In her underutilized essay “Against Interpretation”, Susan Sontag serves up a paean to experiential, perceptual art for its own sake, denouncing the sausage-making fest of cinematic interpretation, and implicitly the governing body of most film theory, in the process. Poison pen in hand, she writes “in most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.” In another life, the films of the Vietnam War might have been her primary target, and they are also in the sights of writer-director Oliver Stone with his 1986 cinematic reckoning act Platoon.
Rather than view it as a metaphor on war, I choose to leave Platoon as it stands: a percussive shell-shocker of bone-reverberating, soul-sickening cinematic feeling. Unlike most war pictures, its observations are experiential and perceptual rather than declamations of thought or ammo for thinkpieces. The film resists the film-as-symbol machinations of, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam parable from the following year, choosing to emphasize war not as a knowable, intellectualizable object but as a competing conglomeration of sensory experiences that defy our capacity to reason with them.
Stone’s technique is peculiar, borrowing twinges of expressionism to cast us adrift within the material and stitching in twitches of impressionism to remove us from it, expressing war as an implacable melting point between out-of-body experience and in-the-trenches midnight fright. The collision course of styles is threateningly aberrant in its shift away from grandeur and impregnated meaning and in its return to the stylistically direct, liberating works of Hawks, Ray, or Godard, all of whom flip the artistic script by demolishing the bifurcating of the manifest and the latent and turning “form” into its own poetry that defines “content”. If one wished to do so, they could claim that the lighting-scribed Platoon is not meaningfully about war as content at all so much as it is expressive of war via its very form.
Stone’s initiative is to decimate the prescriptive expressions of many war films and to institute a descriptive approach that emphasizes the concussive baseness of experience and the indefinable chaos of harried perceptions and frayed nerves. That’s the mission statement, and Platoon is generally a successful screed, although Stone’s histrionics creep in more than enough to label Platoon an unmitigated success. The director is at his best when war-as-grotto is on the screen, but the blaring acid-trip charisma that defined Stone’s superior 1986 Salvador is too often enhanced with the hot irons of sacrosanct, sanctimonious hyperbole that Stone’s obvious inspirations, from Scorsese to Sam Fuller, never would have resorted to. Stone is a passionate, personal filmmaker, but his hucksterish tricks have a prodigious habit of slipping from a ripped-from-the-headlines hallucination to a stubborn filibuster on the value of its own undying passion.
Where the film ultimately fails to live up to its inspirations is its eventual shift from Stone the muckraker to Stone the weeping would-be poet. While Salvador was fried with pulp as well as oil, Platoon is so thickly marinated in its own juices that it coagulates before your eyes and the flexible, grungy caliber of the early scenes slip into hysterics as unblinking and self-aggrandizing as any of the more jingoistic, conservative works Stone wished to lay into with Platoon. The film’s angry, punchy, vituperative filmmaking – all harsh edits, vicious camera movements, and slashing sound effects – register on a Scoville scale, although so does its sense of self-importance
The story for many Best Picture winners is their own scapegoat status as “the one that stole that award from…”, a statement that erroneously implies the implicit value of the ceremony and its awards as indicators of quality. Ordinary People is notable because it stole the Best Picture from Raging Bull, but that serves only to remind us that Raging Bull was one of the few masterpieces of American cinema that genuinely, circumstantially stood a fighting chance at winning the award in the first place. When the number of equal masterworks that never stood a chance is so voluminous, however, one wonders about the relative value of caring whether, say, Raging Bull or Citizen Kane didn’t win Best Picture when, in fact, almost all of the greatest works of American cinema have never even been admitted to the ceremony. Many of them were even metaphorically shunned from showing their faces on the star-swept streets of LA on the same night.
That said, the Raging Bull – Ordinary People diatribe is an enormously, arguably accidentally, useful prelude to Ordinary People for how antithetical it is to Raging Bull’s hot-coal jolts of expressionist visuals and tympanic, membrane-stroking sonic intonations. Robert Redford’s film, in comparison to Scorsese’s, is entombed in its own cadaverous, pulseless cocoon of despair and self-pity. Both styles admittedly announce themselves at the door rather than sneaking up on you from behind, but while the fiendish Raging Bull’s style scratches you to bits, Ordinary People is a coma of funereal solipsism. If Raging Bull speaks for itself, People merely quotes Redford’s apparently prodigious Bergman repertoire. Only, when it was so busy knocking at your door to escape its own must, it left Bergman’s insatiable, nearly singular grasp of cinematic atmosphere and semiotics outside stranded under the black cloud Ordinary People brought to your door in the first place.
Redford’s tale of the tragedy-afflicted Jarrett family is not unlike a Bergman tale if all the pungent provocation and scintillating holocaust the Swedish director whispered in his style was replaced with an acrid, wallowing monotone drone. Bergman’s self-contradicting visions of the frame beyond the frame are traded for overweening outbursts of Oscarbait exasperation and cloyingly overdetermined treacle, resulting in a film that is airy and airless all in one. The screenplay by Alvin Sargent does deserve credit for resisting exposition, but the programmatic way it distills information slowly at a regular clip is nevertheless calculated to evoke a false aura of mystery that is mistaken for a nowhere-to-be-found atmosphere of sticky, Spanish-moss-draped dread.
As with most Oscarbait, Ordinary People is mostly left staking its claim on the caliber of its performances, all of whom add a revealing humanity to their icy, frail bourgeois types without ever transcending the enervated screenplay or the barren filmmaking. Timothy Hutton shines as the benighted son who we eventually learn survived an accident that resulted in the death of the family’s favorite child, while Mary Tyler Moore as the family matriach singlehandedly redresses the screenplay’s misogynistic ice queen interpretation of her character. Donald Sutherland is similarly afforded no quarter by a screenplay that mostly deploys him as an insouciant passive presence, although a bad Donald Sutherland performance isn’t a tangible thing around these parts. The most suffering member of the central four figures is Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), the surviving son’s psychiatrist who varies between ossified interlocutor for the screenplay and lachrymose goody two shoes.
Truth be told, Ordinary People is more of a miss than an immolated failure, but then, immolation would require it let a little oxygen, a touch of life, in to begin with. For all its faults, the screenplay stands head and shoulders over your garden variety 2010s Oscarbait, the filmmaking is more reductive and mimic-based than truly vacant, and the performances are as uniformly incisive as the material allows them to be. So finding the insect of thought in this too-preciously preserved, frozen-stiff film is not impossible, but bring two jackhammers. Around every corner is a grotesque broken-dish metaphor or a gargoyle of a line to stop you dead in your tracks.