Saturday, June 13, 2009

Free Association Reviewing: The Bourne Identity

The DVD of The International is now out (my review coming soon), which leads me to think of its director, Tom Tykwer, which makes me thing of his earlier film, Run Lola Run, which makes me think of its redhaired star, Franka Potente, which makes me think of another film she appears in in which red again plays a prominent role: The Bourne Identity.

Doug Limon’s taut version of the Robert Ludlum thriller does numerous things just right: the casting of Matt Damon for the combined innocence and cruelty of his face; the editing (which went to pot in the second Bourne film when excessive quick cuts confused the action); the setting in a drab European winter; the music, from Moby’s closing theme to the relentless push of Oakenfold’s "Ready, Steady, Go" for the car chase; and actors like Chris Cooper and Brian Cox and Potente to round out the strong cast. With all this cinematic excitement telling the story of a man who does not know who he is, we might overlook a small detail that, in my mind, elevates The Bourne Identity to the level of an art film: Limon’s use of the color red, which appears in some object in nearly every single scene.

We notice the red in the film’s very first shot. A body is floating in the open sea at night. The image is a range of grays and blacks, except for one dot of red from a beacon on the man’s clothing. The color is more than incidental to the shot, and more than just a plot point telling us Bourne’s body will be found. It signals the kind of world we—and Bourne—have been immersed in: a world in which the essential elements exist in relation to technology, in which Bourne’s search for his identity will be compromised and defined by the gadgetry of espionage.

From there, the red goes on: Bourne’s sweater, his puffy jacket, the bag in which he dumps the contents of the safe-deposit box, the flowers in the otherwise gray CIA lunch room, Marie’s Mini, and of course, the red streak in her hair. This is only a partial list. I guarantee you that nearly every shot of the film contains something that doesn’t have to be red but is.

The question is why? Did Limon begin with the beacon or red bag and then build in the rest of the objects because he thought the red looked cool? Is the use of red nothing more than a visual motif, just because? It’s tempting to think that, after casting Potente as Marie, Limon decided to make a film-length in-joke about her previous film and Lola’s famous blaze of bright red hair. But there has to be another reason. Otherwise, we would either have to believe that Limon is the only filmmaker to adopt a quirk like this or that this kind of superficial Motif With No Meaning is going on in countless other movies and we simply haven’t noticed.

I’ll admit that for me, watching The Bourne Identity, which I seem to do with some frequency, does turn into a game of Where’s Waldo as I note with pleasure each instance of something red in the grays and browns of Limon’s wintry Europe. Other viewers are probably happy to watch Matt Damon search for his identity without noticing the color of his bag, his jacket, or his borrowed car. And failing to notice the red does nothing to diminish their appreciation of the film.

But after watching the film on a plane recently, when my attention was less than complete, I was struck with what I think explains Limon’s use of the color. The red is there, all the time, whether we notice it or not. We are likely vaguely aware of it on some subliminal level. It is a detail that doesn’t generally alter the course of events or shape people’s reactions. It becomes a constant in the film nonetheless.

The red objects that punctuate the film give us a sense of what Bourne himself is experiencing. Like Bourne, we go from the open ocean, to Marseille, to Paris knowing there is meaning out there, often close at hand, but never close enough for us to pin it down. It’s the notion of identity itself as the amnesiac Bourne experiences it. If Limon has done this on purpose, it’s a stroke of genius, and it explains why The Bourne Identity is so much more resonant than the clunky novel it is based on, and so much more powerful than just another fast-paced action film.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Up: Good

A Boston-area moviegoer headed for the Dedham Community Theatre this weekend had a choice of two movies that could not be more different: the execrable Angels and Demons, and the perfect Up. (The moviegoer would also be able to visit the fabulous Museum of Bad Art, located near the men’s room in the basement of the theater, but that is a story for another day.) It’s an odd pairing, but I assume the theater managers were planning to hedge good taste against bad.

Up and Angels and Demons have only one thing in common: they both feature, to varying degrees, a man borne aloft by an aerial device. But while the parachute from which the priest dangles in the Dan Brown movie is just one more agent of the destruction of goodness (cinematic and otherwise), the balloons that tug Mr. Fredricksen’s house off its foundation are agents, emblems, and reminders—all in one—of unbounded hope and loyalty. The rainbow colors of the balloons appear like visual grace notes in Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s film—in a little girl’s rug, in the badges on a wilderness explorer’s sash, in the wooden bird that sits on Mr. Fredericksen’s mantle piece as a reminder of his life with his beloved Ellie, and in the plumage of a comically expressive exotic bird. It’s a bit of a cliché idea: the rainbow as a sign of goodness and innocence. But it works here—largely because Docter and Peterson bind their symbolism up neatly in a plot that keeps the viewer deeply engaged.

It bears repeating: Up is perfect. (Not everyone agrees with me. Click here.) And it is an unusual movie, as well. Suitable for older children (the PG-13 rating is well earned), it is at the same time a thoroughly grown-up film. Its concerns are the concerns of adults: the loneliness of advancing age, and the combined burden and release of memory. Wonderfully voiced by Ed Asner (loveable curmudgeon to a generation of television-watchers), Mr. Fredricksen illuminates for us the fine line between loyalty and stubbornness as he eventually realizes he must let go (quite literally) of the past. Up doesn’t repudiate the power of memory, but it leads us—laughing and crying—to see the beauty and the joy in forming new bonds and new dreams.

As for that laughing and crying. Plenty of movies generate either tears, or tears of laughter. Few—and in this reviewer’s experience, no others—can generate both. I suppose it helps to be a dog owner, and to understand how true it is when a dog—thanks to his master’s invention of a speaking collar—says something like: “I was hiding under your porch because I love you” (the last two words drawn out in utmost sincerity). But even a dog-avoider will laugh at the wonderful mix of pomposity and shame, goofiness and rote obedience that Up’s large pack of speaking dogs demonstrates.

And it’s not just the dogs that are funny in Up. There is that exotic bird, and the wilderness explorer voiced by Jordan Nagai, and perhaps most of all, the clever visual language of Pixar’s animators, who constantly delight and surprise us with the ingenuity of their images. (Poker-playing dogs find their movie home here in a brief flourish.)

The tears. They need no further explaining than a reminder of what the film is about: loneliness and loyalty. An old man desperate to fulfill his and his beloved’s lifelong dream. A little boy eager to Assist Someone, and to fill the hole in his sash full of badges. A bird determined to protect her babies. A dog eager to be loved. Have I said enough? When you go, bring tissues.