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MOVIES / COMMENTARY : Look Into the Mirror . . . : Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ is the filmmaker’s latest comment on America. Is it his own fevered dream or a legitimate reflection of the celebrity-crazed, violent world we’ve created?

<i> Jack Mathews is the film critic for New York Newsday. Jane Galbraith contributed to this article</i>

“T he Americans are certainly great hero worshipers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.

Oscar Wilde made that observation while on a lecture tour that brought him to St. Joseph, Mo., during the frenzied aftermath of the April 3, 1882, slaying there of famed bank robber and killer Jesse James. In a letter dated 16 days after James’ death, Wilde mused about the merchandising of the outlaw’s possessions--his dustbin and foot scraper had been auctioned the day before, and crowds were gathering from some distance to bid on his door knocker. But even if Wilde had sent his letter by telegraph, he was lagging behind the news.

On April 12, a 200-page book titled “The Life and Career of Frank and Jesse James,” written in seven days by the owner of the St. Joseph News, had arrived in stores, and sold out the same day. On April 13, an entrepreneurial scavenger in Chicago was selling swatches of blood-soaked carpet taken from James’ cottage. And though the killers, Robert and Charley Ford, were charged with first-degree murder, they had already appeared on stage in Kansas City--for a fee of $100 each--to recount their deed for a rapt audience at the Theatre Comique.

If you wonder what this scene might look like today, with our instantaneous high-tech communications, tabloid media competition, and free-wheeling free enterprise, think back no farther than the weeks following the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Or wait until Friday and buy a ticket to Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.”

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“Natural Born Killers” is a two-hour fever dream about the commercialization of violence in contemporary America, the story of bad-to-the-bone lovers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) who go on a two-week killing spree that turns them into pop icons, media darlings and consumer products. The nation’s attention is as riveted on M&M; as it was periodically riveted during the production of the movie on Joey and Amy, Tonya and Nancy, the Menendez brothers, the Bobbitts and, lately, on O.J. and Nicole.

“We were just having a lot of fun making this movie when it started to happen in real life,” says Stone. “It was so bizarre, week after week, to see these soap operas unfold, to see the news get more into the entertainment ratings game.”

Bizarre, and fortuitous. Stone, calling upon every demon and conspiratorial urge in his arsenal, has made what he calls a satire on “the crazy American landscape” where the media so glorify their villains that they have collectively become the greater demon. The film has so many parallels to recent media events, particularly the “Go O.J.!” signs seen during the Friday Night Bronco Ride, that it transcends coincidence and seems to cut to the nature of mankind itself.

The media are just one of Stone’s targets. Every principal character in the film is a monster--Mickey, Mallory, the father (Rodney Dangerfield) who abused her, the homicidal cop (Tom Sizemore) chasing them, the ratings-obsessed British tabloid TV journalist (Robert Downey Jr., with the voice of Robin Leach) panting to interview them, the prison warden (Tommy Lee Jones) anxious to punish them, and the variety of rednecks, would-be rapists and slothful fools murdered by them. If this movie is correct, we celebrate criminals in our society because we envy their freedom to act out urges the rest of us natural born losers suppress and deny.

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“Natural Born Killers” is too late to serve as a cautionary tale, says Stone; we’re there. Just as the movie obliterates the lines between real and fictional violence, and between legitimate news and exploitation, those lines have been obliterated in real life. Technology and the almighty dollar have herded us all into a hellish corral where we are either committing ghastly crimes or being entertained by commercially sponsored details of those committed by others, and then lionizing the culprits!

Stone, as he did with “JFK,” has rounded up far too many suspects, and his entire case may be just as false. And “Natural Born Killers’ ” dizzying psychedelic blend of violence and smash-cut, multimedia imagery may leave some people feeling faint from stimulus abuse. But you’ve got to love him. Stone is the most provocative filmmaker of his time, and whether his latest movie excites or repulses its audiences, it raises enough issues to keep the Op-Ed pages churning for weeks.

Are things really this bad? Is man as basically evil as Oliver Stone movies imply? Under the tenets of free speech and free enterprise, and with today’s technology, could any society in history have avoided arriving at this place? And isn’t “Natural Born Killers” guilty of the very things it condemns?

“I think it is (guilty),” says Jane Hamsher, one of the film’s producers. “What I like about it is that it shows that violence is very seductive and that watching violence in movies is very enjoyable. You feel dirty for having felt that, and you can’t walk away from it. You have to recognize it as part of yourself.”

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Don Murphy, who with Hamsher optioned the original Quentin Tarantino script for “Natural Born Killers” (it was rewritten by Stone and two others, and Tarantino now disavows it), says that the movie merely “holds a mirror up to culture and says, ‘Look, if you accept tabloid journalism and the deification of killers . . . this is where you can end up.’ ”

Says Stone: “I’m reflecting back with exaggeration. That’s my stand.”

The media follow-up questions to “Natural Born Killers” do loom large. With the communications industry undergoing major shakeouts, and the survival of many media companies at stake, the ratings game is likely to continue coloring news judgment. The “tell them what they need to know, not what they want to know” maxim once drilled into freshman journalism students has been turned on its head. From USA Today to “A Current Affair,” the new journalism follows the lead of entertainment--find out what they want, give it to them quickly, promise them more--and their success has rippled through the mustiest corridors of news. Even the New York Times put Tonya Harding on Page 1.

The question of blurred lines is crucial. When people can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction, we can fold the tent. And that seems a genuine possibility, not so much because of excessive violence in conventional television and film drama, but from the exploitation of real tragedy and violence in TV news and such shows as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops.”

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“People who assert that there’s no link between television violence and violence in society are deluded,” says psychologist Gerald Davison, interim dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. “It’s a known psychological fact that if you present something awful to a person again and again, especially if it’s glamorized, the person is going to become desensitized.”

You can blame the media, as “Natural Born Killers” does, and come up with nothing but a doomsday prognosis, a vicious cycle of greed, aggression and disintegrating values. Mickey and Mallory know the power of the media they control, and how to manipulate it; the most dangerous weapons in the film are the video cameras--security-mounted in stores, or hand-held by TV crews--that provide the killers their stage.

But if we step outside that bleak circle drawn by the movie, society seems neither as damned as it appears nor human nature quite as callous. The erosion of family values is a major concern, but most of us do not abuse our children and turn them into killers, most cops do not imitate the crimes they’re trying to solve, and the better media still cover the larger issues, arguably better than ever.

Stone’s comment that do-gooders aren’t news anymore is wrong; coverage of the Rwandans in Africa, not exactly a money story to begin with, has been laced with features about outsiders who raced there to help save lives. And you only have to imagine what might have happened at Tian An Men Square, if the rest of the world weren’t watching it live, to appreciate the positive impact of instant information.

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The questions raised about human nature are just as tricky, recalling the timeless philosophical debate: Are we basically good and have to learn bad behavior, or basically bad and have to develop moral codes in order to survive?

Part of the answer may be found in another summer movie, Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” and in its astonishing appeal to millions of moviegoers. The film is a simple fable about a mildly retarded man who, while living through some of America’s most troubled and soul-searching times, not only maintains his innocence but flourishes and prospers in the shadow of ignorance. It is ironic for a society that has often treated mental deficients as disposable humanity to suddenly embrace one so wholeheartedly, and it’s tempting to read “Gump’s” success as a sign that we’re tiring of the constant diet of anti-heroes and thugs.

“I think there is a yearning among both adults and young people for something simple and pure, and ‘Gump’ does tap into that,” says Washington clinical psychologist Karen Shanor. “We can empathize with him, even though we don’t know what he’s feeling. The frills are gone; he is an adult scaled down to an idealistic child, and he exemplifies that humanness and goodness that is inside each of us. In some people, you have to look pretty hard because they don’t have the opportunity. But it’s there.”

Under the microscope, “Forrest Gump” and “Natural Born Killers” are both pretty simple organisms. They are fantastic views of life from opposite extremes, one giddily light and optimistic, the other morbidly dark and foreboding, neither one graced with many shades of gray. One is an outright escape, the other a head-on assault, and they tap opposing chords in us.

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Though Stone has portrayed Mickey and Mallory as products of their time, all that really separates them from celebrity outlaws of the past are the accouterments of modern media. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde . . . they were all feared and, in some quarters, admired. But it’s a little hysterical to say the preoccupation with killers is peculiar to America. It is peculiar to human history. You can find parallels to “Natural Born Killers” in Greek mythology and theater, where heinous acts were routinely enacted and their perpetrators literally deified. They became gods.

“Ancient societies were warrior societies, there was a kind of cultural investment in violence that made it normal,” says Vincent Ferenga, who teaches comparative literature at USC. “Anyone who excelled at being violent in warfare was going to enjoy a kind of privileged class.”

Ferenga says that Greek society had rigid purification rituals for soldiers returning to society, but they were fascinated with what happened when those rituals failed, when violence spilled over into everyday life, and that aberrant behavior often provided grist for the Oliver Stones of the day, the playwrights.

“The Greeks were unique in creating the theater as a place where you could talk about and dramatize actions you couldn’t deal with anywhere else,” says Ferenga. “Murder and sexual crimes between family members--fratricide, matricide, infanticide, incest. The worst crimes possible are in those stories.”

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What distinguishes those plays from today’s news and dramatic programming is that Greeks didn’t allow acts of violence themselves to be seen, for fear they would arouse excitement and prompt imitative behavior. Ferenga said that a riot at one Greek play based on a contemporary event nipped a budding movie-of-the-week mentality, and from then on, playwrights stuck to myths and metaphors.

Plato, beating the Rev. Donald Wildmon to the punch by more than 2,300 years, argued that theater and storytelling should be banned altogether, lest they provoke feelings and passions detrimental to society and rational thought. If he could see us now. . . .

“Plato would certainly feel that this is the ultimate end of reasonable and civilized life,” Ferenga laughs.

Ancient societies were state-run, of course. If free enterprise had been allowed to flourish, and they had their own dueling “Current Affairs” and National Enquirers paying witnesses and buying news, who knows how much sooner we might have met Mickey and Mallory?

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What’s new right now, other than the fact that we can watch dramatic events unfold in real time, with the outcomes unknown (“Will O.J. shoot himself or not?”), is that the media are beginning to examine and exploit themselves. Besides “Natural Born Killers,” there was the recent Belgian film “Man Bites Dog,” a pseudo-documentary about a film crew that follows a serial killer on his rounds and becomes his eager accomplice, and this fall we’ll see the release of “S.F.W.,” a movie about a man who is caught in, and changed by, a media-covered hostage crisis in a convenience store.

Sociologist Todd Gitlin, who teaches a course in the structure of mass communications at UC Berkeley, says that these films are part of a new “culture industry” thriving on self-examination.

“Academics get off on studying them,” he says; “you and I get off on writing about them.”

Well, it has been fun, and our thanks to Oliver Stone for providing the opportunity. Just one more thing, though. Stone and his producers say that the great irony and strength of “Natural Born Killers” is that audiences end up rooting for Mickey and Mallory because the forces lined up against them--that is, the rest of society--are so corrupt.

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It is true that America doesn’t produce many traditional heroes anymore, and that a hero without an agent is soon forgotten. It’s also true that a society largely committed to the cults of celebrity and wealth is easily seduced. Still, the vast majority of Americans are appalled by crime and criminals, as the vast majorities of civilized societies always have, and they will be appalled by Mickey and Mallory.

With apologies to Oscar Wilde and Oliver Stone, there is a wide gulf between innate curiosity and devil worship.*

* HE’S A NATURAL

Rodney Danger- field takes on his first dramatic role in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” Page 24

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