Archive for W.

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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Rewriting History

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2009 by dcairns

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The new STAR TREK is an extremely enjoyable ride, capitalising ruthlessly on any affection we may have for those 1960s TV characters. It also touches on an idea recently explored in another project associated with director JJ Abrams, the TV show Lost. In Lost, which Abrams co-created, the latest series has introduced time travel as a device which not only offers a solution to many of the apparently imponderable mysteries of the previous seasons, but offers a happy ending to characters much knocked-about by fate and the writing team. Briefly, in the last few episodes, a plan is hatched to change the future by detonating an atomic bomb, which will cause a chain reaction of events ultimately preventing the plane crash that began the series. If this plan works, the show’s narrative will erase itself.

In STAR TREK (written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, directed by Abrams), a black hole transports a rogue Romulan vessel back in time, altering the flow of history by killing Captain Kirk’s father, and then, more seriously, destroying an entire planet. Since this event is not undone, it means that sequels to this movie will not have to follow the continuity of the TV show, since the whole course of history has changed. It’s an ingenious way to defeat the objections of pedants.

(Both Lost and STAR TREK feature temporal paradoxes in the form of the ourobouros — in Lost, one character gives another a compass, and the receiver then travels back in time and returns it. That compass has no maker, and is immune to destruction: it exists in a perfect loop of time. In STAR TREK, Spock comes back in time and gives Scottie a set of equations that Scottie is supposed to formulate in the future: now the equations have no origin, and are merely passed from brain to brain without ever being invented.)

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The idea of rewriting history also seems like a metaphor for the story of STAR TREK as told in the movie. It seems to me that the writers may have taken some inspiration from Oliver Stone’s W, or perhaps from the trailer for Oliver Stone’s W. Consider: in both W and STAR TREK, the hero is the son of a man called George (Captain George Kirk, George Bush Snr) who is a powerful leader, but only briefly (twelve minutes, in STAR TREK). The hero is a ne’er-do-well and barroom brawler who seizes power ruthlessly during a time of crisis, defeating a more sober and apparently reliable authority figure by underhanded means (Spock; Al Gore and John Kerry). The hero must then do battle with a psychotic terrorist. At this point the writers depart from the W plan: realising that what it takes to make this story popular is a happy ending, they have Kirk rise to the responsibility of the position of Captain. His combination of guts, instinct, tactics and authority allow him to triumph over the opposition and unite his colleagues.

Rewriting history, get it? I don’t mean to be cynical and I’m not knocking STAR TREK —

Pluses: a really well-cast bunch of charismatic people; some very good lines for older Nimoy; lots of excitement; and I loved futuristic Iowa!

Minuses: I wouldn’t have so callously destroyed Vulcan; the idea of a supernova “threatening the galaxy” is silly, even if you’re not a science nerd; the canister of “red matter” looks like a poor man’s lava lamp; they stole so much from STAR TREK II that I seriously hope Nicholas Meyer is getting royalties.

— I just thought it was sort of interesting.

The False Good Idea

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

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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.