year would have bent over backwards to stop us from watching "all day long" (and, to him, education and enjoyment were mutually exclusive notions). On the other hand, though, the central premise of Archer's book is that as the outcome of conscious decisions through every phase of its production - what and what not to include in a script, from whose vantage point the script unfolds, who to cast, how to frame a shot, how to edit two shots together, etc., etc. - The Bourne Ultimatum is both as political and as interpretable as any other artwork.

Presumably aware of the problem curriculum-makers have with students sitting down and "watching films all day" ("Is that all you do?" I'd get asked even as far into my education as a final-year undergraduate student), Archer strategically introduces The Bourne Ultimatum as a film that, yes, did indeed enjoy the kind of commercial success primarily reserved for throwaway summer fare, but one that also attracted a critical positivity that made it an immediate entry into the filmic canon (described upon its 2007 release as the blockbuster it was "okay to like", it was also included in a 2010 Sight & Sound poll surveying the most important films of the preceding decade). In this regard, Studying The Bourne Ultimatum continues Auteur's commendable series of single-film volumes designed for use by Media and Film Studies teachers and students alike.

To someone interested in watching (and teaching) films on a more analytical level, Archer's book is a highly useful view of The Bourne Ultimatum, a film that might otherwise be dismissed in a number of ways: as an action film, a genre film, a film without any coherent political viewpoint, a piece of "escapism" and so on. Designed to be read alongside multiple viewings of the film - sometimes at a close textual level, sometimes with a broader perspective entailing comparable texts - the book, like the film, begins in media res: forgoing what might have been a helpful explanatory outline of the book to come, Archer begins by questioning what is meant by the terms "serious cinema" and "blockbuster", and legitimately poses ways in which the two can and do overlap. Seven more chapters and a conclusion follow, each of which takes one aspect of the film in question and poses ways in which students might begin to think about them: on the film's politics; its style; its depiction of the city; its realism; its position within (and on) myth and ideology; its standing as a form of serial cinema; its legacy; and, to conclude, the reasons for its commercial appeal/critical success (which, Archer suggests recurrently, are mutually complementary). The chapters are assembled in a digestible manner and written with stand-alone clarity, providing teachers the option of studying the film over the course of a (half-)term or during one or two lessons.

Archer makes a number of important interventions. After taking issue with the common and easier critical position not to take action cinema seriously, he argues for Ultimatum as an inherently political film and helpfully asks students to consider how narrative variations - why are we being told something this way and not another way? - might alter our interpretation of events. Situating Ultimatum within the western tradition of mimesis - a distinction that in itself might get students thinking about how we see and interpret art in terms of its plausibility and proximity to reality - Archer gives a digestible explanation of the editing principle by which Hollywood primarily operates. (Description of action scenes is often dense, though these passages are necessarily limited to a close reading, and illustrative stills are to this extent helpful.)

In terms of a textual analysis, the fourth and fifth chapters are particularly helpful. In the former, Archer argues that the main point of The Bourne Ultimatum might be to suggest the impossibility of comprehending the threat and complexity of the world when restricted to one's own visual field, which situates the film in the conspiracy thriller genre and also accounts for its emphasis upon a high-intensity shot/reaction-shot pattern of editing, whereby Bourne looks here at a set of CCTV cameras watching him and we see him subsequently through their all-seeing vantage point. If Ultimatum and its two predecessors set Bourne up as a kind of infallible superhero, however, the films themselves are in contrast to films like The Dark Knight, in which Gotham is the city, because they suggest that Manhattan (and Moscow and Madrid and Munich) is a city. Furthermore, while heroes like Batman and Superman (and, more recently, that other JB) survey and protect their kingdoms from top-down vantage points, Jason Bourne's movement is restricted to a more horizontal progression. This distinction, between cinematic verticality and horizontality, is helpful in encouraging viewers to think about cinematic space and the political implications of how it is navigated.

An action film is never just an action film. As the fifth chapter supposes, both fans and detractors of action cinema can often neglect this: the former want more of it as a spectacle in itself, and the latter dismiss it as interludes between narrative development. Archer disagrees: in The Bourne Ultimatum, not only are chase sequences both spatial developments and means to a narrative endpoint, but the way they are framed and edited provides sensual exhilaration as well as an inherently ethical component. Particularly useful here is Archer's distinction between cinematic perspectives, of first-person and third-person and how the film might compare and contrast alongside predecessors such as The French Connection and immersive videogames such as Grand Theft Auto. (Useful further reading/viewing: Jim Emerson's In the Cut series, which dissects different approaches to chase sequences, and idFilm's own piece on spatial clarity and thematic currents across three William Friedkin chase sequences.)

From one paragraph to another, Archer's argument can often meander without warning, and some may have trouble with the frequency with which he sidesteps analysis to express subjective evaluation of a film's merits (as someone who wants to see more analytical criticism in journalism and more enthusiasm in academic writing, I'm not one of them). At the end of each chapter, though, Archer includes a few summary statements and a few questions that open the text up, which should facilitate profitable in-class discussion and engagement with other media texts (we learn to study/write on/discuss films, of course, so that we can study/write on/discuss life; this is the basis upon which the establishment's disdain for the humanities is founded). To this end, given the difficulty teachers can face in encouraging further reading, Auteur could perhaps segment such pages for future titles so that titles are suggested at the end of each relevant chapter (considering the option that the book may not be taught in full).

Overall, though, Studying The Bourne Ultimatum is a clear and concise study guide to a popular film that should be welcomed by Media teachers looking to engage students with a culturally accessible film, one with which they might already be familiar, to utilise as a starting point for questioning the way films are constructed, what they might tell us (and, just as crucially, what they might not tell us, or even what they actively choose not to), and how they might relate to other texts and real-world issues such as 9/11 and other ongoing political currents.