REVIEW: Oliver Stone’s ‘Chasing the Light’ — an epic memoir befitting an epic life

In a 1992 interview with Arthur Miller, Charlie Rose asked him what quality the great playwrights have shared in common, distinguishing them from the not so great ones in any given age?

After a pause to gather his thoughts, Miller replied that the “big ones share a fierce moral sensibility” and that “they are all burning with some anger at the way the world is.” “The littler ones,” Miller continues, “have made their peace with it. The bigger ones can’t make any peace.”

Oliver Stone is an artist whose work (his early work especially) is, as with Miller’s and all the “bigger ones”, suffused with the passion and fire of a man who refused to make peace with the world he both experienced and observed around him after serving two tours in Vietnam as an infantryman, prior to emerging determined to live life on his own terms or not at all.

The period covered in Chasing the Light runs from Stone’s his childhood and formative years all the way to the mountaintop that is Oscar night in 1987, when he picks up the Oscar for best director for Platoon, which also wins the award for best picture, editing, and score. In between we are taken on a journey of Sisyphean magnitude as he battles to overcome personal demons as a result of fraught-ridden teenage years in the midst of his parents’ divorce, which shatters any semblance of security and certainty he’d enjoyed as a child of relative privilege and affluence. Those demons were key in his decision to volunteer for Vietnam, which he does bent on either death or spiritual rebirth in this hell of his own choosing.

Greek mythology is a key theme in the book and in his life during this seminal period — in particular the epic character Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, and also a key character in its prequel, the Iliad. Stone uses Odysseus as his inspiration in choosing to forego the safe and steady path of convention and instead embrace the wisdom enshrined in Nietzsche: “The secret of realizing the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously!”

Stone’s struggle to mount the ramparts of the fortress that is Hollywood would have broken the spirit of all but those in possession of the kind of adamantine tenacity and perseverance that takes you to the edge of madness. Reading of his struggles, his years of rejection, of climbing the ladder of hope only to be kicked off it again, you are reminded of the agony of Vincent Van Gogh, expressed in his letters to his brother Theo, or of Knut Hamsun in his classic semi-autobiographical novel Hunger, chronicling his early failed attempts to establish himself as a writer.

To wit:

Hamsun: “I was conscious all the time that I was following mad whims without being able to do anything about it … . Despite my alienation from myself at that moment, and even though I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces, I was aware of every detail of what was going on around me.”

Stone: “I drew hurt and perverse pride in being able to take rejection. Yet my wounded ego interfered with my ability to understand the reasons for these rejections….Beyond the paper world of rejection, there was also the in-person wound of being told no in face-to-face meetings — when they could be had — the hard-to-come-by lunches, the unreturned phone calls.”

In one the most powerful passages in the book, Stone garners renewed strength from visiting his beloved grandmother in Paris on her deathbed. Amid the flux and tumult of his parents’ split during his adolescent years, she had been both sanctuary and emotional anchor.

But then:

After many fits and starts, Stone’s breakthrough comes through his writing — first with Midnight Express, for which he wins the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in 1979, and then Scarface in 1983, a cult classic to this day.

The writing in both movies crackles with a rare kinetic energy, jolting you out of your comfort zone with the unvarnished truth of the human condition in situations of extremis. If the famed and controversial Method system of acting has its parallel in screenwriting, Oliver Stone was perhaps its first and still most notable exemplar.

But despite his success as a writer, Stone’s calling is as a writer/director, with his fierce sense of how his words and vision should be captured on screen driving him on through setback after setback, until in 1985 with Salvador (released in 1986) his moment of truth arrives. The drama involved in getting it over the line more than parallels the drama captured onscreen.

At the time, Salvador’s impact on the conscience and consciousness of America when it came to the disjuncture that exists between the mythical depiction its role in the world as a force for good, and the grim truth of its litany of crimes in places that most Americans, trapped in a bubble of celebrity culture and a news information ghetto, don’t even know exist, can’t be underestimated. Salvador was crucial moment in my own political awareness, as someone who grew up in Scotland on a diet of American pop culture and Hollywood movies, becoming imbued in the process with the idea of America as the place to be, the place where you had to be if you wanted a shot at an exciting, meaningful and fulfilling existence.

When it comes to Platoon, there really is nothing more to say or write that hasn't already. It remains the Paths of Glory of our time, a withering riposte to the flag-waving, chest-beating, unthinking patriotism on the part of those whose belief in the myths of Americana personified by John Wayne and the heroes of Iwo Jima has trapped them in a prison of false consciousness.

Platoon — not only a masterful movie in its own right in terms of its writing, acting, cinematography and brute authenticity — exploded in the midst of Reagan’s America as a subversive and delicious j’accuse, levelled at a status quo which two decades on from the social upheaval of the sixties, had sought to repackage and resell Vietnam to the American people as a noble if failed attempt to thwart a Communist drive for world domination in service to the God of democracy.

The movie’s depiction of the internecine struggle that rages within a combat platoon polarised along racial, class and cultural lines mirrored and still mirror the faultlines which continue to polarise American society today. In this respect, Platoon is as much social commentary as it is a dramatic piece, retaining its force and relevance thereby.

Throughout the book Stone writes with commendable candour about his fears and insecurities, his relationships, and also his lapse into Hollywood hedonism and drug use, which all serves to make him three dimensional and relatable in equal part.

Ultimately, in reading Chasing the Light, you are reminded of Theodor Adorno’s admonition that “Behind every work of art lies an uncommitted crime.” If Stone had not succeeded as an artist and his creative powers applied constructively, you come away from his story convinced that those powers would have found destructive expression, given what he experienced in Vietnam and his struggle to readjust thereafter.

Given his remarkable body of work, we can only be thankful that the former rather than the latter prevailed.

(Chasing the Light, Monoray, £25)


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