NATURAL BORN KILLERS
Natural Born Killers (1994) dir. Oliver Stone writ. Veloz, Rotowski, Stone (based on the "story" by Quentin Tarantino) cine. Robert Richardson star. Woody Harleson (Micky Knox), Juliette Lewis (Mallory), Rodney Dangerfield ("Dad"), Robert Downey Jr. (Wayne Gale), Tom Sizemore (Skagnetty), Tommy Lee Jones (McCloskey), Russell Means (old Indian)
Oliver Stone is pretty good at writing scripts but for some reason he decided to go with Quentin Tarantino for the first version. Tarantino isn't the first of the "interactive" screenwriters -- after all, Borden Chase's Red River is just Mutiny On The Bounty scored as a Western -- but he's currently the most obvious. His shameless pillaging of the movies of the past for his movies of the present reveals a mind shaped by film and TV... and as "media imprinting" is Stone's professed theme, why not go to the video game, get Tarantino?
Badlands is the cannibalized film this time around, itself modelled loosely on the Charles Starkweather-Caril Fugate killing spree through South Dakota and Nebraska in 1958. The road movie is a tradition, of course, especially the crime version where the young couple are so hung up on themselves they screw themselves into an early grave, every killing an on-screen marker of an off-screen act of sexual intercourse. Gun Crazy (1949) is typical, where an infantile obsession with guns is blamed, the robberies remaining incidental, whereas in Bonnie And Clyde (1968), robbery is everything. In Natural Born Killers, killing is everything... and Stone blames the media. No doubt this is why Tarantino's script was taken over, rewritten by Stone et. al., the characters motivated, the action gospelized.
People kill for... what? Revenge, money, attention. The existential murderer -- as in Camus' novel L'Etranger -- supposedly kills in order to prove he exists. In NBK, the killing is all for attention, as Mickey (Harleson) and Mallory (Lewis) are competing with the world in order to gain the media's attention. Television is the main culprit, that babbling icon you see from the cradle to the grave, a divinty who has replaced the parent, the family, even the one you call God. In the nineties, it's become interactive, a 24 hour broadcast of live coverage and montage replay, a shock theatre where anyone can have his or her fifteen minutes of infamy.
In Badlands, Kit Carruthers builds his fantasy within his natural resemblance to James Dean, a dead film star. But Mickey Knox, the butcher delivery boy, builds his on the new American star, the mass-murderer. Which one? Manson, Bundy, Ramierez, Gasey...? Take your pick. Mickey likes Charles Manson but as he admits, "It's pretty hard to beat the King."
There are no innocents in this drama. People and institutions are equally corrupt. Jack Skagnetty (Sizemore), the supercop with his own book on himself, is an undetected sexual criminal whose pathology has been imprinted from the moment his mother was one of the 15 people killed on the University of Texas campus the day the man in the tower, Charles Whitman, went on his rampage with a rifle, July 31, 1966. Mallory's father... the tabloid journalist, Wayne Gale... the prison Warden, McCloskey... white male degenerates who deserve to die by the left hand of darkness without due process.
Well, there is some purity in the form of the old Indian (Means), that most romantic of figures in the guilty imagination of white America. When M & M blunder into the hut of this anthropomorphic savant who is in contact with the "real" world in the etheric medium, who needs MTV? The only real regret either of these McMurderers have is over his "accidental" killing. They pay for it, though, when they blunder into the old man's snake field and Mallory gets Biblically bitten by a rattler.
the ghost in the machine: guns, cars, and the media replay
The film is structured as pure TV, complete with commercials, an interrupted narrative of voyeurism and propaganda. The violence is repetitive and relentless, a hormonal exercise in religious primitivism -- actions without symbolism, death without pain, sex without birth. It's a Theatre of Cruelty, where sensation exceeds reason, action becomes cataclysm, and, as Artaud says, " it's understood that life is always someone's death". It's the abdication of group consciousness by the state in favor of the media, the celebration of individualism without religion. The theatre is now the mass media, the congregation is the world, the actor is you.
For some people the message is obvious from the prologue scene in the roadside diner, where Mickey and Mallory scrub out some friendly redneck hunters in a rock video montage of murder by comedy. How do they do it? Guns, knives and martial arts moves, the favorite weapons of the illiterate... and the teenage geek inculcated with slasher movies and video annihilation games. That the skinny 100 lb Mallory can humiliate and snap-kick a 250 lb redneck country and western primate into a choreographed submission is only absurd if you aren't familiar with Bruce Lee, American feminism, and Tonya Harding. If she wants to follow her dream, run away with the butcher delivery boy, kill a few people, why not? Knife 'em in the gut, knife 'em in the back, shoot 'em in the face, shoot 'em in the crotch -- kill these ignorant bullies and their dumb roadhouse servants.
"Shit man, I'm a natural born killer"
In the movie house, NBK's a 70 mm assault, a retinal rape that rips the sphincter and dilates the heart. Even the liberal-minded are probably alienated by the time the credits roll... and if not then, certainly by the time they watch the Sit-Com from hell, Mallory's family life complete with laugh-track and talking heads. As "Dad", Dangerfield plays the disgraced white male patriarch to comedic perfection. He's the incest-loving boor of the nineties, Bunker gone bad, Bundy gone badder, a Family Court nightmare who uses uses his remote as a dildo and his mouth as a sewer. It's a satire of victimology within the familiar Freudian matrix: the first lover is her father, the second is the man who kills her father, the third is herself. It's a gross spectacle, one which plays well with teenagers, but perhaps bores any of the middle-aged who are still around to watch.
The question has to be asked: is it possible to satirize a contemporary culture of Tabloid TV, Talk TV, the 24 Hour News, Baby-Sitter Cartoons and the Sit-Com? American culture is so vulgar, so engorged on the hyperbole of itself, it's beyond satire, beyond parody. This is a serious problem as drama ceases to be a moral measuring stick within the society it portrays. (Recall when Seneca bemoaned his empty theatre, the audience having deserted it for the Arena and the murder of animals and slaves.) It becomes part of the propaganda, a constituent in its own public, part of the replay, another documentary about the documentary.
The odd thing is, Stone doesn't appear to see himself as part of the problem, part of the loop. Stone the filmmaker is every much a part of the media machine he chastises in the character of Wayne Gale (Downey), the Australian TV sensationalist who gets an "exclusive" with Mickey Knox but ends up part of the blood lust and is executed by M & M on a live feed of his own show. It's a cancer in the dialectic, where the documentary eats the fiction... but people believe the fiction has eaten the documentary, just like a snuff movie. The media: private actions become public, institutional rituals revealed, everyone is watching, all is pornography.
Has freedom of access to information become the left hand of the right to bear arms? American society exists in a state of continuous paranoia, a condition of sexual politics, free market economics, and concealed cameras. Civilization is in the contours of its golfcourses, capital punishment, Miss America and the replay monitors of bank machines, shopping malls, airports and sports arenas. Stone seems to have no problems with guns, as all his movies use them. In NBK, he cleverly uses a TV screen as a window in M & M's motel room, yet admits no culpability when what you see are the movies of his past -- Midnight Express, Scarface -- montaged with TV nostalgia from everyone's past.
Brilliant as he often is, Stone is one of the worst of all creatures: the hippy moralist. Drugs are a problem -- but not the one he uses. Media is a problem -- but not the one he uses. As a moralist and paranoid, his vision has the heavy-handed body-art approach of Stanley Kubrick, a smudge and smear technique that declines subtlety, favors preaching, pretends prophecy. Imagine how surprised and chuffed he must have been when M & M were accredited with their own copycats... but then some people will blame anyone in order to avoid 35 years in prison. As ministers rail against NBK on the InterNet, you are reminded how priests once denounced Fellini for merely suggesting that people have sex out of boredom.
Dr. Strangeglove is an indictment of nuclear weapons, the doomsday scenario of the first strike or the accidental launch. Nuclear paranoia is pandemic, a star in our dreams, a feature in our real-estate. We bury isotopes the way we bury bodies, collecting fear and manufacturing guilt in a reckless pursuit of power. Is today's media today's nuclear menace? Is Stone right when he says "we are a culture going to hell... we've been captured by the media... the media has distorted our value system, distorted the argument itself...."?
"Only love can kill a demon"
The evidence is there as the incidents of violent narcissism increase. In Vancouver a young man is shot in the head by another young man as he sits with his girlfriend watching the gangster film Donny Brasco. In Colorado, two young men in black trenchcoats ambush their school by turning it into a movie set of spontaneous killing by gun and booby bomb.
Once again the mantra is "fuck you", the only dialogue you need to know in a society of deadheads who identify the washroom by stick symbols and good and evil by movie stars. Integrity is a 9 mm and a shaven head. When Mickey shaves his head, he identifies himself with AIDS victims, concentration camp inmates and athletes from the NFL and the NBA. He's a snake, shedding the past and embracing the future -- and as the funereal tones of that poetic undertaker Leonard Cohen tells us, "the future, brother, is Murder".
So when M & M tell us that "only love can kill a demon", you wonder if Stone is putting us on or what. It's the sort of pap that hippies and fundamentalists spout, then offer you mushrooms or a bible as a solution. The problem is that Stone only half-believes his own rhetoric, as he confuses his own argument by suggesting that M & M get away with it. Are they cool, or what? Quick to judge and execute, these are two hip vigilantes with a mission, an exquisite pair of American fascists.
© LR 4/7/99
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