Starting May 18, director Oliver Stone will appear in person at the Aero Theatre for screenings of his films Nixon, U-Turn / Natural Born Killers, and Heaven and Earth / Salvador.
A director who has worked in a wide variety of genres, from horror (The Hand) and war (Platoon) to film noir (U-Turn) and sports (Any Given Sunday), Oliver Stone is characterized, above all else, by his range. Though he is often pigeonholed as a political polemicist because of movies like JFK and Salvador, Stone is closer in spirit to the Hollywood filmmakers of the classical studio system; like Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and others, he has made a point of injecting his personal preoccupations into recognizable popular formats, challenging himself by moving from the intimate to the epic and back again. In addition to the films listed above, he’s made a musical (The Doors), business pictures (the two Wall Streets), love stories (World Trade Center, Snowden), and one of the greatest old-school epics ever made (Alexander). It’s hard to think of another director who pushes himself and his audience harder to find new challenges with each subsequent piece of work.
Stone’s diversity was never more evident than in 1994, when he followed the contemplative, spiritual Vietnam melodrama Heaven and Earth with the confrontational, nihilistic crime drama Natural Born Killers. Based on a script by Quentin Tarantino that Stone, David Veloz, and Richard Rutowski heavily rewrote, Natural Born Killers tells the story of Mickey and Mallory, young mass murderers who are deeply in love — and deeply disturbed. Riffing on romantic fugitive movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, as well as Roger Corman exploitation flicks and more serious explorations of violence like A Clockwork Orange, Stone follows Mickey and Mallory as they shoot, stab, and slash their way across the American Southwest. All the while they (and the audience) are bombarded with images of 20th-century chaos that not only play on television sets, but also seem to be projected onto the landscape itself. Stalin and Hitler give way to O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers in a sensory assault that raises complicated questions about the relationship between mass communication and violence.
Many movies that are controversial in their time often seem tame and irrelevant years later, but Stone’s depiction of a media-saturated age in which violence and cruelty drive news coverage and that coverage, in turn, encourages desensitization is more relevant today than it was at the time of the picture’s release. Like The Wild Bunch and Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers retains its power to provoke and disturb decades after the fact because, like those two films, its shock value derives not from base sensationalism but from a profound understanding of the dark side of human nature that civilization attempts to obscure and repress. Stone’s movie is pure id, and his fearless celebration of Mickey and Mallory’s romantic spirit aligns with his equally fearless presentation of brutality to create an unsettling experience in which the audience is forced to question its own views about violence and violence’s relationship to society. (Stone’s refusal to provide easy answers is undeniably one reason why the picture repulses as many viewers as it engages.)
Director of photography Robert Richardson matches Stone’s conceptual audacity with a visual style as radical as anything ever seen in a major studio release. Mixing black-and-white and color, celluloid and video, 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film stocks, Richardson creates a collage effect in which every image contains both its own internal beauty and a symbolic function as part of a larger social statement. He also uses lighting to convey inner states in conjunction with what Stone calls “vertical editing” — a character will appear one way in a naturally lit scene, but a brief cut in the middle of that scene to a different film stock and lighting set-up reveals the way that character really feels about the situation. Richardson’s mastery of dozens of different cinematic idioms makes Natural Born Killers one of those movies that, like Citizen Kane or The Conformist, can be endlessly studied and analyzed by film students who want to broaden their visual literacy. In this one movie, scenes are shot like sitcoms, action flicks, news broadcasts, avant-garde experimental films, 1940s noir, and more. It is a stunning tapestry that feels surprisingly cohesive, thanks to the movie’s overall message about the pervasiveness of mass media in our lives.
After their collaborations on movies like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, and JFK, perhaps it was inevitable that Stone and Richardson would turn their attention to the key figure of Vietnam-era politics, Richard Milhous Nixon. Their 1995 biopic Nixon – the follow-up to Killers – is everything one would expect from the key cinematic chronicler of the 1960’s: a kaleidoscopic, whirlwind tour through Nixon’s life and times which is bombastic and reflective in equal measures. Like its title character, Nixon is a film of complex contradictions and contrasts, and in many ways it can be seen as Stone’s summation of the themes he has spent his entire career examining; the director and co-writers Steven J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson see Nixon’s era as a period of fundamental changes in social and political attitudes, and they use the film’s three-and-a-half hour running time to paint one of the most elaborate, all-encompassing portraits of post-WWII America ever committed to celluloid.
Yet for all its breadth, Nixon is also a Shakespearean tragedy about one man kept from greatness by his own shortcomings. Neither celebration nor hatchet job, the film celebrates the President for his genius at foreign policy (Stone goes so far as to imply that if Nixon had finished his second term he would have ended the Cold War) while it criticizes him for his divisiveness and paranoia (a paranoia Richardson conveys beautifully through ominous, chiaroscuro lighting that makes the Lincoln Room at the White House look like a set from a horror movie). Stone tells the story as a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards within flashbacks, and the timeline is so fluid and elaborate that the film often feels as though it has no real beginning or end; it’s a structure that perfectly captures both the repetitive nature of American history and the disconnected ways in which we remember (the camera mirrors the structure with a series of virtuosic circular pans). Stone’s audacious narrative technique is matched by Richardson’s innovative lighting and camerawork, which combines elements of film noir (particularly in the framing story of Nixon’s final days in the White House) with techniques from documentaries and TV news to create a look that is at once stylized and immediate. Like the real Richard Nixon, the movie keeps its audience at a distance through its various self-conscious methods, yet in the end the hypnotic moving camera and expressionistic lighting do give us a glimpse into the President’s soul (or at least into Stone’s interpretation of that soul).
The film continues Stone’s experimental approach from JFK and Natural Born Killers, films characterized by multiple film stocks, a deft juxtaposition of color and black-and-white imagery, and bold shifts between objective and subjective reality. Yet where JFK expands, Nixon constricts, working its way inward until the entire film culminates in the President alone in the White House, tragically contemplating all that he has lost. Like Citizen Kane or The Last Emperor, it’s an intimate epic in which history is refracted through one complex and tormented man’s point of view. In addition to Welles and Bertolucci, Eisenstein and Griffith seem to be influences here; obviously Stone was aiming high by emulating the styles of these masters, but his creative gamble paid off. In its political intelligence and artistic fearlessness, Nixon is a masterpiece that might have made even the creator of Citizen Kane proud.
Jim Hemphill is the award-winning screenwriter and director of The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and Jim he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.