Saturday, November 17, 2012

Savages & Beautiful Savages: Oliver Stone On Deconstructing Economic Models

The acting is superb.
Out on video this week is Oliver Stone's Savages, and from Blake Lively to Salma Hayek, from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Travolta, to Taylor Kitsch and Demian Birchir, to Benecio Del Toro (and I will be greatly surprised if Mr. Del Toro is not nominated for his performance) the performances are at the peak of perfection. Savages examines two pot growers Ben (Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch) who grow "the best pot in the world" and the process of rival Mexican cartel led by Elena (Hayek) and Lado (Del Toro) taking their business over. While you have read a number of deconstructions I have done on various works of art, Savages stands as Mr. Stone's own deconstruction on both socialism and capitalism and the inherent wrongs within each, and for this reason it's worth considering because it's a pure vehicle of politics against both major economic models dominating the country and, while I disagree with his assessment, he does an admirable job of using visuals to communicate political concepts to his audience.
While the acting is excellent, the film is not for everyone: there is substantial violence, foul language and violent sex scenes (there is not obvious nudity, which I appreciate); Stone utilizes graphic sex scenes convey to his audience how both capitalism and socialism "screw" you over. The poster design pictured here communicates with color the tension Stone wants to make us aware of: please consider the psychological association of the word "savages" with the pastel color palette of the poster. Note the sky blue at the top of the poster, the yellow in the middle (Lively's dress) the green on the right side of the "G"the dominance of lavender in the "E" section and the pink in the "S" section. Are these the colors we associate with savagery? Even the sepia tones and gray in the "A" and "V" sections don't communicate savagery, and that's because Stone wants us (like Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom) to consider the Native American way of life (the way the Native Indians were once described as "savages") as a viable alternative to what we currently have in American society; as mentioned elsewhere, Stone and Anderson fall in with the "mountain man" genre popular in  the early 1970s (Little Big Man, Jeremiah Johnson, A Man Called Horse, etc.) in calling people to revert to a simpler, less violent lifestyle although they themselves don't seem to be taking their own advice.
Ben is the brainy business man who came up with the pure weed while best friend Chon is the brawn who takes care of undesirable customers using his training from the Afghan war whenever possible. O, their shared girl friend is blissfully happy until she's kidnapped by Elena's gang who wants to monopolize all drug production using force, murder and intimidation. This foundation of the story is Stone's understanding of what he wants us to understand about how capitalism and socialism both work. How do we know Stone is deconstructing and not employing another perspective? Word play.
This image captures one of the great theoretical exercises in the film, because when someone wears a mask, Stone is showing us that the actions they are participating in is not a mask but revealing their real self, so the masks Ben and Chon wear are not masks but their real self. Likewise, Elena "masks" her voice with the computer, but she's actually revealing herself because of what she says; Lado "wears a mask" in his pretended loyalty to Elena but is happy to betray her. How does this fit in with Stone's political agenda (and don't come down on Stone for having an agenda, all film makers do, whether they are conscious of it or not, Stone just happens to be more conscious)? In the election year of 2012, film makers have presented capitalists as ruthless, greedy and irresponsible business men, like Chon and Ben, while Obama's socialism has presented itself as wanting to take over everything like Elena's cartel with America (O) caught in the middle. It doesn't matter how the options present them selves, Stone argues, what matters is what they do, and the actions of both capitalists and socialists reveal what each side it truly made of and the American people are the ones who will suffer for it. 
Throughout the film, the word "savages" is used in a variety of ways; when a word or phrase is intentionally set up to mean more than one concept, the word's/phrase's meaning has become destabilized; for example, in The Hurt Locker, we saw how the phrase "War is a drug," can be taken to mean either that war is a drug like crack that gives us a pleasurable high, and that's why we participate in war, or "War is a drug" could invoke medicinal drugs that heal and fighting a war actually helps us to overcome wounds and illness (like the trauma caused by 9/11; please see Whore Houses & Soccer Stars: The Hurt Locker for more). Chon first describes Elena's gang cutting the heads off several people as "savage," then Lado describes Chon's, Ben's and O's threesome as "savage" and finally, O describes their life in the remote island at the end as being beautifully savage. So what does the word "savage" mean and to what does the title Savages refer? Who are the savages and what makes a person a savage? This is one branch of deconstruction and Stone does it to show how, regardless of what the capitalists think of the socialists, and the socialists think of the capitalists, both sides are guilty of crimes; how does he encode this message for us?
Sex and drugs.
When the film opens, O monologues about the beauty of Laguna Beach and how God parked Himself there, but got towed away. What does this mean, and how does it reflect on the film? Stone creates bookends with this concept and where the threesome go at the end of the film (an island like in the Philippines or something) is the opposite end of Laguna Beach, but Stone is saying the "purified version" of  the paradise God created because there is no formalized economic system on the edenic island. While Stone probably isn't a religious man, he is saying that neither side in the economic debate can claim they were because both sides are out for something only for themselves and not for some religious reason.
Chon and Ben are the two faces of capitalism for Stone: Ben, the smart, savvy, educated business man who is kind-hearted and charitable is just as guilty of "screwing over America" as Chon, the war-scarred veteran who can't get his time in Afghanistan out of himself and takes it out on bad business associates. O, in keeping with tradition, symbolizes America (the passive female element of the "motherland") while the active male principle in Chon and Ben symbolize the economy. Not only can we say that Ben and Chon symbolize capitalism because they are business men, but also because of the lavish, materialistic lifestyle they lead.
One of several films being invoked is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Paul Newman, Robert Redford, 1969), when O compares their threesome to the threesome in that film. Why? Stone wants to take care to link capitalists to criminals who rob for their own good, not some greater good for others, and implicates the middle-class as being accomplices in the act of robbery (as Etta, portrayed by Katherine Ross, participates in their robberies).
How can we say Elena's group symbolizes socialism?
Socialists, of course, would say the cartel doesn't, but the monopolizing and taking over everything for themselves (the way a socialist government owns everything) is the characteristic linking the violent group to socialism as well as the violence used to enforce the take over (Marxism, socialism and communism have tremendous violence in their history). Further, socialism tends to breed paranoia within the government, and the ruthless torturing of Alex (Demian Birchir, A Better Life) is commonly associated with the show-trials of Stalin (The Dark Knight Rises employs show trials as well invoking the past of the French Revolution; for more on show-trials and power, you might be interested in Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish; it's not without problems, but it is interesting). Lastly, Elena's role as a mother fits in with the socialist mask because a socialist government presents itself as a parent to its people even though, as in the film, it is an unwanted parent (the dead children of Elena, as in The House At the End of the Street, symbolizes the countries in which socialism had taken root and lived briefly, but then died).
By far, the strongest arguments to be made that we can see Elena's group as symbolizing socialism comes in the way O is treated while in captivity. She has to ask for everything and she gets no variety, typical of a centrally planned government that distributes everything and decides what gets made and what doesn't. Stone wants to force this issue to the audience in as strong of terms as possible, and he achieves this with the image above, when O, a pot addict, asks to have some and Lado takes a hit for himself, then gives O her hit by exhaling off her; like people under a socialist government, O won't get anything except "through" the government like the drug first going "through" Lado (likewise, Lado gives O a steak, but he cuts up every single bite and makes her eat it off the fork, another way Stone shows what happens to those who look to the government to provide instead of providing for themselves). Secondly, after O is high and unconscious, Lado "screws her" and records it on his phone, which is how most capitalists see a socialist government treating its people: even if the government gives you what you want, you're going to get screwed for it (like with Obamacare; we've seen another film where drugs have been employed by a socialist state, Dredd; please see 96% Unemployment: Dredd & the Socialist State). What does this scene say about the capitalists, though? O is obviously spoiled and a drug addict. In Savages, drug addiction symbolizes Americans' addiction to material goods and luxury, whereas in Dredd, the people are dependent upon Mama (Lena Heady) for everything.  When Ben and Chon discuss how to get O back and how long it will take them, Chon says that O can't survive being a hostage for a couple of days and it's because she's "soft" and "pampered" (O tells them she's going to make a final "pilgrimage" to the mall; whereas a pilgrimage used to be about going to a sacred place to become spiritually healed and rejuvenated, O going to the mall means it's the luxury life of material goods which has replaced the spiritual element in a consumer-oriented world which capitalism has created. Just as drugs are an artificial means of producing pleasure so materialism is a form of drug addiction because it provides pleasure to the consumer, according to Stone.
O plays an imperative role in the film and to fully understand her, we should start with her name. As stated, "O" stands for Ophelia, the love of William Shakespeare's Hamlet who drowns herself (please see image below; please recall that a character named "O" appears also in Men In Black III, played by Emma Thompson, and another Shakespeare play, MacBeth, is quoted in The Raven). Great works of art invoke other great works of art, and when so doing, the artists desire to draw our attention to that work of art in order to expand commentary on the events being presented. In Hamlet, the kingdom is taken over when the king sleeps and poison is poured into his ear by the king's brother who then takes the crown for himself. For capitalists, we can easily see in this an image of Obama's socialist revolution (since both are economic models, capitalism and socialism could be said to be "brothers") taking over America when we were asleep and the poison poured into our ears was "hope" and "change" leading to the ruin we have now. 
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852, the Tate Gallery, London. Where else have we recently seen this image? Melancholia with Kirsten Dunst (please see Dance Of Death: Art n Melancholia for more). There are lots of ways to portray Ophelia, but both films turn to the act of Ophelia drowning herself. In Savages, we can understand O drowning herself in pleasure (drugs and material goods) and this leads us to answer the question proposition by O at the opening monologue: O says that, just because I am narrating this film doesn't mean I am alive at the end of it (another example of Stone's deconstruction, because the film is not only exhibiting self-awareness that it is a film--breaking down the viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief that they are watching a film and not some reality through vicarious means--but also that we may or may not have a reliable narrator who we can trust to deliver us a truthful message) so, when we see her buying fish at the native market in the end of the story, is O alive? given the word play and utilizing of masks in the film, we have to consider that, although she's physically alive, is she spiritually/metaphysically alive? As she, like Ophelia pictured above, drowned herself in sex and an irresponsible life or has something awakened inside her to take the place of the sex, drugs and materialism? It's debatable, or ambiguous, because there is nothing definite by which to answer the question, which is another characteristic of deconstruction.
Stone's dramatizing of O's character is beneficial for another reason: O both validates and re-enforces the traditional symbolism of a young woman being symbolic of America while an older woman of mature years symbolizes the "motherland." O has both a distant relationship with her mother (consider when she goes to her mom's house and leaves her a note about going to Europe, not very personal, is it?) and a emotionally personal one (she writes her mom a sincere, moving note when she's in captivity); we can take this relationship to be O's mom symbolizing America's history, the distant relationship is the distant past with which she hasn't kept in touch, or "studied history" (and the mom's numerous marriages being different phases the country has gone through); the seemingly small detail of O telling her mom she's going to Europe literally means shes "going European," a foreshadowing technique of her captivity because socialism is more prevalent in European countries than elsewhere. Why does O pour out so much emotion in the letter she writes her mom, once captured?
Ben and Chon with Dennis (John Travolta) an FBI agent who willingly takes money from both sides to protect them then willingly betrays Elena to get a medal. As a symbol of the law (even the government) Stone shows how the government is only self-serving and, literally, in "the back seat" of the events taking place, not actually forming them.
O realizing what has happened to her makes her reach out to her mom, i.e., America (O) realizing it's been taken over by socialism (Elena's cartel) prompts a re-examination of our history and relationship to capitalism (O's mother)and what was intended with the founding of the country (O writing the letter to her mom and telling her she loves her). 
There are several important elements which take place in this scene. First, Elena has invited O to have dinner with her at her table instead of in O's prison eating pizza or steak fed to her by Lado, demonstrating how a socialist government always gives itself the best and only makes a show of being generous to its citizens when it wants something (in this case, Elena's daughter doesn't want to see her and Elena is lonely so she invites O to eat with her; Elena also has kept the best part for herself, not offering better food/shelter to O and this is typical of socialist party leaders who indulge themselves while making the citizens suffer; please consider, for example, George Orwell's Animal Farm). Elena also can't believe how dumb O is and asks if all Americans are like that; why does this happen? Socialists build their philosophy upon everyone (except themselves) being stupid (and I mean stupid) and thereby incapable of making any good decisions for themselves so the government has to decide everything for them. When Elena's and O's conversation turns to Chon and Ben, and the threesome relationship they have, Elena informs O that Ben and Chon are only willing to share her because "they love each other more" than they love her. What does this mean? Capitalists love other business owners more than the country (O as symbolic of America) and what they do they do for themselves, not because they are patriots, but to protect their interests. O's faith that Chon and Ben will save her reflects America's faith that the upper-class, the 1%, will save the country from a future of socialism.
Like so many of the films in the past year, Savages also makes a commentary on whether art is better off under socialism or capitalism, in a very sly way. When Chon and Ben have decided to leave the country for awhile, there is a shot of them in their house and two posters on either side, one The Mummy, with Boris Karloff, and the other The Phantom of the Opera. Like Total Recall which also invokes The Phantom Of the Opera (when they travel to the abandoned New York City and there is a banner on a bus for the story and I believe Expendables 2 also used the same device to site the story; please see Recall/Rekall: Memories Of Dreams & Total Recall) so Savages wants us to consider how money is used in the creation of art. I have not analyzed The Phantom Of the Opera, however, I have examined The Mummy, and since it is a film about the Great Depression and resurrection ( like James Bond's hobby in Skyfall) we can take a guess as to why Stone would include it in his film. The problem is, we don't know what Stone's interpretation of the two films is (whether he likes them, considers them masterpieces or low-budget affairs) so, again, the films are ambiguous but we can comment upon them since they have been included, yet we won't be able to make a stable point about them (please see The Curse and the Mummy for my analysis on this anti-socialist film of the Great Depression).
This might not be the exact version of The Phantom O the Opera Stone places in the film but all the varying stories rely upon the vehicle of money and financial ruin to propel the story through its plot.
 Lastly, with the multiple endings the film presents to us as played out in O's imagination as to whether they die, further destabilizes the narrative. Why would a director do this? How stable are the narratives we receive from our leaders? During this week, hearings are finally taking place on the Attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and Americans are literally deciding what we are going to believe in what happened and who knew what, when. Both sides of the political culture today engage in destabilizing political discourse by making themselves unreliable narrators in the constant stream of lies we are fed by Washington, so having a unreliable narrator and a story of which we are not quite sure, accurately reflects the state of the union today, which is what great art is supposed to achieve.
Lado, who can be taken as a symbol of those who work for the socialist government, is truly brutal and self-serving, not serving some higher good or ideal, which is what they want us to believe about them.
Savages isn't an easy film to watch: Stone accuses everyone of being a savage (except himself), and viewers usually don't go to a film to be insulted (taught a lesson, sure, but insulted? No) so there is no one for the audience to identify with but this appears to be part of his strategy: "You're not like the savage capitalists, and you're not like the savage socialists, so you should want to be like these peaceful, beauty-loving natives in this island community where everyone is happy." Does it work? You will have to decide but his personal devotion to Buddhism (which Seven Psychopaths invokes) while still choosing to live in Los Angeles--instead of a remote island in paradise, where he can better practice his meditation--makes the film maker look like a hypocrite taking a cheap shot at his fellow countrymen more than anything noble, if that was his intent.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner