Parsing Oliver Stone’s New Media Experiment: Savages – Interrogation Series: Week 1

First Penn Jillette’s passionate and principled radio attack on the racism and classism of Obama’s War on Drugs went viral, bringing politics to YouTube. Now, Oliver Stone uses the internet platform to bring art to advertising for Savages, his new dramatic film about marijuana trafficking opening July 6. Art is the necessary extension of Jillette’s persuasive reasoning. In Week 1 of Savages – Interrogation Series, Stone (who wrote Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface) suggests the human cost of the criminal world wrought by prohibition.

In these short clips–a web exclusive–an authority figure (voiced off-screen by Stone) interrogates the film’s cast, who respond in character. The technique plays like a method-acting improv exercise, but it builds intrigue–and social vision–because the actors are playing people whose participation in the criminal underworld forces them to be liars (to improvise). Selma Hayek’s Elena conveys an imperial will behind maternal justifications, Aaron Johnson’s Ben employs a network of deflective tics, Taylor Kitsch’s Chon seduces, and Blake Lively’s Ophelia chooses to be cutely vague (“He works with plants”). Benicio Del Toro’s Lado–an assassin wearing a death mask–mocks their collective spiritual alienation: “I wish I was a lizard.”

Stone uses fragments from Savages to contextualize or contradict the actor’s responses in rear-projection (a technique begun in Natural Born Killers (1994)). This dialectic of perspectives–disingenuous character and cinematic p.o.v.–analyzes the personal and ideological economy of the black market: drugs, money, violence, opulence (like the view of Ben’s ocean-side condo he attributes to an inheritance). The classism of Obama’s hypocritical flippancy actually reflects the same value system (materialism, ambition, power) that compels the drug trade–and that drives consumers to the numbing salve of its product (“You don’t sell marijuana?” / “No, but I smoke quite a bit of it”).

Narcotic advertising usually sells this ideology, but Stone subverts advertising and internet desensitizing. To do so, he connects the tactile quality of medium (film scratch) and color (skin tone drained of warmth) to sociological meaning. Stone visualizes the characters’ and the culture’s moral haze. Elena rationalizes the necessary sacrifice of Love: “Love makes you weak and very vulnerable. Your enemies will take what you love forever, unless you take what they love first.” Expressed hyperbolically in the crime-movie genre, this actually describes the Capitalist condition. Making spectacle of the characters’ lies, Stone and actors weed out their vulnerabilities–and hold up a mirror to the exploited audience.

John Demetry heralds pop art that addresses the audience’s post-9/11 spiritual need that the divisive culture exploits in his book The Community of Desire: Selected Critical Writings (2001-2007), available at www.lulu.com