Oliver Stone, still angry after all these years

Click to follow
The Independent Online
You know what to expect from an Oliver Stone film: Sixties ideology, grand sweep, bombast and a certain raw anger. When Eamonn O'Neill saw him lecture to students he got all that - and a Natural Born Killer attack on the American media.

"My father said, `Don't tell the truth ... or you'll get into trouble.' That's what he said."

The man doing the talking is Oliver Stone. He pauses, looks up from the podium and smiles. Then, he says quietly, he didn't follow his father's advice.

There is laughter and applause.

Standing in front of two, maybe three thousand fresh-looking American students in a huge auditorium in Syracuse University last week, the film director spoke, completely unscripted, for a few hours to the large audience. The ostensible reason for Stone's presence in upstate New York was a book tour for his novel. A Child's Night has just been published to (mostly) favourable reviews in the United States. But as he talked it was clear that he knew, that the audience knew, he had better not talk too much about the book and just get on with the business of being Oliver Stone.

At the university I spied stacks of the books piled on a trolley. They were being wheeled off after he had done a signing session with the students' entertainment committee. A line of undergraduates waited for the doors to the hall to open, their shoes coated with the leaves which were beginning to carpet the tidy campus. Many had copies of Stone's book tucked under their arms.

Every seat in the house was taken. They sat patiently, all polar-fleeced and baseball-capped, for him to arrive. Eventually, after being introduced by one of the students, Oliver Stone strolled on to the stage to loud whistles and much hand-clapping. Looking taller and wider in real-life but just as fevered as he comes across in interviews and profiles, Stone began a fascinating, though sometimes rambling talk which lasted for a couple of hours.

He spoke about his American-Jewish father's fear of ever coming clean about anything. The truth was scary in the Stone household. He was told to deny the fact he had Jewish roots. Mr Stone senior was convinced the "persecutors" would come and seize them if the family's heritage ever became known.

But their clean-cut respectability fell apart when his parents divorced. It devastated Stone. It left him alone and insecure, he said - an emotion he later generated into his work.

He went to live in New York city where he read Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Hemingway and JP Donleavy, and did some writing himself; and then, after the Yale episode, he headed for Vietnam, first to teach, then the second time for voluntary service. He was in the infantry for 15 months. Platoon was the result of his experiences there.

Lecturing to America's youth is an appropriate activity for Stone. In many ways, the students, mostly in their late teens, seem to be his natural audience. The book he was selling was, by no coincidence, written when he was a young man, and tells of his life around the 1966-67 time- frame. (Time magazine's reviewer said: "Guess what? The kid can write.")

He went through a Holden Caulfield existence during his early years when he was a drop-out student from Yale. To see Stone's talk at Syracuse was to see him in the role of comfortable ex-hippie lecturer with a desperate desire to influence the youth of today.

Predictably, Vietnam was a theme which Stone came back to constantly. However, from the yawns and blank expressions it was clear that the war there continues to be a hazy subject for many young Americans, a conflict still consigned to grainy television footage or history classes or indeed Hollywood scripts. But they woke up when he unexpectedly tore into the American media:

"They own you and your minds! You have to wake up and realise this!" The audience shifted uneasily.

The media in the US, especially television, said Stone, was one of the poorest in the world. Mighty networks had an agenda which was itself heavily influenced by the advertisers who gave them money for airtime: "In the end we are all owned by Wall Street. We're bought and paid for. Period."

A psychologist would have had a field day with this comment: Stone's father was a Wall Street broker and Stone has stated on more than one occasion how he rebelled against his old man in a number of ways, including spiking his scotch with LSD.

The audience reaction was interesting. Hordes lined up at the microphones to ask him questions; some seemed uncomfortable about his colourful language, and stared in bug-eyed bewilderment when some of his more wacky views were aired.

For hours he kept probing and telling them to not accept everything they heard on television or read in the newspapers: "Read widely! Read around a subject!" he pleaded.

The tension was broken when a female lawyer pitched a film-script idea to him about a school of American-trained assassins in South America. The audience laughed, he shook his head and rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

Then he returned to the state of the American media. He urged the young people to travel - "Get out of America, see what they're watching and reading in other countries and save up or something, go abroad ... go to Europe, go to India ..."

He said the rest of the world was being increasingly affected by American culture and media. One of the side-effects of this was that they had a window into American society that American society did not have into theirs.

"Don't get too comfortable," he said, "don't think America is at the cutting edge of everything: everyone else has a better perspective on America than we do on ourselves. Trust me, I didn't know any of this myself until I travelled."

I felt like applauding. Having lived and worked for a year in the United States I found myself agreeing with almost every word of Stone's critique of the media, in particular the television.

It was the last place I thought I would find an ally who shared my views. For months I have driven friends and colleagues up the wall with my views on everything from US news anchors with stupid, cartoon-sounding macho names, to the shabby coverage of anything that's not American. The only documentaries worth watching are European buy-ins. Few, if any, are American-made or funded. Yet, and here is the rub, certain British fact-based series insist upon following American trends: live-action video "cop-shows", Oprah-style "discussion" productions and US-style "anchor personalities". Oliver Stone believes, and I agree with him, that this is dangerous. A country's media should reflect that country, not aim to be an insecure copy of someone else's. Certainly, not America's, for God's sake.

Stone's tour may be just a front to sell a book he flung away decades ago before anyone ever heard of him, or to win audiences for his next film. He may even be using it as a therapeutic sabbatical, allowing himself the chance to touch base with the permanent adolescent inside. On the other hand he may be genuinely trying to wake a few young brains up. After all, he could have dodged out-of-the-way places like Syracuse and just done the safe PR-controlled talk-show circuit instead. But he didn't. As he sweated, rubbed his hair, and stumbled and toiled, searching for the right word in a human, un-prepared way that a Steven Spielberg- type would never allow to happen, you had to admire his apparent sense of mission.

He is slightly paranoid. His theories don't all hang together. His reading of history - although he flung out authors' names and titles like confetti - is highly selective and self-serving. But, refreshingly, he is also his own man. After hearing him talk off the cuff for hours I fully agree that living in his intense world for too long would be no fun. But I'm also grateful for the fact that the United States has produced such a rebellious, argumentative and thought-stirring film-maker.

I think America needs Oliver Stone. More than he needs America.

Comments