A tiny shadow, shaped like a tadpole, flashes on the screen at a performance of Dr. Caligari. The shadow swells to an enormous size, quivers, bulges, then sinks back down into nonentity as Virginia Woolf describes in her essay, “The Cinema.” She questions if, in that moment, thought can be better conveyed in shape (and therefore image) more effectively than words—“The monstrous quivering tadpole,” she describes, “seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid.’” In her essay, Woolf also claims, “People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the [coarser end] of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious.” Filmmaker Oliver Stone debunks this claim with each film he directs.
In his films, Stone illuminates prevalent American issues through topics such as media, politics, betrayal, greed, war, power, loss of innocence and conspiracy. By exploring these themes, Stone exhibits them on the screen, forcing the viewer to raise questions about what should be considered normal. The essences of Stone’s films are to take content of political or ethical nature and to highlight the downfalls of American culture with strong images opposed to overly drawn out dialogue, like the visual tadpole Woolf describes in her essay. For example, in Nixon, he showed the tragic hero’s internal contemplation with the vast amount of sweat on his eyebrow. In Born on the Fourth of July, he shows the hypocrisy of American authority with the police beating the protesters in the thick fog and in Natural Born Killers he uses the images of mass murderers on the covers of esteemed news magazines to demonstrate how media glorifies criminals, propelling them into celebrity.
In Stone’s 1986 directorial debut film Platoon, based on his own experiences in Vietnam, he renders a scene between Chris Taylor, the character of real-life Stone played by Charlie Sheen, King, played by black actor Keith David, and Crawford, played by rugged looking Chris Pedersen, which reveals Stone’s reason for enlisting, while subtly weaving in the downfalls of American society and the class-system. Under the blazing Vietnamese sun, the three soldiers are walking through base camp as rambunctious King asks, “Hey Taylor, how the f**k you get here anyway? You look educated.” Taylor, very matter-of-factly, responds, “I volunteered for it.” King and Crawford are awestruck, asking, “You volunteered for this s**t?” and “You’s a crazy f**ker, giving up college?” Taylor goes on to say, “Didn’t make sense, I wasn’t learning anything. I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it.” Crawford cackles as King responds, “S**t, you gotta be rich in the first place to think like that. Ever’body know, the poor are always being f**ked over by the rich. Always have, always will.” At this moment, on the frontline of Vietnam, a scruffy white man, a boisterous black fellow, and a rich white kid are all equal. The same uniform, equal opportunity for life and death, the juxtaposition of equality in war and the class system at home is painfully stark.
In a film career nearing 40 years, Stone has been obsessed with hanging America’s dirty laundry out to dry. Stone uses the focus of each decade in American history as the backbone for his films. For example, war and conspiracy are highlighted in his films Platoon and JFK which take place in the 1960s, while the 1970s were about political betrayal and loss of innocence shown in Nixon and The Doors, greed was a staple of the 1980s as exemplified in Wall Street, and Natural Born Killers was about the media exploitation that exploded in the 1990s.
In his essay “Vermeer in Bosnia”, Lawrence Weschler discusses Johannes Vermeer’s paintings and their historical relevance. While Vermeer’s works radiate a sense of peace and serenity, they were painted during a time of unprecedented violence with wars and religious persecution. Weschler suggests that Vermeer was influenced by the political activity around him, but instead of focusing on the actual events in his art like Stone does, he did the complete opposite. The horrors of Vermeer’s generation reverberate through his paintings with the felt “conspicuous exclusion” of their physical presence. Instead of facing the pain, he creates a fictitious idea of peace. Stone, on the other hand, harps upon all the details. In his December 20, 1991 review, “JFK; When Everything Amounts to Nothing” Vincent Canby suggests, “JFK begins with a promise of intrigue and revelation though it soon becomes clear that Mr. Stone is opening the door to an overstuffed closet. He is buried under all the facts, contradictory testimony, hearsay and conjecture that he would pack into a movie.” Where Vermeer omitted themes that were blatantly obvious about his generation’s political atmosphere, Stone goes to the complete opposite side of the spectrum adding everything possible. Stone does not simply want the audience to feel a certain way, like Vermeer does, but instead he wants to evoke thought.
In a 1997 Stone was asked about his reaction to criticism on his film JFK he responded, “A lot of people missed the point of the movie [JFK], if you see it once you sometimes miss perceive, the second time it is very clear, it is not about a hundred people or corporations getting in a room and conspiring, It is much more intelligent than that. The movie itself is about the veil of reality that we have around us at all times, the first 45 minutes of JFK is about the television perception we have of Kennedy and his death and Dealey Plaza—that is the way we got it in 1963, and the rest of the movie is about tearing down that veil. The technique of that movie is done in the deconstructivist style of ‘What is reality?’ This for yourself—you never know. Everything is subject to manipulation—your life, the country, murder and as such it becomes a portrait—it puts you in the mirror looking at yourself making a disturbing portrait. That’s why at the end of the movie [the protagonist] turns around and looks right into the camera and says, ‘It’s up to you.’” Stone’s films do not drill an idea into the audience; instead they draw up questions within the viewer.
Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers is a testament to his style of filmmaking— it forces the audience to question social normality while using his signature style of fast cuts, different film stocks, sudden juxtapositions and expressionistic camera angles. Stone, himself, described the film, “one of [his] best works, it’s a total Rosetta Stone of the early 90’s in America and in it you can find the sickness of our society.” A news broadcast opens with an Australian reporter recounting Mallory and Mickey’s murder spree in a slow, melodramatic, drawn out tone identical to that seen on nightly reports. He elaborates on the murders of twelve police officers while the image of his face is intercut with both color and black and white images of the crime scene and actors similar looking to Mallory and Mickey reenacting the scene with capital print reading “A DRAMATIZATION.” An officer being interviewed in his home to recount the story, who has tears streaming down his face but not out of his eyes, draws out the tale adding details like, “His 1979 Dodge Challenger pulled up across from the donut shop” and “Gerald was only three weeks out of the academy.” The reenactment roles and flickers out of black and white and color. The film cuts to a news editing room where the editor relays to the producer, “We really raped and pillaged the first show in order to do to this. It still needs a new intro in my opinion.” “Repetition works. It works,” the producer affirms. “Do you think those nitwits out there in zombie land remember anything? This is junk food for the brain, Davey,” he continues. The shoot quickly flips from within the editing room to a grainy newsreel of various reporters around the world asking civilians their opinions on Mallory and Mickey in several different languages. Magazines such as Newsweek and Time flicker with the mass murderers’ mug shots plastered on the cover. The news segment ends with a teenager saying, “If I was a mass murder, I would be Mickey and Mallory!”
In Natural Born Killers, Stone is using satire to comment on the relationship between the media and violence. Stone likes to exemplify the obsession with violence in all of his films. In his 1997 football film Any Given Sunday, New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote, in his December 22, 1999 review End Zone As War Zone… Hut!, “he parades his own hyper-macho vision of modern American life as a primitive bread-and-circuses carnival of power, greed, lust, fame, and violence (especially violence). And in ‘Any Given Sunday,’ his viscerally charged, razzle-dazzle ode to professional football as a blood sport, he comes up with some quintessentially zany Oliver Stone moments.” With films such as Platoon, Heaven and Earth, and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone does a literal take on war, but in Any Given Sunday he is comparing football to wartime combat. The film compares the sport to a Roman gladiatorial circus, which Holden points out, is made blatantly obvious with weaved in clips of the climactic chariot race from “Ben Hur.” The film’s most exciting scenes are in the thick of the football games. “Like battlefield casualties, injured players are rushed off the field on stretchers,” Holden writes, “And at half time, the locker room resembles a hospital emergency ward where players who are not too badly injured are frantically sewn up and shot up with painkillers, then sent back into battle.” Stone’s obsession with battle has existed in his work ever since his return from combat in Vietnam, but tales of war have been engrained in him since he was a child and his French maternal grandfather would tell him bedtime stories about fighting in World War II.
In Vermeer in Bosnia, Weschler also discusses the moral universe of epic poetry with the Iliad, Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Mahabharata, and Finnegans Wake. Weschler discusses James Joyce who characterized history as “two bloody Irishmen in a bloody fight over bloody nothing.” Weschler then begins to reckon that it is “not really over bloody nothing but vengeance for vengeance for vengeance for who-any-long-knows-what?” That is what Stone is trying to uncover. In Charles Kielyak’s 2001 video interview “Oliver Stone’s America”, Stone stated, “All throughout history, we’ve seen the same patterns of imperialism attacking other forms, but those come up again and again because we fundamentally never deal with it you see. We never really feel the guilt. We don’t like guilt in America. After Vietnam, guilt was intense in America and many people ignored it. There was a long movement against guilt. People were in denial that we’d killed two to three million Cambodians and Vietnamese—it was all about American soldiers, which is very selfish. I think guilt is an emotion that you have to deal with. You don’t run from it.” So Stone’s work is not necessarily a look at warfare, but a skewed perspective forcing the viewer to perceive guilt about the social normalities in America.
In every work I’ve looked at, I can see Stone’s analysis of the moral compass at play. All of the works exhibit a critical look at government, war, finance, media, tragic downfalls, or a combination of all of the above. Furthermore, we can see that a perception of good and evil, man and government, and where those intersect also operating. And counter-intuitively, we can see that we contemplate the true power government and media hold, as well. The last lines of dialogue in Platoon are spoken by Chris Taylor. Leaving Vietnam, wounded in a helicopter, he says, “I think, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days—those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again. To teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.” The idea of having an obligation to pass on knowledge, not facts, and proposing questions that make the audience question what they are being told, while bridging art house films with American pop culture, is uniquely Oliver Stone.
Stone’s newest film Savages opens July 6th. Be sure to check it out.