Oliver Stone and the persistence of false memories, part 6.

18 Oct

6. The bad time.

Natural Born Killers is tawdry trash, a disgusting trip through a nasty, immoral world. (I loved it the first time I saw it, and hated it the second, felt physical ill during the third.) The whole thing is punctuated with little bits of commercials, flashbacks as sitcoms, and pure nastiness. With Salvador, the violence is pungent but political, put into the movie to highlight the abuses of totalitarian rule. The violence is committed by those in power against those who have none. Put another way, Salvador uses violence to make an argument against an existing political system.

Here the ultra-violence is designed to satirize the audience’s tastes and expectations. It’s in the film to excite us, but also vitiate our excitement. I despise this type of misused irony; this ironic use of violence always cuts both ways. Stone’s making the fucking movie for Christ’s sake, and if anyone is aesthetically or morally harmed by demonstrations of violence, then good god the creator of said violence must bear some of the blame. I get so tired of the holier than thou directors who claim to use violence to show how sick the audience is. (Funny Games is another example of this.) It’s wrong-headed, pretentious, and a flat-out lie. The violence in this movie is there to sell tickets, and all the sardonic nods to the knowing does nothing to curb our baser instincts. It riles them up.

Tarantino wrote an early version of the script—he was wise not to shoot it himself—and the only interesting thing about the movie is the relationship to his other movies. (His early films all take place in the same universe; Killers has characters related to characters from Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.) If memory serves correct, and now I can’t for sure say that it does, Killers puts Tommy Lee Jones’s head on a spike and has Robert Downey, Jr., hanged by a mob of angry inmates.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in what is, in essence, a long music video. With lots of corpses.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis work hard, but the camera moves around so much the performances are lost in the shuffle. And Rodney Dangerfield, of all people, gives a heinous performance as Lewis’s sexually abusive father. (It’s lurid, low-grade stuff, but Dangerfield is convincing in the role.)

This type of hyped up, ultra-violent trash masquerading as a movie of ideas is, to me, a sure sign that a director has lost his/her way.

U-turn is plain bad, the type of lurid, re-visit to the great American crime movies of the early 1950s that always misfires. But it’s predictably bad; most filmmakers attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the post-war noir films, and most directors fail. It’s a very difficult tone to capture—redolent of low budgets and bare bones nihilism—and Stone isn’t alone in his failure. Still, the wild cast is wasted—Nick Nolte, Powers Booth, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lopez, Claire Danes, Sean Penn, and Billy Bob Thornton and the look of the film is cheap. I remember Phoenix in particular giving a good performance, although at this point in Stone’s oeuvre I can’t trust anything. (I would have re-watched, but his movie, in particular, left such a bad taste in my mouth the first time I couldn’t bear another minute.)

Sean Penn and Powers Booth in a silly noir-lite knockoff.

Heaven and Earth is in love with its own political conscience. It fails to deliver. (Three Seasons is a better movie about the Vietnamese experience.)

By this point, I’m losing interest in Oliver Stone. He’s strayed so far from his talents, it’s hard to remember why he became famous in the first place.

Nixon is, against all expectations, actually a pretty good movie, attempting to come to some understanding of one of our most flawed—and most successful—presidents. It’s a return to form, of sorts. Anthony Hopkins dials back his normal, jittery performance. The cast is strong. And Stone, either hoping to balance his own left-leaning inclinations or because he is on the fence about Nixon as a president, is warm, almost caring in this profile. (The people around Nixon are shown as conniving, scheming animals.) Unlike Killers and U-Turn, it isn’t a total failure. And unlike the later W., he digs into Nixon’s psyche, and tries to come to some understanding of the man.

Nixon offered hope for Stone’s future. And then things got so much worse.


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