Director and writer Oliver Stone spoke at UC Davis’ at the Mondavi Center last Friday as one among a series of distinguished speakers to come through Davis in the last year.
As a filmmaker, Stone is perhaps best known and revered for Platoon (1986), a semi-autobiographical account of a platoon’s foray into the metaphorical heart of jungle darkness, the Vietnam War.
But that was way back when Charlie Sheen was in movie star shape, let alone “Two and a Half Men” shape, which seems an alternate dimension ago and not just 26 years.
The inevitable question being, 26 years later, where is Oliver Stone now in 2012 when Platoon and other potent films like Born of the Fourth of July (1988) and Wall Street (1987) are so far behind us, and him?
That is to say, just what exactly does Oliver Stone and his work mean to the world today, so far from the Vietnam War and the ’80s?
There have, of course, been other Stone movies beyond the listed three that are in no way simply dismissible. Yet, despite his remaining presence in the theaters and the continued relevance of his name, there is a sense of uncertainty that has surrounded Stone and his work in recent years. A type of fogginess or obscurity, perhaps, induced by tonal unevenness, critical disapproval, sporadic subject matter and, for the young, generational disconnect.
So who is Oliver Stone?
In his talk at Mondavi, he started his discussion with some thoughts on creativity. He told a story of how when he was a boy he collected football cards, and how with those cards he made a game not unlike fantasy football — except done alone. To him, as he put it, it was a way to fill the void — the void being that vague sense of existential emptiness a creative type satisfies only with creative action.
He then talked about his daughter, a teenager, who is a standard member of, as Stone put it, the self-entitled generation. The audience, mostly of the baby boomer range, found this rather hilarious. It’s like a big joke among older people. But he wasn’t just making jokes.
His daughter likes to party. She’s 16, and she’s forgotten the importance of creative action. She’s been trying to fill the void in her life with something like a social life, he explained.
The story continued, and Stone told the audience how he grounded his daughter one weekend. He took away her phone, internet, TV and social privileges, and forced her to stay inside her room. She protested, of course, but when Stone got home after a stint of her isolation he discovered a striking mural on her wall. Without all those things, she’d found creative action again.
Later on, when he was taking questions, someone raised the notion of him being a political filmmaker, which makes sense enough. He’s done movies on John F. Kennedy, Vietnam, George W. Bush, Wall Street and Nixon, to name some of his more fiery politicized topics.
Surprisingly, he denied the label. History, he explained, is the best story ever. It’s not politics, but history.
As the presentation went on, he touched on many of his concerns with modern life.
Disgust with modern media, particularly mainstream news and reality TV, and Natural Born Killers.
Concern over financial inequity, two Wall Street movies and a “greed is good” omni-phrase that courses through our lexicon.
Curiosity, to say the least, as to how Bush managed to become our president, and then W was born.
The genesis of Oliver Stone is really not so baffling when one looks the man in the face. He is a storyteller. He liked football when he was a kid, and so he made a movie about football.
That is to say, perhaps, that there is a genuine artist detectable through all his sporadically themed obfuscation. Someone who wants to paint a real, if not dramatized, portrait of the world so we may grasp it just a little better.
And now, Stone is working on what he referred to as a 10-hour documentary on the untold story of America during the 20th century. It sounds ambitious to say the least.
He has a movie coming out this summer called The Savages.
That night, he was flying off to Indonesia for a shoot.
Stone is someone, for better or worse, with an ax to grind or not, who is striving for something. We may not realize it now, but he just might be one of our most valuable filmmakers.
JAMES O’HARA can be reached at email@example.com.