By RG Scherf
Sometimes film makers make mis-steps. And sometimes, some argue, they are not mis-steps at all. Gauntlet Features Editor RG Scherf makes the case for Oliver Stone’s (brilliant?) flop Alexander.
I will not confess to liking Oliver Stone’s film Alexander upon first viewing. Taken strictly on its own merits, it is an unwieldly, improperly dense film, the kind that gets made by directors with too much passion and not enough discipline, which is a charge fairly levelled at any given Stone flick. But Alexander was, at least for that first viewing, especially bad. Long, boring, full of wooden performances and some most unpleasant characters, the film seemed unredeemable. But with more then a year of steeping in my mind, and one $500 university class to teach me Stone’s background as a film-maker, it is now my solemn belief that Alexander is not a misguided, ill conceived vanity picture, but a surprisingly subtle, beautiful journey into the mind of one of Hollywood’s most acidic personalities.
This essay will explore the construction of foreign places, cultures and peoples in Oliver Stone’s film Alexander, as they are shifted through the mental lens of the film-maker. I will explain these constructions mainly in the context of how they relate to Stone’s earlier filmic statements on ethnicity, and try to give an impression of exactly how unique and significant Alexander is in the greater scheme of Oliver Stone’s career. Oliver Stone is known for making his opinions known through film, and that is especially true in his suite of films about white heroes making a journey to foreign lands–specifically when it comes to the uniform ideological opinion Stone holds of these journeying experiences. Stone has a tortured personal history with the foreign, and so he harbours a definite caution toward his characters’ interactions with it. With Alexander, however, Stone experiments with an alternate vision of the foreign, one which is pleasurable and appealing. To do so, however, he must confront his grounding in an over-ruling white-American situation and exorcise his ethnically myopic demons. Both Alexander and Oliver Stone make the same significant emotional journey in the film, to find a new self which transcends the bounds of the original self. In this way, the film is a deep reflection of Stone’s journey through his life and career, intensely personal even as Alexander is his most commercial film. In the end, however, the film is ultimately a vindication of Stone’s traditional situation-specific viewpoint.
First, I will start by defining some of the vague terms which will appear over and over again in this essay. The first has to do with “situation” or “situation specificity,” referring to one’s personal past: the collection of environments, experiences and learned biases that contribute to each person’s unique standpoint. Stone’s situation, as I see it, has two major parts for the purposes of this essay: the formative experience of the Vietnam War, and an upbringing in a wealthy, almost exclusively-white environment. Oliver Stone’s views on race and ethnicity as presented in his films are obviously products of his specific mental situation, but it is important to make clear that those two factors contribute by far the most to that situation. Another term I will make heavy use of is “alien,” to describe geographic, mental or emotional spaces which are so entirely new, different and unfamiliar that they can be considered totally removed from any known sets of rules or expectations: these are wild, untamed and uncertain places. Finally, I will be drawing analogues between Stone’s white-American-centrism and the centrist view of Alexander, which I will take to be the same as Stone’s, despite technically being a Greek perspective–the Greek actors are all white, speak in American and European accents, and are mostly well-known Hollywood actors. Additionally, Alexander’s conflicts and setting are not directly tied to any specific historical place; with the amount of unreal spectacle injected into the film, it could have taken place anywhere, perhaps even at any time. It is for these reasons that I make the assumption that the film can be viewed in a modern North American context.
Oliver Stone is a white man who makes films almost exclusively about white men, for white men. Having grown up in privilege, it is obviously not much of a concern to Stone to represent the voices of the unrepresented. To Stone, race is an issue to some people, and certainly racism is one of many blights which affect our modern culture, but it is in no way a topic of interest for him personally to address with any sense of commitment in his films. In fact, Stone’s films feature almost exclusively white casts, and it is notable that the few characters of colour in Stone’s films act and speak exactly like their white peers. And even Talk Radio, the Stone film which most directly discusses issues of race and racism, only offers a simple acknowledgement of those issues’ impact on our culture. It can be confidently stated, then, that up until the release of Alexander, Oliver Stone’s filmography was almost entirely monochromatic. It is important to stress here that Stone’s ethnic myopia is not the result of racism, but simply that issues of race and ethnicity have never particularly interested him; like Spike Lee, he simply concerns himself with writing about and for a specific ethnic audience.
Parallel to Stone’s use of race and ethnicity in his films is his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War. There, Stone developed a keen notion of the “alien,” describing a place so foreign to the individual experiencing it that the place is beyond foreign-ness, and beyond simple different-ness. At that point, these places take on a quality of totally unfamiliarity and uncertainty, that is “alien”-ness. Because of Stone’s particular experience of place, in the wholly confusing and uncertain Vietnam War, it is easy to imagine how the situation might have coloured his later thoughts about the meaning of being outside one’s cultural and physical comfort zone. For Stone, then, when there is a sense of the “alien” at work it is always in an upheaved environment and informed by a cognitive dissonance of place: wanting to escape, or the feeling of not being in the right place. These are the hallmarks of Stone’s pre-Alexander exploration films, most importantly Platoon and Salvador.
Strangely, Oliver Stone has chosen to reverse both of his fundamental biases about race, ethnicity and culture for Alexander. It is a film which, for the first time in Stone’s career, celebrates and embraces cultural difference, as well as makes the “alien” desirable. This is a key shift in Stone’s assumptions about the outside world. By giving the character Alexander a sense of romance for discovery, it is both he and Stone who are undertaking a journey to explore the limits of the world outside the personal comfort zone, and find a self which transcends the limits of the original self. Alexander is driven in his quest by ambition, but as for Stone–who knows? What is important is that with Alexander, the film-maker is finally self-critiquing his body of work, and addressing a major ideological weakness in his filmography thus far. At this point in his career, it almost seems silly to say that Stone has matured a great deal with the release of this film, but his new willingness to experiment with and simply experience the positive “alien” world outside of his situation is a big step toward incorporating a diverse multicultural perspective in future films. More importantly, it is an opportunity for Stone to exorcise his white-American-centrism standpoint and confront it head on.
Stone’s most powerful ideas in Alexander, and the ones which create the most inner conflict for him, have to do with his recurring theme of the “alien,” and the different meaning it holds in this film as opposed to every previous film Stone has made. The alien in Platoon, for example, was mysterious and deadly; in Alexander, it is seductive and beautiful. Here, the alien drives us forward–we always want to see more and more of it. The alien environment in this film, then, is a total reversal of what we’ve seen before from Stone. But the change in attitude goes even further than that: where he was fearful of it before, Stone is now in awe of the alien. There is immense spectacle in the far-off lands and peoples of Alexander, from vibrant colours to exotic dancing to horrific monsters to wild natural photography, Stone himself seems to be devouring the scenery and sensory pleasures right along with the audience. Interestingly, Stone’s awe again exposes his artistic specificity: a film-maker with a more diverse palette of cultural experiences would take the spectacle of Alexander’s distant lands, even in the context of an epic adventure film, at something closer to face value. Stone, however, coming from (and still film-making for) an exclusive and insulated background can genuinely be in awe at his own creation: the film’s subject is so outside his normal situation that even he can be enthralled by it, and the result is a land and mindscape of Persia and India that is larger than life by several orders of magnitude.
Stone illustrates his awe with the alien world by developing two intertwining themes: exoticism and eroticism. Every new conquest that Alexander’s army makes seems to yield a reward of greater sexual pleasure, whether it’s the infinite harem in Babylon or the ridiculously sexual atmosphere of India. Stone is obviously playing on the audience’s voyeuristic pleasures here to build a sense of renewed anticipation with every stop along the army’s path. What keeps us interested during the army’s march are the splendid exotic locations Alexander leads his troops though; places so beautiful and so unreal that they define the concept of alien. The army also meets strange creatures along the way, whether monkeys or large cats. As well, Alexander’s personal sexual voyage shadows the development of the greater theme of sexuality. In each of the film’s three primary geographical chapters, Alexander gains a new partner, each one more scandalous than the last. The sexual drama along the spectrum of gay and straight which Alexander finds himself trapped within is another way Stone is representing the alien: never before have such (Westernly) forbidden sexualities been so prominently featured in one of his films.
Some tension develops later in Alexander’s campaign which drives to the very heart of Stone’s statement with the film. Alexander’s senior companions feel that he has led them too far into Asia, too far away from their wives and for too long. They gasp and bemoan every flamboyant risk and statement Alexander makes. It becomes a running source of conflict for the rest of the film. Again, if Alexander and Oliver Stone are sharing the same journey, then this sub-plot is very telling. Alexander’s officers are a part of Stone, perhaps his conscience or perhaps a manifestation of his uncomfortability with stepping outside of his self. Either way, they are a chorus urging him to go back to his old ways of seeing. Stone is defiant for some time, urging the audience along with ever more tantalizing images of India, and the promise that Alexander might even eventually lead his army to the end of the earth. When Alexander is struck down by the Indian king, however, his ambitions, and those of Stone, melt away. It is a shameful trip back to Babylon for the both of them. In confronting the shackles of his situation, Stone finds that he can’t move beyond its boundaries. Stone cannot sustain an optimistic quest into the alien forever; to do so would be disingenuous and lacking in “the Truth,” something Stone is always questing for, not against: it’s too much to believe that a white man who makes films almost exclusively about white men, for white men would become a multiculturally sensitive auteur in the space of one Hollywood movie. Still, in the end Stone stays true to his agenda, even if his white demons stay intact. His and Alexander’s moral is a sad one: we cannot ever fully step outside and reinvent ourselves, another disappointing but recurring motif in Stone’s work. Alexander’s ultimate defeat is tragic, while Stone’s can only be taken with a measure of disappointment.
And with that, we have a clear outline of the additions Alexander brings to Oliver Stone’s suite of films about white heroes making a journey to foreign lands–specifically when it comes to the uniform ideological opinion Stone holds of these journeying experiences, and how that ideological opinion was altered (however ultimately unsuccessfully) in Alexander. The film, and Stone’s relationship to it, confirms again that Stone is who he is: a steadfast auteur who will not bend to what is perceived as “right.” This means that there is no redemption for idealism, either in him or his characters.