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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 16, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Bourne Legacy, Discovery of Witches

Sometimes you just have to feel sorry for executives working in the movie studios. They're involved in American culture's loftiest enterprise -- the art of arts, as far as the public is concerned -- and they're judged by that standard.

Yet they have to work within the rules of American business -- make a profit, benefit the stockholders, keep your job, get a promotion.

On the one hand, then, they have to make as much money as possible. On the other hand, they want to please the critics, win Oscars, and be revered at Hollywood parties.

To achieve the latter, they need to make nasty little art pictures that nobody really likes but everyone with delusions of taste has to pretend to.

To achieve the former, they have to make huge popular movies that will rake in vast amounts of money, which they can then pass through the magical accounting process to pay for all the losses of movies that didn't do so well.

That is why The Bourne Legacy exists. It is by no means cynical -- it is a project that involves passion and deep belief at every point in the process.

The executives have a passionate commitment to pleasing the worldwide audience by continuing the highly lucrative Bourne franchise beyond their ability to attract Matt Damon to star in it.

And the filmmakers -- writer-director Tony Gilroy and his brother and co-writer Dan Gilroy -- have respect both for the earlier movies (since Tony Gilroy wrote them) and for the need to create an intelligent, worthy film that will extend the universe to include characters that are not Bourne himself.

The Gilroy brothers have done a superb job of coming up with a parallel story that never contradicts the earlier Bourne movies (after all, Matt Damon may want to come back and do another Bourne flick), is not tied to the feeble writing of Robert Ludlum, and yet absolutely duplicates the nonstop action, harsh personal costs, and dark moral dilemmas that audiences have come to expect from films that have "Bourne" in the title.

To accomplish this, they created what amounts to a sci-fi thriller in which human beings are being re-engineered by means of chemical alterations in their DNA.

I read one review where the critic impatiently failed to understand why the script calls the pills that the agents in this program have to take "chems" instead of "meds," and then they keep nattering about the chems even though nobody cares.

The critic said this because he's an idiot. They're not "meds" because they aren't curing anything -- they're making huge changes in the intracellular structure of the human body. They're "meds" only to the degree that a jackhammer is a drill.

Furthermore, every single turn of the plot, every single moral dilemma, and the main character's desperate need to get more chems all depend on how the chems work, what they do, and how their function can be permanently replicated in the hero's body.

Everything that is said about the chems is essential to understanding everybody's motivations. Not a word was wasted.

Given my experience with most studio executives, I think it's almost miraculous that The Bourne Legacy's sci-fi premise is actually reasonably smart, clearly created, and well-exploited.

In other words, the Gilroys are that rare breed: Hollywood writers who actually care about the plausibility of their story, and do not insult the intelligence of their audience.

Of course, such intelligence and integrity have their price -- people who are in the theater only to eat popcorn and have a thrill ride can be annoyed by the need to let new thoughts and ideas enter their heads. They get impatient -- as did the afore-mentioned cretinous critic -- with all the time spent in not insulting them. They did not come to exercise their intelligence. They came to have fun.

Well, The Bourne Legacy is fun -- but, as with any sport, it's only fun if you understand the rules of the game, and that's what all the talk about chems is -- the explanation of the rules of the game.

So the thrill-ride audience did not talk up the movie or come back to see it again, and so the opening weekend was not as strong as hoped. Also, everyone could see from the promos that Matt Damon was not in the movie, so a lot of people expected it to be a hackwork sequel and they didn't bother coming at all.

The result was an opening weekend that was notably weaker than that of the previous two Bourne movies. Duh! It's a sequel without the series star! What did they think? But the idiots in the industry are blaming Jeremy Renner, who plays the hero, Aaron Cross, for the "poor" opening weekend.

It was a great opening weekend for a sequel without the star. This movie should have made the low money of items like Dumb and Dumberer, the no-stars sequel to Dumb and Dumber. Instead, it's doing much better.

But still Jeremy Renner, who is absolutely brilliant in this (as in everything he's done) has to put up with critics saying things like, "Renner doesn't have Matt Damon's warmth."

Yes he does. He has astonishing depth and pathos in a movie genre that absolutely requires a stoic hero. This is Clint Eastwood/Arnold Schwarzenegger country -- steely-eyed determination is the default expression. So Renner's powerful performance reaches well beyond the requirements of the genre and promises a remarkable career.

Unless the idiots tag him with a false label like "cold" or "can't open a movie."

This is his first action-movie starring role. He should be celebrated for his work in Bourne Legacy, not tarred with the blame for the "low" box office. The decision to move ahead with this film should have been made with the full knowledge that it would never perform, financially, at the level of the other Bourne movies. There is no blame to attach -- it's what they bargained for in the first place.

All that could be hoped for was an adequate box office performance. Instead, the Gilroys and Renner have given them a terrific movie that will have staying power. In my opinion, it is smarter and fresher and more original than either of the original Bourne movies. The Gilroys came up with a better original story than Robert Ludlum ever did, and Renner is every bit as good an actor as Damon.

If you want a cold actor, that would be bad-guy Edward Norton. Norton is brilliant, but he can do "icy," and that's perfect for the part he's playing. It's also fun to see Stacy Keach and Scott Glenn in small but pivotal roles; and Rachel Weisz does an excellent job of playing the doctor who has the power to save Aaron Cross -- his life, yes, but also his identity, his soul.

I didn't have great expectations for this movie because I expected cynical garbage -- a movie tossed together just to make a buck. Instead, everyone involved with this movie did their best work, and it's way, way better than anyone could have expected.

And, to the credit of the studio executives, they hired the good people and they said yes to their good decisions. They had a good movie and they knew it. That may have raised their expectations for the initial box office, but they should have remembered that this movie had huge obstacles to overcome, obstacles that would cripple the opening weekend.

In a rational universe, people would be talking about how this movie did far better -- artistically and financially -- than any sane person could have expected.

*

I had never heard of Deborah Harkness or her novel A Discovery of Witches when we happened to be on the same panel at Comic-Con last month.

The panel was dominated by a self-important clown who thought he was channeling the spirit of the late Ray Bradbury; Deborah Harkness provided the strongest antidote to his utter foolishness.

That's because Harkness is a professional historian, who has written books on Elizabethan paranormalist John Dee (John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature) and Elizabethan science (The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution).

She has studied human behavior across time and she has no illusions about human nature. But she has also been fascinated with beliefs about the paranormal, and in our own time, when an absurd fascination with never-existent vampires has taken over various sections of our bookstores and libraries, it was natural that she turned her thoughts to this question, as she puts it herself: "If there really are vampires, what do they do for a living?"

It is such a joy when a person who actually knows something creates a fictional universe. She doesn't just throw together cliches drawn from generalized vampire lore; this novel is not drawn from the work of other novelists. Rather it is a fresh approach that depends on Harkness's own deep and wide research in the beliefs and practices of another age, brought forward into our own time.

Thus her story takes place in a version of our present-day world in which, besides ordinary humans like us (I almost referred to us as "drowthers," because I'm in the midst of writing the sequel to my own contemporary fantasy The Lost Gate), there are three kinds of magical creatures: vampires, witches, and demons.

But none of them is really like any version of these creatures you've ever seen before.

Oh, she takes into account all the lore about them, but twists it all around to make them and their society more coherent and infinitely more interesting than any other treatment of them that I've seen.

Demons tend to be artistic types, a bit flighty and easily distracted, capable of great creativity but also of dangerous unpredictability.

Vampires do hunger for blood, though they usually hunt non-human prey. They are very hard to kill, but they do not become monstrous killing machines governed only by their appetites -- at least, not after the first few years after their re-birth into vampirism. And those who create new vampires regard them as their children, retaining ties with them -- and taking responsibility for them -- for centuries.

And the heroine of the novels is a witch, descended from two of the great American witch families.

Now, the actual "witches" of Salem were innocent, decent people accused and judicially murdered during a fit of groupthink madness. (We haven't got much better -- witness the political/media mob attacks on Sarah Palin, Linda Tripp, and George W. Bush, which were never justified by anything other than malice and the desire to destroy a political danger.)

So it bothers me when people write about them as if they had really been or done what their enemies falsely accused them of.

But it also bothers me when people accuse Richard III of being the monster that the usurper Henry VII actually was -- even though the only evidence against Richard III comes from his political enemies, the Tudors, and their sycophants. That doesn't change the fact that Shakespeare's Richard III is a very good play; and Harkness's use of the slanders on the Bishop and Proctor names is pardonable because of the excellence of her novel.

Make no mistake: A Discovery of Witches is definitely structured as a romance novel in a way that Gone with the Wind and Pride and Prejudice are not romance novels and never were.

That is, at the center of Discovery of Witches is a love story that controls the novel to a degree that neither Mitchell nor Austen allowed their love stories to distract them from their main storylines.

Gone with the Wind is about the survival of a tough-minded woman in the midst of the collapse of the civilization she was raised in -- it is far more about that civilization remaking itself, as personified by Scarlett O'Hara, than about her relationship with either of her two lovers (or any of her three husbands).

Likewise, Pride and Prejudice is a novel about the difficulty of knowing other people's true characters, and is built around unjustified assumptions about Darcy and Jane (both caused by their introversion) and about social climbing that distorts the ethics of too many of the characters in their society. The love stories are not afterthoughts -- it is all built around marriages -- but the Elizabeth-Darcy love story is not the only one in the book (there are three other marriages that equally dominate the plot), and family loyalties and responsibilities are actually more important to the story than are any of the romances.

Of course, I could talk for hours about both these novels. My point here is that A Discovery of Witches comes from a different tradition of novel writing. Yet even though Harkness has definitely shaped her novel around the relationship between scholar (and non-practicing witch) Diana Bishop and her vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont, it is still a novel deeply informed by history and highly logical in its world-creation.

This is in sharp contrast with the shoddy world-creation and contempt for history shown by most "historical" novelists. From The Scarlet Pimpernel on forward, historical-romance writers are notorious for the utter absurdity of the anachronisms and the impossibility of the actions of the characters in their novels.

That is not Harkness, not for a moment. All the relationships are well-drawn and utterly believable. The characters are complicated, well-motivated, and have interests in life beyond getting married (or getting laid). In other words, while Harkness has entered the historical-fantasy-romance genre, she has entered it at the very top, as one of its best practitioners ever.

Instead of being dragged down by the laziness and silliness of most previous entries in her chosen genre, she elevates that genre to the very best of its potential. The result is a gothic romance that even a snob like me can thoroughly enjoy.

Meanwhile, there's not a thing that regular readers of the genre will object to. After all, they don't want their stories to be stupid and bad; they simply put up with the stupidness and badness because that's the only form that their literary drug-of-choice usually comes in.

Harkness delivers the drug, not in the form of a painful injection or bad-tasting medicine. She delivers it in the form of a banquet.

Like a banquet, it is long. But it's delicious.

Plot? There's plenty of it, though because it's a romance we don't move as far into the plot as readers of non-romance fantasy or historical novels might wish. There is a magical book in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which Diana Bishop receives and opens by "chance" which turns out not to be chance at all.

We gradually learn many things about the murder of Diana's parents when she was a child, about why she has been able to avoid her own magic so successfully, and about why so many people seem to be interested in controlling her if they can, and killing her if they can't.

Do I wish Harkness had told this story as a historical fantasy, with the romance elements in a more subordinate position -- more like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel -- or as a straight gothic novel like Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale? Yes. But that's because I am more familiar with and prefer the tropes of those genres.

Given that Harkness has chosen a genre that I am not as sympathetic with, I can only salute her for holding my interest so completely.

She even made me like and care about a fictional vampire and a whole vampire society -- something that I really never thought possible, since I have long viewed the whole enterprise of vampire fiction with something between boredom and contempt.

She does it by not making them relentless parasites, but instead giving them a chance to be intellectually sophisticated and morally complex in ways that even the ambitious Twilight series could not quite bring off.

In Harkness's fictional world, the vampires' need for blood is not like heroin addiction, controlling every waking moment of their lives; rather it is more like the sexual lust of 18-year-olds, always present but also completely controllable, so that they can be and accomplish far more than to try to satisfy that one desire.

Did I mention that Harkness is such a smart and witty person that she is able to create characters that are witty and smart? This gives the writing a sizzle and pop that adds to the deeper pleasures of story and character.

If there is any danger sign for the future of this series, it is this: Diana Bishop gradually discovers that she has a massive dose of every kind of power that a witch can have (indeed, that's what she was born for), and her only limitations come from her own deliberate ignorance of how to use those powers, and some magical restrictions placed upon her in childhood for her own protection.

In other words, the danger is that in later volumes she will be so godlike that the story will move out of human realms and human concerns and human dilemmas, and that would be a shame, because it is the humanness of this novel that makes it so very good.

The sequel, Shadow of Night, has recently been published, though the third novel has not; still, A Discovery of Witches is strong enough, and complete enough, that I recommend that you not wait for the whole series to appear, but instead relish the first volume for the pleasures that are complete within it.


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