I recently started to think about what makes a great director, and more importantly, what makes a director great for me. A stream of rhetorical questions flooded my head.
Do they need to have a lot of accolades? Maybe it’s too common for directors to be critically acclaimed, so should they have no awards? Is this too conceited, and should the work just speak for itself?
The last question was the one that stuck with me. It should perhaps have been the first port of call, but sometimes life isn’t just that easy.
Looking at how the work of a director can stand on its own seemed to be the best way of approaching it. Whether it really is possible to conceal the artist is another debate all together.
With Stone, I see his films as separate from the man, and there was one resounding element to his canon of work that I felt spoke for itself, and that’s his talent for versatility. I don’t mean that every film he’s made has been incredibly different; though there’s a wide breadth of films in his back-catalogue, it would be fair to say they do tend to fall into the war genre or the political genre in one way or other.
What I mean by versatility is Stone’s ability to approach a single topic or idea from a variety of artistic directions. Many of the films he’s made over the years cross artistic genres, even if they are thematically similar.
For this reason I’ve thought about three films that were been made across three decades and, in many respects, cross three genres: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), Natural Born Killers (1994) and South Of The Border (2009).
Born On The Fourth Of July is the second film in Stone’s Vietnam War Trilogy. It follows the true story of Ron Kovic who returned from the Vietnam War to a disenfranchised America. Shot in a very naturalistic style, this film gets to the heart of the problem at hand, and questions the multifarious nature of what it is to be an American.
South Of The Border, on the other hand, is a documentary involving a series of interviews between Stone and South American leaders including, but not limited to, Hugo Chávez (President of Venezuela), Evo Morale (President of Bolivia) and Cristina Kirchner (President of Argentina).
The rough and ready approach to documentary-making is present here as we see these interviews spliced with television footage, and a particularly odd scene with Hugo Chávez riding, and breaking, a child’s bike.
Natural Born Killers sits a world apart from these two as it tells the story of a couple that become famous beyond their wildest dreams for the murders they’ve committed.
The actual directorial and artistic style of the film is startling, entertaining and fairly terrifying. Stone toys with parodies of the stereotypical American sitcom, and goes on long hallucinogenic scenes that see the characters lose all sense of self. The creative and trippy artistic style is a million miles from the much simpler Born On The Fourth of July.
It’s fair to say these three films, when placed alongside each other, have little in common other than the fact that Stone directed them – the artistry of each film are worlds apart.
Yet there is a strong connection between them. The thread, for me, is the media. Though not initially apparent, on re-watching all of these films this tie became more and more obvious.
Born On The Fourth of July shows how morals, ethics and attitudes towards the Vietnamese were deeply woven into the American consciousness. One piece of footage that rings out from this is JFK’s famous ‘what you can do for your country’ speech.
The scene shows a family sitting around a television set, affixed to the words and ideas that have been perpetuated in the Western media. When Kovic returns from the war, he’s met by a flood of new opinions that are staunchly opposed to the idea of the Vietnam War, but by this point he’s almost damaged beyond repair.
Working with the autobiographic source material, Stone crafted a film that shows a distinctive before and after America. The revolution against the government of the time which was an attack against, but also perpetuated by, mainstream media. This theme of media may be overshadowed by the Vietnam War, but it’s an ever present idea throughout the film.
This takes us to South Of The Border, which is specifically about the media, in particular how the North American media manipulated events in South America for its own political, social and economical benefits.
Using a combination of footage from the news, eye-witness interviews and on-going conversations with the political leaders of the time and beyond, South Of The Border harshly scrutinises the inherent bias in the media, with a heavy weight towards North America.
A problem that Stone approached in Born On The Fourth Of July is the main subject matter in this film, and it’s still a prevalent issue 30 years on. Replace internal propaganda for international propaganda and you have the same problem with the media.
The next instalment is with Natural Born Killers; despite the fact the film focuses on these murderous protagonists, it’s completely about the media. The horrific actions these two lovers commit are played with on the cutting room floor, not only of the media within the film, but in the film itself.
Parts of the film are interspersed with fictional interviews about how the public see Micky (played by Woody Harrelson) and Malorie (played by Juliette Lewis) as icons of a generation. We also have Robert Downey Jnr.’s reporter character who successfully embodies everything that’s wrong with the world. This is then paired with a playful directorial approach that leaps between different filming styles – from the naturalistic to the avant-garde.
Once again, Natural Born Killers argues against a mainstream media that’s skewed morals yet has too much of a say in the construction of contemporary society. What’s happened with the Vietnam War and political issues in South America is evermore evident in Natural Born Killers.
These are the reasons why I see Stone as a great director. Three different films, shot in three different ways, about three different topics, but all interconnected with a common theme that’s explored in three unique ways.
This demonstrates how, although Stone can easily fall into simple categories, the films stand up for themselves in a way that requires multiple viewings – and a long think afterwards.
Jack is an English Literature student in his early Twenties (The Golden Age!) at the University of Leeds. He insists on saying that he’s originally from Slough, Berkshire which is the setting of Ricky Gervais’ comedy series The Office – and not a day goes by that he’s not reminded of that fact… Irrespective of being mocked for it, Jack still is, and will most likely remain, a big Gervais fan.
And he sure knows how to spend his time. Having subscribed to a well known DVD delivery service for the past three years, Jack spends half of his days watching DVDs – and the other half on catch-up websites watching TV programmes.