Thursday, March 10, 2011

“ALL MEN REACH AND FALL…” OLIVER STONE ON HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND REDEMPTION: ALEXANDER REVISITED: THE FINAL CUT



At his best, in films like Nixon and JFK, Oliver Stone doesn’t shy away from the often contradictory impulses contained within the functions of the storyteller, the social and political critic, the historian and, most tellingly, the provocateur unafraid to be accused of lying while seeking a truth illuminated by but sometimes beyond the complexity of “the facts.” Those films also show Stone to be capable of an astonishing empathy in the examination of historical figures (Lee Harvey Oswald, Richard Milhouse Nixon) for whom you would expect him to have none, men who are at the very center of the horrors which, for Stone and many Americans, define the black heart beating within America’s self-created, self-denying image. This bedeviled curiosity, this unexpected empathy, and in Nixon Stone’s free-associative multimedia approach to reaching into a familiar and reviled man’s psyche in order to see the world as he imagines it sees him, is for me key to experiencing what I believe are Stone’s great achievements as a writer-director. Those elements are what pull me into Stone’s field of vision in ways that films like Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, painted as they are in such bold, unsubtle strokes of anger and anguish, never have. And now it seems that a third film can be added to that short list of the films I consider Stone’s masterpieces.


Rising from the ashes of some of the worst reviews of Stone’s career when it was released theatrically in 2004, Alexander did meager business domestically, about a fifth of its reported $155 million budget. Less surprisingly, it recouped its costs overseas, where audiences might be presumed to be more familiar, or at least more interested in the details of the life of Alexander the Great. The film soon drifted out of theatres and, ostensibly, to a future of eternal indifference amid the shadows of more commercial successful attempts to restore the aesthetics of 1960’s historical epics with modern technique, films like Gladiator and Troy. But a funny thing happened on the way to the video store-- Alexander, the theatrical version, and Alexander—The Director’s Cut together sold 3.5 million copies, indicating that, separated from the dismissive reviews and the attendant hype surrounding its production and release, there was an audience for Stone’s film. (Alexander was one of two films on the Macedonian conqueror racing to theaters in 2004; the other, Baz Luhrmann’s version, never got beyond preproduction.)

Spurred on by an obsession to address the deficiencies that he saw in the film’s storytelling approach, some of which he felt responsible for, some of which were concessions to a market unreceptive to commercial films of greater than three hours’ length, Stone personally financed a third version of the film, this one adding almost 40 minutes to the original version’s 175-minute running time. “Over the last few years I have been able to sort out some of the unanswered questions about this highly complicated and passionate monarch, questions I had failed to answer dramatically enough,” Stone has said. “This film represents my complete and last version.” Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, in fact, represents a radical restructuring of the first film’s narrative trajectory. It enriches the film’s dramatic power; heightens the emotional effect of the battles (the late battle at Gaugamela is seen at the beginning of the film); makes clearer the connections between the importance of mythology (and self-mythology) to Alexander himself-- and between the telling of stories on cave walls, in history books, and with a camera; and digs deeper into what Armond White rightly termed, in his thoughtful review of the theatrical version, Stone’s use of the warrior genre as a gateway into examining the very basis of manifest destiny.


On digital media— DVD and Blu-ray— Stone’s final cut is revealed to be 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. A look beyond one’s knee-jerk responses to the representation of what might be deemed camp clich├ęs of the epic movie form (British accents standing in for the Others; bold, oversized performances; a cast dressed in togas and golden armor; et al) ought to reveal that the movie is only as absurd and moth-eaten as a viewer wants it to be. AR: TFC deals with fascinating issues relating to familial influence, treachery, political conspiracy and, in this case, how Alexander’s sexual proclivities reflected and informed his view of reaching the ends of the known Earth, in ways that will be as familiar to connoisseurs of I, Claudius as to those of Ben-Hur or Samson and Delilah.

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 of meaning. Even the much-derided framing device of an aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) providing the narrative background of the story in voice-over works better given room in this lengthy version to breathe. 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.


This coming weekend, on Sunday, March 13, the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, New York, will host A Day with Oliver Stone. At 1:30 p.m., the extended director’s cut of Nixon will screen in the museum’s spectacular new theater. But the real attraction of the tribute comes in the evening when, on that same screen, Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut will be seen theatrically for the first time. Since a negative of this long version, which would have cost millions of dollars to create, was never cut, the MMI will show the beautiful Blu-ray of AR: TFC, lending to the film a scale and grandeur befitting its subject and approach. Oliver Stone will attend the screening, giving the film an introduction and then sitting down for a post-screening conversation with critic Matt Zoller Seitz. For those able to attend it promises to be a fascinating look at how the vision of a director is compromised, evolves and finally takes hold of the audience and even the man behind the camera.

In answer to the question “Why a third Alexander?" Stone wrote in a letter to the members of the Museum of the Moving Image expressing that it has been a film which has haunted him ever since the release of the first two versions, a film he hasn't been able to exorcise from his system. Stone looks upon his adventure with the film as “an experiment, one of trial and error,” in which Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut represents Stone’s clearest interpretation of Alexander’s life. “For those who didn't appreciate the original, rest assured this is my last pass, as there is no more footage to be found,” says the director before extending an invitation for those who already enjoy the film to come to MMI on Sunday and “share with me my passion for Alexander, every sublime and awkward pixel of it.” If it’s true that, as Anthony Hopkins’ Ptolemy intones in the movie’s narration, “all men reach and fall,” then this Final Cut represents one of modern movies’ great obsessives picking himself up, dusting himself off and continuing on a quest that most would dismiss as madness, remaining true to a vision that in the end, to evoke another grand movie warrior (and mix a metaphor), results in an smell very similar to victory.


The following interview with Oliver Stone is the result of Matt’s thoughtfulness and generosity. I appreciate his creating this opportunity for me to speak with the director of this film. Alexander clearly means so much to the man who made it, even though to some it may not seem to be a personal endeavor on its surface. During our conversation Stone was gregarious, engaging and candid, and especially articulate on the subject of mythology, history and the essential unknowable quality of history, both ancient and modern. (It’s telling that even on the subject of Richard Nixon he talks about his film being “closer” to the truth than people realize, a tacit acknowledgment that even such a pervasively documented figure, who resides only 40-50 years in our collective rearview mirror, is a slippery foundation on which to base claims of absolute, objective truth.) In fact, as I got further into the interview, and particularly as I was transcribing it into the form you see here, I was struck by just how much a talk with Oliver Stone, with the director hopping from one subject to the other and back again, juxtaposing ideas from a chain of thought previously abandoned and repositioning the ideas as the response to other notions and questions, can come to resemble the thundering, free-associative experience of immersion in an Oliver Stone film. The director’s candor and openness in speaking about a film for which he has a continuing and tremendous passion ensured a lively and thoughtful exchange. If nothing else it is my hope that this interview conveys even just a small portion of that passion, which I share, for Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut.

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DENNIS COZZALIO: One of the things that’s immediately striking about Alexander is how personal it seems as an Oliver Stone film while not particularly resembling the template of what we’ve come to think of as the films closest to your experience and politics, films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July or even The Doors.

OLIVER STONE: I’ve wrestled with Alexander for so damn long, and at this point it’s probably my favorite movie. I loved Nixon too, and I appreciate that it’s the one you think most of too. I watched it recently because Disney is preparing an iTunes digital version that I had to check, and I ended up watching the whole thing! I couldn’t believe I directed it! Somebody else must have, right? (Laughs)



DC: No, I'm pretty sure you did! The movie approaches the subject of Nixon as if it were the man’s horror-filled, self-loathing home movie playing out inside his head. Matt Zoller Seitz suggested that the movie is really Nixon’s fevered perception of the way the world sees him, as a failed leader, as a failed man. It’s a non-talking heads, non-docudramatic way of boring into him as a character study which allows you creative breathing room to examine the familiar facts and historical figures in a more speculative but no less truthful way.

OS: I actually thought we were closer to the historically accurate Nixon than has been written, that we caught something unique about Nixon—I mean, I remember the Nixon administration like it was yesterday because I was a young man. I still think we were closer than people realize, certainly on the Cuba stuff, the more I find out about Cuba. I mean, Eisenhower did give the go-ahead to kill Castro, so who’s kidding who here?

DC: The more you vary from a typical biographical approach, the more nervous people get.

OS: Certainly that’s true. But in terms of the complexity of its structure Alexander is right up there with Nixon. I’m so far removed now that I couldn’t even tell you off the top of my head all the differences between the theatrical version and the director’s cut, or the theatrical version and this longer, final cut. But the structural changes are enormous. It’s much like the cutting in W-- you go back to the past, then you come forward.

DC: Yet Alexander doesn’t settle into that predictable rhythm of chronology the way W did.


OS: W is double linear, but it’s not as complex because it does go from one to two, two to one. But in Alexander, like in Nixon, you’re going inside and then inside inside. The biggest deal on the new version was starting with the battle at Gaugamela, which to me works so much better ‘cause it really focuses on the heroic concept of who Alexander was and brings the viewer immediately to a moment in time where they have to consider, what has he achieved here? Then you move back into the past where he’s formed by a conflict between mother and father—the ominous clouds of patricide and matricide are starting to form, both of which go back straight into the heart of Greek myth and Greek tragedy, which are themselves the basis of all, or most of our writing today and throughout history.

DC: When you start with a big battle scene like that, it’s there to grab the audience, but it’s also a way of setting into place the mythology of Alexander that we’re all most familiar with—Alexander the conqueror—and then, as you say, digging into the subject of the mythology surrounding the person. Where was the battle placed in the narrative of the theatrical version?

OS: It was more linear. After the introduction by Ptolemy, we shot into Alexander’s life as a baby and a young boy and then eventually culminated with the battle. But that was definitely the more conventional approach. I don’t know why I backed off—I’d have to go back to 2004 to remember exactly why I made that change, but at the time I was facing enormous pressure from all sides. I had to make Warner Bros. happy in the States, and at the same time the homosexuality and the violence—they were very much opposed to those elements.

DC: And you were also dealing with the talk of another production which was going on at the time as well.

OS: Yeah, that was always a pain in the ass because, frankly, they did not have a script—they never did. But Dino De Laurentiis kept pushing us and was announcing his project in order to cut off our financing. We did this movie wholly independently and structured it out of Europe with Moritz Borman. It’s one of the largest independent movies ever made and generated enormous publicity. But I did lose my balls, frankly. Warner Bros. is intimidating. I’d been through so many battles on Nixon and Natural Born Killers, and the reviews in my career have not been very friendly overall, so you do get scars. I talked about that in my essay, about how I didn’t carry through on some of the stuff that I should have carried through. (The afterword of Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander is written by Stone, in which he responds to the published articles in it and the general reception of the film—DC.) After the film failed in the English-speaking countries, it freed me up to go all the way, and I did that two and a half years later in 2007. Nobody paid attention, but it’s on digital now and I’m very happy with the result.


DC: I was mesmerized by the movie, both as a physical feat and an engrossing attempt to reconnect with a style of filmmaking that last found its richest, most popular expression in films that are close to 50 years old. And one of the things that grabbed me about it is how you’ve fashioned the storytelling methods of the period—Ptolemy’s recounting of history to his scribes as the film’s narration; Philip’s recounting of the myths drawn on the cave walls to the young Alexander—as reminders both of the cinema and, more importantly, the process of becoming mythologized and how we can never have an objective grasp on history. Yet you don’t use that realization as an excuse to go completely off the boards into a grotesque fantasia. What do you see as the storyteller’s responsibility toward historical accuracy when even the first historical accounts of a life may not necessarily be seen as objective truth?

OS: Well, the key to the film, as you say, is this cave scene between Philip and Alexander, and you register it more keenly because the movie goes from this battle at Gaugamela, itself the subject of much historical recollection and representation, back to the origin of the myths.

DC: There’s a connection forged between actual event and mythical representation.

OS: Yes. Alexander is an amazing, original man because he is an amalgam of all these figures—Achilles, Jason, Prometheus. Prometheus was the one I brought into the discussion. Hephaestion calls him “a friend to man,” and through the film that’s what we learn. Prometheus was a friend to man. He brought fire, but he paid for it with his life—he was fed to the eagle every day. It’s the greatest love of man— and that’s why I love the Greeks, the love of man. They conceptualized this idea that you could love man, and I suppose in a way they—I’m not that familiar with Babylonian myth, but in that mythology I just don’t feel the love of man that I felt in the Greek mythology.

DC: Or in the more familiar Roman mythology either, come to think of it.

OS: Oh, there’s no comparison. Yes, Alexander’s empire became— And by the way, that’s a bullshit mythology that his empire didn’t last. It did last. The cultural cross-fertilization he began went on for centuries, and although it fell into four parts, the kingdoms and Alexander’s influence existed and went on. Although there were civil wars, people generally lived a better life—trade was up, the economy was up, prosperity was up. Those four empires existed until they became the Roman Empire, and the Romans were militarists. It’s a whole different way of seeing life and the world. Half the historians hate Alexander and go after him because he’s pre-Christian and go on and on about how bloodthirsty he was. But he was actually one of the least bloodthirsty of historical conquerors. He put the whole world together into one unit, like a return to the womb, and then after he took power he let autonomy reign. He had local satraps, local people run the show and mix the cultures. His idea was to mix.

DC: It seems incredibly unlikely, yet the historical research bears it out, the degree to which he delegated his authority in a very modern way, and the movie does a good job of illustrating this strategy and delineating the ways in which it works against Alexander’s vision too.

OS: There were a few betrayals, which he dealt with harshly. But once the deal was made, it made for a great life and Alexander left a rich empire behind him. And he was running it all while on the move. The explorer part of him kept him going. He could have easily returned to Babylon, had he wanted to, brought his mother and entourage, consolidated his empire as king and achieved enormous historical renown. But he chose to continue with the exploration because he was restless in his soul.


DC: The cave scene strikes me as just one more potent metaphor, along with the scribes detailing Ptolemy’s descriptions, for the power of perpetuating mythology and enriching it with meaning, to which the movies can be included. What is the importance of that cave scene to the narrative structure of this final version of Alexander?

OS: It clarifies the importance of mythology both to Alexander and to Philip.

DC: And for the audience too, I would think, in determining how best to understand the spirit and will and yearning of Alexander, the man.

OS: In thinking about the mythological precedents for Alexander, I wrote down the names “Achilles, Oedipus, Heracles, Jason, Prometheus and Medea.” Jason and Medea are linked to each other and to Alexander because Medea was Jason’s wife, the mother of his children, and to Heracles because Alexander did go mad, he did turn on Roxane, his own wife, and say “I never want to see you again.” So he never saw his son. He cut himself off from Roxane, a very “Heraclean” thing to do. Heracles, one of the great heroes, goes mad and kills his own children. In much the same way, Alexander cuts Roxane off because he thinks she’s responsible for the death of his lover, his soul mate, Hephaestion. And Oedipus is in there too, because he’s blind in his heart and his soul. He doesn’t know if his mother participated in his father’s death. He always must question himself, because his mother openly exalted—and that is historically correct—at his father’s death. Olympias, of course, says Alexander isn’t even his father’s son—she says he’s the son of Zeus. So Alexander questions himself. Should I kill my mother and do like Orestes did with Clytemnestra and kill his mother? Which would make him guilty of two crimes—patricide and matricide. So you see how the mythology is a huge issue in the movie, which works out entirely in India when he goes up against the elephant and sacrifices himself.


DC: The movie is fascinated with the idea of conquest as not so much geological or cultural domination but as migration. Is it simply that the world was as yet unknown, or that Alexander was relatively cognizant of not destroying the culture of the peoples he conquered, that is the difference for you between Alexander’s bloody migration and that of, say, pioneers in the American West or George W. Bush’s disastrous distractions in Iraq and Afghanistan?

OS: The word “simply” throws me a bit. The fact that the world was unknown is unbelievable. It’s literally hard to conceptualize. According to Aristotle’s maps, if you reached the edge of the world you fell off! But here was a man who was thinking about pushing past those boundaries near the end of his life. Not only was he going to conquer Saudi Arabia, but he talked about the Straits of Gibraltar and Rome. If he’d lived a long life he probably would have founded six or seven global centers, from Spain to Rome to Carthage. And each one of those centers would have respected the local culture. Every other emperor goes back to Rome, goes back to Paris, goes back to Berlin, wherever. He didn’t sack the places. That’s why he got into such problems with the Macedonians. They wanted to consolidate the wealth. They wanted to be rich. Ptolemy relates that the generals tell him at one point, “What do we have to gain after all this travel?” I also imply in the voiceover, as heard in the long version, that Ptolemy is very likely part of the conspiracy to kill Alexander because Alexander just kept going and the generals couldn’t stand him anymore.

DC: As I see it, it’s this difference that you see in Alexander, the one between exploring and pillaging or exploiting, that makes him a ripe subject for an Oliver Stone movie.

OS: No one ever ruled like him. He married three princesses of Eastern origin, one of whom, Roxane (played by Rosario Dawson), antagonized the army. By right he should have married a Macedonian girl first, but he didn’t. Another difference: Why wouldn’t he have brought his mother to Babylon? Historians don’t seem to even ask that question. He doesn’t want to see the bitch. And Angelina Jolie— Fuck ‘em. She was great!


DC Yep. She was mesmerizing. Yes, she pitched her performance high, but so what? That wouldn’t exactly be a first in a historical epic. But some people also had a problem with the fact that there’s only a couple of years difference in the ages of Jolie and Colin Farrell.

OS: So she was sexy! She wasn’t some old coot, the typical representation of pent-up female royalty in movies like these in the past. She was a young, hot chick who wasn’t sure she could actually get her son on the throne, so there was a lot of motive for her to get rid of Philip, who had his own son later who was fully Macedonian.

DC: I really think she nailed the part and gives the movie a jolt of sinister spirit. And I recall she was one of the things that even naysayers liked about the original version.

OS: She loved the role, and she won’t back down from it.

DC: It’s a really fearless performance in many ways, because she does take it to the edge of camp, with the sinuous Eastern European-type accent and everything. But I like Jon Solomon’s point in his essay in the book on the popular reception of the movie in retort to all the flippant criticism of her choice of an allegedly silly accent. He wrote: “For all the amusing jokes about Angelina Jolie’s inappropriate 'Transylvanian/Count Dracula' accent, have any of these critics looked at a map of Southeastern Europe, or do they have a Molossian Epirote voice coach they could recommend to the next actress who portrays Olympias?”

OS: And what of all the Irish? The Macedonians were all portrayed with Irish accents, the Greeks English, being the establishment power.

DC: A nice twist on the curious tradition of the whole of Europe being portrayed by anyone with a British accent.

OS: And Olympias was the outsider, the outer tribe, so she’s got to have an accent completely unlike theirs. But this whole “camp” business is a cheap shot. You’re telling me from the feminist point of view that there’s no room for a caricature of a dominating woman? You have to allow for Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Faye Dunaway and the like, because we do have those figures in our lives, and in the movies, and they do represent a certain truth.

DC: What’s great about The Final Cut is that it’s got room to deal with all this stuff, all these elements pushing at the edges of the frame. It’s not in a hurry, but at the same time it’s the furthest thing from stodgy and remote. Did you have a hard time talking Warner Bros. into letting you go back a second, and then a third time to try and get this movie into the shape you wanted it to be?

OS: The DVD did well all over the world, so I actually went back and talked with the head of Warner Home Video, Jeff Baker, a department under the nose of the Warner Bros. theatrical film division, who would not have supported the idea of going back into Alexander. Because the DVD had done so well, Jeff Baker let me do this. No money. I just did it on my own, supported by them. They made The Final Cut possible, and we did a lot of work on it, remixing, editing. We worked on it a long time, the original editors and I. Warner Bros. issued the DVD and Blu-ray and it turned out okay, because without any advertising, as a catalog item, they’ve sold close to a million in the United States alone. But still nobody knows about it. Matt is so kind to allow us to do this. The Museum of the Moving Image has a great new theater, so this is a big thing for me, to get the movie talked about a little bit by people like you who care about movies. It’s a huge effort.

DC: Hopefully it’ll be a big deal for people in the New York area who may not realize this is probably their one chance to see this version of the movie on a big screen.

OS: I hope so. Michael Wilmington, bless his soul, called the movie Lawrence of Arabia in hell. That was in his original review. He got it. He got how mad this film was.


DC: It really does connect up to that epic tradition and honors it, but it’s also very modern, it’s very much of your filmmaking style, and the way you play with the chronology not only emphasizes elements of the story with more power, but opens up the movie’s allusive possibilities. You’re seeing images and scenes juxtaposed with each other that allow you to see things you might not have had the scenes been separated by time in a more conventional way. With Alexander you’re consciously reaching for the visual language of the cinema epic which you’ve suggested is a bit of a cultural anachronism these days. You’re evoking the templates and spirit, if not remotely the same style, of a master of the form like David Lean, and even affording the technological advantages, yours feels like a movie that could have come from that time, even if it clearly would have shocked people.

OS: I think I knew in my deep subconscious that we were dead in the water. We never even opened in America, especially in the South, and that didn’t have anything to do with reviews. That was because the subject matter was “Military” and “Gay.” It’s like Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye. There’s no fucking way you’re gonna get a movie to open with a gay military theme. Brokeback Mountain is one thing, but it better not be the military. But I just love those epic movies, that epic style. I loved them as a kid, even the ones that were panned, like The Robe. Victor Mature! I love that shit! Love it, love it, love it. I miss it. It’s sensual, extreme, fun.

DC: And those movies really let you see what it is they wanted to show you too. There was a chance for the viewer to absorb the wealth of beauty (some will call it cheesiness) and information on that wide screen. That’s another thing that surprised me about Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut too. It’s a grand movie that’s finally allowed the time to mentally sift through all the history and the characters and take in visually the rich, sensuous imagery you and DP Rodrigo Prieto managed to get on screen.

OS: We went to India to shoot some of those landscapes. Did you notice when he’s looking out at the mountain range that you see his face in the contours of the mountainside? **

DC: Yes, I did! In fact, I thought I was seeing things when that image snuck up on me. It’s a beautifully hallucinatory image, and for a moment you actually entertain the thought, the hope that it might have been one of those divine accidents, like the shadows of the raindrops on the window sill appearing to make Robert Blake cry in In Cold Blood. Yet it is so deeply connected to the character that he would project himself onto the landscape like that. Now, that’s how you use CGI.

OS: (Laughs) Yes.

DC: And all throughout the movie demonstrates a pretty judicious approach to computer-generated imagery. It allows the epic scope, but I don’t remember a moment where it jolted me out of the story. But beyond wrestling with the film intellectually in terms of trying to structure life not necessarily lived in three or five acts into a manageable script, the sheer physical size of this production must have been daunting.


OS: I’ve never experienced anything like it. Three continents, a massive amount of military— It was like being a general but at the same time trying to keep it intimate. We ended up shooting on the border of Laos and Thailand. That’s right on the banks of the Mekong River where he’s at when he delivers that wonderful speech where he says, “These are the things that destroy men.” And then we were in England in the winter, Morocco in the late summer/fall, and we finished up in Thailand in early winter. And the sets we built in England—It was an amazing experience to go from the rainy, cold, miserable outdoors of England at that time of year— gray, gray, gray—and then walk into a set at Pinewood Studios and see all those lush interiors. I’d love to do that period again. The dancing, the choreography, the attention to detail in all the cultures-- Indian, Greek. We were back in ancient Bactria, which was an incredible cultural capital. And Balkh, an unbelievable city. If the Afghani thing ever ends, they’ll be able to continue some excavations that will reveal they were a much more advanced civilization than people know, as was the Macedonian, by the way.

DC: According to Joanna Paul in her essay “Alexander and the Cinematic Epic Tradition,” the Director’s Cut of Alexander did come under heavy criticism from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for what it termed your compromised artistic integrity regarding the toning down of the film’s sexuality and the deleting of certain scenes. But one of the things that heartened me about The Final Cut was the way in which the whole subject of Alexander’s sexuality was approached. It couldn’t have been more nonjudgmental, and it certainly didn’t amount to the gay camp spectacle that everyone was predicting before the movie came out.


OS: As you say, nonjudgmental. It was what it was. People especially hated the character of the eunuch Bagoas, most particularly that we showed him kissing Alexander. That’s in the third version, but it didn’t make it into the theatrical cut. He was muted down to nothing in the first two versions. But Bagoas is a major character. Mary Renault wrote about him in The Persian Boy, one of the great books she wrote. Bagoas was the main squeeze in Alexander’s life. You sense, in the third version, the great bond between them. But I think Bagoas the eunuch is instrumental in demonstrating that Alexander went beyond even homosexuality. He was an explorer. With Bagoas he approached a third gender.

DC: As depicted in the movie, his entire worldview seems to be encapsulated in that kind of openness.

OS: It’s beyond feminine or masculine. When you get into the idea of a third gender, it’s important to note how Bagoas physically occupies a space between the two—he’s not transgender, he behaves like a woman, but he’s also masculine— he’s a great, athletic dancer, and he identifies with the female. Alexander, in his relationship with Bagoas, goes beyond masculine and feminine definitions. And because of his upbringing, with his mother and father being so strongly opposite, you feel the place from where that exploratory tendency emerged. That was the great quest of his life, getting back to the womb, trying to make it all one—one world, one sexuality.

DC: Given the effort and inspiration that inform this movie, particularly this version of this movie, and many other movies of yours, do you think that it’s in you, at this point in your career, to make a movie that could be, rightly or wrongly, seen as a straight entertainment sans political themes or concerns, something like Any Given Sunday or U-Turn?

OS: Absolutely. It’s all temporary, this matrix, this tyranny of popular fashion shows, who’s hot, who’s cold, what kind of movies should be made, all that crap. Nixon was a tremendous letdown. I love that movie, and I know you love it. I feel that few people saw through all the fog surrounding that movie and picked up on what it really was. In the same way, Any Given Sunday is filled with the same kind of detail. If you love football, you’ll see that detail and appreciate it. Currently I’m doing a 12-hour documentary regarding the forgotten history of the United States. Three years of work so far and the culmination of all my themes in contemporary American history from 1945 till now. But I am working separately on a film called Savages. Totally fun entertainment—Southern California, young people, drugs, violence, sex, Jules and Jim-- (Laughs) Personal? No. I was never that, but I love that kind of movie, like U-Turn or Any Given Sunday. I’m comfortable in all those worlds.

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RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING AND VIEWING



The trailer for Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut.

** The image to which Stone refers at this point in the interview is visible in this trailer




A video essay on JFK by Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz



A video essay on Nixon by Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz



A video essay on Alexander and W by Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz

Owen Gleiberman on Nixon and JFK

Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander: Film, History and Cultural Studies. (You can look inside the book here.)

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9 comments:

Jack L said...

This was a fascinating read!
I must admit to having hated Alexander when I first saw it but this Final Cut intrigues me, I'll definitely be seeing it soon...
Excellent interview, your questions were most thought provoking and pertinent. And very well written review of Alexander.

Joey said...

Great interview for an underrated movie. I've seen the other versions, but not this latest cut. Need to correct that!

Sad to say, it wasn't just the South where the homosexuality got audiences riled up. Seeing the original version in Burbank on opening night still ranks as one of the more disturbing moviegoing experiences I've had. Lots of foul-mouthed homophobic epithets shouted at the screen, accompanied by an ever-increasing number of walkouts.

Troubling indeed.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

It's a pretty frightening picture you paint of an audience from one of the supposedly enlightened coasts. At any rate, you're absolutely correct to point out that intolerance is in no way an exclusive feature of the South, not "then" and certainly not now. I'm sorry to hear that story too, Joey, and I wish I could say I was more surprised. Plenty disturbed, though. It's creepy to think they'd be so vocal, and it's a shame to think that it's still so easy to overestimate the brotherly love (pun intended) of the opening night crowds at the Burbank AMC multiplex or anywhere else.

Joey said...

Suppose one of the great joys and sorrows of the moviegoing experience is sharing films with your fellow human beings. Sometimes it’s exhilarating, occasionally incredibly depressing.

On a happier note, have you seen SEVEN SWORDS directed by Tsui Hark? It contains what I think can only be seen as a little homage to ALEXANDER: when the film’s memorable villainess is dispatched, the world is suddenly tinted a shade of psychedelic pink!

Chen Kaige is another high-profile ALEXANDER fan. When asked which recent films he most admired, he replied...

“One that I love a lot, which was a flop in the States was ALEXANDER THE GREAT. I love that film, not because I know Oliver Stone pretty well but because no matter how this movie was received I think it's a very powerful movie done with great imagination. I love it. It's not about a simple pure hero, but a complicated character.”

Also, I saw NIXON twice on opening weekend!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I haven't seen Seven Swords yet, and now it will join the long list of movies I must see.

I didn't know that about Chen Kaige either. I've spent the past seven years thinking that everybody thought as little of Stone's movie as the reviewers did upon its release. It's really nice to hear about other people who love the movie too.

And, Joey, I'm beginning to think we must have crossed paths somewhere long ago. I too saw Nixon twice on opening weekend. My wife and I saw it on the first Friday, and then I returned the following morning for the first show! Did you see it in Glendale, by any chance? :)

Joey said...

Haha, I was living in Austin but we were united in spirit.

J.D. said...

Excellent interview! I do agree that THE FINAL CUT version is definitely the best of the bunch and it gave Stone a chance to let the film breathe. I haven't watched it in ages and your review/interview really has me intrigued to revisit it.

Count me as another fan of NIXON. Love that film - I think it may be Stone's masterpiece. Only saw it once on opening weekend, though. I thought the longer cut was even better, esp. with Sam Waterston giving a chilling performance as Helms.

Anthony Morgan said...

Angie is so stunning in Alexander! As well as Rosario Dawson

a famous historian said...

Wow. I really disliked Alexander on first viewing (especially as an ancient history geek), but having read this I've just ordered Revisited on Blu-ray. Thanks a lot!