Reviewed by Alci Rengifo
Chasing the Light
by Oliver Stone
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pp., $25.20
If there is anything the year 2020 has shaken into the very fabric of our imperial society, it’s that nothing ever goes according to plan, rarely is anything absolutely assured. While a biological threat has upended not only our nationalist pride as a world hegemony, it no doubt has uprooted many personal obsessions with career paths and lifestyle. That most provocative of American film directors, Oliver Stone, has now released a passionate and absorbing memoir, Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador and the Movie Game, which in its own way, is fully apt for our time. More than any other work of autobiography to be released this summer, Stone’s account of going against the grain and demanding to be allowed to live off his vocation reads like a tonic.
For consumers of cinema, Stone remains a filmmaker eternally divisive. Whether it be his style, and above all, his politics, he inspires admiration and derision. He probably remains best known for his work from the ‘90s, especially the technical masterpiece JFK, which somehow collages every conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Natural Born Killers, a visually anarchic satire crystalizing our American obsession with violence and celebrity. Agree with their theses or not, the fact that both films remain instant pop cultural reference points is a testament to their lasting value as art. I dare argue Stone’s 1995 opus Nixon, is a grossly underrated and vital drama unmatched by anything released since when it comes to cinematic political biography. This article could continue on and discuss Stone’s hallucinatory Jim Morrison biopic The Doors or his 1999 football epic Any Given Sunday, written and shot with the spirit of a Roman gladiator.
But Chasing the Light is powerful reading precisely because it is about those years before Stone reached Hollywood prominence. It is a book full of memories, self-doubt, stirring experiences and that ever so hard, grinding need to push oneself towards a stubborn goal. It helps that Stone is a natural born writer, chronicling his early years with a crisp, eloquent prose. But pulsing in nearly every space of subtext is a spirit of surviving by going against the grain. Stone even brushes aside the stale sugarcoating of other Hollywood biographies. He is blunt about sex, the personalities of others, and of course, his political opinions.
As evident in his work, Stone is obsessed with history and its lessons, the way it casts a shadow over our daily lives, whether we notice it or not. His book opens in 1976, as the U.S. celebrates it bicentennial and Stone stares out New York Harbor. Chapter one opens with a line recognizable to any dreamer without immediate resources, “I was coming up on thirty, and I was broke, but I didn’t want to think about that anymore.” The Statue of Liberty, the pomp of American Independence Day, even as the country was reeling from Vietnam, only adds to Stone’s sense of personal limbo. The narrative then shifts to a reverie going back to 1946, when Stone was born to Lou Stone and Jacqueline Goddet. Stone was himself a direct product of history. Lou was in General Eisenhower’s staff as a military man stationed in post-World War II France. Jacqueline was a French upper class girl who fell for the American G.I. fantasy. But like all dreams, the shores of reality provide a hard crash. Stone would be born into privilege, with Lou described as one of the last breed of Wall Street brokers still imbued with a slight sense of morality. He had lost it all before in the crash of 1929, but would lose more again. Sent off to boarding school, it was there that a young Stone would receive a blunt phone call informing him his parents were getting a divorce. In a swerve away from the typical image of 1950s America, Lou and Jacqueline were pretty blunt with young Oliver about their extramarital activities. On top of that, Lou was wallowing in debt.
It is this shattering of the ideal atomic family, white, affluent, basking in the delights of American capitalism, that seems to be the first real catalyst in the formation of Oliver Stone. In 1967, at the eve of turning 21, Stone is on his way to Vietnam after having enlisted. Here the rebel emerges, running from the plasticity and lies of the American privileged class, deciding on his own he wants to taste the real world. Raised in a conservative environment, Stone has little to say about the early cultural shocks of Elvis or the Beats, it simply wasn’t much a part of his world. What he does carry in him to war is a love for Homer, Greek mythology and its potent lessons. A Homeric view of combat, its bloody terror mixed with boredom, the cast of warriors in his platoon, would stay with Stone forever. This literary view sustains him as he returns to a country embroiled in radical cultural change.
If there is a romantic, almost Hemingway tone to the early sections of Chasing the Light, relatable to anyone who has ever felt like running away, even if it means to seek something greater in a tumultuous world, the second half of the book becomes one of the great recent testimonials of the struggling artist. What Stone knows from the beginning is that he is a writer. Words are his vocation. But after penning a failed, hallucinatory novel (later published in 1997 as A Child’s Night Dream), Stone realizes screenwriting is the new literary form of the age, because it is also an age of cinema. Books may never entirely go out of fashion, but the masses consume images, coupled with sound and music. This seemed to Stone, who confesses his mother would play hookie with him to see movies, like a better pathway to express the ideas and memories swirling in his intense psyche.
NYU would be where Stone would attend film school with Martin Scorsese as an instructor described as wonderfully manic and passionate. In the ‘70s a B.A. in had even less job market value than today, and Stone is soon driving cabs to survive, admitting that he wanted to avoid practical jobs as much as possible. Stone’s life reads like those classic, romantic authors of decades past, who would defy the norm, live in poverty and peck at their manuscripts. Stone eventually marries Najwa Sarkis, a Lebanese UN worker serving the Kingdom of Morocco. She provides Stone with a comfortable home as he writes scripts and treatments, and directs his first, low-budget feature, a horror film named Seizure. It fails, playing in a small grindhouse spot as a double bill in New York City. This is when Stone makes that difficult decision of again casting aside comfort, ending the marriage so he can move to Los Angeles with a script in hand based on his Vietnam experiences, Platoon. As Stone boards the plane for L.A., history both political and cultural blaze in the background. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are some of first cinematic attempts to grapple with Vietnam. Stone admires their scope, but they are obviously grandiose films made by directors who never fought in the war.
When Stone lands in the city of angels with its Hollywood promises, it is Platoon that gets him work. Through talent and stubbornness, Stone comes across as rather the lucky writer. His first major studio assignment, Midnight Express, based on a book by Billy Hayes, who was arrested and imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling hash, is for then emerging British director Alan Parker and becomes a smash hit, winning Stone his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The passages describing the cocaine-fueled ambiance of the Golden Globes before they were a live broadcast show are hilariously decadent, as well as the party atmosphere of late ‘70s Hollywood. Stone vaguely recalls writer Gore Vidal attempting to seduce Mick Jagger at one gathering.
Some of the warmer passages in the book involve Stone meeting his second wife, Elizabeth Cox, a blonde Texan who Stone describes as everything he would have ever wanted in a partner at the time. One gets the feeling of Stone constantly battling between the search for domesticity and his own impulses to go further, experiment and search as a young writer. He wants to be both loved and a libertine. He’s also a collaborative type of partner, giving Elizabeth a speaking role in his second feature, the box office bomb The Hand, which like Seizure, has not aged terribly and retains an eerie psychological force. When acting is not Elizabeth’s calling, Stone hires her as his typist.
Yet even as Stone basks in both the bacchanalia of the times and a loving relationship, developing a dangerous coke habit along the way, he writes every single day and manages to put his stamp on projects that would later be remolded by other filmmakers. Stone includes pages from his early drafts of Conan the Barbarian, which read like a Wagnerian fever dream. There’s still a sting of regret in the way he describes macho director John Milius taking the script and cutting it down to more of a B-movie romp to show off Arnold Schwarzenegger. The colder, by Stone’s observation slower, Brian De Palma would provide a better learning experience however, when Stone is hired to write the enduring cult classic Scarface. The infamously violent update of the 1932 Howard Hawks classic, starring Al Pacino as a Cuban refugee rising in the cartel world of 1980s Miami, would bring Stone into contact with underworld elements. There’s a darkly fun moment where he recounts meeting with Colombian gangsters and then unwisely dropping the name of a certain lawyer.
Through Scarface and other projects, Stone vividly remembers all the characters, some endearing and others downright venal, one encounters along the way of attempting success in this field where creativity and greed are nearly Siamese twins. What is eternally admirable about Stone is that he refuses to sell out. Even when slammed as overly violent or on the nose, preachy and despairing in his work, Stone’s voice is his own. He reserves low-grade acid in his prose for New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who would write with a condescending, almost pathologically obsessive hatred for Stone’s scripts. And history is always in the background. The loose ‘70s would give way to the ultra-capitalist, hyper nationalist Reagan ‘80s. At one point Stone was even offered the chance to write Top Gun, still seen as a defining example of the post-Vietnam, macho American military movie meant to stir hearts to Uncle Sam’s marching call.
It would be history that would come and save Stone as well. Disappointed in the way the system seems to use writers as nothing more than hired hands, yearning to direct but having burned bridges in his wilder days, Stone puts it all on the line to make an independent war movie about the then raging civil war in El Salvador. Based on the experiences of wild man journalist Richard Boyle (who provides page after page of colorful anecdotes in the book’s latter half), Stone’s movie stars James Woods as Boyle and Elpidia Carrillo as the young Salvadoran peasant he loves. Outrageous, bloody, with a Hunter S. Thompson tone, Salvador has a making of story as intriguing as the movie. Nothing can stop the hungry director whose time has come. Stone tries to shoot in El Salvador itself amid the war, meeting with fascist military figures with Boyle. When that falls apart the production moves to Mexico as producers sweat over depleting funds. Yet Salvador opens the door for Stone to make his beloved Platoon, casting an unknown Charlie Sheen in the role based on himself. It’s quite the shift from capturing war in Central America to then reliving his memories from Vietnam, in a powerful opus featuring Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger as well, both embodying figures Stone remembers from his days in combat.
Both Salvador and Platoon not only close the book victoriously, as one becomes a sleeper hit and the other a box office sensation that would win Best Picture and Director Oscars for Stone, they also crystalize the historical obsession that defines his journey. Like few, if any, movies made about Latin America since, Salvador is about a war in which the United States intervened to prevent revolutionary forces from overcoming a local regime and aristocracy firmly beholden to U.S. interests, and Platoon is about Stone having been a young man holding the rifle used by American power to impose its order on the world. He has been an agent of history, which is why it haunts his mind even now with his recent documentaries, the most controversial being a sit-down with Vladimir Putin.
Chasing the Light is like a tonic in these times when the world becomes increasingly unsettled, as if hurtling towards major conflagrations but our movies are now devoid of radical politics or even political passion, with a few exceptions. Great directors who begin with promise then get lured by the bigger system, and they end up contributing to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Agree with him or not, Stone at least celebrates two things in this book we can all agree on: The hard work wanting to write demands, both in commitment and honing of the craft, and the need to engage with the wider world. Film obsessives and Stone’s fans will no doubt eagerly await the next volume, I know I will, when he will surely explore his defining political films. For now, Chasing the Light is a volume to give comfort to wandering talent out there, writing deep into the night, wondering if anyone will ever read it or care.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.