Hack critics tell you what to see this weekend. Good critics help put the films you watch in context. Great critics force you to evaluate the context you’ve put those films in. In The Oliver Stone Experience Matt Zoller Seitz once again proves why he is a great critic.
To come clean, when it was announced that Seitz’s next book would take Stone as its subject my reaction could best be described as amused dismay. While a tribute to Wes Anderson, the subject of Seitz’s last book, was just good sense, my relationship with Stone was somewhat rockier. It wasn’t always that way. Seeing JFK at a young age was instrumental to my understanding that directors were people that existed and thus my growth as a filmgoer. There was a time when I considered the ten year run Stone had from Salvador to Nixon to be one of the finest streaks in American cinematic history. But the only thing that could match how enamored I once was by those ten peak years of Stone’s career was how disenchanted I became by the last twenty. I had the kind of powerful bad reaction to some of Stone’s recent films that require the kind of adjectives that one usually associates with near fatal food poisoning. The type of experiences that cause one not only to dislike the film they’re watching but to question what they ever saw in the director’s work in the first place. On the rare occasions in the last ten years that I’ve revisited Stone’s work, all I could see were the flaws, the excesses of style, the complete lack of narrative discipline, the hectoring tone, and naked obvious symbolism masquerading as gritty realism. For this reader Seitz had a hard row to hoe.
Seitz frames Stone’s career as a battle against received wisdom. Using Born On The Fourth Of July as the unlikely lynchpin, Seitz frames the typical Stone film as a battle between the main characters and their preconceived notions. Notions of patriotism, history and capitalism yes, but also of slippery more metaphysical notions of self. It’s an interesting lens through which to view Stone’s career and helps several of the seeming outliers throughout Stone’s oeuvre (like Alexander) fit better into the unified vision.
Seitz’s book employs many of the same techniques he used in The Wes Anderson Collection. Alternating essays on the films (here grouped into eras rather than individually) with interviews with the director. He also uses the kind of criticism through collage that he employed in the Anderson Collection, a technique that’s quite fitting given Stone’s fondness for montage (when a group of trading cards featuring historical U.S. figures is juxtaposed by a cartoon of Scrooge McDuck and a snapshot from Vietnam, I couldn’t help but mutter, “My God it all makes sense”). The structure begins to resemble that of an Oliver Stone film as this collage technique is even further amplified as Seitz intercuts his own observations and essays with memos, script pages and with the essays by others; their voices recalling Stone’s fondness for switching up film stocks for dueling perspectives. Mileage varies on these essays, but Kim Morgan gives a spirited defense of late period Stone, and Ramin Bahrini proves an unexpectedly inspired choice to open the collection.
Stone himself proves an interesting interview, as eager a raconteur as Anderson was reticent. The Stone Seitz captures is open about his personal evolution and past, surprisingly guarded about the legacy he thinks his films will have and almost charmingly Nixonian in his remembrance of slights from critics and studio favoritism (this leads to, among other tangents, dark musings on the sinister forces behind Broadcast News of all films and perhaps the most passionate defense of Stanley Kramer on record.)
Seitz’s book is not without its missteps and unfortunately they are frontloaded. Kiese Laymon, who is given the second introduction in the book, comes to the rather galling conclusion that people who watch Oliver Stone films are morally superior to those who don’t; assumedly those who shell out for an expensive 35 dollar coffee table book about the director are super duper in the clear (“All these white men, unlike the men and (and women) who choose to watch Stone’s films […] have chosen their path and can’t or won’t abandon it. They are irrecoverable.”) This is followed by a long, clumsy sex scene from Stone’s unpublished novel, written when he was nineteen, that is reprinted in full for no other reason than to give those unconvinced by Stone a chance to jump out of the book with their conscious clear. More problematic is the undernourished segments on Stone as a screenwriter, the book briefly dives into his conflicts with (and affection for) John Milius during the making of Conan. But his recollections on Ashby are limited to a few remarks about his illness and addiction, Cimino discussed only in that he helped keep Stone’s interest in Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July alive, Alan Parker barely gets a mention and Brian De Palma doesn’t even get that.
Still on the whole The Oliver Stone Experience is just what you would want from a book about Stone, expansive, rollicking, thoughtful and generous. Since reading it I’ve blown the dust off of and rewatched several of Oliver Stone’s films, forced to reconsider the work of a director I had written off. If this was Seitz’s goal he can consider it accomplished.