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Sunday, 09 August 2020 19:41

Oliver Stone's Chasing the Light

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Joseph Green reviews Oliver Stone’s new book Chasing the Light and demonstrates how it reveals a man who is passionately engaged with the world and an artist who allows a rare, detailed look into his process.


As I am writing this review of Oliver Stone’s fascinating new memoir, Chasing the Light, news agencies around the world report that director Alan Parker is dead. A terrific visual stylist, Parker made some fine films, Angel Heart being a particular favorite. And some films which took substantial liberties with true events e.g. Mississippi Burning, Evita, and were less artistically successful. He plays a role in Stone’s book because Parker directed Midnight Express, which is the script that broke Stone into the business as a young man and garnered him his Academy Award. And although they did not know it at the time, that script—based on the experiences of Billy Hayes—turned out to have been based on a fabrication. Hayes, as Stone explains in the book, was not forthcoming about certain details that change the nature of his experience. For instance, the protagonist Billy Hayes—played by the late Brad Davis—had made several trips to Turkey for purposes of smuggling hashish. His lawyer advised him not to reveal this to the authorities. (See the documentary Midnight Return for more of the details.)

It is an ironic note for two reasons. The first is that no writer/director of Oliver Stone’s caliber has ever been attacked so widely and with such ferocity by the major media due to the controversial theses of his films. And for another, because Stone entered the project of adapting the story for screen with the same dedication to truth that he has revealed in all his work. Is that truth subjective to some extent? Of course. Such is the nature of experience.

But before getting to the films—and this volume ends with the triumph of Platoon, leaving the rocky waters of JFK and Nixon hopefully for a future installment—Chasing the Light begins with Oliver Stone’s formative experiences. It begins with Stone being born in 1946, a little more than a year after V-J Day, in New York to his non-practicing Jewish father, Louis Stone, and his French mother, Jacqueline Pauline Cezarine Goddet. They were not well-matched, alas, but Stone writes eloquently about his relationship to both. Regarding his “sexy” mother, he meets Freud head on, musing that if he grew too attached to his mother, it at least did not give him a “distrustful” impression of women. (Stone, p.24)

The first hundred pages or so of the book revolve around his impressions of his family life, his schooling, his attendance at Yale flunking out of Yale, and then his enlistment and experiences in Vietnam. The prose is lively, with bursts of observation and humor throughout, like a heady mix of Scott Fitzgerald and Bernard Fall. For example, Stone captures his feelings about his mother as he grew into a young man:

She wasn’t really interested in history, art, literature, the things I was wrestling with; she was into people, friendship, the guts of real life. The interaction was what excited her to no end, and because of that she was a firecracker and lit many a spark in other people’s lives. As well as mine. But to be the son of such a person is not simple, and I could never satisfy her as a son or as the engine in her life. (52)

And his father:

My father had wanted to write plays when he got out of college, like Arthur Miller. They were now stacked in a drawer in his desk—never produced. His heart, part of it, resided in that drawer. (p. 53)

What Stone struggles within this first section of the book is finding the through-line, in effect, of his life. He grew up with substantial advantages as a result of his birth and his parents, and it is quite possible to imagine another Oliver Stone in some other universe who does not become a film director and instead becomes a Wall Street broker or, worse, a lawyer. He threw away a Yale education, instead enrolling as a private in Vietnam. He was attuned to the times, failing to fit in, and mentions wanting to go into “the muck” as it had been described in the John Dos Passos novels. (p. 36) I find that reasoning entirely plausible and relatable; at the age of twenty, were I ever to join a war, it would not be for patriotic reasons but for experiential reasons. And although Stone does not cite him directly, the kind of crisis he describes is perfectly paralleled in John Barth’s classic 1967 short story “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which a young author first realizes that in some sense being an artist means looking at your own life from a certain distance, so that each decision has an overarching intent beyond the immediate. Barth describes it like this:

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore, he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.[1]

Stone eventually gets over his malaise, growing to have contempt for the New York society people whose experience of Vietnam is at a vast remove from his own. Stone describes, with some detail, the astonishing bloodshed involved in his experiences, and contrasts it with his mother’s friends who ask him inane questions and then move on to more palatable topics.

THE WORLD IS YOURS

Following his success with the script for Midnight Express and his ensuing Oscar, Stone learns a brutal lesson that almost all Hollywood writers learn. Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about writers. Even Oscar-winning ones get hot for five minutes and then it’s on to the next one down. People always seem surprised when I tell them this; as one would naturally think the person who had to write everything down and come up with the story in the first place would be admired. Nope. Part of this comes with the ascension of the auteur theory in the sixties: the director as the creative kingpin, at least for the critics. But the truth is it was always more or less this way. And while it’s true that some great directors had a knack for inventing scenes on the spot, even experts like Howard Hawks would much rather put the work in first, as he did with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur for Twentieth Century, for example.[2]

In any case, Stone decided he had to become a director. So after winning the Oscar for Midnight Express, he directed the psychological horror film The Hand, with Michael Caine. It didn’t go well (although it scared the pants off me when I was a kid). After that lack of success, he nevertheless co-wrote the scripts for Conan the Barbarian, directed by the nutty but talented John Milius, and Year of the Dragon, directed by Michael Cimino, and starring Mickey Rourke during his golden period. Both films have fascinating aspects to them and the stories are equally so, especially if you are interested in the Hollywood process. Ultimately, however, after a complicated sequence of events, detailed in the book, he ended up writing the screenplay for the film Scarface.

In a recent interview with GQ (for video), Pacino discussed his reasons for wanting the role as simply being inspired by seeing the Howard Hawks original with Paul Muni. Pacino, devoted to theater, also recalled that Muni and gangster pictures in general were a favorite of Bertolt Brecht. Scarface was written by the screenwriter Ben Hecht and made before the moral self-censorship of the Hays code had been fully installed. The film was so potent that it nonetheless underwent some censorship to change the ending. Stone does not describe his experience with director Brain De Palma on their remake of the Muni film as a happy one, and for understandable reasons. Stone notes that the director was focused on “the big picture,” that is, large set pieces of action, rather than the intimate details. Indeed, Stone’s experience with Parker, a similarly distant director focused on artistic composition more than the nuances of performance or script detail, was duplicated on Scarface. (pp. 176-177) Stone was eventually thrown off the set.

For his part, the director Brian De Palma gave a similar account in the recent film De Palma. He remembers that Stone was in the ears of the actors and he could not brook such negativity on his set. And indeed, it’s easy to see the obvious difficulties the two men would have coexisting on a film set. De Palma acknowledges that he is the main (and perhaps only) director to pursue the cinematic grammar established by Alfred Hitchcock. Stone’s grammar is derived from other sources, particularly the rapid cutting style of the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. In any case, for Scarface the marriage—however difficult—worked, albeit in terms of pop iconography. The more serious elements of the script, including the amazing scene in which Alejandro Sosa (played by the late Paul Shenar) introduces Tony Montana (Pacino) to public officials as they watch a reporter discuss some of the truths of drug industry—tend to be lost.

And at this point, Stone decides he is going to make his independent films happen, and direct them, and get them distributed. And, considering the projects he wanted to undertake and the Reagan era politics of the time, it is astonishing he ever got those projects made.

SALVADOR and PLATOON

The final section of the book presents an amazing chronicle of trying to carve a life inside the Hollywood system while retaining an independent determination to put reality on film. As a result, Stone winds up allied with some colorful and bizarre characters. The most decadent of these figures is probably Richard Boyle, a journalist in the Hunter S. Thompson mode, whose story became the inspiration for Stone’s film Salvador. Boyle ends up living with Stone for a while and contributing to the dissolution of his marriage. Stone’s wife did not enjoy waking up to Boyle asleep on the kitchen table having drunk all the booze and baby formula from the fridge. It is easy to imagine the husband/wife conversations that followed: Why are you making a film about this lunatic? And indeed, it’s a fair question.

At first, the plan was to let Boyle play himself, but this idea went by the wayside. James Woods and Jim Belushi were brought in to star, with Belushi as Dr. Rock. Upon meeting Dr. Rock, Belushi remarked to Stone, “You don’t really want me to play that thoroughly fucked-up asshole, do you?” (p. 236) Note: Jim Belushi said this. In his generally positive review of the film, Leonard Maltin remarked that it was hard to get into Salvador at first because “the characters played by Woods and Belushi” are “such incredible sleazeballs.” Also not an unreasonable assessment.

Having said that, my impression as an adolescent seeing the film is that it feels very real and visceral and suitably hopeless in its treatment of that period. As a young man I traveled extensively into southern Mexico, primarily in the Michoacan region, while a peasant revolt was taking place. Our eventual destination—Lazaro Cardenas—was roughly a 25-hour drive from our starting point, Laredo, in the back of a pickup truck. At the gas stations where we filled up, it was not uncommon to see men with machine guns guarding the fuel and asking questions. We had many encounters with various officials, and that feeling of imminent danger—the question of whether we were in real trouble or not at any given moment—is replicated better in Salvador than any other film I have seen. It has a documentary feel to it that more conventional Hollywood dramas lacked, e.g. Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire, mentioned by Stone as a film made with a similar theme. However, Under Fire, while being a solid picture with fine performances, plays more like a 1980s remake of Casablanca. Salvador owes more to films like Costa Gavras’s Z and documentaries like The Battle of Algiers.

Salvador performed decently at the box office. This was good because it turned out that doors were opening for its director/writer to take a long-neglected script which had been shelved for a decade and get it made: (The) Platoon.

It is in the creation and eventual success of Platoon, that Stone builds his book’s climax; a validation that the Yale dropout made good. Even here, however, the author does not hold back a critical eye from himself. In addition to the varying drug use, Stone describes how his zeal in the making of Platoon caused him to make nearly disastrous decisions. Besides literally kicking people around during the shooting, he also pushed them beyond their limits, which nearly caused a horrendous helicopter accident that would have killed himself and several people aboard. This causes him some reflection, although he admits that he “would have done the exact same thing over again, and gone up into those canyon walls.” (p. 284) He would have done this because he needed the shot—chasing the light—and contrasts his risk taking with the risk taking that went on in the Chuck Norris actioner Missing in Action 3. Does the aesthetic result justify the risk? Perhaps for oneself. But for others?

It is easy to recall and contrast another helicopter accident, one that claimed actor Vic Morrow’s life along with two children. The director was John Landis, and the film was Twilight Zone: the Movie, and in that case Landis could be heard shouting “Get lower!” to the helicopter pilot before the incident occurred. Was that worth it? When I was at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2015, John Landis was in town doing Q&A for a celebration of The Blues Brothers in conjunction with a firing up of a new 35mm striking of that film which was shown at The Texas Theater. (At the same time, a film I co-wrote and co-produced which featured Oliver Stone among others, was closing the festival.) I went to Landis’s Q&A, which was in a small room with perhaps fifty people present, and it was hard not to think about Vic Morrow and those two child actors whose lives were ended. (For a good book on that horrible incident, read Outrageous Conduct by Marc Green and Stephen Farber.)

Based on Stone’s reportage, something like this could have happened on his set. Stone admits he was reckless in his hellbent pursuit of the picture. Almost as though his filmmaking career has been an extension of that youthful decision to go Vietnam rather than go to Yale. Was it all macho posturing? Stone notes that Pauline Kael thought so, dismissing Platoon in her typically reactionary way. Others have thought so, and indeed this memoir will provide some fuel for that particular fire. On the other hand, it was precisely that warrior mentality and specificity of purpose that makes Oliver Stone’s films as vital as they are.

Chasing the Light provides an insight into the creative process of one of the brilliant, if polarizing, minds at work in cinema. It is a hard book to categorize in some ways. Many showbiz memoirs tend to be a succession of, as Frank Langella titled his own such book, Dropped Names. Others are built on a formula built from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; that is, they print the legend. Instead, this memoir reflects his films: intelligent, uncomfortable at times, substantive, rough around the edges and straining for truth. And it is, in a very classical sense, a literary memoir. In that it contains references to Celine and scores of other authors which have clearly made an impression on Stone. Most of all, it reveals a man who is passionately engaged with the world; while one could argue about one decision or another, it is rare that an artist of this caliber allows such a detailed look into his process.

And this is just part one. We haven’t even gotten to JFK and Nixon yet.


[1] Barth, John, Lost in the Funhouse (Anchor Books: New York, New York 1968), 97.

[2] McBride, Joseph, Hawks on Hawks (University of Kentucky Press 2013), 77.


Last modified on Tuesday, 11 August 2020 01:53
Joseph E. Green

Joseph E. Green is a political researcher and playwright. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Hidden History Center and is the author of the collections Dissenting Views and Dissenting Views II. He also co-produced and co-wrote the film King Kill 63, which premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2015 and now seeks distribution.  He also maintains his own website, www.dissentingviews.com.

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