Thursday, March 18, 2010

Modern Maestros: Paul Greengrass

Robert here, continuing my series on important contemporary directors. I feel sorta bad featuring Paul Greengrass just a week after his most divisive film. What's interesting about that film is how both the pro and the con arguments seem to be in agreement on what the film is, just their reaction to it differs. But more on that later. First...

Maestro: Paul Greengrass
Known For: Historical recreations and Bourne movies.
Influences: Independent film, activist film, documentaries.
Masterpieces: United 93
Disasters: None
Better than you remember: Everything here seems on the up-and-up.
Box Office: over 220 mil for The Bourne Ultimatum
Favorite Actor: You guessed it, Matt Damon.



In order for you to properly experience this post grab both sides of your monitor and shake it vigorously; up down, side to side, every which way. More and more. Just shake the bejesus out of it. There, now doesn't this piece feel gritty and realistic? I kid, of course, because I admire Mr. Greengrass. Though steadfast shaky-cam dissenters aren't likely to give him much goodwill, I find him to be one of the few directors who uses the effect successfully. This is true for two reasons. First, he always uses it as a compliment to (instead of a substitute for) an intelligent plot. And secondly his direction still allows you to understand visual movement through a space. When Jason Bourne is engaging in fisticuffs with someone you can always (or almost always) tell who's winning, who's losing, who's where. Too many modern shaky-cam sequences have you scratching your head the whole time, waiting until the camera seizure stops so you can tell who survived the scuffle (no offense to Michael Mann who I like and who has undoubtedly influenced Greengrass, but Public Enemies is a good example of this). And yes the cliche benefit is that it makes the film seem more realistic. It mimics what we've come to know as verite documentary style. But it's also an expressionist device, allowing the audience to feel the same turbulence as the characters. Though, to work it has to accompany an intelligent story and be coherent enough to keep the viewer from becoming disengaged. Without that it's just a gimmick.

It's a good thing Greengrass has the shaky-cam thing down since he's got some gritty and realistic stories to tell. Thematically no one is going to accuse Paul Greengrass of having great range. He's probably not going to direct cinema's next great screwball comedy. Though let's not forget he had a career in the 90's (before he became the patron saint of shaky) which included, among other things, the Branagh/Bonham Carter vehicle The Theory of Flight. In the past ten years, however, he's stuck with Bourne thrillers or real-life dramatizations. Greengrass knows how to add just the right element to elevate these genres. The use of real air traffic controllers to play themselves in United 93 is worth the price of admission alone (especially FAA chief Ben Sliney who brings a touch of honesty to his performance that somehow can't be dismissed as merely familiarity with his role). The Bourne films, meanwhile have been credited, and rightfully so, with reminding Hollywood what an adult action movie is supposed to look like. And their long reach can be seen in both Batman and Bond. Green Zone is a sorta amalgamation of Greengrass's true life movies and action flicks and is either a great example of how fictionalized action cinema can be topical or overblown revisionist history... depending of course.

Bourne, not Green

Despite this latest stumble (if it is a stumble) I'm glad we have Paul Greengrass out there making action films for adults and activist films with just the right touch. His next project according to IMDb is They Marched Into Sunlight, a parallel telling of a 1967 Viet Cong ambush and Dow Chemicals protest. Looks like more of the same from Greengrass. But I mean that in a good way. I like that Paul Greengrass knows what he does best and plans to keep doing it. He does it better than most. No need for him to shake things up... any more than he already does.

16 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

Your instructions were so vivid that I had to stop myself from vigorously shaking my computer -- even if i wanted to. it's so problematic! -- I don't share the love of Greengrass but I appreciate your impassioned defence and the thing i most like about this series is the way you're able to acknowledge limitations while at the same time offering up praise.

THAT SAID... i don't think his action sequences are as coherent as his fans believe them to be. I got lost more than a lot in the last Bourne film... which prevents me from loving action movies. and it's probably the #2 reason I'm such a James Cameron fan (never have i been lost as to what's actually happening even when the action gets totally chaotic)

Burning Reels said...

His Bloody Sunday and United 93 direction is almost Bresson-esque (at least heading in that direction) in it's simplicity - I think he should stick to cold hard facts, he's rather good at it.

Henry said...

When Jason Bourne is engaging in fisticuffs with someone you can always (or almost always) tell who's winning, who's losing, who's where.

Sorry, but I have to be a dissenter on this one for The Bourne Supremacy. The movie was so incomprehensible and the shaky cam gave me such a headache that I had to walk out of the theater for the first time in a long time. I came back after five minutes and STILL got a headache from the shaky cam shots. It was a headache so bad that I actually threw up my arms in frustration and resignation over the fact that it just wasn't going to stop. I asked my brother what I had missed when I stepped out and he said nothing. Worst film of 2004 or whatever year it came out.

On the other hand, I really liked United 93, more so than the other major 9/11 film, World Trade Center.

Robert said...

@Henry - as I said, there are people for whom the shaky-cam is an absolute dealbreaker and I respect that, especially when it's not an issue of aesthetics as much as one of nausea. Though I'd still say "worst film of 2004" is an overstatement.

Henry said...

Well, I can deal with shaky cam shots from both TV and movies. It's not necessarily a dealbreaker for me. It just seemed like Greengrass used it WAY too much in The Bourne Supremacy that I just outright hated the film. It's the only time I've walked out of a film in the last fifteen years of seeing movies in theaters.

Robert Hamer said...

While I won't deny that United 93 is a moving and powerful film, I've always had a tough time stomaching the film's portrayal of Christian Adams, the German passenger. It just seemed mean-spirited and unecessary to make him a cowardly appeaser when there was no evidence to suggest that he actually was.

Any thoughts on this?

Tim said...

Count me among those who flat-out idolise the man, and I happen to think that Green Zone is both his most intelligent film since Bloody Sunday AND the best use of his shaky aesthetic since ever.

The problem is that there's absolutely no way e to argue against the "it's incoherent/it's nauseating" argument, besides saying, "no, it's not", and that's stating an opinion, not criticism. Ah, well, I'll still put Ultimatum up as the most impressive action movie of the '00s.

"His Bloody Sunday and United 93 direction is almost Bresson-esque" - I hadn't ever thought of that before, but it's absolutely true.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I could probably list 100 contemporary directors I find more exciting than Greengrass, but I'll back you up on his handling of action scenes, at least as far Bourne Ultimatum is concerned (I hope that's what the third one was called, that's the one I mean). The fights were perfectly - or at least, sufficiently - coherent and riveting. As was most of the film.

Though I don't know about the whole "he makes action movies for adults" thing. Jason Bourne is a striking example of the simplistic, alienated-high-shooler's conception of 'dark' psychology (which Hollywood adores - look at all of Chris Nolan's career for more examples). I'd be much more comfortable if we just said "he makes slick, solemn, pretentious action movies to give girlfriend-less action fanboys the sense that what they're watching is not just thrilling but Important".

Robert Hamer said...

"he makes slick, solemn, pretentious action movies to give girlfriend-less action fanboys the sense that what they're watching is not just thrilling but Important"

You could say that about a million thrillers, though, and if it's well-made, so what? I really don't understand the resentment towards these types of films. It's almost as if a film that takes itself seriously, takes itself too seriously. Then again, if it's frivolous, it's too frivolous. If someone makes their genre flick with a sense of urgency and purpose, that's way more than what most directors accomplish. If you disagree with their messages, that's another story, but dismissing any point of view entirely as 'pretentious' is just...strange to me.

And what's with the label 'action fanboys?' Is that just a blanket term for people who like action movies? What's next, drama fanboys?

NATHANIEL R said...

*raises hand*

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

"It's almost as if a film that takes itself seriously, takes itself too seriously. Then again, if it's frivolous, it's too frivolous."

Excuse me, sir, but these are my options? The scale runs straight from frivolous action to pretentious action? If I must pick however, give me frivolous action any day.

"If someone makes their genre flick with a sense of urgency and purpose, that's way more than what most directors accomplish. If you disagree with their messages, that's another story, but dismissing any point of view entirely as 'pretentious' is just...strange to me."

I don't object to a sense of urgency or purpose, I object to purple monologues and trite anti-psychology mangled in amongst the action in a hypocritical effort towards profundity. It's like, it's not enough that Robin Hood has sword fights to win his girl, or that Batman just wants to stop the token villain from damaging dozens of people and architecture, they must also be deeply conflicted about their distant father or a lost sense of home. But we can't afford too much screentime on the daddy/home issues, but as long as we use a dark colour pallette, deprive the protagonist of a sense of humour and pay lip service to freshman-year-Jung, then we can claim psychological depth without necessarily developing any.

"And what's with the label 'action fanboys?' Is that just a blanket term for people who like action movies? What's next, drama fanboys?"

It's a label for people who would dismiss "Rachel Getting Married" as a chick flick. People on imdb messageboards who take it for granted that a really important film has to revolve around a Man who never smiles, knows kung fu (but is preferably white and American), has daddy issues and understands that women are just decoration for his biceps. People who would rank The Dark Knight not only among the most important achievements of 2008, but of Cinema. And if anyone wants to brand me a drama fanboy, that suits me fine. (Though isn't drama meant to be girly? Or at least middle-aged-woman-y? Does that make me a 'drama fanwoman'?)

Robert said...

@Robert Hamer - United 93 is about 90% perfect. That last 10% includes the portrayal of Christian Adams, an unfortunate flaw that is simply too glaring to overlook.

@Y Kant - I'm not taking sides in this one. Both of you make impassioned points. But I will say: stay away from those IMDb message boards. No good can come of them.

Robert Hamer said...

@ Kant: I absolutely, completely, 100% agree with you on IMDb. I would also agree with your frustration regarding how enamored people will be with the "depth" of The Dark Knight while dismissing something like The Thin Red Line as a "pretentious art film." Hmm, guess that makes me a drama fanboy. Maybe we should start a club?

I just think that imbuing an action flick or a superhero film with something topical, something a little beyond the immediate goal, is admirable, even if the actual thematic content has some of the problems that you pointed out.

As for this comment, "(preferably white and American)," well, welcome to Hollywood.

RC said...

@ Nat - interesting thoughts on Cameron & action. I can understand it...I get so annoyed especially when it's supposed to be "such a good movie" and feel so incredibly lost in the action sequence.

Markku said...

A comment from a passionate Greengrass fanboy:

Although I believe United 93 to be the best film of the decade, the portrayal of Christian Adams has always been the film's biggest stumbling block for me, too.

It is my understanding that Greengrass wanted some of the passengers to show also the uglier, less heroic reactions, as some undoubtedly did in that situation. (I think I would have locked myself in the bathroom and called my mom in hysterics, had I been on that flight) The only actor willing to do it, it seems, was German actor Eric Redmann who improvised the freak-out scene on the spot.

In retrospect, the political implications may not have been as obvious during the filming of the scene, but at the very least they should have thought about it during the editing process.

That said, I do believe Greengrass is a man who knows his own strengths and he'll go on making good films in the future, too. The technical prowess aside, his direction of amateur actors and large ensembles in "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93" is nothing short of spectacular and it would be interesting to see this technique used again. Although "Green Zone" was a minor disappointment, (the first hour is terrific, the ending sort of fizzles out) I like the sound of "They Marched Into Sunlight" very much.

Flosh said...

I'm mixed on Greengrass. I enjoyed his Bourne films and think Bloody Sunday is a great film.

But it has always bothered me that Greengrass dramatized the events on the plane in United 93 after everyone got off the phones. The rest of the film is a carefully recreated, near documentary account of that day - in some cases, as has been pointed out, using the actual participants. No matter how close he got to the mark in those final moments on the plane, we don't know for sure what happened, and to give it equal weight with the other, verifiable events of the day always struck me as vaguely disrespectful, almost exploitative.

And Green Zone is far too simplistic in its regurgitation of anti-war talking points - and intellectually dishonest in fictionalizing the facts of the botched WMD intelligence for the purposes of constructing an effective entertainment - to really be taken seriously. It's a film that already feels four or fives year out of date and behind the curve. But, y'know, the action sequences are killer.