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by Eric Kohn
July 4, 2012 11:45 AM
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Critical Consensus: Anthony Kaufman and Peter Rainer on Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Today's Auteur Theory

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?

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6 Comments

  • korman | July 5, 2012 12:30 PMReply

    Great discussion. The role of the auteur has disappeared because of economic responsibilities. The director is the punching bag if the economic reality clashes with the artistic reality

  • MELGUIZO | July 5, 2012 1:19 AMReply

    I've got to disagree. I think David Fincher is an example of a director that is carrying the torch to some degree. Even while taking on big projects that he was brought on as more of a hired gun. And what about Wes Anderson? Or even a David O. Russell to some degree...

  • RB | July 4, 2012 6:27 PMReply

    I loved this article. Its true! The Role of the Auteur is no LONGER! It's a lost art form, no more singular points of view. Everything is watered down and catered to the Audience…I went to film school to study the Greats, ie, Coppola,Spielberg Scorsese, De Sica, Truffaut, which built the Greats before them AkiraKursawa, Elia Kazan, and Hitchcock. Soderbergh cinematic master pieces are the Out of Sight and The Limey. But he's retiring or headed to Television/Cable. Which is one with a singular voice can thrive and take license to have a point of View…I am in agreement and concur with everything in the Article! Great Piece!

  • Vino | July 4, 2012 5:45 PMReply

    Film is a collaborative art. The nonsense that it's all the Director and his Personality
    will soon fade away. It's a convenient yardstick for slothful critics. Today every
    nitwit Director (which =s 95% of em) burble, "I'm an auteur." No, you're not.

  • A.C. | July 5, 2012 1:15 PM

    Film making is the last dictatorship of the western world. I've worked on film sets where everybody felt their role and opinion was of equal, if not of greater, value than the director and it broke into anarchy for the most part. The director is given that role for a reason and film making guilds and societies are set up so the current government stays together, because it works.

    I get what you're saying, movies shouldn't just focus on the director when so many people are involved but that doesn't mean the Director should have his importance watered down.

  • Ted | July 4, 2012 6:30 PM

    I agree with you to some extent, but I think you are rejecting the auteur theory too quickly. Yes, film is a collaborate art - but some directors have such control over the production and how the crew collaborates that it's appropriate to call them the primary "author" of the film. A prominent example that was the first to come to mind was Terrence Malick. A Malick film is immediately recognizable as a Malick film. Change the actors; the producers; the cinematographer; the editors etc. and it all looks and feels like a Malick film still. To me, that's strong evidence that Malick is clearly the primary vision of the film and everyone is more or less mimicking his desires. I could have easily chosen a few other directors with very distinctive styles and made my point. Think of the films of Ozu, for example. Where I agree with you is that at times we give way to much credence to the auteur theory. Take Charlie Kaufman. Even when Kaufman does not direct his screenplays, the films all look and feel like Kaufman films. I think it's just as valid to call "Adaption" a Charlie Kaufman film, as it is a Spike Jonze film. I'm reminded of the films of Powell & Pressburger. Emeric Pressburger's scripts were clearly so distinctive and clearly had so much influence over Powell's direction, this is was valid to call them Powell & Pressburger films. Same goes for Prevert's scripts for Marcel Carne films. I think we often don't give screenwriters the credit they deserve. In fact, there was a time when the screenwriter was given the same billing as a director. Of course, on the flip side of that, there are directors like Hitchcock who clearly exerted so much stylistically control over a film that the screenwriter's role was much smaller than usual. I think it's probably wiser if we think about each film and direcotr individually rather than trying to either accept the auteur theory in total or just reject it out of hand and call it a "collaborative" art.