Friday, May 10, 2013

Oliver Stone And De Wimmins (Partly An Open Letter To Oliver Stone)

For just a split-second I thought, who'd be interested in a piece about Oliver Stone's Savages now, nearly a year after it was released? But after a split-second I realized that, of course, plenty of people would be interested, because, like me, plenty of people see movies for the first time when they come to cable. It may be that this piece (it's not really a conventional review) will not compete with a lot of reviews, because The Pros may see no need for reviews now, but they could be wrong. I'm not dissing The Pros, not at all. They will tell you that they are The Pros for a reason, and I don't dispute that. I don't dispute that, in any field, there are plenty of good reasons for going to The Pros. However, in any field, I think it's a mistake to assume that The Pros are always right about everything simply because they're The Pros.

My review of Savages could contained in 5 words: it's an Oliver Stone movie. And this, of course, means that it offers up hearty servings of both the sublime and the ridiculous. Technically -- photography, editing, set decoration, sound, montage, etc, etc -- it's superb. 28 years ago, Stone's Salvador was technically superb, as has been every Stone movie in between. Some very good filmmakers seem to get stuck at one era's level of technical filmmaking, but Stone stays cutting edge. I don't know whether that's because he always hires the best crews, or because he himself is hands-on tech-nerd director, but whatever's going on, kudos, Oliver. Also, as usual, the script -- as usual co-written by Stone -- is interesting and the acting is solid.

And as usual, what's going on with the women characters is weird. I'm not referring this time to the sexual triangle between best buds Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and their shared girlfriend Ophelia "O" Sage (Blake Lively). I have no problem with people leading unconventional sex lives. If they're happy, I'm happy. And these characters are very happy with their unconventional setup. The weirdness to which I refer is the fact that O is yet another woman character in a Stone film who is a dingbat whose function in the film seems to be to interfere with the plot. And it's much worse than usual because O is right smack dab in the middle of the plot; you can't just fast-forward past her scenes like you can do with Sissy Spacek in JFK without missing anything. O is yet another woman character in a Stone film who is completely dependent on men. Her main occupations appear to be sex and shopping. Her only real function in the movie's plot is to require that her boyfriends save her. Why can't Stone create characters who are strong and independent? I know he's met at least one woman like that in real life, Katherine Bigelow. He probably knows many more -- Spacek is probably very strong and independent in real life, as are many other of the actresses who've played these strange stunted characters in Stone's movies. (Why do they play these characters?) He probably has met very many very independent women, but his movies offer little evidence that he has noticed any of them.

Aha, but wait! you're saying. There's another female character in this very movie, Elena Sánchez, played by Salma Hayak, who is very very strong and independent. She runs a whole huge Mexican drug cartel. To which I respond, aha! but you see, Hayak's character only reinforces the weirdness. Yes, she is very strong, but she is very grotesque. She is a monster. Maybe we have here the answer to the question of why Stone goes to such unusual lengths to avoid strong female characters: maybe to him strong women are monsters. Elena Sánchez' hair is grotesque, but when a chink is shown in the wall of her strength -- that is, when her maternal instincts are confronted, causing the dominant persona she had displayed constantly until then to utterly collapse, and she screams at all of her goons to leave her alone so that no-one can see her fall to knees and weep helplessly, when she is alone, we see that the grotesque, helmet-shaped hair is a wig when Elena casts it off. The TRUE Elena wears no helmet and is a weeping helpless mother. In short -- Oliver, you have issues. Read some Freud for God's sake.

The other characters are, uh -- not subtle. As usual in Stone movies, most of the characters are not complex human beings so much as Representations of Principles. O represents an ideal of dependent womanhood -- man, Oliver, do you have issues! -- Elena represents a helpless woman disguised as a brutal amazon, Chon represents warriordom, Ben represents sainthood -- he has a wispy beard like a Medieval saint in a painting and his scrunchied mane of curly hair from many angles resembles a halo, because Stone is Mister Not Subtle. O's name is O Sage -- like Osage, the Native American tribe, get it? Huh? Huh? Eh? Yes, Oliver, I get that she's named Osage, but I haven't figured out why yet -- maybe because to you O represents Nature, which men must protect and nurture, and so do Native Americans. And I'm not sure to whom or what, if I'm right about that, that would be more condescendingly insulting: women, Native Americans or Nature.

Anyway, Oliver, I wouldn't even be talking to you about any of this if I didn't think your movies are very good. You're sort of like a cinematic Norman Mailer, and I mean that as very high praise. Kids, if you're not familiar with Norman Mailer, picture an older, novelist version of Oliver Stone, veering sharply from the sublime to the ridiculous from book to book, page to page, from one word to the next, grandiose like Stone, occasionally falling flat but never afraid to take the next leap, like Stone, with severe issues about women, like Stone. Mailer was also occasionally a movie director. He directed the big-screen version of his novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, a book so good -- at least 70% sublime, less than 30% ridiculous -- that it was shocking how bad most of the movie turned out, made by the same man. (It reminds you that just because a person is a great writer doesn't necessarily mean that they go around looking at and listening to real 3-D life.) Unless you disregard the 98% of the movie which is awful and focus on the couple of minutes' worth of greatness. Which in my opinion is the only sensible way to look at anything. Many people seem to actually prefer mediocre movies (or books or records or paintings or people or what have you) which are consistently mediocre, with no unusual awfulness. I'll never understand that point of view, I'll never want to. 2 minutes worth of breathtaking scenes and the rest just cringingly awful -- that means that Tough Guys Don't Dance beats 99%+ of the other movies made hands down. As do yours, Oliver.

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