"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, March 20, 2020

Rollerball


“I thought that violence for the entertainment of the masses was an obscene idea. That’s what I saw coming and that’s why I made the film.” – Norman Jewison

For many years now, professional sports have been all about money. Superstar athletes earn huge salaries for their exploits while also enjoying lucrative endorsements. Meanwhile, wealthy businessmen and corporations make millions with ever-increasing ticket prices and merchandising. Hell, even the places where people gather to watch sporting events have become corporatized. Gone are the Maple Leaf Gardens and the Boston Garden, replaced or renamed Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens and TD Garden respectively, which will last only as long as that corporate entity owns it to be renamed by the next corporate behemoth.

Director Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975) saw this coming. Set in the future, it features a world where the purity of a sport known as Rollerball (think roller derby meets hockey) is becoming increasingly tainted by the influence of corporations. He wisely starts things off by showing a match from beginning to end, which lets us see how it works – the rules and the dynamics of the game – and he thrusts us right in the middle of the mayhem, conveying the speed and brutality of the sport. Most importantly, it introduces us to the sport’s most popular player Jonathan E (James Caan), the captain of Houston’s team.

It’s a tough game with plenty of injuries. Much like with hockey, Houston has an enforcer named Moonpie (John Beck) whose job it is to protect top scorer Jonathan and provide the occasional cheap shot on an opposing player. Jewison sprinkles several little touches here and there that establishes the atmosphere, like how the corporate anthem is played before the game starts instead of a national anthem. There are no nations any more. There are no more wars. Corporations run everything.

The game plays on while the corporate overlords, as represented by Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), observe from on high and afterwards visits the team in the locker room, applauding them for the victory in his own benign yet smug way of a man that knows how much power he wields. Jonathan is a highly decorated player and as Bartholomew points they’ve run out of accolades to give him. As the team leaves the stadium we see how popular Jonathan is as a large group of fans chant his name, clamoring for his autograph.

The next day, he meets with Bartholomew who wants him to announce his retirement on a television special dedicated to his long and illustrious career. The executive offers him a cushy life with all kinds of perks but the athlete is still bitter over the past. An executive took his wife Ella (Maud Adams) away from him. Bartholomew doesn’t understand Jonathan’s reluctance to retire as he doesn’t know what it’s like to be on a team that has its own unique dynamic and way of playing. Everybody depends on each other and Jonathan doesn’t want to give that up. He has everything he could want but when the powers that be want to take that away from him he decides to push back. The rest of Rollerball plays out with his quest to find out why they want him to quit.

Jewison portrays corporate executives as pretty, shallow people that attend lavish parties and take high-end drugs. At one such gathering they take their escapades to the next level, mindlessly shooting and blowing up trees for fun. The idle rich are horribly drunk on destructive power. The image of a row of trees burning on a hill is a powerful one and makes us want to see Jonathan succeed even more.

The film also shows how the corporate machine tries to crush any kind of resistance to their edicts by changing the rules of the sport for the last two games to make it more dangerous. If Jonathan doesn’t quit, he’ll either die playing the game or his teammates will. The semi-final against Tokyo ups the stakes in violence not only among the athletes but in the stands as fans become increasingly hostile to the point where when their team loses they turn into an angry mob. Their rage spills out onto the track as they mix it up with the players. The game has gotten out of control with very few rules. The final championship game features no rules in a final desperate attempt to eliminate Jonathan.

Rollerball was part of a fantastic run of films for James Caan in the 1970s. Starting with The Godfather in 1972, he delivered strong performances in Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974) and Freebie and the Bean (1974). He does an excellent job conveying Jonathan’s gradual self-awareness that starts simply: why is he being forced out of the game he loves? In a world where no one is supposed to ask questions, this makes him a dangerous person. He is no longer following the corporate script.

Caan’s on-screen presence demonstrates why Jonathan is such a charismatic player. He is loyal to his teammates and is a dynamic athlete that can make those clutch plays that win games. He is not particularly intelligent but is self-aware of this fact and has an innate instinct for what’s wrong and goes with his gut as he begins to question things. The actor also shows Jonathan’s vulnerable side in a scene where he gives a heartfelt speech to comatose teammate Moonpie on the eve of what might be his final game. Up until now he’s always been there to watch his back and for the first time Jonathan is going to have to go it alone.

John Houseman is excellent as the benevolent executive that speaks in a wonderfully condescending, cultured voice while also capable of stern, icy glares directed at the increasingly disobedient Jonathan. At one point, he finally lays it out for the star athlete: “No player is greater than the game itself…It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan…You can be made to quit. You can be forced.” Of course, this makes Jonathan even more determined and defiant.

John Beck plays Moonpie as a racist good ol’ boy with little self-awareness. He understands his role on the team – to protect Jonathan and mess up players on the other team – but little else. He’s the kind of player that exists in all kinds of professional sports and the actor nails stereotypical enforcer, especially in the scene where he gives his teammates a rousing pep talk while a strategy coach (Robert Ito) tries to prepare them for the upcoming game with Tokyo.

The final match doesn’t feature a traditional pre-game pep talk as we’ve seen before – just grim determination as Jonathan goes out first while the crowds chant his name. Not surprisingly, this is the most intense and violent one yet as he survives, scoring the only goal in defiance to the corporation. Battered but not beaten he has become what they feared – bigger than the game and bigger than the corporation.

William Harrison was a professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas and found himself obsessed with what he felt was the unsettling social and economic changes occurring in the world. He also witnessed a violent fight at a university basketball game. These things inspired him to write a short story called, “Roller Ball Murder,” which was published in the September 1973 issue of Esquire magazine.

Around the same time, filmmaker Norman Jewison had gone to a hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, which turned into an ugly mess: “There was blood on the ice and 16,000 people were standing up and screaming.” This led to him contacting Harrison. Both men were living in London at the time and the writer’s agent told him that Jewison was going to offer him $50,000 for the short story. He decided to ask for more money and an opportunity to write the screenplay. Six weeks went by and Harrison assumed that he had blown the deal but received a call from Jewison’s assistant who told him that all his demands had been met and they were in pre-production. When the two men finally met at Pinewood Studios they immediately bonded and spent all summer in London working on the script together.

When it came to designing the track for rollerball, Jewison and his crew decided that it had to be circular because of the roller-skaters and the motorcycles. British production designer John Box built a scale model of the track. Working with the art director and the track architect, they took a little ball, put a spring behind it and shot it around the track so that they could figure out the moment of gravity pull. The next step was to find a place to recreate the model. They found the Olympic basketball stadium in Munich. The production spent a large amount of the film’s budget building the track, complete with a banked surface of 40 feet and a total circumference of 190 feet.

When it came to casting for the pivotal role of Jonathan E, Jewison knew of James Caan’s love of “physical confrontation” and offered him the role. The actor liked the script but “I was really persuaded to get involved by the jock in me.” For team extras, Jewison recruited California roller derby athletes, English roller hockey players, and, of course, stuntmen. Caan and his teammates were sent to a California arena for four months before shooting to learn how to play the game. He said they skated seven times a week until they were good enough.

The actors thought they were ready to go until they arrived in Munich and saw the banked track they would be filming on. They had practiced on a flat track in California and had to learn how to skate on this new one. They quickly adapted and Jewison let them play for real, soon regretting it when a stuntman got injured and ended up in the hospital. Once they put on their uniforms, something changed as one extra on the Tokyo team said, “We want to skate the game. When we start up, everybody forgets the filming and we’re competing for the ball.” The director was concerned for the players’ safety: “There is a gladiatorial aspect to rollerball that frightens me. I keep cautioning the boys about it. They are all athletes…and they love body contact, they love playing with the ball, they love the speed and agility, and there is an enormous amount of skill involved.” Caan insisted on doing his own stunts and separated a shoulder and damaged a rib. He was less enthused about the non-rollerball scenes or, as he called them, “all the walking and talking shit,” because he had to play “a guy whose emotions had basically been taken away from him.”

The extras got so into the game that on the final week of shooting they put on a game for the public. Even though the stadium only held approximately 5,000 people, 8,500 turned up and the police had to be called in to turn away those that couldn’t be let in. According to Caan, gameplay never lasted for more than 25 or 30 seconds: “It was just one fight after another.”

The irony of Bartholomew’s reasoning – that no one player is bigger than the game – is exactly what happened. Jonathan is an icon thanks to corporate machinations and his own natural talent. Most sports are designed to be all about teamwork. It is all the things outside of the game – the merchandising, pundits, corporate puff pieces, and so on that puts an emphasis on the individual player, elevating them to heroes in the eyes of their fans.

Rollerball is a classic man against the system film. It features a man who has it all but when he refuses to do what he’s told, is pressured in all kinds of ways, from changing the rules so that he’ll either quit or be killed, to reuniting him with Ella – a bittersweet experience as she admits to being told to try and convince him to quit. These tactics only strengthen his resolve, making him even more dangerous because all that ever mattered to him was the game. At the end of the film he transcends it to become something else.


SOURCES

Delaney, Sam. “When It Comes to the Crunch.” The Guardian. April 20, 1999.

Gammon, Clive. “Rollerball.” Sports Illustrated. April 21, 1975.

Friday, February 21, 2020

American Gigolo


Many people look back at the 1980s through the soft focus lens of nostalgia. They think fondly of John Hughes’ teen movies or the music of The Police or television shows like Miami Vice or the novels of Stephen King. The people who grew up in that decade have attempted to pay tribute to that time in recent years with movies like the remake of It (2017), T.V. shows like Stranger Things and music by likes of Bruno Mars that invoke the era.

Nostalgia for the ‘80s has reached its saturation point and people tend to forget that there was a lot of awful stuff, too, like Reaganomics, the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, the explosion of Japanese fashion, T.V. shows like Alf, the proliferation of mindless synth pop, and the dominance of producer-driven Hollywood blockbusters.

One of the films that best encapsulated the superficial consumerism of the era was Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980). With its icy Eurotrash score by Giorgo Moroder, its expensive clothes by Giorgio Armani and luxurious cars like Mercedes and BMW, it established the stylistic template for popular culture that would be cemented by the equally influential Miami Vice show a few years later for the rest of the decade. Schrader’s film is often dismissed as a shallow exercise in style while failing to realize that its style is its substance. It is all surface, reflecting its materialistic protagonist.

Julian Kay (Richard Gere) is a high-end male escort specializing in wealthy women. He wears only the best suits and drives expensive cars. Schrader immediately immerses us in his world with a montage of him buying suits, driving his Mercedes and dropping off one of his clients all to the strains of Blondie’s “Call Me” while giving us a tour of boutique shops, expensive beachfront condos and affluent hotels – the playground of California’s rich elite.

His world is turned upside down when he meets a mysterious and lonely woman named Michelle (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a California state senator. They meet by chance and she becomes obsessed with him and he finds himself falling in love with her. His life gets even more complicated when he finds out that a woman he had a kinky one-off gig with in Palm Springs has been murdered. Julian soon becomes the prime suspect and begins to lose control of his life that he works so hard to maintain. He must figure out who set him up and why.

Schrader takes us through Julian’s process on getting ready for a job. He lays out his suits, opens his drawer of ties, then dress shirts and so on. It’s a ritual he’s done countless times and Richard Gere skillfully sells it, showing how all these clothes inform his character. In this case, the clothes truly make the man. For Julian it’s all about control. He prides himself in knowing what women want, providing them with a fantasy that plays into their desires. They both get something out of their transactions. They feel wanted and desired and he gets paid.

The impossibly handsome Gere is perfectly cast as the narcissistic Julian. He pays close attention to how he looks and dresses as they are integral aspects of his job. He has to look good for his clients. The actor certainly knows how to wear an Armani suit and has an engaging smile that exudes charm. Julian has his whole act down cold – a tilt of the head, a sly smile, the way he looks at someone, and the silky smooth voice are all parts of his arsenal of seductive techniques.

Gere had a terrific run of films starting in the late 1970s with a small but memorable part in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Days of Heaven (1978), and then into the 1980s with American Gigolo and Breathless (1983), playing fascinating, complex characters that weren’t always likable but always interesting to watch thanks to his incredible charisma.

Lauren Hutton is excellent as the rather enigmatic woman that takes a shine to Julian. One imagines her being an unhappy trophy wife who is expected to accompany her husband to all kinds of political functions with an interested expression plastered on her face. The actor conveys an impressive vulnerability like when Michelle seeks out Julian and asks for a date with him. She is frank with what she wants and Hutton is very good in this scene.

The intimacy between Julian and Michelle is more than just being physical with each other. It is the conversation they have after making love for the second time that is interesting as she tries to get him to reveal personal details. When she asks him where he’s from he says, “I’m not from anywhere…Anything worth knowing about me, you can learn by letting me make love to you.” Julian is a blank slate and this allows women to project their fantasies on him. He can be anything they want, which is why he’s so good at what he does. He does tell her why he only prefers older women, which is revealing in and of itself. He cares about pleasuring women. He puts their needs before his own, often to the detriment of his own pleasure.

It is also interesting how Schrader objectifies both men and women in American Gigolo. Initially, as we see Julian ply his trade as it were and it is the women that are shown naked but when he and Michelle make love the second time the camera lingers on their respective body parts equally and, in fact, afterwards we see more of his naked body than hers in one of the earliest examples of full frontal male nudity in a Hollywood film. As he demonstrated in this film and a few years later in Breathless, Gere is a fearless actor very comfortable with his own body.

This translates to the character as evident in a scene that occurs halfway through the film between Julian and Detective Sunday (Hector Elizondo) who is investigating the murder when the latter asks the former, “Doesn’t it ever bother you, Julian? What you do?” He replies, “Giving pleasure to women? I’m supposed to feel guilty about that?” When Sunday argues that what he does isn’t legal Julian says, “Legal is not always right.” He arrogantly says that some people are above the law and at this point he loses Sunday who sees things in simpler terms.

In 1977, Paul Schrader sold his screenplay for American Gigolo to Paramount Pictures. The next year John Travolta agreed to star and the filmmaker felt that the character of Julian Kay was a natural progression for the actor after his role in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Schrader had seen Travolta in a photo shoot for Variety where he was unshaven and in a white suit and felt that he was right for the part. The actor’s participation set the wheels in motion and the film was given a $10 million budget. The director auditioned four or five actors for the role of Michelle and liked Mia Farrow the best but when he tested her with Travolta, “she blew John off the screen. She made him look like an amateur, like a kid, not like the seducer.” As a result, he had to go with someone else and cast Lauren Hutton who had tested well with Travolta. Unfortunately, several things prompted the actor to drop out of the production: his mother had died, recent movie Moment by Moment (1978) was a commercial and critical failure, and he was anxious about the homosexual elements in the script. His departure left Schrader with two days to cast someone else.

After strong performances in high profile films that weren’t very profitable, Schrader wanted to cast Richard Gere in American Gigolo. Then head of Paramount Barry Diller didn’t want him, preferring Christopher Reeve instead. Schrader didn’t think Reeve was right for the part, as he was “too all-American, didn’t have that reptile mysteriousness.” Unbeknownst to the studio, Schrader offered the part to Gere on a Sunday, giving him only a few hours to decide. Once Gere agreed, Schrader left a note on Diller’s gate at his home. The executive was understandably upset as the director wasn’t authorized to do that. Schrader argued that Travolta was better for Urban Cowboy (1980), which the studio wanted to make and Diller allowed Gere to be American Gigolo.

Schrader said of Gere’s commitment to the role as opposed to Travolta: “In one day, Richard Gere asked all the questions that Travolta hadn’t asked in six months.” Gere was drawn to the project by Schrader’s approach to how it would be shot, “with very European techniques – the concept opened up: less a slice-of-life character study and something much more textured, stylistic.”

When Travolta dropped out, Schrader was tempted to go back to Farrow, however, he didn’t want to push his luck with the studio after they let him cast Gere but regrets not sticking with the actor: “Obviously I did everything I could and Lauren did everything she could to be as good as she could, but Mia just had stronger chops.”

When it came to putting Los Angeles on film, Schrader realized that it had been photographed countless times and wanted to bring a fresh perspective. He hired production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who had worked on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Giorgio Armani for the clothes, and Giorgio Moroder, who had scored Midnight Express (1978), to compose the film’s score. Scarfiotti, in particular, was an important collaborator as Schrader admired his visual style and the “idea that you can have a poetry of images rather than a poetry of words.” He put Scarfiotti in charge of the look of the film, which included production design, wardrobe, props, and cinematography.

Schrader picked Moroder to compose the film’s score as he liked the “alienated quality” of his music and “how propulsive it was, how sexual yet antiseptic. A sound for a new Los Angeles.” Moroder had originally wanted Steve Nick to sing the film’s theme song but she turned him down. He sent a demo to Blondie with the music and lyrics already written. Their album Parallel Lines was a massive hit but they had not been approached to contribute to a film. They admired both Moroder and Schrader’s work and agreed to do it. Debbie Harry didn’t like the lyrics and asked if she could write her own. She saw a rough cut of the film and the opening scene was in her mind along with Moroder’s music when the first lines came to her.

Clothes were also an important aspect of the production. According to Schrader, when it came to Julian, “the clothes and the character were one and the same. Remember, this is a guy who has to do a line of coke just so he can get dressed.” Armani had gotten involved at the suggestion of Travolta’s manager back when the actor was still attached to the project. The fashion designer was getting ready to go into an international non-couture line and the timing was right. When Gere came on board they kept all the clothes and tailored them for the actor.

To prepare for the role Schrader had Gere study actor Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960), telling him, “Look at this guy, Alain Delon. He knows that the moment he enters a room, the room has become a better place.” According to the actor, the nudity wasn’t in the script, rather “it was just the natural process of making the movie.” He also didn’t know the character or his subculture very well: “I wanted to immerse myself in all of that and I had literally two weeks. So I just dove in.”

In retrospect, Schrader regrets that the homosexual aspects of the script were toned down to get studio backing: “At the time, we thought we were being brave, promoting this androgynous male entitlement. Now I look back, and we were being cowardly. It should’ve been much more gay. Then again, I probably got it made because Julian pretends not to be gay.”

At the time, American Gigolo received mostly negative reviews by several mainstream critics. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Julian Kay is someone of absolutely no visible charm or interest, and though Mr. Gere is a handsome, able, low-key actor, he brings no charm or interest to the role. Then, too, the camera is not kind to him. It's not that he doesn't look fine, but that the camera seems unable to find any personality, like Dracula, whose image is unreflected by a mirror.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “By the time it sputters to a fade out, Gigolo pays a heavy price for such sustained pretentiousness in tawdry circumstances. This movie invites a sort of sarcasm that destroyed Moment By Moment without ever generating as much naive entertainment value.” Roger Ebert, however, gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The whole movie has a winning sadness about it; take away the story's sensational aspects and what you have is a study in loneliness. Richard Gere's performance is central to that effect, and some of his scenes – reading the morning paper, rearranging some paintings, selecting a wardrobe – underline the emptiness of his life.”

If the thriller genre elements don’t work as well as they should in American Gigolo it’s because the aspects of Julian’s profession and his developing relationship with Michelle are infinitely more interesting. It feels like Schrader was still trying things out and would be more successful at marrying these aspects in the film’s spiritual sequel The Walker (2007) decades later. American Gigolo is a fascinating fusion of the commercial sensibilities of slick movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Schrader’s art house inclinations (in particular, the films of Robert Bresson), establishing a stylistic template whose influence would be felt throughout the rest of the decade. Gone was the gritty, looseness of the 1970s, replaced by a slick sheen with style and spectacle over character development as epitomized by Bruckheimer produced blockbusters like Flashdance (1983) and Top Gun (1986). American Gigolo has aged better than many of these films thanks to Schrader’s thematic preoccupations, most significantly a self-destructive protagonist that finds redemption, and Gere’s strong performance that anchors the film. It may seem like a happy ending inconsistent with the rest of the film but Julian has survived at a great cost to his reputation. Everything he is has been torn down and now he must find some way to rebuild his life.


NOTES

Anolik, Lili. “Call Me!” Airmail News Weekly. February 8, 2020.

Jones, Chris. “Richard Gere: On Guard.” BBC News. December 27, 2002.

Krager, Dave. “Richard Gere on Gere.” Entertainment Weekly. August 31, 2012.

Perry, Kevin EG. “The Style of American Gigolo.” GQ. March 2012.

Segell, Michael. “Richard Gere: Heart-Breaker.” Rolling Stone. March 6, 1980.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Spider-Man


In 1997, Batman & Robin nearly killed off the comic book superhero movie. It was famously reviled by critics and underperformed at the box office. Blade (1998), however, came out the next year and proved that there was still interest in the genre. It wasn’t until the phenomenal success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), which managed to tap into the pop culture zeitgeist in a significant way, that the genre returned to prominence. Both movies were made by directors who grew up with these comic books and were fans. More importantly, they understood what made these iconic characters work and strongly identified with them.

Sam Raimi, in particular, was an inspired choice to direct Spider-Man. In many respects, his 1990 film Darkman was a comic book superhero movie not actually based on an existing title. It demonstrated that he had the innate storytelling instincts for the genre and the stylistic chops to transport the famous webslinger from page to screen. The end result was a loving homage to his humble beginnings at the hands of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko while still feeling contemporary.

Raimi immediately established Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as a pasty-faced dweeb that admires his high school crush Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) from afar. It’s not like he’s invisible as the movie makes a point of having her stick up for him while others ridicule him. He is an outcast and is friends with another outsider, Harry Osborn (James Franco), a rich kid that flunked out of private school and is tired of living in the shadow of his brilliant scientist father, Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe). David Koepp’s screenplay efficiently introduces all the significant people in Peter’s life and establishes the relationships between each other. Raimi has fun introducing the core supporting characters in Spider-Man’s world, like the Daily Bugle’s publisher J. Jonah Jameson played with perfect bluster by J.K. Simmons who captures the essence of the notoriously cheap yellow journalist while also taking an instant dislike to the webslinger.

The movie soon establishes a parallel between Peter and Norman as they undergo physical enhancement that also affects them mentally. With Peter it happened accidentally but Norman made the choice to do it, which drives him insane. Initially, Peter’s newfound powers make him cocky and selfish as he uses them for profit. It is only when this behavior results in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) that he learns to use his powers for the greater good.

Maguire has a memorable scene with Cliff Robertson when Uncle Ben has a heart-to-heart with Peter, telling him, “These are the years when a man changes into the man he’s gonna become for the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into.” He then utters the movie’s most famous line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead of listening, Peter foolishly chastises Ben for telling him what to do and to stop pretending to be his father, which visibly wounds the elder man. Robertson is excellent in this scene as he makes you care about him so that you feel bad when Peter dismisses him so callously. Maguire is quite strong in this scene as well, showing how Peter has become drunk with his newfound powers, believing that no one can relate to what he’s experiencing. He is also quite affecting in the aftermath of Ben’s death. Peter is in his room quietly crying, devastated by what happened and with the knowledge that it was his fault. He could have prevented it.

Kirsten Dunst brings a fresh-faced girl-next-door vibe to the role of M.J. She’s obviously beautiful but the actor isn’t afraid to act disarmingly goofy when posing for Peter’s pictures during their school field trip. She isn’t bored by the science stuff and actually looks interested in the tour guide’s spiel. The movie wisely has the relationship between her and Peter as its heart, establishing their friendship in scenes like when they tell each other their aspirations after they graduate from high school – she wants to be an actor and he wants to be a photographer, working his way through college. It a wonderful character building moment as Peter encourages M.J. to follow her dreams.

The two actors have fantastic chemistry together. We want to see Peter and M.J. get together yet it is always tantalizingly just out of reach. The scene where he saves her from would-be muggers as Spider-Man and she rewards him with a passionate kiss is a moment of intimacy that is missing from a lot of the current crop of comic book superhero movies, which are strangely asexual. What, superheroes don’t get to have love lives? The potential romance between Peter and M.J. is one of the best things about Spider-Man.

Willem Dafoe does a great job conveying Norman’s gradual transition to the dark side and the emergence of a split personality. It allows the actor to play two separate characters – Osborn, the victim, and the Green Goblin who wants to punish those that wronged him. The movie takes the time to show what motivated a decent man like Norman to go bad, transforming himself into the Goblin. He’s not a simple, world dominating baddie but a tortured soul driven mad by self-imposed pressures and corporate machinations. It was a quite a coup getting someone of Dafoe’s caliber to play the villain. He gives the role his own distinctive spin, like the Thanksgiving dinner he attends at Peter and Harry’s place. It looks like Norman but the way Dafoe plays it you can tell that the Goblin persona has taken over in the way he leers suggestively at M.J. and threateningly at Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) when she slaps his hand for touching the food before saying Grace.

As he demonstrated with Darkman, Raimi has a knack for kinetic camerawork and editing tailor-made for a comic book superhero movie, which he demonstrates during the Green Goblin’s attack on the Oscorp Unity Day Festival in downtown New York City. While trading blows with him, Spider-Man saves several innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, most notably M.J. The CGI in this sequence is impressive, seamlessly showing off both combatants’ abilities. Technology had finally caught up to what the comic books had been doing all along and brought Spider-Man’s webslinging powers vividly to life.

At the end of Spider-Man, Peter sums up his lot in life best when he says, “No matter what I do no matter how hard I try, the ones I love will always be the ones that pay.” This movie shows the sacrifices a hero must make in order to keep the ones he loves safe. Spider-Man is about what it takes to become a hero and what it means to be one. All it takes is one fateful moment to change your life forever. For Peter it was refusing to stop and armed robber who goes on to kill Uncle Ben. At that moment Peter realizes that his actions have real consequences and that he must use his powers responsibly. Thus, Spider-Man is born. It is this moment that sets him on the path to becoming a superhero.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

George Lucas vs. Star Wars

Now that I've had some time to reflect on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and the entire Disney trilogy, it has me thinking about Star Wars without George Lucas. The spark of inspiration came from this 2012 interview on StarWars.com with head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy and Lucas, which is very interesting, especially in regards to the following quotes:


At one point, Kennedy says, "The main thing is protecting these characters." Really? Then how does she explain killing them off over the course of the new movies? For me, I think that is the hardest thing to accept - characters that I love and cherish from the Original Trilogy being killed off and in ways that feel cheap. For example, I don’t mind the idea of killing off Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), but it is the way in which it was done that rankles me. It rang false and I expected a very heroic end for a character that deserved a proper demise. I was also fine with Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) death in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2016), which was pretty badass but why did the filmmakers feel the need to kill him off? I’ve always felt that in the Lucas-controlled Star Wars movies, when a major character was killed off it meant something, it was significant – the notable exception being Boba Fett, which was silly and did a great disservice to such a cool character.

In the 2012 interview, Lucas sums up his vision of Star Wars brilliantly:

"There are people out there who don't play by the rules and if you're not careful you're going to lose all your freedoms. At the same time, those people that don't play by the rules because they are selfish and greedy, and turn themselves into evil people who don't care about other people."

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I don't think he's talking about Star Wars. He's talking about Hollywood and the studios. He's always been wary and suspicious of them going back to THX 1138 (1971) when the studio cut out five minutes of the film against his wishes. Perhaps that's why he sold off Lucasfilm. He was tired of all the bullshit and baggage that comes with dealing with them.

Check out the body language between Kennedy and Lucas in the 2012 interview and it is very telling indeed. One person can clearly state his vision for his cinematic world. The other basically parrots what has been said and some of what she says feels like lip service. Now, before you say it, I don't bear Kennedy any ill will and I don't buy into any of the conspiracy theories in regards to why Lucas sold off his company, but the more I think about Star Wars since he sold it off the more I find it less and less like what he originally envisioned it to be. Say what you will about the Prequel trilogy but at least it was the vision of one person as opposed to the Disney trilogy, which, at times, lacks focus – due in large part to the switch of directors on The Last Jedi and then back again on The Rise of Skywalker.

In some respects, I feel sorry for Lucas, especially in light of the excerpts from Robert Iger's book where he writes about how Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams, et al ignored Lucas' ideas for the new movies and went in a different direction. I understand the notion of striking out in a new direction but they didn't really do that did they? The Force Awakens is basically a rehash of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Lucas wasn’t happy about that as Iger’s book states:

"Things didn't improve when Lucas saw the finished movie. Following a private screening, Iger recalls, Lucas "didn't hide his disappointment. 'There's nothing new,' he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, 'There weren't enough visual or technical leaps forward.' He wasn't wrong, but he also wasn't appreciating the pressure we were under to give ardent fans a film that felt quintessentially Star Wars.""

There it is in a nutshell the biggest problem with The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker: the filmmakers were more concerned with giving fans what they wanted instead of staying true to Lucas’ artistic vision. I’m willing to give the former a pass as it managed to renew my love for Star Wars, getting rid of the bad taste left by the Prequels, and introducing us to some wonderful new characters. It doesn’t hold up as well to repeated viewings now that the initial glow has faded. Lucas has made it clear that he was never concerned with what the fans wanted. He had a definite story he wanted to tell and knew how he wanted to tell it whether the fans liked it or not. This may explain why Rian Johnson’s installment – The Last Jedi – is so reviled in some corners of Star Wars fandom as he adhered to Lucas’ notion of remaining true to your own artistic vision. He said in an interview:

“I think approaching any creative process with [the purpose of making fandoms happy] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result. Even my experience as a fan, you know, if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay.’ It might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me.”

The Abrams-directed movies are attempting to give the fans what they want instead of staying true to an artistic vision, while Johnson's movie refused to pander to the fans and they crucified him for it. Interestingly, it is the only one of the new movies that Lucas has publicly said he liked. As a result, we get Abrams returning to the fold to "right the ship" as it were with The Rise of Skywalker. The more I think about them, the more I find that they are lacking. I love the new characters but was disappointed at how the Original Trilogy characters were treated. I don't mind killing off characters but have it mean something, which I felt wasn’t the case in some respects. Again, why do they need to be killed off in the first place? It can be a cheap, narrative ploy. Why couldn't some of them just ride off into the sunset? Admittedly, these sentiments come from having grown up with these characters and having genuine affection for them. I feel protective of them.

Love or hate the Prequels at least they did tread new ground in terms of technology and refused rehash what came before in terms of plot and story. Lucas took us to new worlds and introduced us to all sorts of new characters. The problems with these movies is that Lucas surrounded himself with Yes-men whereas on A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) he had people, like his wife Marcia and producer Gary Kurtz, keeping him in check, curbing his worst tendencies. It really started with Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) where Lucas freed himself of anybody who would say a critical word, allowing him to indulge himself. It would only get worse on the Prequel trilogy with the awkward racist stereotypes, ruining the mystique of The Force, and the clumsy direction of young, inexperienced actors.

This is why I find myself enjoying and revisiting the non-Disney trilogy movies/shows, like Rogue One (2016), Solo (2018) and The Mandalorian (2019), more as they are in keeping with the same spirit and tone as Lucas' original vision. Maybe, just maybe, I judged the Prequel movies a little too harshly (well, Episode I: The Phantom Menace is still horrible) and I feel like I need to revisit them in light of now finally seeing the last installment in the Disney trilogy. Maybe my opinion of them will change.


SOURCES

Parker, Ryan. “George Lucas Thinks The Last Jedi Was ‘Beautifully Made’.” The Hollywood Reporter. December 12, 2017.

Parker, Ryan. “Rian Johnson Calls Pandering to Star Wars Fans a ‘Mistake’.” The Hollywood Reporter. December 18, 2019.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Natural Born Killers


The 1990s was a time when hard news intersected with tabloid journalism pushing popular culture into new, salacious directions as nobodies like the Menendez brothers, John and Lorena Bobbitt, and Tonya Harding became instant celebrities via high profile violent cases while celebrities like O.J. Simpson became embroiled in the decade’s most notorious crime and subsequent court case that quickly turned into a media circus. This was aided and abetted by the rise of tabloid journalism with television magazine shows like A Current Affair and Hard Copy plying their trade in trashy celebrity gossip and true crime stories.

Back then, Oliver Stone had a knack for having his finger on the pulse of the pop culture zeitgeist as he proved with Platoon (1986) kick starting an interest in the Vietnam War, The Doors (1990) renewing interest in Jim Morrison and his band, and JFK (1991) launching a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists. Using the clout he had garnered from a run of successful films, he convinced Warner Bros. to help fund and distribute Natural Born Killers (1994), an experimental social satire under the guise of a lovers-on-the-run story that was popular at the time (see Wild at Heart, Kalifornia, True Romance, et al). He used a screenplay, written by then-up-and-coming Quentin Tarantino, as a foundation in which to lay his trademark socio-political beliefs only this time attacking the media, which, as one can imagine, did not endear the film to critics at the time.

Stone employed the flashy, multi-film stock blending of news footage with his own that he had done so effectively in JFK and deliberately pushed it to new extremes by also using front and rear-projection photography as well as cel animation to create “a vortex of the unreal," as one critic put it. Stone’s film adopts the style of the culture it parodies and attacks tabloid media and MTV culture by using the hyperkinetic editing tempo of music videos as well as the constantly changing points-of-view within the film to mirror our channel-surfing culture. The end result predictably courted controversy, divided critics, performed fairly well at the box office, and inspired several, real-life copycat killings.

Right from the get-go, Stone establishes the absurdist tone of his satire with his introduction of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), two murderous lovers on the run, as they kill a trio of rednecks along with everyone else in a diner save one (so that they can tell the media what happened). The director also uses this opening scene to introduce the frenetic, chaotic collage of film techniques that immediately draws attention to itself as a film. For example, when Mickey shoots and kills the cook we see it from his point-of-view, the bullet from the gun stopping for a second in front of the terrified person before hitting them. Afterwards, the couple celebrates their love for each other by dancing with a song straight out of a classic Hollywood musical, the lights going down as a display of fireworks is projected on a screen behind them. This is an exaggerated, heightened reality with its own set of rules as Stone challenges the way we watch a film.

The opening credits push it even further as Stone assaults our senses with a cacophony of sights and sounds with layers of songs and sound effects playing over a montage of Mickey and Mallory driving through rear-projected imagery, including landscapes from the American southwest and nightmarish imagery, like Mallory’s father (Rodney Dangerfield) foreshadowing things to come. The director is commenting on the chaos that pop culture had become in 1994 with so much stimulus bombarding us all the time. The irony is that it has only gotten worse.

The story itself is quite simple. After killing her parents, Mickey and Mallory go on the road, initiating a killing spree that not only draws the attention of the authorities, led by “supercop” Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), but also tabloid television journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) who all want a piece of them – the former wants to kill Mickey and have sex with Mallory, while the latter wants to use them to further his career.

Mickey and Mallory grew up on T.V. and it is how they view life. This is particularly evident in the sequence that depicts how the two met and fell in love. Stone frames it as a sitcom by fusing the sensibilities of I Love Lucy and Married…With Children with comedian Rodney Dangerfield, in a brilliant bit of casting against type, as her monstrous father. Mallory belongs to a white trash family where spousal abuse, incest and sexual abuse are all referenced while a laugh track uncomfortably exposes how contrived sitcoms are, manipulating how the audience is supposed to feel at a given moment. It makes sense that Mickey and Mallory’s backstory is depicted in this way. They would process all of the bad things they experienced through the medium they were exposed to for most of their lives. It’s what they know. This sequence, along with Mickey’s escape from a chain gang, thanks to a well-timed tornado that we see him riding towards on a horse, are the couple self-mythologizing their lives, reinterpreting them in a way that empowers them instead of making them victims.

If the first part of the film is Mickey and Mallory seen through their eyes then the next part is seeing them through Gale’s eyes on his tabloid T.V. show American Maniacs, which allows him to perform his own self-mythologizing. The opening credits hilariously show him breaking down a criminal’s door and then getting spit on by another crook during an interview. We see one of his Mickey and Mallory segments and how he manipulates events through dramatic re-enactments to paint the cops as heroes and the murderous lovers as villains on very simple terms. Stone cuts to Gale’s team putting together the segment with one crewmember bemoaning the reusing of footage from a previous show. Gale scoffs, “You think those nitwits in zombieland remember anything? It’s junk food for the brains. Filler. Fodder. Whatever.” With his exaggerated Australian accent, Downey is hilarious here as the egotistical Gale. This segment also shows how Mickey and Mallory become a media sensation all over the world with one idiot saying, “If I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.” Stone is taking dead aim at the deification of murderers like Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy who became infamous for killing people and glorified in film and T.V.

Stone makes a point of showing that Mickey and Mallory’s relationship is far from perfect as evident when they have an argument over him leering at their female hostage while having sex. She gets dressed and leaves only to go off and seduce a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty) in an attempt to feel wanted and desired but also to feel powerful as she initiates everything only to kill him when he recognizes her and tries to force himself on her. Her conflict with Mickey comes to a head when they run out of gas in the middle of the desert and happen upon a Native American Indian (Russell Means). He takes them in and his hospitality is rewarded when Mickey wakes from a particularly vivid nightmare about his abusive childhood and accidentally shoots the man. It is significant that it’s the one death they are remorseful about as Mallory angrily chastises him. To make matters worse, they are both bitten by rattlesnakes and manage to make their way to a drugstore saturated with garish green lighting where they are apprehended by Scagnetti in a scene that visually references the savage Rodney King beating and are sent to prison.

A year later, on the eve of the couple being transported to a mental hospital by Scagnetti after being declared insane, Gale arranges with Warden Dwight McClusky (a wonderfully unhinged Tommy Lee Jones) a live, one-on-one interview with Mickey that will air immediately after the Super Bowl. Downey is awesome in the scene where Gale hypes the interview in the hopes of convincing Mickey to do it: “This is Wallace and Noriega! This is Elton John confessing his bisexuality to Rolling Stone! This is the Maysles brothers at Altamont! This is the fuckin’ Nixon/Frost interviews!” Downey picks just the right words at just the right moments to exaggerate with his outrageous Australian accent that is a masterclass in scenery chewing. The actor manages to take it up another notch during the actual interview as Gale tries to make it all about him.

Known mostly for his genial goofball on Cheers, Woody Harrelson’s turn in NBK was a revelation at the time as he fearlessly shattered preconceived notions to play an unrepentant mass murderer. His finest moment is the prison interview scene as Mickey is introduced with a freshly shaven head and espouses his personal philosophy to Gale: “Everybody got the demon in here. The demon lives in here. It feeds on your hate. Cuts, kills, rapes. It uses your weakness, your fears. Only the vicious survive…You know, the only thing that kills a demon: love.” Amidst all the serial killer psychobabble this is the only bit that feels sincere and is arguably the film’s central thesis, which would explain why it ends the way it does.

The last 30 minutes of NBK are an insanely staged prison riot inspired by Mickey’s interview. He uses it to orchestrate a rescue of Mallory and then an escape with Gale, his film crew and two guards as hostages. This allows Stone to cut loose with all kinds of crazy imagery as prisoners fight it out with guards while Mickey and his group fight their way through the chaos. Amidst it all, Mickey and Mallory have a romantic moment when they are reunited before finishing off Scagnetti. Meanwhile, McClusky is losing his mind while losing control of the prison. Tommy Lee Jones is particularly inspired during this sequence as he delivers an increasingly hysterical performance with Downey matching him in the larger-than-life theatrical department. It’s as if the two actors had a running bet on who could chew up more scenery. Upon reflection, I think Downey wins as Gale goes from hostage to active participant, shooting and killing a guard trying to kill Mickey and Mallory. When the group lays low in a bathroom, Downey takes it up another notch as Gale, drenched in blood and grime, breaks up with his wife and is dumped by his mistress. He is then led out through a throng of guards with a shotgun taped to his head, talking to stay alive while McClusky rants and raves. It is a brilliantly sustained sequence set to a hysterical pitch.

Coming off making Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s marriage was on the rocks. He and his wife Elizabeth were having trouble communicating and she was upset that he continued to give into his wilder tendencies for women, drugs and alcohol. In 1993, Stone had dinner with producer Thom Mount and actor Sean Penn, whose film The Indian Runner (1991) he had produced. They had a screenplay written by then-up-and-coming filmmaker Quentin Tarantino entitled, Natural Born Killers, a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde story about a killer couple made famous by tabloid press and reality T.V. At the time, Stone didn’t know that Penn was going to direct it and that the rights were controlled by Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher, two novice movie producers that envisioned a low budget version.

Hamsher and Murphy were working out of her dining room at the time. They were looking to collaborate with young writers. At a party in April 1991, two people mentioned that Tarantino was going to direct Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his script for NBK was “near brilliant.” They met him and read the script, immediately wanting to make it into a film. It was, however, not easy to categorize and so they had a tough time finding someone willing to finance it. Next, they tried approaching filmmakers but that didn’t work either. They eventually met with Mount and he gave it to Penn.

Mount wanted Stone to produce the film under his company, however, after reading the script he wanted to direct. He said, “I felt attracted to it out of instinct…I know that starting to work on it has brought some turbulence up to the surface…there’s a demon in Natural Born Killers. There’s a demon that drives it. I can’t understand it exactly…but it captivates me.” Mount liked the idea of Stone directing and Penn was out, much to his chagrin. Stone also had to deal with Tarantino who was starting to get some clout in the industry after his debut film came out and wanted a say in the project. Stone remembers, “So I got an angry QT, an angry Sean Penn…There were a lot of legal hassles that we had to pay off to settle out people who might want to sue.”

Stone had to move fast. The wrap party for Heaven & Earth was on January 30 and on February 1, he put Murphy and Hamsher to work on Natural Born Killers. While editing the former he began production on the latter. Stone did not want to shoot Tarantino’s script as it was: “There was a structure and I liked the ideas and there were some very funny scenes, but it was not a movie I wanted to do…I always knew there was another level I wanted to try for.” He wanted to flesh out the relationship between Mickey and Mallory but didn’t have much time so he enlisted the help of long-time collaborator Richard Rutowski and tasked Hamsher with getting “one of your wild and crazy friends” to help them with rewrites. He wasn’t offering much money so she found David Veloz, fresh out of film school with no luck selling any of his scripts and ready to quit the business, whom she felt could write “extreme material that still retained its humanity.” He worked closely with Stone and added scenes like the argument the couple have in a motel room with a female hostage tied up in the corner. Stone also added a new first act with them on the road and flashbacks showing their backgrounds like the “I Love Mallory” sequence.

Rutowski introduced the idea of Mickey and Mallory wrestling with their inner demons and expressing them externally. Stone took Tarantino’s script and went deeper and bigger in scale. He said, “I didn’t want to make a realistic movie about serial killers. That was well done in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I’m really onto something else. It’s a larger portion of American life that’s enamored of violence, enamored of crime, promotes it on television, and eventually lives and dies by it.”

When Stone’s long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson read the script he didn’t want to do it: “I simply didn’t have the level of respect that I’d had for the written material on, say, Born on the Fourth of July or JFK. Each of those aroused in me a great deal of historical respect and intellectual curiosity.” Stone admitted that he played the “friendship card” with Richardson as he was feeling very vulnerable with his divorce looming over him and felt abandoned. To counter Richardson’s dislike of the material, Stone argued, “As far as the morality of the story was concerned, I argued with him that it represented the culture we were in, and that the picture was a satire, which required us to exaggerate and distort in order to make our point.” Richardson agreed to do it out of loyalty to Stone but it was an unpleasant experience for the man: “The story brought up unpleasant memories from my own childhood, and those memories plagued me to such a degree that my nights were literally sleepless.”

Working on such dark material put additional strain on an already fractured marriage. Stone felt that counseling wasn’t working and turned to meditation and immersed himself in his work, using NBK as a way to deal with his own demons. The filmmaker originally envisioned it as a medium-budget film a la Talk Radio (1988) for $10-12 million but the more he worked on it, the bigger in scale it became. Arnon Milchan financed the film. It was their third collaboration together and as the budget increased they approached Warner Brothers in the hopes that they would not only distribute it but market it as well. Stone wanted to use their considerable resources but the subject matter scared them and so they used their leverage when it came to casting.

Originally, Stone wanted Michael Madsen, who he had worked with on The Doors (1991), to play Mickey Knox and Juliette Lewis to play Mallory Knox, who convinced the director that she was right for the part and that “only I could play somebody who could tear your throat out with her bare hands.” The studio felt that the former wasn’t a big enough movie star and suggested Woody Harrelson instead. Stone agreed and with Robert Downey, Jr. cast as Wayne Gale – someone that Stone had always wanted to work with – he made a deal with the studio. The casting of Harrelson surprised many as all he was really known for at that point was the dumb but sweet bartender on the T.V. sitcom Cheers. Stone had done his homework. At the time, Harrelson’s father was serving a double life sentence for the murder of a federal judge and it was rumored that he was one of the “three tramps” arrested in Dallas the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For the role of Warden McClusky, Stone had approached Jack Palance but once he read the script he turned down the part as he felt the film was too violent. On short notice, Stone asked Tommy Lee Jones, who had already worked with him on JFK (1991) and Heaven & Earth, and he agreed.

Rehearsals did not go well as Juliette Lewis showed up unprepared. She repeatedly missed kick-boxing lessons, shooting practice and workout sessions that were to develop her into a warrior character like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Instead, she showed up to rehearsal one day and ordered room service, eating and smoking while Stone was trying to work. Meanwhile, Jones worked closely with hair stylist Cydney Cornell to achieve the distinctive look of McClusky: “I always thought those little pencil-thin toothbrush mustaches were really stupid. Huge Carl Perkins sideburns. They said, ‘What do you want your hair to look like?’ I said, ‘I think it ought to look like a ’57 Studebaker.’”

By 1993, Stone and his wife were separated and principal photography began on NBK in New Mexico. He set a blistering pace, shooting in several cities in a short period of time, which meant six and sometimes seven-day weeks with 16-17-hour days. By all accounts it was a wild shoot as on-set doctor Chris Renna remembers one night hearing a lot of noise coming from Lewis’ hotel room and four in the morning. He checked it out and found her and Tom Sizemore bouncing up and down on her bed with the Rolling Stones on the radio. Lewis then wanted to order cornflakes from room service even though Sizemore claimed he couldn’t eat them. She ordered eight boxes anyway and proceeded to feed him a bit of them. He spit the food all over her and the bed. He got mad and she apologized.

Stone shot the film on a wide variety formats: color and B&W 35mm, B&W 16mm, Super 8, Hi8, and Beta. According to Richardson, “We’re going for the grittiness you get from Super 8 or 16mm – a lot of the violence is being done with those formats.” Stone also used front and rear-projection techniques, computer graphics, bluescreen, and cel animation. In addition, he hired Paul Stojanovich, who had worked on the reality T.V. show Cops and the sensationalist talk show Geraldo, to design and direct the style of Wayne Gale’s American Maniacs tabloid show.

Stone devised a stylistic blueprint for specific parts of the film intended to simulate channel-surfing:

“At the beginning of the movie these two young people are really desensitized to violence. The concept is that the live in T.V. world and don’t realize the consequences of their actions…We incorporated those ideas into the movie by using rear-screen images. We wanted to give a sense of the schizophrenic madness of the century and to convey the feeling that the characters’ minds are hopped-up and speedy.”

Stone then changed the look of the film after Mickey accidentally kills that Native American Indian and he and Mallory are bitten by rattlesnakes: “The whole mood of the lighting changes into a greenish, poisonous hue to reflect the idea that the fun has ended.” In addition, each significant character got their own distinctive look with Gale getting a “television magazine” style, Scagnetti, “a lurid, pseudo-Mickey style because Scagnetti wants to be Mickey and possess Mallory,” and for McClusky, Stone wanted to create “a scary, ominous prison that suggested punishment.” For the climactic prison riot, “the look is one of complete chaos – everything but the kitchen sink.”

After New Mexico, filming moved to Joliet, Illinois at a large prison known as Statesville. Of the 2300 inmates, 800 expressed an interest in being part of the film with only 342 cleared by the authorities to actually participate. It was a tough shoot as Richardson said, “I hated it there. Besides the difficult conditions, there is a real racial attitude in the prison because you’ve got thousands of mostly black men being incarcerated and ruled over by mostly white guards. A lot of them resent us being here.” The demands of shooting there increased the budget as did using rear-screen projection while also taking more time. In one day there were five injuries on set and on the next day during the scene where Scagnetti bursts into Mallory’s cell and tries to rape her, Lewis passed out between takes, tired from being up until five in the morning. A few takes later she achieved the energy levels Stone wanted and accidentally smashed Sizemore in the nose for real. He began bleeding and after it was decided that his nose wasn’t broken they finished the scene, using it for the shot.

Stone yelled at her and said later, “We’ve been having all these problems, and she wasn’t responding, I had a bunch of squibs going off, and she was missing her cues, her lines, her marks, and I said, ‘Look, people can get hurt. It’s a real serious thing, you can’t just take it that easy. You have to do it right.’” The prison scenes were the most expensive and difficult to shoot as they filmed in a real prison with real inmates and real weapons. There were limitations where they could shoot and for how long. He ran into problems with the prison authorities when he told them that he wanted to use prop guns during the riot scenes as they were worried that the weapons would be disassembled and used to make real weapons. Stone made a few calls to the right people and the prison authorities allowed it so long as real inmates weren’t near the filming area.

For six weeks the production split their time between shooting the prison riot scene on location and on a large film stage with technical consultant Dale A. Dye and stunt coordinator Phil Nelson staging the sequences. They studied case histories of prison riots and looked at what kind of weapons inmates would make, what from and where they would hide them. They also talked to corrections officers about homemade weapons. Dye said, “This is not a protest, but a riot. These guys aren’t going to hold signs that say, ‘You piss me off.’ They’re going to pop your eye out of its socket and skull-fuck you.” He remembered one take during the riot scene where someone started firing their gun before action was called: “The prisoners freaked out. They and I thought the guards were really firing. There was sheer panic and terror.”

In addition to producing, Hamsher was instrumental in picking songs for the film’s eclectic soundtrack. She wanted alternative rock music in the film and made mixed tapes for Stone of music she wanted to use: L7, Jane’s Addiction, the Velvet Underground, and Diamanda Galas among others. She wanted to challenge Stone and figured he would never go for it but much to her surprise he loved it and even played some of the music during filming to set the tone for a given scene.

Filming wrapped in July and the monumental task of editing all the footage that had been shot began. Stone kept asking Milchan if he could make NBK NC-17 and the mogul agreed but argued that it would limit the places to advertise and screen it. Milchan said, “What he was doing was testing how far he can go…My guess is that he will go for the most extreme version possible. He’ll test it. Push it as far as he can.” Sure enough, the film went to the rating board five times before it got an R rating.

Stone saw his film “constructed via television and as a homage to T.V…There’s the aggression of the imagery, the channel-surfing philosophy of moving on.” He also felt that it was not “an easy movie to settle into, you can’t get a point of view, you have to surrender to the movie. If you resist the movie with conventional ethics, you’ll have a problem.” Not surprisingly, the studio and exhibitors were apprehensive about this ultraviolent film bound to be controversial. An unnamed studio executive admitted, at the time, that it was “a very difficult film to sell. How do you sell a film about two despicable people and the media turning them into heroes?” They opted to play up the social satire aspect rather than it being about vicious killers.

Predictably, Natural Born Killers polarized critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Despite isolated moments of bleak, disturbing beauty, it is finally less an epiphany than an ordeal. Not for the first time, Mr. Stone assembles an arsenal of visual ideas and then fires away point-blank in his audience’s direction…While Natural Born Killers affects occasional disgust at the lurid world of Mickey and Mallory, it more often seems enamored of their exhilarating freedom.” The Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Stone calls this bile satire. But it’s not satire to skewer idiots. Satire respects the insidious power of its targets. Satire takes careful aim; Killers is crushingly scattershot. By putting virtuoso technique at the service of lazy thinking, Stone turns his film into the demon he wants to mock; cruelty as entertainment.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “The main problem with Killers, though, is that it degenerates into the very thing it criticizes…Killers is intended as a gonzo critique of the mass media and, by extension, of the bloodthirsty legions of couch potatoes whose prurient taste guarantees that the garbage rises to the top of the charts. But the film doesn’t make it as a piece of social criticism. Primarily this is because the movie’s jittery, psychedelic style is so obviously a kick for Stone to orchestrate.”

Not all critics hated the film. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning. As we coast into a long autumn where the news will be dominated by the O.J. Simpson trial, Natural Born Killers is like a slap in the face, waking us up to what’s happening.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “In Natural Born Killers something revelatory happens. The movie is enlightening, not because it transmits new information, but in the way that movies enlighten, through a synergy of images and rhythms that makes us sense the world in a new way…Stone’s flabbergasting movie cannot be dismissed; it must and will be fought over.”

Natural Born Killers reflects the rise of sampling culture in the ‘90s with hip-hop and industrial music sampling clips from movies, T.V. and other music. Stone does this both audibly, with collages of songs and dialogue that plays over certain scenes, and visually as Mickey and Mallory watch clips of movies that Stone himself wrote – Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983). It was a technique that he had started using in JFK and perfected with NBK to mimic the sensation of changing channels complete with a commercial. Exploitative T.V. shows like A Current Affair no longer exist as all news has become fear-mongering in nature. Take Inside Edition and replace it with Fox News or MSNBC where there is no absolute truth, which continues to make Stone’s film relevant. What NBK is trying to say is that you can’t trust any of these things. You have to trust yourself. You have digest all of this information, figure out what is misinformation and decide for yourself.


SOURCES

Pizzello, Stephen. “Natural Born Killers Blasts Big Screen with Both Barrels.” American Cinematographer. November 1994.

Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.

Russo, Francine. “There’s A Riot Going On.” Village Voice. August 23, 1994.

Smith, Gavin. “The camera for me is an actor.” Film Comment. January-February 1994.

Smith, Gavin. “Somebody’s gonna give you money, you do your best to make ‘em a good hand.” Film Comment. January-February 1994.

Smith, Gavin. “Oliver Stone – Why Do I Have to Provoke?” Sight and Sound. December 1994.

Weinraub, Bernard. “How a Movie Satire Turned into Reality.” The New York Times. August 16, 1994.

Williams, David E. “Overkill.” Film Threat. October 1994.