Sunday, December 13, 2015

OLIVER STONE

   While making a point of not watching the news the other evening, I passed by the TV set and double-took the screen image of Oliver Stone speaking with some entertainment reporter. I grabbed the remote control and un-muted the sound just in time to hear the filmmaker offer the beginnings of a remark wherein he referenced the past. He said, "At the time, I was a hotshot director. . . " That was all I heard of what he said because the impact of those few words temporarily buried me. "At the time"? Granted, the nature of Stone's movies changed a bit after 1999's Any Given Sunday. For many people in the movie business. teaming Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx and Dennis Quaid in what is arguably the most authentic football movie every made would have been a career in and of itself. Granted, in the previous twenty-one years, Oliver Stone had written the screenplays for the Turkish prison film Midnight Express, the action thriller Conan the Barbarian, and the gangster epic Scarface. He directed the political experiences Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers. He exploded the Sixties with Born on the Fourth of July and The Doors. In case you may not have been copied on the memo, he also produced The People versus Larry Flynt, The Joy Luck Club and Heaven and Earth. Men with similarly impressive resumes (few as they may be) never refer to their successes in the past tense, even though the quality of their recent work would make such self-deprecation more than merely appropriate. DePalma, Spielberg, Scorsese, Burton, Coppola, Lucas--only one of whom might be considered among the most artistically viable directors of the last fifty years--and neither he nor the other five would, on penalty of death or public humiliation, whisper the suggestion that his best days just might possibly be in the past. True, Stone's demand at the box office was not served well with Alexander, W., or by his movies about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, although I personally enjoyed these movies almost as much as I did the earlier classics. And with a new movie called Snowden being released in 2016, he is the furthest thing from being washed up. 
   One of the sources of conflict in Any Given Sunday (which my girlfriend Lisa Ann insists is her favorite Oliver Stone movie) is the strain between experienced age (in the form of Pacino) and inexperienced youth (Jamie Foxx). I could not help but think of Stone himself while watching Pacino in the role of coach Tony D'Amato, trying the explain to his third-string quarterback about the value of the game itself rather than the glorification of one sole player. The young player feels he is being condescended to, that Pacino's days of glory are over, that the game itself has changed to passes and high scores over strategies and teamwork. And because mocking the phoniness of cheap pop culture is one of the subtleties of the director's work, we suspect early on that Pacino will find a way to win out over the corporate hustlers who have corrupted the surface--rather than the essence--of the game of football. 
    Stone is our great cinematic mythologist. Like any artist, he knows his version of history may not be the same as that of those who traditionally inform the masses. But he understands the power of myth, the way stories get relayed over generations, how truth can become corrupted, of the essential nature of the counter-myth. 
  In Scarface, the counter-myth comes right out the chute when the criminals Fidel Castro kicked out of Cuba come drifting to the United States, specifically to the Miami area, celebrating their new freedom to struggle to the top of a criminal empire. The older brothers and sisters of those same Cubans worked their black magic in Stone's telling of the destruction of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. A jagged though sturdy set of lines connect the hidden lies at the heart of America and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles form those lines, from the muscle boys who worked the mob's casinos when Cuba belonged to the United States (courtesy of the dictator Batista) through the mechanics who murdered JFK under the auspices of the CIA, right on through the burglars who violated the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, the Watergate hotel, the Brookings Institute, to those who guided the training of the Contras in Nicaragua. These unnumbered dots form invisible links bounding and bonding our collective consciousness, our Spiritus Mundi, as Yeats called it in "The Second Coming." 
   Martin Scorsese may have the market on the subjects of guilt and redemption, just as Francis Coppola may be the master of the Great Journey. Spielberg may do more with the Establishment message than many outside the Establishment have dreamed. While Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and perhaps Schindler's List will forever serve to redefine our understanding of just how much can be done with the medium of cinema, so do movies such as JFK and Nixon redefine our understanding of how we got here as a people. The late Robert Altman did the same thing with MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women and The Player. Altman and Stone have been the great counter-mythologists of our time. These filmmakers and a few others I could mention (mostly from outside the United States) have reconstructed the nature of making movies in the same way that Method Acting and Stella Adler changed performance. That is to say, contemporary movies are unthinkable without them. 
   I have heard Stone refer to his stylistic efforts as a kind of Cubism, in the Picasso sense of the term. Quick shots interspersing present and past, color and B&W, clarity and graininess, fact and theory create the emotional rhythm of movies such as JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. And if Cubism dictates the geometric conflux of a piece of art, such as a movie, then it relies on the emotional wallop for its initial success. The actor Tommy Lee Jones has referred to NBK as Art on a par with Guernica. From the point of view of substance, that's ridiculous. The former is satire, the latter expose. But from the POV of style, Jones hit the target square in the lens with his observation.
   Oliver Stone has no need for me to come to his defense. He might even resent the effort. But after the System--the Beast--launched its attack against him for his stories of Kennedy and Nixon and contemporary culture, he likely grew weary from the fight. Reading and watching interviews he granted from 1992 through 1996, you can observe how well-informed and attuned to specificity his thinking had become. This was a man who, in his youth, could have followed an easy path toward becoming an effete snob. Instead, he went to Vietnam. He could have continued scripting action adventure thrillers. He could have used his education and experiences to manufacture product that would deteriorate the gray matter of the movie-going audiences. Instead, he pounded his chest, let out a roar, and invited us to question all the lies that are our lives. Sometimes, as with The Doors, this teeters on the razor's edge between the boredom of overkill and the fascination of excess. Most of the time, however, his thumping, roaring and invitations make us obsessed with our own discomfort. 
   History is a series of overlapping stories about the uses to which great power is put. Myths are explanations for how this is possible. Cinema is the self-gazing set of eyes that merge history with mythology. How do we see ourselves up on that colossal screen? Are we some freak of nature superhero whose motivations are interesting yet murky? Or are we Barry in Talk Radio, trying to figure out why people need him and need to destroy him? Are we Jim Garrison in JFK, aware that "Something is happening but you don't know what it is"? Are we Pat Nixon, playing both wife and surrogate mother to the President of the United States? And is there not some sense of liberation in that identification with those characters? When these characters agonize from their fall from grace, our identification is called catharsis. I don't know how to get catharsis from Spider-Man (although not from lack of trying). But I feel it in the best movies by Oliver Stone. I feel it with repeated viewings. 
   Here's hoping you are the same.