by Niles Schwartz
A favorite target of Internet film-based countdown lists is the fledging filmmaker, a further reminder of how they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. They were once great, but like Sampson, they lost their strength along with their hair, and now it’s fun to just remind everyone, again and again, how they’ve fallen. A problem I find in any such list is how the allegations are kind of assumptions-by-committee, where opinion seems based on the currents of fashion more than any sincere attempt to engage with the film or filmmaker.
It’s a kind of cultural peer pressure. I’ve had the same experiences with so-called “fiascos,” the motion picture “bombs” that lost money and ruined careers. In such cases, the narratives seem ready-made more than truthful. For example, I maintain that the most notorious of flops, Michael Cimino’s somber anti-Western Heaven’s Gate (1980), is far more interesting and brilliantly realized than most films in the last 30 years that have been nominated for Best Picture. I also think that Elaine May’s much joked-about Ishtar (1987), the out-of-control money pit starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as spectacularly untalented singer-songwriters in the Mideast, is – if admittedly overlong – a very funny movie. But history has been “written,” and is constantly reinforced by the inflating windbag of gossip floating along the information superhighway.
Even if motion pictures are fundamentally collaborative processes, and thus do not have an “author,” I think people recognize that in a lot of cases that there are responsible personalities behind some films, and forces in media love to build them up, tear them down, and keep on reminding them of how good they used to be. Currently in the news, Christopher Nolan, Aaron Sorkin, and Louis C.K. all remind us that the “creative individual” can matter. That’s why we love them – and maybe hate them. It may be safer to be a journeyman chameleon, a craftsman or filmmaker devoid of social reference, than to be a “celebrity filmmaker.” A lot of people, fed up with Wes Anderson’s “Wes Anderson-ness,” are thus avoiding the new Wes Anderson picture Moonrise Kingdom (even if it is, arguably, his best film, and possibly the year’s best. Click HERE for my review of the film.). Contrastively, Warner Bros. didn’t advertise Magic Mike (reviewed HERE) as a “Steven Soderbergh film,” and many viewers – the same ones who hated the director’s Solaris and Haywire – were tricked into seeing a disguised art-film which, appropriately, stirred deep feelings of ambivalence in the eager thrill-seeking voyeurs. Magic Mike has made $100 million, and Soderbergh is retiring soon. The joke’s on the audience, and I personally find it very funny.
I could talk about any number of directors who are under the gun: Francis Ford Coppola (who’s made far more very good films than mediocre ones in the last 30 years), Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, William Friedkin, etc. Even if I have my problems with them, dismissal is ignorant, and often lazy. Instead of defending an entire list, I just want to focus on one. Few filmmakers have a louder social personality than Oliver Stone, whose prolific period of 1986 to 1995 included controversial and provocative films like Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon. Instead of being relegated to the A&E section of the news, the content of Stone’s films found its way on the Sunday editorial page, and his pictures, which were as self-indulgent as they were entertaining, forced us to collectively ask complex questions as citizens in a nation that may be irrevocably corrupt. Like Coppola, Spike Lee, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, and David Lynch circa Twin Peaks, Stone was a celebrity director, fit to be parodied by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live and have his pictures fodder for a classic episode of Seinfeld.
But filmmakers often pay a price for breaking that kind of larger-than-life threshold. There would be no going back for Stone after JFK’s counter-myths or national narratives, just as, over ten years earlier, Coppola hit the point of no return after spending millions of dollars to make Vietnam a dreamy spectacle in Apocalypse Now, remarking that his “film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy.” By pushing back against the press digging in this mine of outrageous proclamations, both Stone and Coppola only got more ensnared, aided by how their filmic output was increasingly derided. Coppola’s One From the Heart bankrupted him, forcing him to work for the studios, generating output nowhere near the greatness of his four masterpieces from the 1970s (The Godfather and its sequel; The Conversation; Apocalypse Now). For Stone, Nixon drew several raves but was an expensive box office disappointment, its failure exasperated by the sharply divided reaction of his still-inflammatory previous effort, Natural Born Killers. In another example, Lynch, on the cover of Time at the height of Twin Peaks’ popularity, was roasted on the second season’s dwindling ratings, bizarre storylines, and the Fire Walk With Me film prequel. In 1995, Entertainment Weekly compared the decade’s early enthusiasm for Lynch (“the Tarantino of his time”) to other embarrassing pop fads, like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.
That’s the unpredictable and hostile pendulum of taste. Two years ago, Aaron Sorkin was reaffirming himself as one of Hollywood’s great writers, as The Social Network swept year-end best-of lists. Now, with the mixed-reviews of The Newsroom, and more especially due to an angry blogosphere that seems to hate a smart-ass, society smells blood and…down goes Sorkin! Meanwhile, with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan remains King Midas, but a loud community of reassessment is chanting for blood and begging for him to fail; they seek to expose him as an incompetent and ponderous hack graced with good luck. Louis C.K., who writes, directs, and edits all of his Louie episodes (and has thus become television’s – and the present moment’s – heir to Woody Allen’s genius as a great comic filmmaker), is almost universally adored – for now. But the method by which television undergoes criticism now, with hundreds of bloggers and tweeters going to town minutes after the week’s episode before there’s been any chance for something to sink in, may eventually work against him (though I hope not; C.K. is in the running for my favorite American citizen right now). Ditto Lena Dunham (Girls).
“The dreamers exhaust us.” Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) says this in Stone’s great 2004 blunder, Alexander, something he spent 15 years preparing, along with $160 million of investors’ money. It made a tiny fraction of it back (domestically anyway), and holds a Rotten Tomato-meter rating under 20%. It’s damn near impossible to find someone to defend it. Even, yes, on the Internet.
Though I agreed that the initial version of the film was a plodding wreck, the 2008 revision, which I’ve watched countless times, has changed my mind. In fact, it’s probably my favorite of Stone’s films. Though with his words about “the dreamers,” the aging Ptolemy was talking about the long-dead Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), I’m certain Stone was referring to how he intuited this epic would be received, especially when Ptolemy adds, “His failure towered over other men’s successes.” The dreamers, be it Stone, Coppola, Aaron Sorkin, Christopher Nolan, or whomever else is fortunate enough to subject us to a spared-no-expense canvas, do exhaust us. And it’s easier to ridicule than revere. Instead of serious discussion, especially on the murky troll-powered bridges of the Internet, we have class-bullies masquerading as class-clowns, loving to taunt any unchecked idealism. Of course, this isn’t new. The comedian Penn Gillette mentions how, in college, he knew a woman who refused to see Apocalypse Now with him because she didn’t want to see one man’s ego trip on screen. As for me (and Gillette, according to his reminiscence), that’s exactly what I want to see, even with an artist as unwieldy as Stone, whose Nixon is just as much him as it is Richard M. Nixon, and whose Alexander is, with the detachment of history, perhaps more Oliver Stone than Alexander from Macedonia: two men enthralled by the East, torn between two parents at irreconcilable odds, and sculpting the world in their image, burning bridges along the way, in Alexander’s case, several invaluable generals; in Stone’s, the great cinematographer Robert Richardson.
Alexander is cited as key evidence for Stone’s decline as a filmmaker, and from a certain (shallow) vantage, his subsequent modest films about America (World Trade Center, W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) could suggest a broken, even castrated visionary. But separating myself from the gossip and hype, I see something far different, and indeed valuable. Alexander remains bombastic and wobbly in places with bloviating speeches (take a shot every time a character says, “By the light of Apollo” and you will be drunk in no time), but its audacity is utterly intoxicating, and even addictive to watch: whatever the short-comings, it’s never boring, and often fascinating. Unlike its more (relatively) critically and commercially successful peers from the last 12 years, like Gladiator, King Arthur, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, and 300, Stone’s Alexander is a director’s ego trip that is relentless, emotionally moving, and strange. The Hellenic world, and the exhausting and megalomaniacal protagonist played by Farrell (whose performance – or, really, whose hair was ridiculed upon release), it depicts do not conveniently fit into comfortable paradigms with which we can associate as moviegoers, when it comes to period epics or movie heroes. The footnotes of condescending historians, who nitpick about inaccuracies, simply justify our reasons for not feeling accommodated on the journey. Why do I get the feeling that the idiosyncrasies that set Alexander and its director apart from most other motion pictures were integral to its damnation?
As evidence, I offer up Stone’s newest release Savages. Based on a pulpy Don Winslow novel, Savages is a robust, unapologetically trashy yarn about a pair of small-time marijuana manufacturers (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson) who, after their girlfriend (Blake Lively) is kidnapped, find themselves at war with a Mexican cartel run by a mirror-mirror queen of murderous vanity (Salma Hayek), and enforced by Benicio Del Toro at his creepiest, if most enthralling. Though Savages doesn’t aspire to be a “great film,” whatever that is, and in typical Stone fashion is overwrought with its depictions of sex and violence, it’s certainly got more to offer than most other mature multiplex dramas and thrillers. At 130 minutes, Savages doesn’t feel at all too long, and like a good beach read, I would patiently follow its twisted and decadent characters for another half hour. As I heard an old man said to his wife leaving the theater, “It just knew how to tell a good story.”
Even if one has reservations about the-too-good-looking-to-be-true trio of leads (Lively, Kitsch, Johnson), or feels cheated by the rewind-play-again alternate ending (more on that later), how can Savages be more derided on the Rotten Tomato-meter than The Amazing Spider-Man, a just-fine franchise Happy Meal with good talent in front and behind the camera, but which nevertheless stinks of a bid to keep ahold of a comic book character’s copyright? Or Katy Perry’s Part of Me? Or the vapid fluff of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Reading the reviews, the keyword to check is “Oliver Stone,” whose presence in the credits is probably Savages’ greatest critical liability. Stone’s reputation took a turn for self-parody several years ago, and coupled with blunders like Alexander, and underwhelming receptions for W. and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, it’s not too much to presuppose the prism for assessing his work has been fixed by our own social conditioning.
Regarding Savages, the question is whether the movie is topical or trashy. Once upon a time, Stone was always topical, in the most provocative sense, and the violent pulp yarn of Savages, though it certainly has visceral touches as a genre picture, could easily feed into the received-narrative of an aging filmmaker who’s “lost his teeth.” World Trade Center, after all, had nothing political to say about September 11th, not the faintest hint of conspiracy or U.S. foreign policy being responsible. W., unlike Nixon, wasn’t a kaleidoscopic “movie of the times,” showcasing the Information Age possibilities of what led up to the Iraq War and its aftermath. And Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps didn’t go for the jugular in its dramatization of the 2008 collapse; instead, it had a motorcycle race set to techno music, and the warm sounds of David Byrne and Brian Eno elsewhere. Savages, Stone’s reputation would suggest, should have been a searing indictment of the drug war. But it stays focused on its action, of negotiations, hostages, torture, chases, and Peckinpah-influenced ambushes. Has he shied away from the pressing matter of the drug war, in favor of empty eye-sockets and cathartic revenge killings?
No. In fact, like the three films that preceded it, Stone’s Savages has the brutal irony of a smuggler. The opening video recorded images, where anonymous Mexicans are being lined up for beheading, portrays the underbelly of a war that is invisible to most of us, while the subsequent images, of Taylor Kitsch inflicting his “wargasms” on Blake Lively, is the first of many depictions of the gauche and near-pornographic allure of the drug world’s profits. But the element that has elicited the film’s loudest criticism, its ending, is what generates Stone’s satirical point, and is the filmmaker’s exuberant, if nihilistic, payoff.
After a suspenseful “movie” shoot-out ending, Stone’s film reverses itself (complete with the “rewind” sound), and plays back a far more sardonic conclusion. The Western shoot out is interrupted and the euphoria of Jeff Lynne explodes on the soundtrack as the DEA, led by a corrupt agent (John Travolta), takes charge, his subsequent speech reminding us how the government-mandated war on drugs is keeping us safe (and continuing an incessant cycle of hypocrisy that extends back to Native American genocide). Meanwhile, the nasty details are swept under the carpet. The assignations of good and evil are completely mucked up, and even creepy Del Toro leaves with a smile, parodying his Oscar winning role in Soderbergh’s Traffic, his killer/rapist embraced as part of a Gung-ho happy ending, watching baseball with his loving family. Stone’s point is callous, cruel, and given the context of the phony narratives provided to us regarding this absurd war on which most public officials refuse to take an honest stand, beautifully appropriate.
This is the motif of latter Oliver Stone, and why, in his autumn years, he remains interesting. His softer, recent films are about repression. Whereas in the late 1980s, America was beginning to acknowledge and mourn the Reagan-bandaged wounds of Vietnam and Watergate, the errors of post-September 11th, Iraq, and an unregulated late-capitalist economy repeatedly points to a sort of implacable decadence and short-term memory, as if the nation was the protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, unable to create new memories.
Elsewhere, World Trade Center is an inspiring story of Americans working together at a terrible moment, but its utter absence of geopolitical commentary calls attention to it: when we see Michael Shannon’s fiery-eyed military man going through the rubble and preparing to go overseas to fight, I think we are supposed to think of the almost demonic Barnes (Tom Berenger) from Platoon. He anticipates a coming storm of which the audience is all-too aware, a lust for vengeance that will trap a nation in a new kind of war. W.’s simple approach, as compared to Nixon, reflects the personality of its subject, and the danger of having such an unexamined Self in charge of a country with a large military, surrounded by Machiavellian schemers like Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), is detrimental just as it is so “American.” Most interesting for me is the Wall Street sequel, Money Never Sleeps, superior to the 1987 original (which was, honestly, never great to begin with), set in a world of rapid technological development (the first image is a robot doll), where individuals attend Alzheimer’s fundraisers (an intimation of lost memory) and get into those aforementioned motorcycle races – while the world crumbles around them. The “happy ending” of bursting bubbles dissolves to the same Talking Heads end-credits music from the first film: Stone is playing Cassandra, predicting that history will repeat itself. Gone is the idealist of Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, who thought there was a chance for change (“It’s up to you,” being Jim Garrison’s words to the camera near the JFK finale), and present is the jaded pessimist, who pretends that he’s frivolously playing with you, but may in fact be singing a far more twisted tune. Stone, the Vietnam vet, realizes how we never learned anything as bodies march off to Iraq and Afghanistan. The band plays on.
This is not a filmmaker who’s lost his touch. Far from it. He may be working under different constraints (it would be impossible for Stone to make a JFK or Nixon in today’s more conservative Hollywood), and thus he may be unable to channel the sublimity of those earlier films’ peaks. But his current work is hardly lazy: the reactions to it, however, are. The Savages prologue, which draws attention to the fact that we’re watching something recorded (and is meant to convey a message without words: do business with us or you’ll lose your head), directs us how Stone wants us to be more careful viewers, in the theater and outside, where we’re surrounded by multiplicities of narratives for our history on any number of imposing and screeching screens and mobile devices.
The Internet has great possibilities for progress and providing a richer understanding to things: history, books, films, individuals, politics, and so on – which can all coalesce together. But the derisive echo chamber that reinforces already established – and sorely unexamined – narratives, in which committee group-think (“We think this movie really sucks” – while all I can think is, “who the hell is ‘we‘?”) surpasses an individual’s personal encounter and immersion with something. I understand that, to many, asserting that Alexander is a great movie is about as audacious as insisting that Kennedy was killed by the CIA, but my “counter-narrative” or “counter-assessment” just as similarly can’t help but be more interesting than a flagrant, shrugging dismissal. That casual dismissal, to me, is the greatest sin in film viewing – for either the individual pictures or their makers.