Never Set In Stone

Mark C. Carnes, ed.
Past Imperfect:
History According to the Movies
Henry Holt and Company

James Riordan
Stone: The Controversies, Excesses
and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker

JUDGING FROM THE 15 minutes of Nixon I've seen, it appears that Oliver Stone is up to his same tricks again: the unmotivated mix of reenactments and archival footage in color and b/w; the swelling musical score signifying an Important Motion Picture Event; the ensemble of Method actors (Anthony Hopkins, if you haven't heard, stars as Tricky Dick) playing out history under pounds of makeup. Actually, I'm an admirer of Stone's work, having felt since Salvador that his excesses (and, I suppose, his Controversies and Exploits) were among his most valuable qualities. Like Spike Lee, Stone is regularly knocked for his didacticism, but neither director's films can (or should) be as easily pegged as their creators' soundbite lectures. Stone likens his films to "countermyths," although they're even richer as embodiments of random confusion and inchoate rage. Personally, I'd prefer to come to grips with a director's messy view of history than, say, Home For the Holidays--which is the point that Past Imperfect comes back to consistently throughout its 59 essays by various academic and literary notables.

Hardly a scholarly tome, Past Imperfect works as a coffee-table counterpart to Gore Vidal's book Screening History, in which the author argued for the inclusion of film studies in primary school curricula. Acknowledging that the movie theater functions now more than ever as a de facto institution of higher learning, and that conventional literacy may be beyond what he termed "the third generation of TV-watchers," Vidal suggested that the most dangerous scenario would be for historical films to be mistaken for disposable entertainment. Of course, in our quick-fix culture they often are, which allows Vidal's Imperfect essay on Sullivan's Travels (1941) to carry a rich charge of irony.

Writing in a deliberately naive first person, Vidal recalls seeing Travels at age 15 and being disturbed by its rapid-fire shifts between wild slapstick and bleak social realism. At the time, he rejected director Preston Sturges's ending to the film, in which a high-brow Hollywood director seems to realize that escapist comedy is a more useful tool for helping an audience sort out its struggles. It's clear that Vidal now interprets this scene as a satire of war-era uplift, while remaining in awe of the movie's initial shock value; indeed, his memory of the film's hobo characters stayed with him for over 50 years, and helped inspire his recent TV documentary about poverty in the Anacostia Flats.

In just under two pages, Vidal's article encapsulates the dual thesis of Past Imperfect: Historical movies represent the period in which they were made as much as the period they're documenting; and since films inevitably change in meaning over time, along with both individual viewer and historical context, even the most seemingly negligible movies can serve as jumping-off points for critical investigation. The chapter on John Huston's notoriously simple-minded Freud (1962), for instance, includes an essay by Freud biographer Peter Gay, who suggests that the film's view of the title character as a brooding social misfit stemmed more from the need to showcase Montgomery Clift's Method angst than any intent of the script.

As if to compensate for the movie's deficiencies, the chapter collects sidebar paragraphs on the historical definitions of hysteria, "The Origins of Psychoanalysis," and Freud's therapeutic abuse of his patient Dora. Even these "objective" addenda are written by the essayists themselves, which drives home the book's point that film and history are inevitably and often insidiously subjective. Thus, a chapter on the three film versions of Joan of Arc represents women's studies professor Gerda Lerner's take on Dreyer's, Fleming's, and Preminger's takes on historians' takes on Saint Joan. Whew. If anything, this rather exhausting book is overloaded with supplementary detail--although you could say that, like Stone's movies, it adequately represents history as a chaotic battleground of interpretation.

Although Stone often compares his work to the avant-garde tradition of Godard, it's no coincidence that he rose to the top of the auteur A-list in the late '80s; in one sense, his quick-cut films could be seen as nothing more than the cinematic upscaling of MTV News. Albeit unintentionally, James Riordan's new Stone bio lends itself perfectly to such facile interpretations. Befitting its tabloidesque title, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker is a numbingly straightforward approach to the man and his career, cramming quotes from Stone's many gushing collaborators into a narrative that equates machismo with artistry. (It helps to know that Riordan earlier wrote a Jim Morrison bio called Break On Through.)

With a release date set for late December, the book is ostensibly meant as a Nixon tie-in, although the new film earns only a brief footnote in Riordan's history. Even more disastrous is the author's total failure to make a case for Stone as a "radical" filmmaker; after 500 pages of melodramatic fluff, the author's final paragraph concludes that Stone "remains driven and searching. This is part of what makes him such a powerful artist and unique human being." Uh-huh. Ultimately, Riordan reduces his hero's prickly oeuvre to an anecdote-laden Vanity Fair feature--an approach which makes Past Imperfect's jumbled complexity even more valid.

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