Archive for Alexander

The False Good Idea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2009 by dcairns


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.


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.

Spartan furnishings

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2008 by dcairns

The digital epic look of “300”, interestingly enough, was nearly prefigured by Oliver Stone’s sprawling arse-marathon ALEXANDER.

That lacklustre blockbuster had a long and involved gestation, as Stone tried and failed to set the colossal project up at different studios.

The film was going to cost 400 million, and that was deemed TOO MUCH by one interested-but-not-THAT-interested studio. So it became a question of shaving off 100 mill, and that was attempted by looking at different countries to shoot in. Hungary? Morocco? Thailand? But there IS no country where you can shave off 100 mill just by going there.

The assistant director boarded a plane to fly to a meeting with Stone. His reading material was the new draft of the script. The first thing he noticed was that it was now fifty pages longer…

He arrives at the meeting. Stone bursts in, possibly flying high on a variety of herbs and spices. “David Lean is dead! I don’t want to make this film out of some third-world hotel — we’ll shoot it in L.A. and C.G. everything in.”

The AD gently tried to explain: “What you’re doing there is, you’re adding ANOTHER $100 million to the special effects budget.”

ALEXANDER finally happened, at another studio, minus the CGI and with a different AD. And so did “300”, a movie conceived from scratch as a CGI reinvention of the epic. Jettisoning any idea of reality and scale, it concentrated on flash and sizzle and pop-promo panache. It also ignored historical reality and conjured an aesthetic that, however hamfisted, works. As my costume designer says, whatever you think of the hotpants look modelled by King Leonidas and his Spartan leather boys, it’s an effective aesthetic that suits the film. The historically correct nappies modelled in ALEXANDER do nothing for the characters’ dignity, and the real sets and locations and elephants give the film that cumbersome quality we associate with so many bad historical epics from Hollywood’s past.

shiny nappy people

A sad thing about “300” — it has its origins in comic-book writer childhood Frank Miller’s viewing of the old Rudolph Maté movie 300 SPARTANS, a smarter-than-average ancient world romp. As the movie rumbled to its inevitable Carthaginian solution, little Frank started to fear the worst. “Are they all going to die?” he asked his dad. It was a revelation to him that a movie, and indeed history, could end that way.

300 SPARTANS ends with the glorious defeat. The 2006 “300” ends with the beginning of another battle, one that we are told will be victorious. It’s the same Hollywood Ending as BRAVEHEART and PEARL HARBOR — follow a historical defeat with a grafted-on victory to create a spurious hapy ending that’s literally strayed in from a different movie or a different page of the history books.


The result of this bowdlerisation is that little boys seeing “300” (and despite certification we know they’ll see it in their millions) will be denied the transfiguring experience little Frank shared with his pop all those years ago, when he realised the cathartic force of tragedy (Hollywood style).