Cole, Lewis, The Nation
Oliver Stone's work is schizophrenic. Stone can capture an immediate sense of history with his camera--the terror of a midnight battle in Vietnam, the planned chaos of repression in El Salvador, the smooth self-confidence of a Wall Street banker fleecing his clients. But Stone--our most commercially successful political filmmaker--trivializes his visions by always enclosing them in the same sophomorically romantic tale: In a grab for fame, a young man colludes with corruption, only to realize his mistake and embrace a noble fate instead.
I've heard Stone defend his use of this fable on commercial and aesthetic grounds, claiming that audiences expect myths in movies. (Talk about movies as myths and fairy tales often serves to distract attention from fundamental flaws in the works: stories that make narrative sense.) I suspect reasons both more pragmatic and more personal actually move Stone; he needs operatic heroes to attract male stars, and the story he chooses is, in some way, a gloss on his own experience, especially his time in Hollywood. But whatever his motivation, the design he has imposed on his material has begun to smother the detail, humor and passion that once breathed life into his best work. Monomaniacal, he repeats the same sermon: Corruption, thy name is father; Savior, thy name is son.
Stone's latest offering is Wild Palms, his first work for television, a six-hour event series"--thus the press release-executive-produced by Stone and Bruce Wagner. (The high points were strung together and shown as an enticing sight-bite trailer during the Academy Awards.) Slated to appear during the May "sweeps"-- the period that determines advertising rates for next season--Wild Palms comes dressed up as serious television. The New York Times quotes Stone comparing the movies "complexity" to Balzac, St. Martin's is publishing a Wild Palms Reader and ABC touts the whole enterprise with the references to intellectual importance and high production values that (at first) persuaded viewers Twin Peaks was something more than a well-shot, badly thought-out Hardy Boys episode.
This sort of attention is largely undeserved: The successes of Wild Palms are modest--some effective performances, a few spooky moments and an entertainingly eclectic score that ranges from faux Erik Satie to "Gimme Shelter." But nothing can redeem the movie's failures of story and sensibility. Its greatest achievement is to serve as this year's model for the television industry's constant confusion between merit and meretriciousness.
Based on a Details magazine comic strip written by Wagner and illustrated by Julian Allen, Wild Palms is a futuristic melodrama about the power and corruption of American popular culture, especially television. The story often be-wilders--for reasons I'll explain in a moment--but its main elements are simple enough. Fourteen years from now, a power-mad California senator, corporate giant and cult leader named Tony Kreutzer (Robert Loggia) plans to run for President. The hero, Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi), a lawyer married to Kreutzer's niece, starts working for the would-be dictator, becoming entangled in his schemes. As Kreutzer bids for power, Harry moves, at the cost of his family, from innocent bystander to corrupt participant to avenging hero, eventually discovering that he's a central figure in a decades-long power struggle between Kreutzer's evil authoritarian group, the Fathers, and the Friends, their libertarian antagonists. In the end, Kreutzer's scheme for immortality and global omnipotence evaporates (literally) and Wyckoff goes off a liberated man--new wife, new kid, new life, the screenwriter's dream.
Some of the movie's problems stem from production choices. Seven years ago, Jim Belushi turned in a bravura performance for Stone as a down-at-the-heels druggie in Salvador. Stone's risky but loyal choice in casting him as the leading man fails: Belushi simply lacks both the emotional and physical grace to engage our sympathies, and the climaxes of Wild Palms are wooden. …