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World Science Festival: The Accidental Accuracy of The Bourne Identity

By Melissa Lafsky
Jun 2, 2008 8:23 PMNov 5, 2019 8:44 AM


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Take an action blockbuster with an amnesiac hero, mix in some movie bigwigs and a neuroscience expert, and you're guaranteed a sold-out crowd. This was the formula for Friday night's "The Brain and Bourne: Neuroscience in the Bourne Trilogy" at the MOMA. Lucky ticket-holders gathered for a screening of the film followed by a panel discussion, featuring the lively trio of James Schamus, the CEO of Focus Features and a film professor at Columbia, Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and Doug Liman, the film's director (who did not, as erroneously announced by MOMA chief film curator Rajendra Roy, direct the second and third installments, but rather served as a producer on both films). After a clip showing a hefty amount of the film's opening—which caught some by surprise given that the majority of the audience had just seen the entire movie—the panel opened with the single biggest question raised by Jason Bourne: Could his amnesia actually happen? Tononi ruled the show on this one, describing similar (albeit extremely rare) cases of psychogenic amnesia he'd seen in his years of practice. He told of a geography teacher who woke up not knowing his wife, his family, or a single detail of his past, but who could recite the population of every Italian city, and a man who lost his ability to formulate short term memories (à la Memento) and remembered no one on earth save his wife. "Memory is all divided up into pieces, and you can lose one at the expense of the others," Tononi told the audience, describing how amnesiacs had lost the ability to perceive faces, color, or even anything on their left side, all as a result of trauma. Next came Tononi's big question for Liman: How much research had the director put in before getting to work on the film? His answer can be summed up as: Not much. Wisely, the director downplayed his scientific knowledge, and stressed that his talent (as well as his job) was story-telling. He admitted that, while he'd approached a few experts about whether such powerful amnesia could happen as a result of psychotic trauma, they'd all shot him down. "So I basically made it up, and what I made up turned out to be true," he admitted, drawing laughs from the crowd. Schamus then offered a fascinating take on the reason the film was and is still so successful:

When you wake up every morning, you access that set of memories that tells you who you are. But when you wake up and you still don't reconnect to who you are, that's terrible. We all fear losing that unique sense of who you are.

As for the question of whether Bourne should assume full responsibility and guilt for the violence he'd committed, despite the fact that he couldn't remember any of it, Tononi had his to say: "It all depends on what's happening in your brain whether you are guilty of a crime or not." Nonetheless, when the panelists asked for a show of hands as to how many people thought Bourne was undeniably guilty, around 90 percent raised their hands in the affirmative. Liman drew more laughs by noting that, despite its critical and commercial success, this event was "the first time the movie's ever really been taken seriously." Let's just hope the same won't be said of Jumper anytime soon. Image © 2002 - Universal Studios

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