Why Oliver Stone’s portraits from the 1960s still resonate

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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, few American filmmakers were as restless as Oliver Stone. He shot seven films from 1986 to 1991, each an explosion of conflicting ideas and virtuoso style. “Platoon” won four Oscars. “Wall Street” summed up an era of excess.

Stone was particularly busy in 1991. He started the year with “The Doors”, a psychedelic biopic about rocker Jim Morrison, played by Val Kilmer. He ended the year with “JFK,” a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the hunt for truth in the aftermath of a national tragedy.

Thirty years later, “JFK” and “The Doors” remain fascinating artistic artifacts, brimming with a director’s brash confidence on a hot streak. They also x-rayed some of the cultural fault lines that continue to divide the United States three decades later.

“JFK,” a three-hour epic featuring a stacked ensemble cast, both reflecting and anticipating a country subject to conspiracy theories. “The Doors” dramatized the agony and ecstasy of the counterculture, revealing why the sex and drug scene was seen as both alluring and revolting.

The films are strikingly similar. Stone, a Vietnam War veteran, was then Hollywood’s most daring columnist of the 1960s, and his two 1991 projects represent attempts to accommodate that decade’s gnarled legacy. They blurred facts and fabrication, memory and myth.

In the eyes of many observers of the time, neither of the two films was a complete success. “The Doors” drew mixed reviews and failed at the box office. “JFK” has worked well on both fronts, but some historians and commentators have attacked its swift and cowardly relationship with the factual record.

But in many ways, the facts were irrelevant.

Kevin Costner, as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, in “JFK”. Warner Bros. / Getty Images

“Speculations” and “nightmares”

In 1964, the Warren Commission concluded that President John F. Kennedy had been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald had acted alone. Stone was much less convinced and “JFK” was conceived as his “counter-myth”.

Kevin Costner, close to the height of his star power and influence in the industry, plays New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who investigated the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination on the 22nd. November 1963.

Garrison’s Crusade takes the viewer on a dizzying tour of mid-century American paranoia. He sees a multitude of potential culprits: the CIA, the Mafia, Cuban freedom fighters, the military-industrial complex – the men in the shadows behind what Stone calls our “little-known history.”

“The film was misunderstood as advancing one particular conspiracy theory, when in fact it explored several,” said Matt Zoller Seitz, veteran film critic and author of a 2016 book on Stone’s career. . “It gave the conspiracy mindset a bigger and more prestigious platform, and I think without ‘JFK’ you don’t get ‘The X-Files’, for example.”

“JFK” is the close opposite of a historical by-the-books docudrama. The film is a grim panorama of half-truths and speculation. Stone’s approach alienated some writers and opinion commentators, who criticized the director months before the film even premiered.

Columnist George Will has whispered that Stone was “a man of technical skill, poorly educated, and negligible conscience.” Walter Cronkite, the CBS presenter who broke the news of Kennedy’s murder to the nation, is said to have decried the “mishmash of paranoid fabrications and fantasies.”

Film critic Roger Ebert came up with what might be the most significant interpretation, however, writing in a 2002 retrospective: “I have no opinion on the factual accuracy of… ‘JFK’. I don’t think that’s the point. This is not a film about the facts of the assassination, but about the feelings.

“I have no doubt that Cronkite was right, from his point of view. But I am a film critic and my mission is different from his. He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginations, whims, speculations, nightmares, ”Ebert wrote.

It is here that “JFK” still resonates in the confused and deeply fractured America of 2021 – not as a literal narrative of events but as a collage of issues that still tug at the national fabric, rightly or wrongly: mistrust of government, skepticism of institutions, conspiracy theories, rabbit holes.

“I watch ‘JFK’ now and see Covid deniers who make it look like the virus was created by scientists from ‘The X-Files’, the same scientists who are going to inject us with DNA from ‘The X-Files’. bees, or whatever, ”Seitz said. “I think there was a genius who was released from the bottle with this movie.”

“It’s a deranged movie when you walk away from it,” Seitz said with a laugh.

Nonetheless, many people around the world still doubt the official account of the Warren Commission report and hope that more information will come to light.

Jay O. Sanders, an actor who played Lou Ivon, one of Garrison’s team investigators, said in an interview earlier this year that to this day, strangers are still approaching him on the streets and ask him who he thinks killed Kennedy.

“The moment we explored in the film was one of the most important moments for countless people in this country,” Sanders said. “It was a loss of innocence. It was a loss of hope.”

“Doors” to self-destruction

Stone has reportedly been addicted to The Doors since hearing their music for the first time while serving in Vietnam. “The Doors,” a hallucinatory and borderline campy biopic about the dark rock-and-roll poet of the Nixon era, was the director’s sour tribute.

“The Doors” traces Morrison’s rise and dizzying descent into alcoholism, drug addiction, concert antics, cruelty and general R-rated debauchery. It’s an often unflattering character study – and one that has been raided for exaggerating the musician’s behavior.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in the 1991 movie “The Doors”.Alamy

“In a way, it looks like the Jim Morrison movie would have hallucinated while he was dying,” Seitz said. “There are a lot of deliberately disorienting touches… that make you feel like you’re drugged.”

The film culminates with a noisy concert in Miami. Morrison of Kilmer annoys the audience, runs into the police, and appears to expose himself on stage. He bellowes what amounts to a personal manifesto and a philosophical mission statement: “No limits! No laws!

The film is freewheeling but nonetheless adheres to standard conventions of rock god biopics, the stuff of John C. Reilly’s parody movie “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”. It also functions as a socio-political Rorschach test.

You might be gripped by Stone’s reverent vision of Morrison (deceased 1971, aged 27) as a counterculture prophet who urged his adoring fans to stop being “slaves” to the starchy American establishment. .

But then again, you might see “The Doors” as an uplifting account – willingly or not – of the excesses of years of peace and love, with Kilmer’s version of Morrison as a Dionysian narcissist who symbolized the destructiveness of reckless social rebellion.

Oliver Gruner, an academic at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, explored these contradictions in his 2016 monograph “Screening the Sixties: Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory”, a look at how the American film industry has dramatized the decade.

“Here is a movie that on the one hand celebrates an individual associated with hippie lifestyles, but on the other hand seems vehemently skeptical of the counterculture,” Gruner wrote.

America in 2021 is still in conflict over what to do with this hectic decade. “The Doors” is not a film about politics, but the chaos within it might help us understand why the norm-breaking spirit of the 1960s divided the country and angered the soon-to-be ascendant social conservatives.

In a mixed review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin offered this precise description of Stone’s larger-than-life subject matter: “Nowhere has the best and worst of the ’60s collided in such a haphazard fashion as in Jim Morrison.

But over the course of 141 minutes, she wrote, Stone isn’t quite “successful in delivering a final assessment of the ’60s or her hero rather than bringing the two back with weird and spectacular power.” . The same could be said of “JFK”, a film of urgent questions with no clear answers.

But maybe it was on purpose.

They say America never got past the Sixties. Stone seemed to have a hunch. How do you end a story that never really ended?

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