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Photography and Facts

The third time was the charm. Well, if not charm exactly, at least some justification. The Bourne Identity (Universal) was the third film about the CIA--after The Sum of All Fears and Bad Company--that I had seen in three weeks, and it was the first to afford some entertainment. Adapted by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron from a twenty-year-old Robert Ludlum novel, it has a setup that tickles some interest in the eventual payoff (workaday terms, but applicable). An unconscious young man is floating in the Mediterranean, is picked up by a fishing vessel, has two bullets extracted from his back plus a small cylinder from his hip, and when he recovers is unable to recall his name and background. Developments related to that cylinder lead him to think that he may be, among other possibilities, a man named Jason Bourne; that he may be a CIA agent; and that the CIA may be after him--perhaps to liquidate him.

Doug Liman, a young director, speeds along the action dexterously with his own manifest enjoyment of the tale. Matt Damon, one of the less synthetic of the current crop of mannequin leading men, seems very nearly to be a human being. And the picture has a generous helping of the usual bonus in international espionage thrillers, the travelogue treats: here the beguiling shots are of Zurich and Paris and the French countryside. Also there are, as is now de rigueur, some fancy computer fandangos in government offices. Plot knots, including the assassination of an African potentate and an encounter with a freewheeling young European woman, are plentiful. One anomaly: this plot entails the killing of a high-up CIA official by an even higher-up CIA official. The film catapults to an ending that clarifies Bourne's foggy mind. (It also leads to further stupefaction in our own minds about the CIA.) The story is not dull; it is merely incredible.

But it is incredible chiefly in retrospect; it is much less incredible as the film speeds on. This contradiction is typical of most thrillers and is wrapped in the phenomenon of film itself. In a thriller novel, questionable events are often handled assumptively--the assumption that a game is being played and only a spoilsport would demur. I haven't read this Ludlum book, but I have read some like it--years ago I even edited a few--and the credibility blips just need careful tooling. But when a comparable event occurs in a thriller film, something almost awesome, almost thaumaturgic, transmutes the matter. Assumption disappears: actuality reigns through innate cinematic power.

The tenuous moments in The Bourne Identity--such as Bourne's karate disposal of multiple armed enemies, or a man bursting into a room through the window of a fourth-floor apartment--soar on that innate power, because the essence of film is realism. Even trick photography photographs the tricks, sweeps them into the real. Digital maneuverings, special effects, are all embraced in the camera's ineluctable realism. The camera certifies the existence of what it looks at: the bedrock of film is factuality. When the Lumire brothers showed a train arriving at a station in 1895, there could be little question in the audience that this was a real train. They saw it. When Bourne disposes handily of three armed opponents, we see it, don't we? We may know in a corner of our brains that this action would be unlikely in life; but we accept it here because the camera's currency is fact. In a way we are grateful to the film medium for giving such moments their being.

The French critic Andre Bazin observed in 1951:

The realism of the cinema follows directly from its photographic nature. Not only does some marvel or fantastic thing on the screen not undermine the reality of the image, on the contrary it is its most valid justification. Illusion in the cinema is not based as it is in the theater on convention tacitly accepted by the general public; rather, contrariwise, it is based on the inalienable realism of that which is shown.

A half-century later, we are more skeptical. We are now more consciously tolerant of fanciful moments than we used to be, yet the very act and fact of photography itself still reifies those moments.

So The Bourne Identity holds us.

Film's power through photography has other uses--for instance, it can also exploit verisimilitude. Windtalkers (MGM) is a particularly repellent example. This World War II story, set in the South Pacific, has as its reason for being the use that American forces made of Navajo troops to communicate by radio in their own language. Thus the Japanese could not understand the messages. The story also deals with the overcoming of racial prejudice against Indians, as previous films have dealt with the military's prejudice against black soldiers and Jewish soldiers. But both of these story elements are only transparent excuses for making a picture about horrendous slaughter.

John Woo, the China-born director, acquired a large reputation with the kung fu and swordplay films that he made in Hong Kong, and he was brought to Hollywood so that his violence could flourish more profitably. I managed to avoid his first four American films, Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission: Impossible II, but this Navajo subject drew me. Very quickly it was clear that the Navajo matters were less important to Woo than the chance to revel in machine-gunnings, bayonettings, decapitation, and flame-throwing. Dozens of burning Japanese stagger through, as do a few Americans. Nicolas Cage, the hero, shoots an incinerating American to put him out of pain. Cage's acting continues to become less and less interesting, so he does not much divert us from the picture's main butcheries. Watching these bloodbaths, it was not long before I began to wonder how close I had come to the Romans who watched people devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Woo is celebrated in the June 10-16 issue of Variety as a billion-dollar director: the gross receipts of his American pictures already top $1 billion. What lies ahead of this clever man but more billions? He learned early that film can deploy violence realistically--more realistically than (we contradictorily hope) we will ever see in life--to satisfy a voyeurism in us that is steeped in Roman joy, a popcorn-nourished blood lust. All too obviously, Woo isn't the first to exploit this lust, but he has become the panderer-in- chief.

Photography as merchant of the impossible, photography as merchant of carnage. Lumire brothers, look down on us in pity.