Thursday, August 23, 2007

M. Dargis Buries Bourne in Adverbs

Still Searching, but With Darker Eyes


Published: August 3, 2007

Jaw clenched, brow knotted, body tight as a secret, Matt Damon hurtles through “The Bourne Ultimatum” like a missile. He’s a man on a mission, our Matt, and so too is his character, Jason Bourne, the near-mystically enhanced superspy who, after losing his memory and all sense of self, has come to realize that he has also lost part of his soul. For Bourne, who rises and rises again in this fantastically kinetic, propulsive film, resurrection is the name of the game, just as it is for franchises. This is the passion of Jason Bourne, with a bullet.

“Our Matt” is cutsey incursion.

“Near-mystically enhanced”: cut this hypertrophied, hyphenated monster to “near mystical.”

“Jason Bourne” gets no commas: it’s a restrictive appositive.

“Fantastically” is a redundant adverb, the kind Strunk & White abjures.

If you insist on using “with a bullet,” precede with no comma: it’s a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. It's also dreadful pop prose.

Their sights set far beyond the usual genre coordinates, the three Bourne movies drill into your psyche as well as into your body. They’re unusually smart works of industrial entertainment, with action choreography that’s as well considered as the direction. Doug Liman held the reins on the first movie, with Paul Greengrass taking over for the second and third installments. And while the two men take different approaches to similar material (the more formally bold Mr. Greengrass shatters movie space like glass), each embraces an ethos that’s at odds with the no pain, no gain, no brain mind-set that characterizes too many such flicks. Namely remorse: in these movies, you don’t just feel Bourne’s hurt, you feel the hurt of everyone he kills.

“As well as into your body” is impossible hyperbole. Settle for the psyche drill metaphor. “Unusually” is a redundant adverb. The comma before “with” cuts off a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. The comma after “movie” cuts off another restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. “Greengrass” is possessive before the gerund “taking.” See my argument in a previous post with Jesse Seidlouer on this issue. Jesse needn’t think he will stun us provincial grammarians into silence with his weighty title of Oxford Dictionary editor.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” picks up where “The Bourne Supremacy” left off, with this former black-bag specialist for the C.I.A. grimly, inexorably moving toward final resolution. After a brush with happiness with the German woman (Franka Potente) he met in the first movie (“The Bourne Identity”) and soon lost in the second, he has landed in London. Stripped of his identity, his country and love, Bourne is now very much a man alone, existentially and otherwise. Mr. Damon makes him haunted, brooding and dark. The light seems to have gone out in his eyes, and the skin stretches so tightly across his cantilevered cheekbones that you can see the outline of his skull, its macabre silhouette. He looks like death in more ways than one.

The comma after “off” is redundant: it cuts off a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase. Both adverbs “grimly” and “inexorably” are redundant. So are “existentially and otherwise.” Redundant adverbs clog a sentence and make the writer appear desperate to pump up his credibility. “In more ways than one” is a cliché: leave it off. “He looks like death” is effective unadorned.

“Very much” is hideous redundant adverbial modifier: dumping it ranks obligatory. “Existentially and otherwise” is adverbial stocking stuffing: cut it. Cut also “its macabre silhouette” as pretentious after-thought. If this reviewer wants to replicate the hurtling speed of the movie, he can’t afford such rhetorical intrusions.

Death becomes the Bourne series, which, in contrast to most big-studio action movies, insists that we pay attention and respect to all the flying, back-flipping and failing bodies. There’s no shortage of pop pleasure here, but the fun of these films never comes from watching men die. It’s easy to make people watch — just blow up a car, slit someone’s throat. The hard part is making them watch while also making them think about what exactly it is that they’re watching. That’s a bit of a trick, because forcing us to look at the unspeakable risks losing us, though in the Bourne series it has made for necessary surprises, like Ms. Potente’s character’s vomiting in the first movie because she has just seen a man fling himself out of a window to his death.

Dump redundant adverb “exactly.” Delete comma after “trick”: it cuts off a trailing restrictive adverbial clause. No comma after “like”: it cuts off a restrictive adjectival prepositional phrase. Good! You get the possessive-before-gerund right in “Ms. Potente’s character’s vomiting,” although you miss it elsewhere.

That scene quickly established the underlying seriousness of the series, particularly with respect to violence. There’s a similarly significant scene in the new film, which caps a beyond-belief chase sequence in which Bourne runs and runs and runs, leaping from one sun-blasted roof to the next and diving into open windows as the cops hotfoot after him. He’s trying to chase down a man who’s trying to chase down Bourne’s erstwhile colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). When Bourne comes fist-to-fist with the other man, Mr. Greengrass throws the camera, and us along with it, smack in the middle. It’s thrilling at first, and then — as the blows continue to fall, the bodies slow down, and a book is slammed, spine out, into one man’s neck — ghastly.

Quickly,” “particularly,” and “similarly” are redundant adverbs that clog and slow momentum. Use “There’s a similar scene….” The comma after “colleague” is redundant: Bourne has had more than one erstwhile colleague. “Commas should go from “and us along with it.” It’s restrictive, not parenthetical.

An intentional buzz kill, this fight succeeds in bringing you down off the roof, where just moments earlier you had been flying so high with Bourne. (Look at the dude go!) Mr. Greengrass knows how to do his job, and there’s no one in Hollywood right now who does action better, who keeps the pace going so relentlessly, without mercy or letup, scene after hard-rocking scene.

Dump adverb “so.” “Look at the dude go!” is comic-book rhetoric. It breaks hurtling cadence to replicate film’s hurtling action and makes Darvis sound like a 14-year-old. He may be. The Times is not above child-labor movie reviews. “So relentlessly” are redundant adverbs. No comma before the restrictive “without…letup: "let-up" should be a hyphenated noun. With “hard-rocking” Dargis is back to acne cliché prose.

But he, along with the writers (here, Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), also wants to complicate things, mix some unease in with all the heart-thumping enjoyment. Not because he’s a sadist, or at least not entirely, but because the Bourne series is, finally, about consequences, about chickens coming home to roost.

“Along…) is a restrictive adverbial prepositional phrase: no commas. Not only is “Not…roost” a fragment, but Dargis anoints it with Southern fowl cliché that no city boy can use with verisimilitude. I am expert in these chicken-roosting protocols since I am a Southern farm girl. He should add to the preceding sentence “because the series is about consequences.”

“The Bourne Ultimatum” drives its points home forcefully, making you jump in your seat and twitch, but it’s careful not to leave any bruises. (It’s filmmaking with a rubber hose.) Amid the new and familiar faces (David Strathairn and Joan Allen), it introduces a couple of power-grasping, smooth-talking ghouls and stark reminders of Abu Ghraib that might make you blanch even if you don’t throw up. As Bourne has inched closer to solving the rebus of his identity, he hasn’t always liked what he’s found. He isn’t alone. Movies mostly like to play spy games pretty much for kicks, stoking us with easy brutality and cool gadgets that get us high and get us going, whether our gentlemen callers dress in tuxes or track suits.

Dargis should go on the wagon with redundant adverbs: jettison “forcefully.” I suggest “filmmaking with a rubber hose” is too cute for grown-up-movie-reviews dignity. Get rid of redundant adjective “stark” (Strunk & White hates those too, though not as much as redundant adverbs.) I don’t see how the “rebus” metaphor works here. Where’s the picture?

Oh, lord: dump “mostly.” “Pretty much for kicks”? Isn’t “cool” wild-and-crazy-guy passé slang? Is this “gentleman callers…suits” meant to puzzle the reader and make him or her believe s/he is not smart enough to understand Dargis’s fugitive references? I’m smart, and I say Darvis is not making sense, the number-one duty of a writer.

What’s different about the Bourne movies is the degree to which they have been able to replace the pleasures of cinematic violence with those of movie-made kinetics — action, not just blood. Mr. Greengrass and his superb team do all their dazzling with technique. They take us inside an enormous train station and a cramped room and then, with whipping cameras and shuddering edits, break that space into bits as another bullet finds its mark, another body hits the ground, and the world falls apart just a little bit more. Without fail, Mr. Greengrass always picks up those pieces, reshaping them so that Bourne can move to the next location, the next kill, as he gets closer and closer to the mystery of his terrible existence.

Wordy: “have been able to replace” equals “have replaced.” The sentence in which Dargis embeds the redundant “little’ is a good sentence. Sacrifice “without fail” or “always”: I vote for dumping “always.” The comma after “kill” cuts off a restrictive trailing adverbial clause. Jettison one: “closers” and “terrible.”

Dargis’s strengths: rhetorical zest is the principal one. He uses no passive verbs to slow rhetorical momentum. Absence of passive verbs (he doesn’t have one) gives his text a thrusting feel that carries the reader along. Diction is vivid. He falters when he retreats to kid argot. Dargis’s interpretation of the material is astute. Mood in this piece ranks psychological plus: it gives impression that the reviewer is the age and vigor of Bourne and speaks to readers Bourne’s age. The young feel folded in; the not-so-young want to be in that magical loop of youth.

Weaknesses: overmodifying; redundant adverbs (far gone in those); a tendency to lapse into comic-book clichés that demean the review. In reaching for representation of his intuition, Dargis is not exempt from adding a phrase that makes no sense.

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