My Dog Skip; Any Given Sunday; Holy Smoke; The Terrorist

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Any Given Sunday
directed by Oliver
Stone


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.


Instead of Fight Club’s
banal trendiness, Stone offers a more sociologically astute perspective, located
in D’Amato’s nervousness about the generation breathing down his neck
that he must usher into the game. As Willie Beamen, the new star quarterback,
Jamie Foxx plays both a young black male archetype and a singular professional
aspirant. Part of a new streamlined breed, he’s athletic without being
overly muscular, exuding youthful arrogance as a mode of masculine behavior.
It’s a full-fledged, subtle characterization. Beamen is hungry for fame
and success but his nerves also get the best of him (he throws up before every
big play) and his tail-chasing isn’t always successful. He flubs his steady
relationship (with Lela Rochon) then founders as young bachelors do. When Beamen’s
career rises (he becomes a hiphop star of his own music videos as well as a
gridiron celebrity), Foxx wears the halation naturally. Suave and feral he’s
as gorgeously alpha as "Neon" Deion Sanders. Stone’s young black
turks create an authentic sociological frisson; Foxx, Lawrence Taylor and L.L.
Cool J’s spectrum of young comers humanizes this change in the sport and
in the culture. They’re rowdy yet

regal (and Stone owes this esteem

after NBK’s calamitous black

prison riot).


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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