Saturday, March 26, 2011

"We Are Most Alone When We Are With the Myths": Alexander Revisited

Another link I’d hoped to put up earlier: A couple of weeks ago, the estimable Dennis Cozzalio of the blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule did a pretty great interview with Oliver Stone about Alexander Revisited, the director’s revised, ultra-extended cut of his ill-received 2004 Alexander the Great biopic. The interview was meant in part to publicize a screening and Q&A at the Museum of the Moving Image of this cut of the film. I couldn’t attend the screening, but I did sit down and watch Alexander Revisited at home. This took some doing, as I mostly despised Alexander when I first saw it in theaters. What did I think of it this time around? I’ll tell you, in a bit, but first, here’s Dennis, making a compelling case for the film in his introduction to the Stone interview:

Stone’s final cut… [is] the supremely fascinating spectacle of a conqueror with the blood of thousands on his hands who is redeemed not only through the mythologizing of history but by his own compelling vision of preserving, not subsuming, the cultures of the world beyond the known. It is also the supremely fascinating spectacle of a director wrestling, on the sort of gigantic canvas that is becoming increasingly rare in world cinema, with his obsessive interest in the life and legacy of a ruler whose proliferation into that unknown world would soon transmogrify into the brand of malignant imperialism which would permeate the director’s other, more familiar concerns…

Stone employs modern filmmaking technique here, of course, but not in a garish, anachronistic way – this is not, after all, Natural Born Conquerors. The director has a solid grasp, in AR: TFC of exactly how his familiar style can be shaped and formed and utilized to best cast reflections within the story to reveal greater depth and meaning…And the use of a shuffled chronology, leaping back and forth between the decades of Alexander’s life, from his death to his triumphs, from his younger days under the influence of his father King Philip (Val Kilmer), to his close relationship and eventual break from his possibly conspiratorial mother, the alluring Olympias (Angelina Jolie), all the way back to his move through Asia and into India; reveals a grand dramatic strategy which snaps the far-flung parameters of the story into dimensions of allusive clarity that invite comparison to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II.

Phew. That’s hefty praise, and it was in fact Dennis’s eloquent giddiness about the film that prompted me to take a look at this new cut; after all, his choice for Stone’s other masterpiece is Nixon, and I'd definitely agree with that. (I gather from his piece that Dennis has not seen the theatrical version of the film. I’d be curious to hear his thoughts if and when he does.)

So, what did I think? The good news first: Alexander Revisited is indeed a better film than the theatrical-release version of Alexander. For starters, it’s not an inchoate mess. Which is ironic, because this new cut is much less linear than the original cut, which opted to tell the story from beginning to end, with the occasional, irritatingly ill-timed flashback. Alexander Revisited jumps back and forth in Alexander’s story in a way that more closely resembles Nixon’s – in both cases, the structure seems to be inspired in part by the protagonist’s own psyche – and, as a result, the very movie itself becomes our hero’s throughline. The structure holds the key to understanding the character – a motif I sometimes like to think Stone borrowed from Bertolucci.

Now, the bad news. Alexander Revisited is better, but it’s still not quite, well, good. The original was a disaster in both conception and execution. Yes, the new cut works far better conceptually, and there’s a lot here to admire – which makes it all the more tragic that Stone never quite gets a handle on the tone of the story he’s trying to tell.

I once concocted a theory that the drama in most Oliver Stone films tends to work on the level of a policy dispute. I mean that in a good way. Stone has a remarkable ability to create conflict around contrasting approaches to a problem – often a political question, but not always. (Any Given Sunday is on some level a movie about how to call plays in a football game.) Stone actually fetishizes the politics of the dispute itself, raising debate to the level of opera. In Wall Street, for example, he’s less interested in the travails of Bluestar Airlines and its employees than he is in the gladiatorial combat of Type A personalities charging into each other.

Gladiators, conquerors, myths – these have always been the touchstones of Stone’s stories, so it’s understandable that he felt drawn to the tale of Alexander the Great, the historical warrior-king who attained the status of a myth himself.

And this is where it all goes horribly wrong.

Myth works for Stone as a framework, or an undercurrent, a kind of cosmic, timeless echo for his contemporary power figures. He takes corporate raiders, Presidents, team owners, coaches, activists, rock stars, and turns them into myths -- giving them a kind of depth and resonance they might not ordinarily have. But when confronted with an actual myth, what can he do with it? Not much, it turns out. Oliver Stone characters tend to talk a lot – understandably, since they spend a lot of time in cabinet meetings, or boardrooms, or at lecterns. And the characters in Alexander talk a lot, too – dear god do they talk a lot – but they say almost nothing.

I guess maybe this is just a fancy way of saying that I think the script is bad (and, indeed, I think the script is quite awful) but I feel like there’s something more to it than that. The ancients and the myths are partly the source of Stone’s power in his other films. But the closer he gets to them, the more he loses his bearings. One wonders if he might have been better off doing what Scorsese did with Last Temptation of Christ (another case of a director of contemporary tales going back to his creation myth) and just turning it into something far more in line with his previous work. Some have dissed Scorsese’s “Street Jesus,” but I say it's a masterpiece. Of course, Scorsese was shooting on a dime, and Stone appears to have felt more of a responsibility to deliver a grand, historical, ostensibly authentic epic.

Would Alexander have worked better on a smaller, more intimate scale? Maybe. But that leads me to confront something else about the film: It’s beautiful -- absolutely stunning and majestic. It reminds me of something a friend once said about Ridley Scott’s 1492: The Conquest of Paradise: “When it’s not annoying the hell out of you, it takes your breath away.” In the end, I can’t help but think that Alexander Revisited is one ofthe worst movies I can’t wait to see again.

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