THE QUIRKY SIDE OF OLIVER STONE

When people think of Oliver Stone and his films, immediately they jump to the conspiracy theorist and bombastic narcissist who loves the sound of his own voice and lets his ego run roughshod over his cast and crew. However, not everything in his filmography is Vietnam War-oriented like Heaven & Earth or Platoon. It also isn’t JFK or W either.

It is interesting to remember that Stone, like many artists of his generation got his start in genre films. Oddly enough (or maybe not), he began his career in horror right around the time Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was scaring the crap out of teens at drive-ins and midnight shows across America. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left in 1972 started that gritty, realistic grindhouse horror trend, and Oliver Stone was more than happy to jump into that pool. That docu-style camera work and willingness to get into the trenches and do anything for a shot would come in handy later on in his career when he teamed up with the magnificent cinematographer, Robert Richardson.

Recently, in an in-depth interview with Deadline, while promoting his latest book, Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador and the Movie Game, the director was asked if he would make another film in the midst of these modern times. Stone responded saying he doesn’t think “it’s in the cards.” There are no dream projects that he intends to do because he no longer has the hunger.

That makes me sad on so many levels. Slowly, but surely, all of those cinematic “voices” from my formative years like David Lynch and Oliver Stone have lost interest in returning to theaters. Because let’s face it, there are too many restrictions on subject matter and studio protocols that, for mavericks like those two, render it almost impossible for them to be creative.

Although Oliver states that he is young in spirit and he isn’t completely closing the door on filmmaking, perhaps if he went back to some of the “smaller” works of his filmography, maybe that style of indie guerilla production might light a fire in his soul again. I, for one, would love to see him return to the silver screen.

That is why I was prompted to revisit some of his lesser known works. Those quirky pieces that aren’t grand, sweeping political epics have something to say. Their voices are as unique as the man that brought them to life. Some of my choices are raw and technically they aren’t full of finesse but they hit that sweet spot and remind me of a time when artistic expression had no boundaries.

Seizure (1974)

There is quite a bit going on in this horror film. I think it is important to note that this was Stone’s first venture, and while it seems messy and disjointed, it is actually full of foreshadowing of his career to come.

What happens when a disconnected, introverted writer named Edmund holds a weekend retreat for his eclectic circle of friends? Chaos, death, and mayhem of course! Starring Jonathan Frid of Dark Shadows fame, Christina Pickles from St. Elsewhere, 1950s heart throb Troy Donahue, and Herve Villechaize from Fantasy Island, the story line is like And Then There Were None on acid.

Edmund (Frid) is working on a scary story for children. His characters are coming to life and wreaking havoc on his guests. You can clearly see Stone’s ability to handle multiple character interactions and complex subtext that would later appear in such works as JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers. This is apparent with the explanation of Edmund’s creations, a psychotic trio comprised of horror-filled folklore. What other grindhouse film of that era would have the killers being a Hindu goddess (The Evil Woman or Kali played by Stone’s mistress at the time, Martine Beswick), an Executioner, and Louis XI (Villechaize) also known as “The Spider,” who would torture his prisoners by shackling them in heavy chains and forcing them to be incarcerated in tiny, wooden cages.  

It is interesting to note that the director has always been intrigued with Asian culture and is a practicing Buddhist. He is also of French descent which comes into play with his characters in Seizure. One can always find these personal touches in his films such as Wall Street, which was basically about his father, Louis, who spent 50 years on that famed financial row working as a stockbroker.

Talk Radio (1988)

Talk Radio is an extremely powerful and intense story about Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian), a shock jock like Howard Stern, and based on the real-life Alan Berg who was gunned down by a crazed fan. Overly ambitious, self-hating, confrontational, and not particularly fond of people, Barry is trying to get his radio show to go national. However, after a particularly rough night, involving a myriad of weirdo callers, (a rapist, a kid whose girlfriend might have overdosed, among other crazies) the Chicago conglomerate, Metro Wave, reneges their syndication offer and decides to postpone the deal.

As Champlain spirals out of control, losing his girlfriend Laura (Leslie Hope) and his ex-wife, Ellen (Ellen Greene) in the process, it turns into a no holds barred fest as he verbally decimates caller after caller. He is a truth teller and some of the public don’t want to hear what he has to say.

After having an on-air meltdown and being driven to the edge by station boss, Dan (Alec Baldwin), he is told he will get his wish. His show will get national exposure. Emotionally spent, he is on his way to his car when he is gunned down in cold blood by one of his listeners.

The unfortunate part is many of the callers’ issues such as racism, Neo-Nazism, Antisemitism, and misogyny still exist and are a huge part of our present-day cultural dialogue. Not much has changed in 32 years. We are still fighting those same problems without resolution. This time, the war is being waged anonymously predominantly on social media.

This particular Stone effort was on the heels of two of his high-profile productions, Platoon and Wall Street. Despite the compelling storyline and timely subject matter, it got lost in the shuffle. However, that same political drive and willingness to tackle controversial subjects are the hallmark of Oliver’s career. Personally, I think this is a film to be celebrated and should be re-issued. We need to shine a light on some of the topics that Talk Radio doesn’t shy away from because they are still the same issues that are prevalent today.

The Hand (1981)

One can’t help but think of Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 while watching The Hand. This Michael Caine starrer has Stone returning to the psychological horror arena. The idea of famous cartoonist, Jonathan Lansdale being pushed to the brink of madness, harboring pent up hostility and resentment at the harsh reality of his situation is one that he explored in Seizure, to some extent but this time, his protagonist starts committing murders.

Losing his hand in a gory car accident started Jonathan’s downward spiral. With his chief source of income gone, he also finds himself having to relinquish his marriage and wife, Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) to her yoga instructor, Bill (Nicholas Hormann). His daughter, Lizzie, is also remote from his affections because of his erratic behavior and his anger toward her mother.

To escape his marital situation, he relocates halfway across the country to Northern California. While teaching at a local college, he starts a fling with one of his students. Meanwhile, his severed hand is going on a murderous rampage targeting people that have wronged him–or is it actually Jonathan doing the killing in one of his “blackout” phases?

Let’s admit it, The Hand is Stone mirroring Sam Raimi; it’s his attempt at low budget horror with a high budget cast. Conversely, I have to wonder if Raimi saw The Hand and, besides the obvious Three Stooges homages, did it influence him in some ways with Evil Dead 2? Yes, Michael Caine tends toward over-emoting, but this is still a chilling story. We can see the idea of violent impulses overtaking individuals echoed again in Natural Born Killers, Platoon, and Talk Radio. In NBK, Mickey and Mallory go on a killing spree eliminating those who get in their way. The blood and gore that Stone employed so well in The Hand serves him well in his future endeavors.

This is not the type of film that springs to mind when one thinks of Oliver Stone, but that is what makes The Hand compelling as hell. It also gives the audience a chance to see some of that trippy camera work that would be prevalent in The Doors. When Lansdale is consumed by his murderous rages, the film stock immediately changes from color to black and white, which is intriguing because it presents the chaos as if you are watching old newsreel footage. We can separate ourselves like Jonathan does when he blacks out. It might be intriguing for Stone, late in his career to return to psychological horror now that he is a more experienced filmmaker.

U Turn (1997)

U Turn is a neo-noir masterpiece. It is like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity mated with Lawrence’s Kasdan’s steamy Body Heat, with a script written by David Lynch. This movie has so many twists and turns. Like Sean Penn’s character Bobby Cooper says, “Is everybody in this town fucking everybody?” The answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” And we are all enthusiastic voyeurs.

Desperation permeates all the scenes in this film. It is ever-present like the Arizona sun. You can smell it and taste it. Bobby is on the lam from mobsters who want their money and also the rest of the fingers on his hand. He is stuck in the godforsaken town of Surprise through a series of unfortunate events. His beautiful vintage Mustang blows a radiator hose and Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) is the only mechanic in town. Of course, he is a bumpkin and takes his time fixing Bobby’s prized auto. So, what is a stranger to do when he has plenty of time on his hands in an unfamiliar burg?

Walk around and meet the colorful locals. Immediately, he is harassed into getting a soda for the Blind Man (Jon Voight), a Vietnam veteran who has lost his eyesight because of dabbling with another man’s wife. He is the ever-present Greek chorus: commenting on the action and setting the tone for what is yet to come. Escaping his constant haranguing, Bobby runs into Grace (Jennifer Lopez): pure sex in a hot orange short dress and dark lipstick, and from the get-go he is mesmerized.

What is fascinating to me about this film is that Stone dips his toe into a David Lynchian pool. He uses quick cuts and close-ups of people’s mouths and eyes. These are very familiar conventions that Lynch employs in his films. Lost Highway is filled with shots of Patricia Arquette biting her lip sensuously.  The sexual tension between Bobby and Grace is palpable the same way that Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini ignite the screen as Jeffrey and Dorothy in Blue Velvet. There are so many oddballs in this picture and hints of dark comedy as well.

We find out that Grace is married to her stepfather Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte). It is a salacious relationship for sure. He started raping her when he was married to her mother, who ended up dead at the bottom of a ravine. What keeps Grace with Jake is his money, although she sees in Bobby a chance to run away and be free like the birds that she dreams about.

After Jake catches Bobby and Grace kissing, a fight ensues and an angry, Cooper exits the situation only to be picked up by McKenna on the outskirts of town. He gives the drifter a ride and what happens next is an offer to murder Grace. This won’t be the first discussion broaching that subject. Bobby needs money so he agrees to do the deed. Meanwhile, he goes soft and can’t kill her. Instead, the pair concoct a plan to kill Jake and take his money from the safe he has hidden in the floorboards in the bedroom.

Nothing runs smoothly, though, because Bobby finds out that Grace had been sleeping with the sheriff, Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe). Now, he has to contend with the law as a rival. And there is the wacky psycho, Toby “T.N.T.” Tucker and his needy gal pal, Jenny, who have come into the picture as well. Bobby has no interest in the young woman who persists in trying to hit on him much to the chagrin of her angry partner, Toby. Now, “T.N.T.” is out for blood, along with the mobsters, Jake, and Virgil.

With U Turn, Oliver Stone continues to showcase his ability to interweave complex relationships and storylines together. He has an innate understanding of the dynamics of human interaction and he knows how to bring out the best performances in his actors. For those who first took notice of Jennifer Lopez in Blood and Wine with Jack Nicholson in 1995, another steamy, neo-noir effort from Bob Rafelson, J-Lo is learning her persona in U Turn and wielding it like a weapon to perfection.

Stone knows talent when he sees it and was able to take Brat Packer outlier, Charlie Sheen, to stardom. He also saw something in Lopez, that the future “queen” could captivate audience goers with her presence on screen which hasn’t diminished to this day, just take a look at Hustlers.

Next month, Oliver Stone turns 74 years old. Here’s to hoping that we get one last work from this controversial artist. His films may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least he pushes boundaries. We need more of that in the world of entertainment today.