Thursday, July 28, 2016

Theory Thursday: Paul Greengrass is Overrated

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Jason Bourne is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Paul Greengrass is a bad director.

Scene from United 93
When compiling a list of the worst directors of all time, there are a handful that come to mind. One can think of Ed Wood, Uwe Boll, or even Brett Ratner and be able to back it up with a specific quality assessment. There's no denying that there are bad directors who make bad movies. However, there's one conversation that I do feel doesn't get talked about. What about the bad directors who get lucky and make good movies? It may seem like an anomaly, especially since incompetence is rarely seen as positive. However, the one thing that should be noted is that if good directors can occasionally make bad movies, then the equation must be willing to reroute the other way. Speaking as cinema is subjective, there's no proper way to assess the good from bad without falling back on opinions.

To provide some background, I am generally very lenient when it comes to cinema. I can forgive story inconsistencies if it's entertaining. I can forgive bad special effects if the story is compelling. I go for the experience of sitting down and watching the film play out before my eyes, transporting me to the vision of one director. However, my petty heart is one that has an unfavorable need to praise aesthetic. I am not a cinematography fiend, but I am all for strong shot composition. To me, it's just as important as what the story is saying. Even if it's a bland shot that provides little else besides an upper torso, I will not judge harshly. It's when things become skewed without a sense of purpose that I begin to have one of my strong biases come out. It's partially why I can't stand The Blair Witch Project despite believing that there's artistic merit in the found footage genre. It's also why director Paul Greengrass frustrates me so much.

Let me put it this way. I like Greengrass movies. The Jason Bourne series is rather entertaining. United 93 is such a visceral and claustrophobic experience that more than warrants his shaky camera technique. The same could be said for parts of Captain Phillips. There's a lot that works on a story level to make me overlook what I generally don't like about him. Greengrass is an action director by way of documentary-style film making. He uses shaky cameras to make a more realistic appearance. That's fine. It makes The Bourne Ultimatum have a certain pop to it. However, I have a certain issue with his work on an aesthetic level, and that is where he goes from being a unique director with a clever camera technique and becomes simply annoying.

As a longtime Tom Hanks fan, I found Captain Phillips to be entertaining from a performance standpoint. While I took issue with the clinical side of his rescue, I found another thing becoming increasingly annoying. The camerawork faded in favor of a camera floating through close-ups and awkward angles of the protagonist as his journey continued. I understood the reason. He was trapped at sea by pirates. However, the one thing that I found myself later having issue with was that there wasn't much in the way of great composition. Beyond the famous "I'm the captain now." scene, it was a series of images that didn't feel staged in a way that could elevate the tension by putting more detail into frame or adding a deeper emotion to what we're seeing. It was a good movie, but I just didn't want to look at it.

The issue continues to become apparent when you look at his magnum opus: Flight 93. To be honest, it's his masterpiece as a director despite being a somewhat exploitative look into the harrowing events that happened on 9/11/01. What he does capture is an uncertainty and a sense of community across the entire American landscape. While it has a sadistic streak at times, it does have tension and a sense of panic. Speaking as nobody living really has an idea of what happened in that plane, it's a riveting and unifying film. However, there are entire shots in the plane in which the camera's need to be in motion becomes problematic, forcing us to look at everything over seats and again at awkward angles. The story itself is packed with solid beats, but the camerawork begins to distract from the story at large, never letting it rest for long on a moment that properly symbolizes the danger at stake.

This may be a silly thing to argue, especially since one could argue that it benefits the story. However, it's one of the perks that come with seeing a Greengrass movie, no matter what text you throw it into. I get that there's a need to be chaotic at times. I get that not every shot can be, as the famous Tumblr account would say, every frame a painting. Yet I feel that the shaky camera work distracts from his messages and performances, forcing us to weasel it away from the camera instead of having a chance to watch a moment with clarity. It makes him stand out, and I think an acquired taste that not many people argue against. I am not one who gets sick when watching shaky camera films. That is thankful. However, I do get frustrated watching Greengrass's work largely because he insists on using aggression at every turn, never letting the camera sit still and look, ahem, a little professional.

There is a good chance that I will see Jason Bourne one day, since I don't hate the other four movies (yes, even the Jeremy Renner one is mediocre at worst). I know that it seems bold to say "Paul Greengrass is a bad director," but I hope that I've convinced you to look at things from my perspective. It isn't the subject matter, it's the style. You could argue that Baz Luhrmann is a worse director because he edits his movies to death (see: Moulin Rouge). But at least he has an aesthetic and consistency that has an appeal. One could see his magic on display in The Great Gatsby and notice that even if the direction isn't that much more inspired, it at least has a richer subtext than a shaky camera telling us to be scared. Yes, Luhrmann has made arguably more bad movies than Greengrass. Yet I think part of being a good director is making films that are enjoyable to watch, regardless of background aesthetic. I simply disagree with Greengrass' approach.

I know it's tough to say, but it's something that I've generally felt whenever I've sat down with Greengrass. More than any other director, I feel his hand on the story, shaking it like a snow globe and expecting pretty flakes to mesmerize us. He is far from the worst director ever to release a movie internationally. He doesn't even make that many bad movies necessarily. It's just that as a director, he has a style that bothers me. I wish that I could say that this is an opinion that happens often, but he is one of the exceptions. I'm sure there's other bad directors who make good movies, but I cannot think of them. Maybe you can. I'd like to know. For now, I'm taking Jason Bourne to get this grief off of my chest and see if anyone agrees.

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