Stone’s ‘Killers’ Shoots Wide as TV Critique
If only minimalist Oliver Stone wouldn’t equivocate.
Just so there’s no mistake, Stone is annoyed, right? He’s no fan? His just-released “Natural Born Killers” satirically attacks mass media and the violence-numbed culture it’s helped shape?
Actually, you’d have to be wearing a blindfold and ear plugs not to get the message that director Stone delivers in “Natural Born Killers” with a withering psychedelic savagery that is sending critics to their thesauruses to find the words to describe it. On television Sunday night, a groping Roger Ebert responded to Stone’s new movie like the guys who extracted an alien creature from the permafrost in “The Thing.” It may be “some kind of . . . masterpiece ,” he observed.
Whatever it is, it’s hard to ignore. Using excess to depict excess, Stone’s movie kicks butt with the frenzy of someone driving stake after stake through the heart of a vampire. Unquestionably, his targets have earned the punishing mockery he administers. Yet as a treatise on television, “Natural Born Killers” is hardly visionary. Despite its virtues as a sort of pin-balling parody, it does not foresee or even look toward the lunacy at the end of the tunnel.
In other words, it’s no “Network.”
Stone’s catalysts in “Natural Born Killers” are Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), a couple of mass murderers in love who make Bonnie and Clyde look like Ozzie and Harriet. As this is the age of the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson cases, Mickey and Mallory’s carnage naturally earns them a spot in America’s heart (“If I was a mass killer, I’d like to be Mickey and Mallory,” one romantic tells a TV interviewer) and on America’s favorite TV show, “American Maniacs.”
In one of the movie’s funniest moments, the tabloid show’s amorally opportunistic Aussie host, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), gets Mickey to agree to a live prison interview following the Super Bowl by telling him that his ratings so far have outdone even serial slayers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, although not Charles Manson. “Well,” says Mickey, “it’s pretty hard to beat the king.”
Unlike “Network,” the extraordinarily prophetic 1976 film about television written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Natural Born Killers” is a satirist’s relentless embellishment (but not by much) of the present instead of a dark comedy suggesting what lies ahead.
Just as James L. Brooks devilishly re-created the frailties of contemporary TV journalism in “Broadcast News,” Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” depicts, again and again, what TV viewers already have been exposed to.
How can you be jolted by the public’s romanticizing of fictional sweethearts Mickey and Mallory, for example, when you’ve seen Angelenos cheering accused murderer Simpson from freeway overpasses as his white Bronco was pursued by police? And why would the glamorizing of this pair surprise us when some of Simpson’s more zealous supporters say even his guilt would not diminish their ardor?
“American Maniacs” itself--the title is as applicable to the host as to his subjects--could have been ripped from the TV listings, so closely does it resemble today’s growing cluster of programs that sell fear like mouthwash. And if Gale going “one on one” with Mickey behind bars resonates with familiarity, it’s because Bundy, Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and especially Manson have all met the camera in televised jailhouse interviews. Moreover, if you’re seeking a real-life microcosm of the movie’s gory prison brouhaha and Gale’s exploiting of it, try the body crunching, chair-throwing “Geraldo” explosion that Geraldo Rivera touched off in 1988 by bringing together a white supremacist and a black activist in front of a studio audience of volatile skinheads.
Chayefsky, on the other hand, was ahead of the curve.
According to Shaun Considine’s new biography, “Mad as Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky,” the great screenwriter was bitterly observing at least as early as 1974 that television was dicing up and trivializing the events of the day. He quotes Chayefsky as saying about TV news: “It totally desensitizes (us to) viciousness, brutality, murder, death, so we no longer actively feel the pains of the victim or suffer for their lives or feel their grief.”
In “Mad as Hell,” director Lumet notes Chayefsky’s “uncanny ability to see just where everything was leading.” Hence the fictional UBS network in “Network,” which Chayefsky envisioned cynically lifting its fortunes through programs ranging from “Celebrity Mahjong” and “The Young Shysters” to a comedy designed to knock ABC’s hit “Laverne & Shirley” off the air, “Shirley, Pedro and Putz.”
That was pure fun. Chayefsky’s true genius in “Network” was in foreseeing the extent to which television would merge entertainment with news and public affairs in the cause of ratings. Thus, he had UBS give a weekly series to a violent black revolutionary group (whose co-opted leaders immediately covet ratings and profit percentages). And he designated as the soul of UBS, its signature voice, suicidal anchorman Howard Beale, whose mad rantings are turned into a wildly popular weekly series that also features a gossip columnist and Sybil the Soothsayer, who “tells tomorrow’s news today.”
All of this culminates outrageously: When Beale’s ratings dive, the network has him assassinated on his own show.
Murder being the exception (so far), the anything-for-ratings mentality that Chayefsky depicted in “Network” has come to pass in one form or another. Yet some responded to the original release of “Network” with indignation. “It gives a distorted picture of people who work in television,” said Paul Friedman, then the producer of NBC’s “Today” program. There would never be “that kind of show-biz approach to news,” insisted Barbars Walters. She added: “We will never let it happen.”
No one has affixed a fantasy label to Stone’s new movie, for unlike Chayefsky’s futurist work, it merely uses surrealism to pump up the obvious. “Natural Born Killers” has its strengths, but it’s pretty hard to beat the king.