NEW YORK One of the Museum of Modern Art's latest film acquisitions isn't an art-house experiment by Andy Warhol or Michelangelo Antonioni. It's the spy-action blockbuster "The Bourne Identity" and its sequels.
This week the museum is screening the films and hosting a panel discussion with "Bourne" director/producer Doug Liman and a noted neuroscientist to talk about memory, identity and the mysterious workings of the brain.
For the uninitiated: The films center on amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, who possesses superb espionage skills but no memory of his past, which includes the ultrasecret CIA unit that trained him and now wants to kill him to cover up an operation gone wrong.
Based on the late Robert Ludlum's series of best-selling novels, the "Bourne" movies packed with dizzying chases, gripping fights and more scenic European locales than the Michelin guides took in more than $525 million at U.S. box offices alone. The last installment, "The Bourne Ultimatum," won Academy Awards this year for film editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
The "Bourne" movies aren't the first smash-hit spy capers among MoMA's more than 22,000 films, which include all of James Bond's adventures. But the "Bourne" acquisition does raise interesting questions about what makes a movie art.
"You say the word 'action movie,' and everyone's standards go down," Liman said Tuesday. "And it was my goal with 'The Bourne Identity' to create a movie wherein the drama would hold up even if you took the action out."
Liman, who directed "Identity" and served as executive producer of sequels "Supremacy" and "Ultimatum," called the films' inclusion in the museum's renowned collection "a huge, huge honor."
Cinemaphiles have praised not only the movies' technical skill and heart-pounding pace, but their relatively realistic feel and character development as Bourne strives to find out who he is and why killers stalk him wherever he goes.
"What the 'Bourne' films managed to do was to move people's expectations into a whole new area in terms of what the spy genre could deliver," said MoMA chief film curator Rajendra Roy.
Roy presides over one of the nation's biggest motion picture archives, housed in a specially built repository in Hamlin, Pa. The holdings are as diverse as 1895's "Feeding the Baby (Repas de BeBe)" one of the earliest motion pictures ever shown in a theater and the 2006 barnyard charmer "Charlotte's Web."
The "Bourne" trilogy was a clear fit for the 73-year-old collection, which has long included what curators see as significant commercial movies, as well as experimental and historical works, Roy said.
"We would never ignore the fact that we are also engaged with a very popular medium," he said.
Nor should they, says Andrew G. Sarris, a noted cinema critic and Columbia University film history and theory professor.
There's a point to placing the "Bourne" pictures and other popular, well-executed mainstream movies alongside film festival favorites, he said: It "proves that, occasionally, the system still works."
Friday's panel at MoMA is part of World Science Festival, a five-day gathering of researchers, artists and writers meeting throughout the city. Besides Liman, it will feature University of Wisconsin-Madison psychiatrist Dr. Giulio Tononi.
That discussion is likely to focus in part on the nature of Bourne's deep amnesia.
While Liman said he focused on "character truth," not scientific veracity, Tononi said the condition depicted is real, if very rare.
Like the multilingual Bourne, who easily fends off assassins with his extraordinary physical skills, some patients do retain abilities they can't remember acquiring, the scientist said.
Tononi also said Bourne's anguish over not remembering his past rings true. On or off the screen, he said, "we have this incredible, compelling need to create a narrative about who we are."