Thursday, April 22, 2010

The 25: Part 7: JFK

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)



Finally.

Believe it or not I wanted to do this Cinematic Autobiography more or less continuously. But life does have a nasty habit of getting in the way. The reason its taking me so long, is that, I really am making an effort to revisit these films before writing them up. Especially the ones like today’s title which I haven’t seen in awhile. But that’s just the thing, have you ever tried to just “pencil in” a screening of JFK? Try fitting it into your morning before work some time, its only a three and a half hour paranoid rant, it should fly by.

It might seem an odd choice, but I’m writing up JFK because it is the first, consciously “adult” film I can remember seeing. This holds a certain irony as Stone is regarded today as a profoundly adolescent filmmaker. In the sixth grade I took a powerful interest in the Kennedy Assassination (You try being Irish Catholic in America and not) and a teacher, secure enough in his tenure to lend a twelve year old boy at a Catholic School, a film which prominently featured a Gay Orgy (The teacher is still teaching so I believe I will omit their name, and say merely, “Thanks”). It wasn’t just the “mature content” that made the film different, it was that the film was “serious”. Up to that time film was still just entertainment, but here’s one that burned with something to prove. I never knew film could be used that way.

Oliver Stone is a filmmaker so powerfully out of vogue now that its almost hard to remember that there was a time when he was considered one of the most important filmmakers in the world. I’ve spoken about my feelings of Stone before. But to briefly rehash, the run of films from Salvador to Nixon is pretty much perfect in my mind. And while he has spent a lot of that good will in unworthy places in the past decade or so, people seem to have been far to willing to through out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Stone. His modern films may be embarrassing, and Platoon might be a little long in tooth, but he’s still a vibrant vital filmmaker who has made America confront some harsh truths about itself. And JFK might be his masterpiece

Those who harp on the films factual inaccuracies and lurid sensationalist tone miss the point entirely. Like its protagonist, the film claws at the fragments left in the aftermath, knowing that it connects somehow but missing those last little pieces that would make it hold together. Its not that the film reveals the truth, but the fact that it, Like Ellroy’s excellent American Trilogy articulates the feeling that SOMETHING happened damn it. The idea that it has to add up somehow. The idea lodged in the American conscience that The Kennedy assassination was nothing less then a coup. And that since then America has been changed in a fundamental way. It may not tell us what really happen, but it convincingly shreds the case that the government’s story is a true one, showing it to be nothing but a collection of lies and misinformation. As Roger Ebert put it, it’s a film that screams “Murder” at the top of its lungs.

In a lot of ways JFK is a different film now then it was in 1991. The JFK conspiracy is in its own way as much of the Clinton era as Grunge Rock, Friends and well Oliver Stone himself. One only needs to watch the films of Richard Linklater or listen to Bill Hicks to know what a pervasive chunk of the American psyche it took up. But Conspiracy theories themselves, have morphed (I recently rewatched the first X Files Movie and was greatly amused to see that a big part of the plot hinges on the fact that FEMA will take over the country). They’re no long a bastion of leftists and libertarians worried about what happened at Waco. Now they are more the hallmark of the increasingly paranoid Loose Changers and the raving delusions of the Tea Partiers.


Stone’s bracing often parodied style, of mixing film stocks and formats, has never been better employed then here. Thanks in large part to Stone’s not so secret weapon of Robert Richardson, who seems to be finally getting his dues as perhaps the best working cinematographer today. Those who dismiss the style as a tic, or “acid flashback light” miss the point. The style is disconcerting, it does draw attention to itself, thowing different stocks and styles as quickly as the characters throw out facts, coincidences and connections and it leaves us, like the characters with no place to stand. It’s the world viewed through a kaleidoscope.

And standing at the center is Costner. This is Costner at the heart of his greatness, before Waterworld, The Postman, and even to a certain extent Prince Of Thieves, took the glow off his golden boy image. When he seemed not a vain, pretentious, jackass with a CGI hairline, but the reincarnation of Gary Cooper. A Boy scout straight symbol of Americana at its best. Using that symbolism against the government was a powerful statement. He makes Jim Garrison a figure of quiet decency, as American as Jimmy Stewart eating a slice of apple pie.

Stone was smart to cast him in the part. Stone’s eye for casting has long been one of his most unappreciated gifts, and perhaps its never been better then here. The film is loaded with stars, but it never feels like an overstuffed star vehicle ala Stanley Kramer. Instead everyone; Gary Oldman’s ghostly Oswald, Michael Rooker as Costner’s shady number two man, Tommy Lee Jones’ sinister aristocratic Clay Shaw, Kevin Bacon’s facist, gay, Nixon loving hustler (a phrase I bet you didn’t think you’d read today), Joe Pesci’s paranoid commando, hell even John Candy gives a great performance as a corrupt hipster New Orleans Lawyer. Even seemingly superfluous cameos by the likes of Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon prove invaluable, in giving the movie credibility. Want to sell the idea that American Government is guilty of regicide? Put it in the mouths of Hollywood icons.

JFK is certainly a flawed film, particularly in its director’s cut, which takes a film that wasn’t exactly svelte in the first place and turns it downright flabby. But it remains an arresting one, both in its imagery and ideas. It was a fitting baptism into the ambitious and sometimes unsatisfying world of adult cinema.

8 comments:

J.D. said...

"But to briefly rehash, the run of films from Salvador to Nixon is pretty much perfect in my mind."

Agreed! I'm a big Oliver Stone fan but I felt that he really lost the plot after ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. I haven't really been interested in anything he's done since but the trailers for WALL STREET 2 do look interesting and I'm hoping for a return to form for Stone.

I would argue that JFK and NIXON are Stone's masterpieces and maybe even two parts of an epic film as they both examine the dirty secrets of American history and great men are often undone by the system that chews up and spits out people.

First and foremost though, JFK is just a fantastic paranoid thriller. I like the Director's Cut even more because there is just more to watch, it's a film that I find riveting from beginning to end. Stone was smart in casting all these big names because it helps you keep track of who everyone is but he also cast people who knew how to deliver dialogue, esp. Costner who does a good job with all the dialogue he has to say... the same goes for Donald Sutherland. That scene where he lays it all out for Costner is incredible and one of the best examples of how to deliver expositional dialogue without making it sound boring or dry. Incredible.

In addition to the stunning cinematography, as you so right point out (is it any coincidence that Stone's films really started to suck once he and Richardson parted ways?), JFK features some incredible editing. This film must've been insane to edit but the final product is coherent and dynamic thanks to the editing.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the excellent post JD! I think you outdid me here. lol

"I would argue that JFK and NIXON are Stone's masterpieces and maybe even two parts of an epic film as they both examine the dirty secrets of American history and great men are often undone by the system that chews up and spits out people."

I completely agree! It would be a great article to look at the way the films sync up.

As for the Robertson connect, that is one intriguing thought, I'm not sure, but you can bet I'm going to find out!

I too am hopeful for Wall Street 2. Daryl Hannah's gone and that's good, but Shia La Bouf is back and that's not.

J.D. said...

Yeah, I could do without Shia in the new WALL STREET but you also have Carey Mulligan and Josh Brolin thrown into the mix, plus it looks like Douglas is having a blast slipping into Gekko's skin again. We shall see.

Marcus said...

I love JFK. Definitely one of my favorite films from the early 90's. I'm kinda excited for Wall Street 2. I think just from the trailers alone Douglas is going to at least get some award nominations. I just hate the sub-title. Money Never Sleeps?! Like, seriously?!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD I definitely echo your excitement over Mulligan (who if anyone can crack the run of shit women roles in Stone movies) and Brolin, who despite my disappointment with W. is a man made for Stone's dialogue.

@ Marcus: I have to admit I kinda like the tagline. If only for taking one of the lesser known (and better) lines in Wall Street and placing it front and center.

Anyway it could have been worse. Like Wall Street 2: Greed Is Sic.

Even though from what I've heard, the movies going to be about the redemption of Gordon Gekko, the shots in the trailer of him getting out of Prison with that absurd phone, make me almost wish it was just about him remorselessly rebuilding his empire from nothing, Tony Montana style.

J.D. said...

"Even though from what I've heard, the movies going to be about the redemption of Gordon Gekko, the shots in the trailer of him getting out of Prison with that absurd phone, make me almost wish it was just about him remorselessly rebuilding his empire from nothing, Tony Montana style."

Well, I've heard that on the surface it seems like Gekko is on the road to redemption but I've read somewheres that this is actually a smokescreen and he's going to be going back to his old ways, using Shia's character as a pawn. Here's hoping!

Marcus said...

Yeah, I don't see any redemption at all for Gordon. He's going to make Shia his new Charlie Sheen

Bryce Wilson said...

Here's hoping you guys are right.

"Greed isn't just good. Its legal."