Oliver Stone and the persistence of false memories, part 2.

16 Oct

2. The soldier cum journalist cum scriptwriter cum director.

Stone was a soldier first, then a journalist, then a scriptwriter. He wrote the screenplays for Scarface—which has some good lines although it’s hard to tell if it isn’t just Pacino’s great performance—and Conan the Barbarian, a slightly campy movie that I absolutely love. Both movies have large cult followings; both movies have hordes of critics. Right from the start Stone was a divisive figure. After knocking about for a while, he got behind the camera and began making movies under his own banner.

In places, Salvador is an excellent movie. It’s an un-Hollywood look at insurrection and U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Woods plays the role with a light, comedic touch in what is a very grim movie. The crowd scenes are fantastic, and the last thirty minutes are harrowing and unforgettable.

But Oliver Stone’s weaknesses, in retrospect, are noticeable from the start. It must be said, Stone is bad with actors. (Only Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen have delivered good performances in his movies.) He isn’t a great storyteller; the pacing of many of his films seems off. Unimportant scenes drag on too long, and crucial scenes are cut off too quick. His films are often shaggy, overreaching with too many characters. Salvador, for example, doesn’t really have a plot, just some political exposition and then a bunch of people being slaughtered, with Woods running around with grime on his smirking face. Half a dozen characters sort of appear and then are gone. It works when the movie is about war or political chaos, but doesn’t work when the film is about, well, anything else.

Mounds of dead bodies awakens one American’s damaged conscience.

Salvador was criticized for being leftist propaganda by the right, and attacked for being reactionary blather by the left. (The crucial scene has the revolutionaries shooting captured soldiers, with James Woods screaming at them, “You’re going to become just like them!”)

Stone leans left, but has a pulp sensibility amplified by his tough guy machismo. He’s Mickey Spillane spliced with Upton Sinclair. The result is an odd mixture; he’s a thuggish presence in his movies, almost a bully. (His later movies are precisely designed to bully the audience.) This has caused some very strange scenes in his films. The combination makes him an interesting man but a problematic artist.

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