Archive for Natural Born Killers


Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by dcairns


The only downside of coming to America for ten days is that I’ve had to leave behind Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s book The Untold History of the United States. Not because they’d impound me on crossing the border, though that seems conceivable, but because it’s a mammoth doorstop of a thing, if mammoths can be said to have doorstops (paleontologists are divided on the subject).

I’m highly skeptical of Stone as a filmmaker. His screenwriting produced three films accused of racism — MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (Turks); YEAR OF THE DRAGON (Chinese-Americans); SCARFACE (Cubans); it’s possible CONAN THE BARBARIAN was picketed by a few outraged Cimmerians. Of course screenwriters can’t be accused of responsibility for anything in their movies because they have no authority about what goes in ‘em. Robin Wood accused Paul Schrader of fascism based on his extensive writing output but I don’t think anything he’s directed really supports that, though Wood made a case for AMERICAN GIGOLO’s homophobic tendencies.)

Shadowplayer David WIngrove is an admirer of SEIZURE, but I’ve only seen the preposterous THE HAND from this period (come to think of it, the Michael Caine character who is so outraged that his barbarian cartoons are being rewritten after his hand is implausibly knocked off by a truck [true!] must be channeling Stone’s rage at getting rewritten by John Milius on CONAN — though he managed to get his response into cinemas a year ahead of Milius’s stimulus).

Then I thought SALVADOR was terrific and highly relevant, but was underwhelmed by PLATOON and since then have only sort-of liked anything from Stone. NATURAL BORN KILLERS has a compelling audio-visual style but is one of the more morally repellent films I’ve seen: though John Grisham’s attempted lawsuit against it was moronic, Stone’s film seems to invite such a reaction.

But I got stuck into Stone’s new book on the recommendation of (clunk of name-drop) Richard Lester, who had seen the TV series and pronounced it “brilliant” a word he does not use lightly (well, he never applied it to me). “I don’t know how he hasn’t been arrested for it.” The good news for non-Stone fans is that probably co-author Kuznick can be credited with the blinding insights, with Stone in charge of presenting them clearly in a way that works for an audience who may know only a little, or else quite a lot of misinformation, about the subject.

I’ve still to check out the TV show — only way seems to be to buy it so I’m waiting for payday — but I’m now fascinated to see what Stone does with it visually. The basic gist of the thing, chapter by chapter, is to present a contrary view to how large chunks of modern US history are understood. This is less the case in (skipping ahead) chapters about the last two presidents, but it’s certainly the case where the authors revisit world war two and the start of the cold war, a part of the book which presents Henry A. Wallace, a largely forgotten vice president, as the hero who could have changed the course of history for the better if democracy had been allowed to triumph over vested interests.

The book is at times heart-breaking, because we’re told that Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and then the cold war, were not in fact necessary. To give you just a small sense of the book, I want to talk about the bomb — because this chapter has haunted me since I read it.

I’d always swallowed the terms of the argument, if not the argument itself, you see. There’s something very compelling about the moral conundrum we’re told faced Truman: invade Japan and face severe casualties from US troops, or drop the bomb and cause many civilian casualties. The obscenity of war means a commander-in-chief is forced to weigh up the lives of friendly combatants versus enemy civilians, and how are you supposed to calculate that.

But this whole argument is academic and irrelevant here because that’s not what happened. George W.H. Bush once credited the atomic bombings with saving “millions of lives.” But the figure Truman claimed was “just” a quarter of a million. And he was lying too — he was provided with all sorts of contradictory figures (how can you be sure anyway?) but the highest was nowhere near that and the lowest was just three thousand.

But playing that game is still assuming that the choice came down to nuking or invasion. In fact, Japan was ready to surrender: they had been putting out feelers to the USSR, in hopes that Stalin could broker a more favourable peace. They were terrified that the “unconditional surrender” Roosevelt had spoken of meant they could lose their emperor. A lot of advisers were telling Truman that a clarification of the terms of surrender could have provoked an immediate favorable response.

Hiroshima did not prompt a surrender because the situation with Emperor Hirohito remained unclear. The Japanese already knew we could bombs cities out of existence since we’d done that to Tokyo, What probably prompted them to down arms was the USSR launching an invasion against them — this caught them between two super-powers, and meant they could abandon all hope of help from that direction. But before they could even respond to this attack, Nagasaki was bombed.

The argument is made, and it convinces, that America wanted to avoid the USSR making territorial gains in the East, and earning economic aid that had been promised for its participation in the war on Japan. Furthermore, General Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan project, was quite clear in his own mind that the goal of the bomb drops was not to affect Japan, but to affect the Soviet Union. The impact of using the atomic bomb would obviously far greater than the impact of merely possessing it — Japan was the USA’s last opportunity to show itself willing to annihilate a whole city with a single weapon.

If you have any more doubts about this, a direct quote from Truman may help allay them: he said that his announcement of the dropping of the bomb was the “happiest” he ever made.

Highly recommended stuff. I’ll be checking out the series.

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.

Waltz, Darling

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2008 by dcairns

My second favourite scene from Julien Duvivier’s THE GREAT WALTZ. My favourite scene — more on that later — alas isn’t on YouTube and I can’t load it myself since my aging VHS tape would crumble if I attempted to attach it to the black plastic YouTube emerging from the back of my computer and suck it up onto the interweb. The movie would tear at the scenes, with characters peeling from backgrounds, leaving only gesticulating white outlines, and wind up in the wrong sequences, conversing at cross-purposes with younger versions of themselves. The mighty Blue Danube, celebrated by Strauss in music and Duvivier in image, would burst it’s very banks and come crashing into the biergartens and concert halls, lapping and crashing against closeups, and sweeping over insert shots of batons and sheet music. Features from Luise Reiner’s face – lips, and eyelids – would detach and ooze across the jowls of Hugh Herbert, then melt through the Vienna woods, outsized and terrifying, like rampaging oysters from some Japanese kaiju movie.

So I won’t be doing THAT.

In the sequence I’m thinking of, the grand, splashy production values of the above scene, and the dynamic, monumental compositions, are both in evidence, but subservient to a dynamism that would give Max Ophuls motion sickness. Young Strauss waltzes round the biergarten with an operatic lovely trilling her coloratura full in his face (if she did that to me I would DROP HER and walk away) while the camera chases them at breakneck speed and from a high angle. Then into a midshot, in which the spinning couple gyre and gimble round as if rotating on a see-saw, while rear-projected scenery spins and tilts wantonly behind them, out of synch with their movements and producing a nauseating sense of glee.

(Duvivier uses rear projection AS rear projection, hallucinatory artifice that exposes the mechanism of cinema and creates an oneric phantom-world for his characters to march, dance or stumble through. The nearest comparison might be Oliver Stone’s process shots in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but I hesitate to mention that because Duvivier is by no means a mind-numbed buffoon. You can see Duvivier doing this at the end of PEPE LE MOKO — and when Hollywood made their shot-for-shot remake, ALGIERS, they had Charles Boyer staggering in front of exactly the same background footage as Jean Gabin in the original.)

THE GREAT WALTZ doesn’t avoid altogether the potential cheese-traps of the biopic (you know, lines like “Brahms, meet Liszt!”), in fact it dives headfirst into them and remains that way, legs kicking in air, body submerged in kugelkäse. And Duvivier didn’t make the whole film — MGM brought in Victor Fleming and Josef Von Sternberg to shoot bits. Sternberg, the great individualist, perverse as ever, prided himself on making his contribution as anonymous as possible, and nobody seems to know who was responsible for what.

Some scenes seem like propoganda protesting against the Anschluss, although the annexation of Austrai and the release of the film seem awfully close together. But I guess the writing was on the wall.

So it’s not a masterpiece, it’s schmaltzy hokum. But Duvivier does subvert the studio’s idea of class somewhat, making every element tinged with camp, and compensating for limp and hackneyed dramatic values with overblown, exuberant visual and aural ones. The spirit of Ken Russell yet to come.


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