The False Good Idea

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It’s one of my favourite concepts in film-making, the False Good Idea, and I’m indebted to producer David Brown for introducing me to it. Of course, some would say that a False Good Idea is just the same as a True Bad Idea, which is hardly a new concept, but the beauty of the phrase for me is how it encapsulates the glitter and appeal of the FGI, the thing which is presented as good, accepted as good, and leads us all to hell.

The FGI in Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER is the principle of historical accuracy in costumes (big nappies all round) with bright, crisp, clear sunlight, exposing the full ludicrousness of the proceedings.

The guy who edited the excellent trailer for Stone’s W. identified the FGI in that one as, “Who wants to see a fair and balanced portrait of George W Bush by Oliver Stone?” The neo-con audience would avoid the film because it’s Stone, who is the anti-Christ. Stone’s admirers would avoid the film if they thought it was a whitewash. What was needed was a Michael Moore approach, playing to Stone’s percieved strengths as a maker of chaotic, pop-art satires like NATURAL BORN KILLERS (a film I despise, personally) . With NIXON, the idea of humanizing the Devil was a more interesting way to go, and the greater historical distance obviated any need for messianic urgency, but W. could and should have been a genuinely political film from a passionately held viewpoint.

Accompanying the film’s weakness on politics is an aesthetic weakness — too many scenes of Sedentary Characters in Plush Rooms, without any interesting cinematic angle on what to DO with S.C.s in P.R.s (if Stone can’t create chaos by mixing film stocks and flying around moving characters, he’s rather emasculated as a director) — and a problem of character. Stone has said that he admires Bush for conquering his addictions and the aimless lifestyle of his youth. Of course, an ability to overcome ones demons is admirable, although I do wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off had Bish not drunk himself to death (actually, I don’t wonder: I’m pretty sure we would be). And Stone can relate to Bush’s battle, which is fair enough. But I actually think being harsher on Bush would have been a better course for Stone, since if the film is to some small extent a veiled depiction of his own journey through hedonism to achievement, it doesn’t do to be too indulgent. My favourite character in NATURAL BORN KILLERS was Robert Downey Jnr’s documentarist, mainly because he seemed like a Stone surrogate in part, supplying a degree of distance in a film otherwise jammed much too far up itself.

I watched W. during our teen-watching week. It’s a largely dull film, and a dull script — as in THE DOORS, Stone seems incapable of shame even when serving up the eggiest lines of exposition of the “This is the sixties,” variety. Jumping around in Bush’s life serves no good purpose — it’s not even chaotic enough to serve Stone’s craving for “energy”, especially with explanatory titles supered up to locate each scene in space-time. But there are a couple of pleasures.

The starry cast serves to illustrate the adage that “Politics is showbusiness for ugly people,” — every actor in the film is better-looking than the personage they’re playing. Yet Thandie Newton, transfigured by makeup, does an astounding, terrifying job of embodying the walking madness known as Condoleeza Rice. The other highlight is Toby Jones, whose Karl Rove is likewise a creature of hallucination — in these scenes, Stone sometimes gets close to a kind of Strangelovian nightmare comedy (directly referenced in the war room set — see also WATCHMEN), partly because it’s impossible to evoke those personalities convincingly without tipping the film over into the realms of CALIGARI. And one scene, in which Bush tells his pastor of his intention of running for president, actually achieves a rather magnificent wit — although I couldn’t be sure if this was accidental, given the leaden writing and direction elsewhere.

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Josh Brolin’s GWB is backlit in heavenly fashion during the scene, which isn’t the witty part, although it made me smile very slightly. But Toby Jones, arranging himself in the background like a truncated python that’s swallowed a goat, is. As Bush talks of the God that’s inspired him, Jones’s preening postures and smug expression make us feel that he IS that God. Which puts the candidate’s faith in a whole new light. What’s even funnier is that nobody else in the scene appears to be able to see him.

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32 Responses to “The False Good Idea”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    I think W. is Stone’s best film since…before Alexander.

    I thought the film struck the right balance. Not being overtly hateful of Bush to the point that the film is unwatchable and not making excuses to make the audience like him. He’s shown as he is, a moron and a failure as a person whose neurosis is driven by his Oedipal issues with his dad. And then getting out of that by replacing that dad with a bigger dad…God. Or Karl Rove.

    Bush is a real non-person, in that he’s someone whose entire life exists in bad faith, of someone who’s not capable of any sense of tragedy, just like Hitler. No serious film can be possible about Hitler, the person(the best of the lot, MOLOCH by Sokurov would make a killer double-feature with this film) and so with Bush you have a shell as a president.

    Still, the best film about being a US President is SECRET HONOR, which sees it as a prime cause for mental disorder.

  2. One of my favourite films is Hal Ashby’s Being There.

    I haven’t seen Stone’s Natural Born Killers since I saw it at the cinema when it came out, but I have a memory of enjoying it.

  3. The problem is nothing Stone can come up with is as bizarre as the real thing.

    Where does he get his information? Bush is still an alcoholic. Innumerable incidents durig his 8 years in office made that clear, despite the bought-and-paid-for-corporate shills known as the “Mainstream” Media” trying (and failing) to cover them up.

    Stone has no insight into politics or history. Thank goodness he passed on directing The Mayor of Castro Street (I played a hand in that I’m glad to say) and as is obvious from Milk a film about those same persons and events was made sporting an actual engagement with character and history.

    I really don’t know what’s to be done with American presidents. In dramatic terms they’re rather dull figures. We learn more from history by focussing in on those associated with them. But Stone has neither the knowledge nor the cojones to make Rove.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    NATURAL BORN KILLERS is a confused film. I haven’t seen it in years. It’s like an American WEEKEND with a lot of the same nastiness but without the poetry.

    I think as a film, Stone’s most satisfying is WALL STREET, it has absolutely no sense of realism vis-a-vis the milieu but it’s a good film about his rather juvenile Oedipal obsessions.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Yeah, Stone’s problem is that he is not a very intelligent man, an intellectual man maybe(as seen in his documentary COMANDANTE) but not very bright in terms of dealing with politics in a mainstream commercial film.

    I personally would love to see a film about FDR, even if as a president he qualifies as a dull dramatic figure.

  6. Well there was Sunrise at Campobello, which co-starred Patrick Close as one of the Roosevelt kids. He’d played the part on the stage. Patrick is most (in)famous for his work with Warhol, principally Imitation of Chirst, in which he starred with Nico.

  7. Amusingly, Richard Dreyfuss has now played Karl Rove (as “Chuck Raven”) for John Sayles in Silver City, and Dick Cheney for Stone in W.

    Rove is the interesting one, I agree, although more because he’s actively malevolent and sinister, compared to the empty suit that is W. Whether that would make a better movie is uncertain, but it could. I do rather think that any of the figures in the Bush administration could make a better film than W.

    I don’t think the film would have been unwatchable if they’d really gone for it, and made it as savage as possible. The scenes of Brolin meeting his wife etc are very tedious, almost as bad as Costner’s marital scenes in JFK, proof that Stone is no good at deciding what to take out and what to leave in. GWB’s inadequacies as a man are pretty uninteresting compared to what he allowed to happen “on his watch”, so the only possible solution to me would be to use the dull human stuff as mind-numbing chapter breaks between each bout of presidential mismanagement. But Stone and his wobbly camera give equal weight to everything.

    Gore Vidal’s Lincoln could conceivably make a good prez-film. I like Secret Honor quite a bit. Nixon is the most cinematic president (almost ashamed to say I haven’t seen the Stone film) although it’s disconcerting to see him in Watchmen apparently played by (a) a Thunderbirds puppet or (b) Patrick Swayze in his rubber mask from Point Break.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    SECRET HONOR worked because it dealt only partially with the actual biological Richard Milhous Nixon and mostly with Nixon the media-created image of the President, foul-mouthed and full of self-loathing and bile only it puts it on a stage where he’s allowed to tell the public what IT thinks of it and the complete hatred for the American people that elected him and then re-elected him even when Watergate broke the press is stunning stuff.

    Any film about Lincoln would of course have to deal with the legacy of Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, a mythical poetic film about how the Prez was once a “jack-legged Lawyer from Kentucky” and in the final shot when he walks out of the room, Fonda’s face is full of fear when he realizes that he can’t go back to being the voice of the common folk. His victory is a kind of defeat but his victory will make him immortal and alone.

    Spielberg by the way is planning to do Lincoln with Liam Neeson in the role. Samuel Fuller in his later years planned a revisionist film about Lincoln that would deal with his flaws, but unsurprisingly found little funding. Wonder what Spielberg’s LINCOLN would be like?

    I wonder if a film about Colin Powell would be interesting, of the guy who didn’t want to go to war but followed orders anyway. Or maybe he’ll wait for Errol Morris and unfold his lost marbles to a camera, Robert McNamara style.

  9. A TV movie was made of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln with Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln. Missed ti but it was reportedly not bad.

  10. I love Dan Heydya’s Nixon in Anrew Fleming’s Matchelss Watergate spoof Dick.

    Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst play two marvelously silly teenage girls who break into the Watergate hotel in an attempt to meet their idol Bobby Sherman. They run into the “Plumbers.” Later they meet Nixon at the White House where (because their recognized from the break-in caper) they’re invited to become the President’s dog-walkers. Eventually Woodward and Bernstein are made aware of them and in another prank they become Deep Throat.

    Great film.

  11. Colin Powell has already been done by the late great Paul Winfield in Mars Attacks! It’s a short scene but it tells you everything you need to know about Colin Powell.

    Akk! Akk!!!!

  12. Yeah, they really nailed Powell. His story is so simple and so horrible I don’t think I could bear a two-hour extended version of the same tragic joke.

    I love “unfold his lost marbles to a camera,” Arthur. Maybe a mixed metaphor, but no less beautiful.

    I saw Fuller “pitch” his Lincoln-era epic The Lusty Days at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It’s really an adventure yarn with Lincoln as a cameo. The revisionist view of the character is more or less confined to “He was a regular guy who liked a laugh,” but the tale of amoral grifters trying to get the vote in at the onset of Civil War could’ve been terrific.

  13. W. is indeed lacking in nearly every–I actually wish they decided to make the film about Laura Bush… who the hell is she? and how on earth did she stumble into that circus?

    that one scene in the car where Dub asks her about his speech and she replies: “It wudn’t good” was the highlight of the film for me… they don’t give Banks much else to do (or provide any way for her–or the audience–to understand her trajectory), but I liked her a lot

  14. Arthur S. Says:

    That was my reaction to seeing THE FOG OF WAR and the way Robert McNamara seemed insane in that documentary talking about all the horrible things he did. And all the talk about logic, about rationality applied to those barbaric acts. Errol Morris’ squeaky voice which occassionally interrupts the narrative off-screen makes it creepier. Like he’s a figment of McNamara’s weird imagination.

    Fuller loved giving different yarns to different people and what he was doing was just a pitch. Any case dealing with the flip side of a presidential campaign of the most iconic US president is still quite brazen.

  15. Errol Morris is indeed a figment of McNamarra’s imagination. I interviewed him back when he was hawking The Thin Blue Line — a film which didn’t impress me in the slightest. And as I trust you’ll recall I was rather alone in this. Morris had already won no small degree of semi-cinematic fame for being the most annoying audience member at the Pacific Film Archives. His contretemps with Werner Herzog, as I trust y’all will recall, led to Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Say what you will about Werner, he’s operating out of serious aesthetic principles. Morris is a huckster of the old school. He told me a big complicated story about the making of The Thin Blue Line that he had undoubtedly told to countless others. Nothing of any import but delivered with considerable flourish. And when instead of the gasp that he was expecting I just sat there, nodded and continued questioning him his formerly genial mood darkened.

    Much fun.

  16. Arthur S. Says:

    Well, up-and-coming film-makers tend to be overly flamboyant and cocky in their publicity. I think THE FOG OF WAR is a terrific film, very depressive but a responsible work of artistic journalism. And SOP about Abu Ghraib was also challenging stuff. He may not be a likable guy in person, but he’s certainly engaged with the changing reality.

  17. I’ll take Chris Marker and Jean Rouch.

  18. Arthur S. Says:

    Oh he’s got nothing on Marker, or with the two Jean Rouch films I have seen(LES MAITRES FOUS and CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER). But Morris is talented in his own territory, if you accept that territory I guess.

  19. Morris STILL gets very irate if anybody asks a follow-up question to one of his standard answers. He has all these lengthy prepared quotes that he carries around and he hates it if anybody tries to get him off the script. For an interviewer he’s a remarkably irascible interviewee. When he was here promoting SOP (I wanted to write SOB) he got into a sudden tirade about “OF COURSE these people are going to obey orders, that’s what we’ve trained them for!” Then a guy in the audience who was US navy put up his hand and said that in fact there were lots of orders he wouldn’t obey, and he knew of lots of guys in the armed forces who often disobeyed. No response to that.

    I find his stuff sometimes interesting, but it seems to me he got into trouble with McNamarra, who doesn’t have any incentive to tell him the truth — quite the reverse — and that film really really needed other voices to give the truth the slightest chance of emerging — and similarly with Abu Ghraib and a bunch of people who have their own reasons to distort what happened. The idea of Fog as McNamarra arguing with the voices in his head is an interesting one, but is it a problem that you would need to go into that film already knowing a lot, otherwise you could emerge completely on the guy’s side?

  20. I have to agree there was a lot more room to lay into Bush before W. became unwatchable, but the problem for me wasn’t so much the balanced portrait of a man with demons, but the idea that any of this was remotely important. Unlike Nixon, Bush suffered no downfall, so the only drama of his presidency is surely in its consequences for the rest of the world, and these consequences never made it into the film. It was weak tea.
    And I don’t agree it’s impossible to make a film about Hitler. I saw “Max” for the first time recently and am quite happy to believe that that is EXACTLY how the crazy little shit got into politics. If it isn’t, it still has an fearless plausibility, despite – no, maybe, actually helped by – the pedestrian comedy of lines like “You’re a hard man to like, Hitler”. Any film about Nazis and art is a film about Hitler.

  21. I think you nailed it. Nothing about Bush is that interesting compared to what happened because of him, and the inadequacies that caused him to allow it/make it happen aren’t that interesting in themselves, or at least not in this film. Peter brings up Being There, and that’s a good example of a film with an apparent nonentity as protagonist. But it’s apparent that Stone WANTS us to find his Bush interesting. Which he isn’t.

    It might well be impossible to make an ADEQUATE film about Hitler, in the sense that the enormity of his impact is so great no film can do it justice. But it’s certainly possibly to make a good, rewarding film about him. Must see Max sometime.

  22. Arthur S. Says:

    Do see MOLOCH as well.

  23. Oh yeah, I owe myself a Sokhurov binge. Weirdly, his film Telets is called that in the west because Ben Halligan and I were unable to suggest anything better. The distribs said they wanted something that suggested “the sacrificial calf” and suggested “Taurus”, and all we could say was “Well, that doesn’t do it!”

  24. Arthur S. Says:

    TELETS is about Lenin. The first in his trilogy about 20th Century leaders. The best is the last one, THE SUN about the Emperor.

  25. Yeah, I hear The Sun is great, and “actually really funny” according to my friend who saw it.

  26. Has anyone seen “Man from Plains”, Jonathan Demme’s documentary on Jimmy Carter?

  27. No, but I’d love to. Must see if I can find a copy. Theory: has Demme, like Herzog, preserved his doc-making abilities as his dramas have slid? Haven’t seen Rachel Getting Married, but will. Haven’t seen Rescue Dawn either, so this whole idea may be out of date.

  28. I just think they should have gone completely the other way and turned Bush Jr’s life into one giant, bizarre musical

    I desperately wanted to see Rice doing a Cher-style rock number on the deck of the oil tanker bearing her name! Maybe a gravelly voiced Rove in silhouette doing a grumpy talk/growl Paint Your Wagon style solo number! Bush and Blair would of course do a hymnal together and we could have a war atrocity montage as Wall Street booms to the sound of ABBAs Dance While The Music Still Goes On! Cynical I know, but that would probably get closer to the bizarre heart of the Bush presidency!

    I’m afraid I haven’t seen Stone’s Nixon yet. How does compare with W. as a portrait of a beleagured President?

  29. Haven’t seen Nixon either. David Wingrove is a great fan, but h’s somewhat more sympathetic to Stone than I am. Hopkins certainly did a good job of overcoming a basic physical unsuitability.

    Anyone want to offer some lyrics? What rhymes with “Mission accomplished”?

  30. Just thought you’d enjoy knowing that DVD Savant has a mention of both this post and the one on Fiend Without A Face on his opening page, as well as a link to take you here. You go David!

  31. Yes, Glenn Erickson’s been very nice. I have a post about him coming up (as soon as I get organised and write it). I get a massive boost to my “viewing figures” every time he links, so I want to pay tribute to the man.

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