My Dog Skip; Any Given Sunday; Holy Smoke; The Terrorist
People mouth off about sports and movies with equally arrogant certitude, even though they probably know sports better than they know film. From the basis of observable, certifiable athletic achievement, adults (as well as children) become reasonably expert. They can glibly recite statistics and historical feats, sometimes without the recognition of grace and subtlety and art that movies require. (Most sports disputes start when connoisseurs correct mere enthusiasts.) And yet movies?and movie criticism?seems as popular a pastime as armchair quarterbacking. So why hasn't Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday received the acclaim it deserves as the year's All-American Movie?
Stone's film is to American vernacular what Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy is to Anglophilia: an emotionally detailed backstage exposé. But there's no profit to understanding an American pop institution. Also, maddeningly, film appreciation?though rooted in populism?rarely attains the refinement, judgment, the taste of sports knowledge. Browbeaten Stone (the Y.A. Tittle of film directors) has frequently, in his past decade of remarkable work, run up against American ignorance, fear and snobbery. His best movies show people what they're afraid to confront: government conspiracy (JFK), media overkill (Natural Born Killers), psycho-political complexity (Nixon) and now, the sum of all those revelations: Any Given Sunday's epic look at what it means to be a man.
The singularity of Stone's achievement came back to me while watching My Dog Skip, the new, deceptively simple memoir of a boy's first pet (based on Willie Morris' 1995 autobiography). The way director Jay Russell offers nostalgia for nostalgia?looking back on a 1940s boyhood that seems quaint even for baby boomers?suggested a deeper meaning to the boy-and-his-dog story. Its conception represents a compelling need to understand how contemporary notions of manhood, of fairness and individuality originated. Morris was recalling events that inspired his own maturation. Though Skip is played by several adorable, startlingly well-trained Jack Russell terriers, he's actually the synecdochic figure of role-model manhood. Young Willie's observation of his bitter father (Kevin Bacon) and disillusioned next-door neighbor (Luke Wilson)?both war veterans?seems a bit alienated from the do-gooder purpose of a child-and-pet movie. Skip dominates the adult Willie's romantic memory, becoming the idealization of love and loyalty?virtues no longer entangled with patriotism or social responsibility.
Or manhood. Despite its wise recollection, My Dog Skip retreats into Boy's Life fable. It's consistently inoffensive and watchable as Young Willie (Frankie Muniz) learns to deal with racism, sex, sports and friendship, but due to its now-remote sentiments it pales next to such transcendent childhood movies as the recent A Dog of Flanders, Shadrach and the great Sounder. Russell and screenwriter Gail Gilchriest situate Morris' nostalgia so far from Southern political atmosphere that My Dog Skip is less about the imperatives of adulthood and becomes, by default, a film for children. The movie's simple emphasis on canine affection stunts the subject of a boy growing into masculine awareness and responsibility. Its postscript about Morris leaving his Mississippi hometown to become a Rhodes scholar, then "the youngest editor in the history of Harper's Magazine," barely connects to the bucolic reverie (Jon Avnet's The War did all that with more social resonance). It ends up, primarily, a self-protective childhood myth sugarcoating Morris' recall of innocence.
Oliver Stone, meanwhile, breaks through men's illusions of innocence. He doesn't pretend to expose professional sports (already unveiled even before Spike Lee added his two cents with He's Got Game). Instead of glorifying macho mythology, Stone examines aspects of masculine ego usually cloaked by such institutions as pro football. It's an intrepid venture, and Stone keeps his inquiry fascinating through lively, almost improvisatory, means. On a football field or basketball court, such ingenuity would inspire cheers. Only Patrice Chereau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (also about styles of masculinity) was comparably kinetic.
Stone first posits football as a military metaphor, then drops that facile approach to explore rough-and-tumble scrimmage. He takes football as a metaphor for life and concentrates on the gestalt, throwing multiple images at the screen, evoking the football broadcast experience as well as tumultuous immediacy. You could call it high-toned and connect this to action painting, but, really, Stone's affect is closer to LeRoy Neiman than to Jackson Pollock (that's how postmodernism has come full circle), and that's not an insult?it's a blast. Stone's 90s style makes moviewatching more vivid. He knows we see blur, but he wants us to think about what the blur entails. This is not only editing action, but manipulating our vision for intellectual purposes. More than Eisensteinian, it's digital Peckinpah?each play technologically poeticized. (At one point an awesome shot depicts the totemic goalpost with the sun shining behind it.)
Depending upon his audience's media-and-sports sophistication, Stone conveys ideas in a startling rush of imagery. Even character gets conveyed through montage, as when the vain, lusty players find themselves amid a bevy of groupies. Stone shuffles shots of the different blondes (besting American Beauty's uncontested blonde-ideal shtick) so that each defines the other?as sexual types, cultural types. This is also the way the script works?from a male mind-set. Any Given Sunday pits middle-aged Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) in his own win-or-lose game coaching the Miami Sharks. It's a banal situation distinguished by how Stone devises the plays; D'Amato's team is his adversary. Medics (James Woods, Matthew Modine), owners (Cameron Diaz, Ann-Margret), and players (Dennis Quaid, L.L. Cool J., Lawrence Taylor, Jamie Foxx) challenge D'Amato in a midlife Roman circus. Man to man; man to woman; knowledge to energy; old age to youth. All in competition.
Obviously, Stone feels D'Amato's dilemma as autobiographical. The top coaching spot parallels directorial authority, and in Hollywood the competition, the pressure to win and battle of personalities, is equally intense. (Stone's onscreen as a sportscaster/media maven.) Few other directors can stage hoopla as spectacularly as Stone. He's not the first bum-rushing auteur; Sam Fuller is his predecessor in tabloid sensationalism. But Fuller never came close to Stone's technical virtuosity. Any Given Sunday is the most exciting movie out right now?and the most consistently pleasurable?because of the conviction Stone shares with Fuller: that cinema should equally convey emotion, action and ideas. This forgotten faith may account for the trouble people have taking Stone seriously; his exciting style seems too frivolous to some. But more so than his imitators Spike Lee and Michael Mann, Stone knows how to make an epic swing and signify. JFK was impressively deft and cogent; Natural Born Killers, despite its confused final act, was a remarkable cultural treatise?superior in every way to Pulp Fiction (the very trash NBK critiqued). If Stone weren't financed by Hollywood, his exploratory narratives would have to be considered avant-garde?or at least experimental, like the now-contextless Jean-Luc Godard.
Only Godard's recent films boast sound design as complex as Any Given Sunday. From augmented effects (firecracker ball snaps, body slams like thunderclaps) to a superb blend of music (Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," Roxy Music's "Avalon"), Stone's sound design advances film narrative by making each element of the film vivify D'Amato's story, animating the male experience. Where My Dog Skip is anodyne, Any Given Sunday is febrile. The climactic game recalls the Seven Samurai monsoon battle, a timeless struggle in an elemental storm. And Stone's awareness of our souped-up culture's insensitivity compels him to make even that a part of the story he tells. While the film is certainly effective on D'Amato's sense of obsolescence?nowhere better than the pick-up sequence where a young lady (Elizabeth Berkley) gives him a pathetically common surprise?Any Given Sunday captures our frenzied competitive era.
regal (and Stone owes this esteem
after NBK's calamitous black
Beamen's ascension rattles D'Amato and aging white quarterback Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid, evoking his part in Everybody's All American). Between these three men, Stone captures the crisis of masculinity that has less to do with angry white male petulance or black anger?it is a perfect model of modern American male competition. Beamen represents the black kids trained to be stars, not team players; Rooney the panic of early obsolescence; and D'Amato is simply fatigued.
There's a hierarchy of types that these characters fall into or fear: warrior, gladiator, punk, shark. "If I could just be what I was," Rooney says. Stone doesn't sentimentalize the lament, he puts it onscreen with a stunning plainness?whether the result of a marital shock from Rooney's wife (Lauren Holly) or part of D'Amato's news conference confession, "I pissed away a lot of money. I closed off everyone who ever loved me." This beats hell out of Jerry Maguire's slick, farcical masculinity rites (it was a perfect fraud for the era wrestlers now call "sports-entertainment"). Stone depicts/celebrates the masculine agon. One shot features a player's tree-like arm, coarsely haired, netted with veins; several others catch the great All-American face of Jim Brown in a minor but deeply etched role as Montezuma Monroe. Much of the movie's debate about team vs. individual behavior is summed up by Brown's presence and what he evokes of a life and career spanning sports and entertainment over years.
In the film's most extraordinary moment, D'Amato and Beamen argue about their futures while the 1959 Ben-Hur blares in the background on a big-screen tv. Most critics duly observed the gladiatorial analogy, but it's Stone's wildest montage, juxtaposing cinema/television, racing/football, old/new and two levels of fiction. His imagistic meanings are many and complex?from the Sharks' field logo (the eye above the pyramid of a dollar bill) down to the now-famous locker room scene where Sharks owner Christina Pagniacci (Diaz?not playing a female villain but a young woman trapped in cultural revolution) shares screen space with the largest sprung phallus in the history of mainstream cinema. By comparison the not-real phalli of Boogie Nights and Fight Club are ahormonal gimmicks by filmmakers who don't know their subject?men who certainly have not faced the masculine humility that Stone, of all people, here places on the 50-yard line.
Movie masculinity is habitually reduced to the transparent bluffs of P.T. Anderson and David Fincher, or shrunken to the boyhood nostalgia of My Dog Skip. Stone dares to expose the nerves behind men's sinew. That's why Pacino and Foxx's peacock figures are also poignant. (They have granitic fragility, like Tommy Lee Jones in Heaven and Earth). In Any Given Sunday Stone gives masculine mythology a workout. Like blood-pumping exercise, it may be hard for some to take, but it's refreshing and it's healthy.
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