Friday, May 11, 2007

The Rewatchables: "A Massive Plot In Dallas"

Think of your favorite movies. The movies you can watch over and over and over again without getting sick of them. The movies you pop in the DVD player on a hungover Sunday morning when you're not quite in the mood for a VH1 I Love the '80s marathon. The movies you catch on cable mid-way through and always have to watch 'til the end. Not the best movies you've ever seen, necessarily. The most re-watchable. Adaptation was one of the best movies I've seen this decade, but I've elected to watch Mallrats far more often. That's what I'm talking about.

Every so often, I'm going to post about one of my favorite re-watchable movies. I'll try to give you an idea of just what keeps me interested the third, fourth, eighth, twelfth time I watch them.

Today's re-watchable:

Dir.: Oliver Stone
Starring: Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman, a cast of thousands

On Your 1st Viewing: Well, on your first viewing you were probably a good 10-15 years younger than you are now. This is not an obscure film. But let's just pretend that you only know JFK though pop cultural allusions to "back and to the left" and "the Magic Bullet." I'd strongly suggest sitting down and watching the whole thing. It's not a brief movie (206 minutes for the preferable "Director's Cut") but it's an important and remarkably engaging one. And on your first viewing, take note of the fact that Stone crafts what often feels like a thriller out of a story that is 75% exposition. The most compelling scenes aren't of conspirators making plans or district attorneys wrestling with their consciences or -- Lord knows -- Jim Garrison and his wife and the strain the Kennedy investigation puts on their marriage. No, the most riveting scenes in the film are all straight-up exposition, peppered with flashbacks, newsreel footage, and some of the finest editing work -- Oscar winners John Hutshing and Pietro Scalia -- you'll ever see. The sense of paranoia that Stone can evoke from a 40-year-old murder is nothing short of remarkable, and even if the "facts" seem dubious, the film certainly puts on a compelling prosecution.

By Your 2nd Viewing you will likely notice Martin Sheen's dulcet tones reading the film's opening voice-over, which lays the foundation for everything from Eisenhower's "Millitary Industrial Complex" to the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam. I suppose before The West Wing got us used to Sheen's intonations sounding authoritative on matters of state, this might have been a tougher catch, but even back in '91, Martin's voice was pretty recognizable. Also, as The Goonies taught us all, Martin Sheen played Kennedy once, so there's a bit of a wink on Stone's part in including him.

By Your 3rd Viewing you should have figured it out pretty well: Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy of high-level military officers, probably with the consent -- if not outright urging -- of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in conjunction with the CIA -- who were no friends of Kennedy -- and with the tacit approval of then-Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, all for the purpose of facilitating the American military action in Vietnam, which would be advantageous to American business who would profit off of a full-scale war, and which Kennedy was committed to ending by his second term. That' know, that's an easy one.

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By Your 4th Viewing it's probably time to play Spot The Cameo. JFK is chock full of them. Some of them are easy: Walter Matthau as the Lousiana senator, Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby. But some are exceedingly hard to find: I believe Vincent D'Onofrio and John Larroquette only show up on the Director's Cut. Sally Kirkland's gone in a flash. It was only in a very recent viewing that I spotted Ron Rifkin as one of Jim Garrison's witnesses during the trial scenes. And I swear to God, only by perusing the IMDb page just now do I realize Lolita Davidovich played Beverly, the showgirl at Jack Ruby's Dallas night club. Bonus points if you can identify the real-life Jim Garrison showing up to play Chief Justice Earl Warren.

On Viewing Number 5, sit back and appreciate the bug-fuck insanity of Joe Pesci's performance as David Ferrie. Pesci has never been known as a subtle actor, and God bless him for it, but his version of Ferrie splits the difference between T-Bag on Prison Break and the Tazmanian Devil. It's always something of a guilty pleasure to watch an actor play a character that gives him complete license to play to the very back row, and Pesci's performance is a proud member of that pantheon.

By Viewing Number 6, you should already be well-versed in Kevin Costner's struggle with a Louisiana accent. To his credit, he grabs hold of that accent like he's wrestling a gator and tries his best to wrangle it into submission, but it's ultimately too wild a beast for him to tame. Interestingly enough, it's probably the best accent work he's ever done. In fact, that same year, Costner famously ditched any attempt at an accent at all in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Costner's N'awlins is nothing close to the "pahk the cah" abomination he committed the next time his and John Kennedy's paths crossed in Thirteen Days. It coulda been woise, is what I'm saying.

By Your 7th Viewing, you've changed your mind: Kennedy was assassinated by a coalition of Cuban exiles and the CIA, angry at Kennedy's refusal to order a full-scale invasion of Cuba, and hoping to lay the blame for the assassination at Havana's doorstep, which would spur the country to overthrow Castro and make Cuba once again hospitable to American business interests. The Dallas mafia (who had their own interests in Cuba, or so The Godfather, Part II led us to believe) was used for their connection in setting up the logistics, and the FBI was employed for the purposes of cover-up. You're still working out the problem of how we never really did invade Cuba, did we, but you're pretty certain regardless.

On Your 8th Viewing, take note of the absolutely superior cinematography -- by Robert Richardson -- and score -- by John Williams. Both were nominated for Oscars, and Richardson won his first statue. It's as close as you'll get to a minimalist Williams score, and an incredibly versatile one besides, alternating between militaristic rat-tat-tat, suspenseful isolated piano rumblings, and ticking-clock percussion. It's absolutely essential to Oliver Stone's ability to craft suspense out of what was then a 25-year-old murder, the most famous in this country's history. Richardson's work is just as essential to the mood, and manages to evoke conspiracy at every turn. Stone's films soon took a turn for the more emptily ostentatious, but every heavily atmospheric shot in this movie does the job but good.

On Your 9th Viewing, you're past due to give props to Gary Oldman's performance of Lee Harvey Oswald. He's not obscured by any kind of weird hair and makeup tricks, and yet I never once think "that's Gary Oldman" when I'm watching this movie. It's an eerily accurate performance; as accurate as you can get for the portrayal of an unknowable man. Assassin? Patsy? Under-orders covert agent? It's the best performance in the film, by a long shot, and the fact that Tommy Lee Jones snatched the film's only acting Oscar nomination from Oldman is criminal. Speaking of Tommy Lee Jones...

By Your 10th Viewing, you realize you had it all wrong before, but now you've got it down cold: John F. Kennedy was assassinated by an underground network of scary gay people who liked to dress up in costumes and do drugs and rape each other and such. One of the film's strangest tangents involve those bizarre flashbacks to the nightmarish sex/bondage/costume party held by Pesci, Jones, and Kevin Bacon's characters. It doesn't have a whole lot to do with the actual plot, but it certainly leaves the viewer with the disconcerting impression that these characters' homosexuality is being hauled out as a negative character reference. Not entirely sure why Scary Conspiring Murderous Fascists needed their ante upped to Scary Conspiring Murderous Gay Fascists, but whatever the motivation, it totally makes one think Kennedy was murdered as part of a Leopold and Loeb style thrill-kill between men who were gay for far more than covert warfare.

On Your 11th Viewing, you'll have earned a healthy appreciation for that sublime scene right in the middle of the movie where Donald Sutherland lays a whole mess of tasty exposition and conspiracy theory on Jim Garrison, and on the viewers. Sutherland's hushed delivery -- combined with some of the film's finest technical work -- reveals the heart of the film, and what you can take to be Stone's true thoughts on the subject: Kennedy was killed, pure and simple, because he sought more and bigger change than the old guard establishment was prepared to tolerate. And here's where all the best questions about the assassination are laid bare: why was there such lax protection in Dallas? How did all the intel on Oswald show up so quickly? Didn't Kennedy ultimately piss off too many highly-ranked CIA, FBI, and military officials, not to mention their financial benefactors? If I've seen JFK a dozen times, then I've watched this particular scene two dozen times, minimum. Again, you don't necessarily have to believe X is telling the truth to appreciate the zeal with which Stone makes his case.

By Your 12th Viewing, you'll have no doubt acquainted yourself with the "back...and to the left" scene. Uncomfortable? You bet. But it's indelible, and for good reason. If Kennedy's head moved in the way it appears to on the Zapruder video, doesn't that necessarily negate any claim to Oswald as the lone assassin? Seeing Kennedy's head explode into a pink mist feels like peering into his widow's bedroom window -- we're seeing things that shouldn't be seen by polite company. But politeness falls by the wayside when you're being lied to, and Stone wants to make sure we remember the best evidence on file for conspiracy. And the grim consequences of that conspiracy.

By Your 13th Viewing, at last, it's understandable that all this time looking at Kevin Costner in those horn-rimmed glasses will have you looking for an episode of Heroes to watch. And when you do, your conspiracy detection skills will be that much sharper. Thanks, Oliver Stone!