Watching the largely entertaining “The Bourne Ultimatum”, in which Matt Damon starts running over the credits and continues to do so for 111 minutes, it struck me that, despite what we are being told about a supersurveillant society and the patriotism of the rogue but wronged agent pursued by a corrupt national agency, the movie’s most relevant message is expressed in its unremitting pace. We are presented with a surface that is ultimately more eloquent and important than its own embedded, anxious examination of allegiance. It’s a polished visual poem foregrounding an efficient thriller narrative as a means of delivering a manically edited and sound-scored piece of impressionism concerned with the quality of everyday life in a society defined, engulfed and oppressed by speed. Within the terms of the movie, speed is what you need to evade the zero-reaction time surveillance prosthetics that can be effortlessly turned against you. Outside the cinema it’s the speed at which choices and options are unceasingly renewed within the consumerdome, outstripping comprehension and inducing existential panic and breathlessness.
Thinking of Matt made me think of Tom, insofar as an aspect of his current work offers another sort of arresting surface phenomenon, this time at odds with its pretensions to substance.
There’s a scene in Tom Stoppard’s most recent play “Rock’n’Roll” (2006) which, in its untypical ingenuousness, undermines the notion of the orderly ‘play of ideas’ that the playwright’s work is held to exemplify. Set in the Cambridge garden of the Marxist philosopher Max Morrow, the scene features the busy preparation, dishing out and consumption of an al fresco lunch. Several characters are on stage and a lot of the bustling ‘business’ consists of the naturalistic enactment of ordinary tasks such as laying the table, passing plates from one guest to another and so forth. Dialogue between the characters is maintained throughout.
Despite the ongoing development and refining of ‘ideas’ implicit in the interplay of various ideologically differentiated figures, the scene’s most powerful effect, for this viewer, was its depiction, at the level of image, pace and tone rather than verbal content and plot, of middle class manners. If the scene had been an episode in a contemporary visual theatre production it is possible that the dialogue would have been cut completely, given the eloquence of the movement and setting. If cutting the dialogue seems drastic then it could have been replaced with ‘meaningless chatter’ in order to reduce its obtrusiveness. Had these modifications been applied, however, a set of meanings parodying the play’s own artistry would have emerged.
It is not the case that the play can be described as a multi-layered unity whose physical, imagistic and designed aspects support and complement, as a matter of course, the character relationships and their articulation of political and historical positions. While Stoppard is obviously concerned to comment upon the academic middle class milieu in which the Marxist professor moves, this is not a particularly trenchant operation. The bourgeoisification is not condemned so much as wryly noted. It is incidental to the play’s central arguments. As a result, the surface of the play, in parts, is out of control. Either the playwright or the director, or both, have taken their eye off the ball.
The meanings which the scene conveys are inadvertently made. The overriding effect is one of demonstration rather than explication. The latter function is relatively sophisticated, the former quite primitive. The scene is being performed to an audience that is either familiar with the chatty al fresco luncheon or aspires to its production. It would be at its most eloquent when received by those whose sense of middle class entitlement is tenuous. It provides reassurance much in the same way that a parade of soldiers or circus folk or lifeboatmen demonstrates the style and comportment and therefore the basic nature of these groups. In a parade notions like ‘basic nature’ are unproblematic. Parades are extremely formalised and have the power of rituals rather than stories. They do not present subtleties so much as components of a kit.
The meal scene in “Rock’n’Roll” presents a kit of middle class components. These are arranged in such a way that their primitiveness is obscured with the conventional theatrical artistry of narrative, character, the unfolding of themes and so forth. The main function of the scene is, however, to demonstrate and to celebrate, in a congratulatory manner, what it is to be middle class. This is not subtle but it is profound, like the May Day ‘Obby ‘Oss celebrations in Padstow or the annual Bacup Coconut Dance. In the midst of an earnest theatrical examination of the contradictions of communism the trappings abruptly fall away and the value of the weekly, monthly or whatever custom known as Going to the West End becomes apparent, revivifying and consolidating the community and offering handy hints on style, tone and tempo to the uncertain. It’s not just “This is how you pass a plate” it’s “When you pass a plate this is the level of entitlement, attentiveness, poise, personation, sociability, worldliness and muscle tone that is appropriate.” You need decent actors to do such a demo properly but you don’t really need a sophisticated story or psychologically complex characters – anything that obscures the ritual aspect will suffice.
If “Rock’n’Roll” discreetly presents the theatregoing classes with an Owner’s Manual while distracting them with ‘ideas’, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is less unwitting and hands the viewer a surface that abstracts plot concerns while making them more timely.