If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
Friday, November 4, 2016, The Cinefamily in Los Angeles is showing Oliver Stone's 1981 horror film "The Hand." RogerEbert.com contributor Sam Fragoso is moderating. Details are here. The theater is showing Stone's "Platoon" the following night, with a discussion afterward between Sam, myself, and RogerEbert.com contributor Jim Beaver, a film historian, actor and Vietnam veteran. "Platoon" details are here.
The following is an excerpt from my book The Oliver Stone Experience, a combination biography and critical guide that interweaves Stone's life story with essays about different aspects of his work. This piece originally ran in the book under the title "Surrender to the Primoridal." It was written by my good friend Walter Chaw, film critic for http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ and the manager of Alamo Drafthouse Denver, which showed a selection of Oliver Stone crime films last year. It deals mainly with "The Hand," "U-Turn" and "Natural Born Killers," but it also discusses how Stone puts the uncanny, the irrational and the nightmarish to work in other movies.
OLIVER STONE, POET OF THE ID: "THE HAND" REVISITED
B Y W A L T E R C H A W
Oliver Stone is not just a historian or an entertainer. He is a mythmaker and dream weaver, contemplating the forces that drive individuals and nations. He senses portents. He is a seer of signs. He works in the unconscious, where archetypes swim. Even in films that are rooted in biographical fact, there are scenes or moments when his characters become dream protagonists, wandering through apocalyptic landscapes invoked by abandoning rational thought. Whether he is reimagining history or working in established commercial genres (such as the horror film, the crime thriller, or the sports movie), his films regularly abandon “realism” for the figurative, expressionistic, or surreal. His films often have a spine rather than a head. No surprise, then, that he puts so many snakes in his films: Snakes are all spine, and they’ll bite you even when they’re dead.
To experience his work is to surrender to the primordial, the uncanny. Watching his films is like walking into a Francis Bacon painting, or through an Anne Sexton poem where the inside is turned out and distorted. Even in “realistic” mode, he takes images that are commonly employed for comfort and familiarity and perverts them. Think of the way he poisons patriotic iconography throughout Born on the Fourth of July, to show how propaganda shaped its hero into an compliant killer; when Ron Kovic returns from Vietnam in a wheelchair after accidentally killing women, children, and one of his own men, there’s an image of a tattered flag, made transparent by the sun shining through it. And in more overtly expressionistic works, the stylization is more extreme than Hollywood films typically allow.
In Natural Born Killers, the American TV sitcom is reconstituted as an X-rated nightmare: laugh track, interrogation room lighting, crude blocking, abuse, molestation, patricide. Stone’s most potent images make us shudder and recoil. They are as jarring as finding a roach in a cereal box or a lump in a breast. Time and again, he serves up the familiar and then introduces the arcane.
In U-Turn, a diner waitress is confrontational and rude with the hero and then suddenly flirts with him—and after that, her cat reads his thoughts and thwarts a petty robbery. His characters often seem to be enacting prophecies or living out curses: hence the interpolation of Peggy Lee’s jaunty “It’s a Good Day” as our hero drives toward his karmic comeuppance in U-Turn; the closing chessboard of The Hand; and the moment in Nixon where the soon-to-be-president delivers a law-and-order speech at the 1968 Republican convention, and Stone cuts to a wide shot that shows him addressing an obviously rear-screen projected image of riot cops amassed like centurions.
In casting his leads, Stone often gravitates toward wiry, nervous, solipsistic James Woods / Sean Penn / Al Pacino/ Val Kilmer / Taylor Kitsch types—men whose screen personas speak to lives lived in thrall to insensate reflex action. While these types of men often use drugs, they don’t always appear to require them. The live-wire Stone hero often seems to exist half in a dream state, regardless. But Stone’s more clean-cut, “square” protagonists—Richard Nixon, Charlie Sheen in Platoon and Wall Street, Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, Jim Garrison in JFK, the Port Authority cops in World Trade Center—also abandon the rational or mathematical, by choice or necessity, sometimes at the behest of a wilder friend or a shaman figure, and depart the measurable world, and flow in and out of reveries brought on by alcohol, drugs, near-death experiences, obsession, or despair.
They are on vision quests whether they realize it or not, and whether they want it or not. Stone’s movies pull the viewer into the experience of ecstasy, in the ecclesiastical sense: the ekstasis, the standing outside of the self. “The worm has definitely turned for you, man,” says Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias in Platoon, after feeding the hero a massive pot hit through a rifle barrel. “We’re through the looking glass, people,” Garrison tells his team as they investigate the conspiracy in JFK, invoking Lewis Carroll. “White is black, black is white.”
His films find spiritual kinship in the films of Shohei Imamura and Werner Herzog. There’s no morality in his universe apart from that which individuals choose to exercise, and when Stone characters invoke morality as a justification for action, it’s often a cover for enacting unconscious wishes, or satisfying greedy, sadistic, fearful, or lustful impulses. The only constant throughout his films is ugly, chaotic violence. In film after film we see images of castration, mutilation, stigmata, disfigurement. The hero of The Hand loses a hand, Ron Kovic loses the use of his legs and penis, drug dealers in Scarface and Savages lose arms and heads and chunks of flesh, grunts in Platoon and Born are torn apart by rifle fire and mine explosions, soldiers in Alexander are stabbed and hacked, trampled by horses and gored by elephants. Their missing or destroyed parts can never been reattached or healed. Sometimes they can’t even be found.
Stone digs deeper into male fear, rage, and desire than any American filmmaker since Sam Peckinpah, and he’s just as fearless about revealing the caveman in outwardly civilized heroes. Think of the sequence in The Hand where Jon loses his hand: It’s presented as a castration. It happens during an argument, when his inconstant wife suggests a separation. At the moment of his maiming, Jon is riding in the passenger seat in a convertible driven by a woman; from the outset there’s a sense of unease, and we grasp that Jon is unhappy because men are supposed to be behind the wheels of their lives. In The Hand, the first glimpse of Jon’s comic strip under the opening credits finds the artist’s avatar, Mandro, telling his lady fair, “Now that I control you, I must consider how you can best serve me.” Jon never controls his wife, and she never serves him—and that’s why the hand wants to murder her. The first appearance of Jon’s reanimated member occurs after an eruption of jealousy: A beetle is riding it like a jockey.
There are images like this strewn throughout Stone’s filmography: of men fearing loss of potency, or mourning their inability to set the terms of love or sex, and lashing out or imploding. In Heaven and Earth, Tommy Lee Jones’s veteran fails to reintegrate with domestic life, fails to tell his wife Le Ly Hayslip the truth about his past, fails to create a new future for the both of them, fails their children, then turns ugly and abusive before finally blowing his own brains out; his spirit is seen roaming through a shaman’s house like a will-o’-the-wisp. If Stone’s filmography can be summarized, it is the return of the repressed: the unheimlich come home to roost. In Born, when Ron performs cunnilingus for the first time after his paralysis, Stone shifts the perspective in such a way as to present his partner, a prostitute, as intimidating, looming over Ron like a succubus. Ron can give sexual pleasure but not receive it. In the hospital he feared he could never be made whole again, and sexually, at least, he’s proved right.
In The Hand there’s a shower sequence in which Jon’s hot-water tap turns into a tiny steel hand. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, the source for this image, is a retelling in part of the myth of Amor and Psyche, in which the heroine is secreted away to a castle where the servants are disembodied hands. In Stone’s U-Turn, the hero in the shower contemplates lost fingers and flashes back to the moment of their separation. In NBK, Robert Downey Jr.’s smarmy exploitation-TV jock gets a hole blown in his hand in a scabrous intimation of the Passion. The scenes leading up to Mickey’s Big House interview are scored with
Submersion for Stone is baptism in the uncanny. Inexplicable, irrational transformations happen in downpours, in the water, at night, and from deep shadow. He is not laying out blueprints for us, saying this equals this and that equals that; the films are reports from dreamland, accounts of sensations felt in the spine, and lower. The personal becomes political, the intimate becomes national, the real becomes unreal, the factual becomes the mythic. In the animated sequence on the bridge in Natural Born Killers, as Mickey and Mallory cut their palms and join them together, their intermingled blood becomes snakes twining into the river. The lovers are elevated, as all of Stone’s protagonists are elevated, into mythology, but their desires are primal, bestial, universal. For Jung, Greek mythology is the language of the unconscious. The image of the snakes in NBK suggests the blind seer Tiresias, who comes upon two snakes copulating, strikes them in disgust, and is turned into a woman for seven years. Tiresias is perhaps better known for being struck blind for his impertinence to a goddess and being compensated with the gift of prophecy by a god. In the Oedipus play, Tiresias warns the hero’s father that he’ll be slain by his son, then warns the son, the play’s hero, that he will marry his mother. (“Father,” Jim Morrison sings in “The End,” “I want to kill you. Mother . . .”) No one listens to Tiresias until it’s too late.
Stone upsets the war movie this way as well, and the noir, and the youth-on-the-run picture, and the epic—every genre he attempts. He takes scenarios that are merely reenacted or tossed off in other movies, and makes them shock and baffle us by plugging them into the subconscious. Just before Downey’s faux-journo is murdered in the woods in NBK, the point of view jumps to footage captured by a camera discarded on the ground. Mickey recognizes that camera as the documentarian and addresses it, and us, directly. Before Stone kills off the couple’s chronicler, he offers a flash of Downey dressed in a store-bought devil costume. We come into Natural Born Killers expecting Bonnie and Clyde—and Stone gives us layered visions and spirit animals, allusions to Greek mythology and the Bible, and violence so visceral that the ratings board demanded it be recut and recut again and again because they found every frame upsetting. What does it say that each subsequent revisiting of the piece finds it more prescient and, unexpectedly, more . . . tender?
Stone’s filthy, carnal noir U-Turn is a retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex set in an infernal Arizona desert town named—not ironically, I think—Superior. The story connects with the mythic fascinations of The Hand so strongly that the latter feels like an elaboration on the former. Late in The Hand, Jon is told that the murderous functions of his id are the product of “an old rage, Jon, an ancient rage.” Late in U-Turn, the disgusting hero, Bobby (Sean Penn), is told by a blind, homeless, Tiresian Native American (Jon Voight) that “your lies are old, but you tell them pretty good.” Native Americans are, for Stone, representatives of the uncontrolled, the uncontrollable really: the essence of man. They are his and Jim Morrison’s connection to the eternal, and the invisible enemy to white determinism in the West. If Stone’s films are, as he has claimed, about righting karmic imbalances, few figures are as greatly wronged as Native Americans. Their existence in Stone’s films is a warning and a reminder.
Mickey’s murder of the Navajo medicine man during the peyote trip sequence of
U-Turn is a myth of the United States steeped in sex, greed, and blood. Stone identifies that noir is at its essence a vacuum of morality rather than a restoration of civilization. There are no “good” characters peopling Stone’s sunshine noir. All of the major characters are driven by lust or are products of lust, performers endlessly acting out their roles, Sisyphean in their labors. A young girl named Jenny (Claire Danes) uses the hero as a catalyst in rescue fantasies that she continuously reenacts with her thuggish boyfriend, TNT (Joaquin Phoenix). Their relationship is a microcosm of the tale that Grace’s husband, Jake (Nick Nolte), tells of himself and Grace’s dead Indian mother. Jenny and TNT are last seen writhing on a dusty street like the twining cartoon serpents of NBK. We are reminded yet again that this director has an affinity for chthonic creatures. Scorpions, snakes, carrion birds: bottom-feeders all, echoing the baser desires of the characters. Jake’s murder in U-Turn is intercut with shots of a crow. The film opens and closes with vultures. The images of carrion birds stalking roadkill become metaphors for people who’ve paid to watch films about mayhem.
It’s Francis Bacon’s meat captured on 35 mm film: the underneath, the essential self, and the inevitable end as food for others. The whole town seems to be in stasis. Its inhabitants are America, and the id, and eternal in their way. If Bobby is the detective, and Oedipus is the first detective story, then Bobby is the “child” of Jake and Grace, fated to kill the father and fuck the “mother” whose own mother Jake fucked. In Stone’s America, we’re all the products of Jake and Grace. Jake is the white oppressor; Grace is the “savage other.” Robin Wood’s essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” talks about how Puritans projected their own sexual repression onto the “other” of the Native American. For the children of manifest destiny, Indians were literal children of the devil: unfettered libido, unfettered id, and successfully demonized as other, ripe for eradication.
The story of Jake and Grace (and Mickey and Mallory) gains resonance because it’s incestuous. The incest depicted in NBK’s sitcom sequence is played out in Mickey and Mallory’s union of like kinds. Stone’s creation myth for America turns the Puritan myth back on its ancestors, in much the same way that Born on the Fourth, JFK, and Nixon take patriotic symbols claimed by the American right wing and make them seem untrustworthy, even sinister. In Stone’s U-Turn countermyth to manifest destiny, Americans are the product of an incestuous union between repressed id and id: the offspring of two snakes fucking.
Where does Stone’s searing visions come from? Even he doesn’t seem sure. He smokes, he drinks, he reads, he writes, he dreams, he makes films, but there is always a sense that, like all artists—but perhaps more so than most—Stone would rather ride the snake to the lake than take orders from his waking mind. There’s a telling moment early in The Hand, when the daughter of the film’s cartoonist hero, Jon (Michael Caine), finds a discarded lizard tail twitching in the grass. She asks how the tail knows she’s there. The father says, “He doesn’t know, it’s just a reflex.”
The line suggests not only that men are helpless to resist the tides that drive them, but that each component part of a living being is as much “he” or “she” as the rest, and driven by the same strange frequencies. Later, Jon describes his comic creation Mandro, an adventurer somewhere between Conan and Prince Valiant, as a being that “doesn’t think,” right at the moment when he rounds a corner and comes face to face with the homeless, one-handed drunk played by none other than Oliver Stone. “Hey,” the drunk says, “you got no hand!” Jon denies it and pushes him away. He doesn’t know why, it’s just a reflex. Later on, Jon’s hand returns and strangles the drunk: the artist murdered by his alter ego. “It’s all up there,” says Jon’s only real friend in The Hand, pointing to his head, “and you’ll never know who the fuck you really are.”
 From The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, eds. (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979).
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