the reconstructed lost posting: on training

Ok, this is a reconstructed version of yesterday's lost post. Feel free to imagine it wittier, more insightful, and illuminating...

I saw The Bourne Supremacy a week ago, but didn't have the time to post about it. And I should say up front that I enjoyed it for what it is -- I didn't go to see it in order to exercise my cultural analysis skills or anything. In fact, mostly I go to the movies as pure entertainment. And I have a pretty capacious tolerance for big Hollywood schlock and spectacle as well as artsy indies. So, I went to see an action pic on a hot summer afternoon. I enjoyed the first film (Bourne Identity) and figured I'd like the second. But it also has given me a lot to think about, specifically in terms of why I respond to the main character and how the 2nd film seems to be responding to an ambivalence in our culture right now about the highly trained physical body.

I haven't read the books that these films are based on, so I only know what the films show. But what makes Jason Bourne an interesting action/spy/assassin hero for our current historical time is that he's on a psychological quest. In Bourne Identity, he wakes up with amnesia and doesn't know who he is. Eventually he gets to a safety deposit box and discovers a handful of passports, all with different identities. Amnesia is always an interesting premise, but here it's expanded into an analogue for the modern professional: how do you know who you are, if your life/job requires you to be many different things? The second film continues the psychological framework as Jason Bourne is suffering headaches and recalling fragments of his pre-amnesia memory. He's searching for wholeness, to pull together the lost pieces of his internal self -- a basic premise of much Western psychotherapy. Ultimately in this film he has to try to reconcile the newly healing self he is becoming with who he was: one of the most highly skilled CIA assassins.

So viewers can relate to JB because of the way his psyschological issues mirror those faced by many professionals who feel constrained by their jobs, or who find themselves seeking new self-knowledge after achieving a certain level of financial or professional success.

Now, one of the things I really liked in both the first and second films was that, unlike Bond or other classic spy heroes, Bourne doesn't have a lot of gadgets and high-tech stuff to get out of sticky situations with -- instead these films show the viewers again and again how he uses his powers of observation and basic martial arts skills. For example, there's a scene early on in Bourne Identity when Jason and Marie walk into a diner. As he sits down, he says to her something like "the back door is the closest exit to our table, there's a policeman at the counter, and the guy in the corner looks suspicious" (NB: that's not a quote, I don't remember the specific details) -- pointing out all sorts of things most viewers hadn't paid attention to yet --and then he says "why do I notice these things? I can't help noticing these things" because he hasn't yet figured out who he is, and why he has these skills. And then shortly thereafter, those details are what let them escape some kind of attack.

Now, when I saw that, one of my first responses was "cool, I wish I was so alert to my surroundings." We are put in a position of admiring JB not because he's super suave or clearly on the side of Good (morally he's somewhat ambiguous, as are all the other parties in these films), but because he's a smart, relaxed, strong street fighter. He has skills that anyone can learn, at least at a basic level of effectiveness.

The word "training" is repeated numerous times in Bourne Supremacy -- it's part of a memory fragment that haunts JB as he tries to understand why the CIA seems to be trying to hunt him down again, several years after he defected. The film opens with him out on a run along the beach. He stops, gets a bottle of water, and then suddenly finds himself outwitting a pursuer. The connection between training for physical fitness and his advanced skills is evident throughout the film, as well as in some of the media interviews with actor Matt Damon, who trained in boxing and martial arts to play this role. We are always interested in the physical transformations actors undertake to play a role -- but in this case, some publications seem to really enjoy the ambiguity inherent in Damon's training -- if he could play the role of a killer so well, does this mean he too has a killer's capabilities?

I should note that Jason Bourne's skills aren't that far-fetched -- I studied taiji in Chinese martial arts schools for a number of years and met several individuals who work as bodyguards, private detectives, and probably other less well-defined things. These men know how to disable someone using pressure points, how to break out of a locked room, and how to deflect an attacker's weapon. These are not super-human qualities, but learnable skills. And that's something that the Bourne films seem to be reminding the viewer.

Thus they tap into a strand in our current physical fitness culture that celebrates and admires those who test the limits of the human body: witness the increasing popularity of military-style boot camps for suburban dwellers, endurance events like marathons, and adventure races like the Eco-Challenge. During the Moscow section of the film, there's a shot of a billboard advertising some kind of exercise facility or equipment -- a torso with six-pack abs, and a slogan that read "~~Ergo" (I don't know what the first part was). The film thus points out that Western-style physical fitness culture is one more element in the emulation of western-style capitalism. (The cars and suits in the Moscow sequence are another example too.)

But, as much as the film reminds us of our admiration of the super-fit body and the special skills that Jason Bourne possesses, it also plays on cultural anxieties about such "training": what happens when such training goes awry, or produces a rogue agent such as Bourne? (The recent film The Hunted is another example -- I haven't seen it, though.) Bourne's handlers are trying to bring him in -- for various possible outcomes -- reprogramming, counseling, death. The movies put us on JB's side -- he's the hero, he's the hunted prey-- and the CIA is shown as full of corruption and intrigue. It's a thriller/action/spy story, after all. But still I think the film reflects a larger cultural concern about the new political realities of the war efforts of the past 10 years -- vague, confusing situations where events and individuals are continually being reinterpreted -- and especially about the effects on the soldiers trained to fight in those battles, and their eventual reintegration into the larger society. If you are trained to respond to information and stimuli in a certain way, can you ever leave that training behind? Will the war ever be over?