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Critical Consensus: Anthony Kaufman and Peter Rainer on Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Today's Auteur Theory

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 4, 2012 at 11:45AM

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Indiewire contributor and ReelPolitik blogger Anthony Kaufman joins Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer to discuss the directors of two new films -- "Magic Mike" and "Savages" -- as well as the auteur theory that arguably hovers over any conversation about a filmmaker's career.
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Oliver Stone in San Francisco.
Oliver Stone in San Francisco.

Speaking of heavy-handed morality plays, let's talk about Oliver Stone.

Peter, when you reviewed Stone's "U-Turn" in 1997 you wrote that his "imagery belies his intentions." Has your opinion on Stone shifted at all since then?

RAINER: As a filmmaker, Oliver Stone is a fever junkie. It's been said about him that he's the only person who ever went to Vietnam to cool out. For me, Stone is always a better director than he is a writer or -- god forbid -- a thinker. His movies, even the not very good ones, have a certain visual excitement to them. I think "Savages" is a return to form. If you like the form, that's a good thing. (laughs)

He's drawn to power on a personal, visual and thematic level. This is what he makes movies about. He's made movies about JFK, Nixon, Alexander the Great, Bush, Wall Street tycoons… he's constantly plugging into that dynamic. I don't think he has a terribly big perspective on power because he's such a powermonger himself. He doesn't have a way of looking inside. His movies are very exterior experiences, which is why even a film like "Nixon," which one would think is his way of getting inside the belly of the beast, was a surprisingly bland experience. It was the same with "W."

'Stone is drawn to power on a personal, visual and thematic level. This is what he makes movies about.'

KAUFMAN: One of the ways Stone has gone astray is by giving big displays of sentimentality in his films. "World Trade Center" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" were just terrible in that way. Those films are just failures; some of the earlier films, like "Salvador," "Talk Radio" and "Platoon" had a harder edge. That's my memory of them. Maybe it's because he needs to be sweet now to get an audience. But when he tries to be sweet it's a disaster.

RAINER: And now he's putting together a multipart TV show on American history. This from the guy who thought LBJ was involved in JFK's assassination. I would agree with Anthony. Stone is always trying to mainline emotion without seeing where it's going and that belies his basic instincts. In "World Trade Center," it was very funny that that film became a neocon favorite. All the people who demonized him for years were going on talk radio saying what a great film it was. That film has Michael Shannon's character signing up to go to Iraq at the end -- which feeds the idea that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. That's an example of how Stone can go off on his own instincts for the sake of an emotional charge.

KAUFMAN: He's obviously never been a subtle filmmaker. I just had a flash of a famous rape sequence in "Salvador." Looking at films like "Born on the 4th of July" or "Platoon," these aren't subtle films. He's got a weird, visceral approach to filmmaking that's coming from the gut but can also splatter.

RAINER: It cuts both ways. I think "Salvador" is his best movie. James Woods was fantastic in it. And it has a political context. Stone isn't very good at analyzing power because he's too close to it. At some point you can get to the truth of human experience by examining those who are the most abhorrent. Stone's anti-heroes are always people like Jim Morrison, Gordon Gekko, these sacred monsters. If you go to Oliver Stone for subtlety, you're going in the wrong direction. What makes him a fascinating filmmaker when he's going where he's good is the same thing that makes him a terrible director otherwise. There's a kind of comic ghastliness in his movies even in scripts he's written for other directors, like Brian De Palma's "Scarface." That's as much an Oliver Stone movie as a De Palma film.

KAUFMAN: De Palma is a fruitful comparison. They both tackle political content with a style that can be heavy-handed, but I would agree with Peter that with that heavy-handedness can come a certain power.

'Stone has a weird, visceral approach to filmmaking that's coming from the gut but can also splatter.'

RAINER: Both of these filmmakers tend to take things to extremes because that's how they see the word in paranoid worst-case-scenario terms. That's where their juices are, where they live out their fantasies…

KAUFMAN: It's worth noting that they're both older than Soderbergh by over a decade.

RAINER: Some of "Savages" reminded me very much of a Tarantino film. The odd thing is that Stone was a strong influence on Tarantino. The level of violence in the torture sequences of "Savages" all have a sort of Tarantinoesque flavor. It's not done as straight horror, but rather has a comic ghastliness that's typical of Tarantino and has been from the get-go. It's ironic that Stone's latest film brings to mind Tarantino even though Stone is the progenitor of what Tarantino does.

Next page: Does the auteur theory still hold water today?

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, Anthony Kaufman, Peter Rainer, Reviews, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Andrew Sarris, Magic Mike, auteur theory, Savages, Brian De Palma