Archive for The Untold History of the United States

Stone Groove

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2016 by dcairns

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“Have you seen Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States? It is BRILLIANT!” So said Richard Lester, evincing intense enthusiasm. Stone’s series could almost have been made for Lester, a news junkie with a fondness for uncovering the hidden story around the back of what we think we know.

Stone was in Edinburgh, taking part in a couple of onstage discussions for Edinburgh University with my colleague Jonny Murray, and I attended the first. I must say, he was very generous with his time.

A mass of contradictions: Stone could at times recite complex statistics (whether accurately, I don’t know) and at other times was unable to recall the names of important collaborators (but he’s had a lot of those in his long career). There was a lunch break partway through and Stone was visibly sharper thereafter. One friend made a knowing expression when I mentioned this. A student remarked that he may have been jet lagged and suffering from the pressure change because he kept squeezing his nose. I said there might be another reason for that,

Stone was charming and affable — still, it was notable that usually when asked about collaborators, he gleefully trashed them. He remarked that Anthony Hopkins had the great quality of seeming to think onscreen, the thoughts flickering dimly but perceptinly behind his eyes. “Having worked with him, I’m not so sure what he actually does think.” This was followed by a story about Hopkins’ nerves on NIXON which didn’t make Hopkins sound remotely stupid but made him sound like an anxious actor who had taken on a very familiar character and was struggling to do the voice. Obviously it added considerably to the strain for Stone when Hopkins showed signs of wanting to flee the set…

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A lengthy clip from NIXON was shown in which one could appreciate the precision of much of Hopkins’ impersonation, and the way the screenplay captures the late, disgraced president’s weird, garbled syntax. Over the three hour running time, I’m sure one would come to disregard the lack of physical resemblance and the wandering accent. It’s a mesmerising perf (note to self: watch NIXON). But nobody’s going to top Philip Baker Hall in SECRET HONOR, are they?

There was a fair bit about PLATOON but I always preferred SALVADOR, and it was good to hear plenty about that, too. The scene selected showed an improbable discussion of Robert Capa taking place while a mass corpse dump site is photographed — I recognized Stone’s tendency to overreach and to get very on-the-nose with his dialogue. If you want to make John Savage’s reporter seem a bit like Capa, why not have a discussion about Capa right in the script? Stone was frank and jocular about the way he inserted his lead character — a real person — into every major event in the period, even if he wasn’t there. Lots of good talk about the tension between being a political filmmaker telling true stories, and being a dramatist compelled to make GOOD stories. Stone seemed to jump that fence quite a bit.

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I remember a South American student being offended by SALVADOR because Stone couldn’t even be bothered getting the name of the country right. I’ve read an interview in which Stone said he purposely left off the “El” of El Salvador to make the title more forcibly suggest the protagonist’s salvation. But my student had a point — it’s not very respectful, like leaving out the “New” in New York. In discussion in Edinburgh, Stone actually twice referred to the country as “Salvador,” as if the film and the place had merged in his mind.

Stone defended JFK’s factual basis. My own impression is that the film’s weak domestic scenes and tendency to cliché is a dramatic flaw more serious than any historical distortions. But surely the claim that JFK was assassinated because he planned to de-escalate the Viet Nam War is a dubious one?

Too much stuff about WALL STREET.

Barely a mention of THE DOORS and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which I see as triumphs for Robert Richardson but problematic pictures for Stone. In a way his uncritical love of Jim Morrison is a problem for the first film, and his love of the serial killers and hatred of everything else is a problem for the second.

 

Two gibes at Quentin Tarantino — Richardson stopped working with stone because he thought U-TURN and NBK were two violent, making his present collaboration with Tarantino ironic (can this be true?). Morricone’s Oscar-winning score for THE HATEFUL EIGHT was “his worst ever” (certainly NOT true, though everyone’s entitled to their opinion).

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Nothing on Stone’s recent features except the WALL STREET sequel, and mention of W. — Stone reckons the financial crash killed the film as nobody wanted to hear that guy’s name (or middle initial). My thoughts on that one are here. I felt the problem was not so much timing as making the wrong film. Bush’s story, told in close-up, can only work as a comedy. He inverts the usual dictum about comedy being long-shot. Here. the long-shot is 9:11 and white phosphorous and Abu Ghraib. The close-up is Bush reading his goat book. As with STRANGELOVE, there is unavoidably ludicrous stuff in his personal story and the concept of an idiot becoming president is simultaneously horrific and silly. Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” incarnate.

Stone, rightly, was very enthusiastic about The Untold History of the United States, seeing it as a kind of crowning achievement. He didn’t seem interested in TV drama (he tried it with Wild Palms), and his claims of being a dramatist rather than a political filmmaker disappeared when he discussed this project. The thing has flaws — I find the music rather obvious, and the editing sometimes becomes illustrative in a pointless, literal way — the most fleeting reference to Tolstoy will be accompanied by a quick shot of  copy of War and Peace — and then Stone repeats his dodgy faked-Super 8 device from JFK, this time with audio — genuine quotes from historical figures, read by actors, treated with phony audio distortion and crackle to make them sound period. This is dangerous — makes you less inclined to trust the filmmaker. And Stone, who has a great voice for VO, sonorous and incantatory, reads the script like he’s only just been handed it, pausing mid-clause to sight-read the next few words.

But the stories told are all either unfamiliar, so you’re shocked you haven’t heard them, or come at the facts from a different angle so you’re shocked at how they’ve been misrepresented. The “moral dilemma” of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb is the strongest one, I think, built up to over the first three episodes. The whole idea that it was a choice between invading Japan or forcing their surrender with the bomb is a lie, accepted and folded into history books and then repeated in good faith by those who read and taught the books. I identified with Stone’s opening VO about having been misled in school, because I was presented with the bomb narrative in just this dissembling way.

See this series — we can almost forgive Stone his many sins…

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Untold/Unheard

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

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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.