Listening to Yesterday: The Bourne Acoustemology

A slow, close read of what made the early series intimate

  1. sound cues in a suspense novel


The fifth Bourne movie, Jason Bourne, felt like something of a letdown, especially its ending — not because it fizzled, but because it exploded. The film’s final major sequence, a cartoonish vehicular rampage in Las Vegas, was the exact sort of overstuffed, overlong, physics-denying thriller set piece to which the first Bourne movie served as an antidote.

That first Bourne film was intimate, surgical, refined. The closeness of camera, the tight confines of many of the fight scenes, the internal drama of the story — it was thrilling, something that thrillers often forget to aspire to. The small scope of the first film was largely a matter of visuals and plotting, but it played out as well in the everyday ambience and, at times, in John Powell’s alternately percolating and droning score.

Having never even read any of the novels on which the series was based, I decided after leaving the Jason Bourne matinee deflated to try the first book, which shares its title with the first Bourne movie: The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum. It hasn’t been my primary read these past few weeks. I’ve just been taking it in small doses. Not surprisingly, sound is a key part of Bourne’s slow-waking realization about his circumstances. For the 1% of the English-reading population unfamiliar with the Bourne character, he’s a skilled assassin who emerges from a coma with most of his memory blank; the first book and the first movie track the initial stages of Bourne piecing together the puzzle of his identity.

Bourne is surprised by his own senses in the book’s early pages, like when he gains perspective on his own heightened awareness during a gun battle: “There were enough shells left, he knew that. He had no idea how or why he knew, but he knew. By sound he could visualize the weapons, extract the clips, count the shells.” The detail of that perception was inherent in the experience of the first film as well. It marks a strong contrast to the fifth film, in which the audience loses track of how many cars have been torn to shreds like toilet paper. Later in the first book, as he is tracking down former acquaintances by following leads that are, in fact, simply shards of memories, he experiences familiarity through all his senses: “He had seen the large room before, the beams and the candlelight printed somewhere in his mind, the sounds recorded also.”

There’s a term for the inherent sonic potential of a given scenario, of a given setting, and that word is “acoustemology.” The acoustemology of the first Bourne book is about proximity and detail, about human scale and threats just out of sight. The book and the film alike feed on that dictum. Hearing in a narrative such as this is far more intimate than seeing. Heightened sight gives Bourne a clear view across a crowded room. Hearing, in contrast, brings things close, aligns the reader’s ears with those of the protagonist. That’s the sort of intimacy that the first film portrayed — up close, personal — and that the fifth film lost sight of.

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