It is commonplace, these days, for concerned critics to complain that contemporary movies (especially big, expensive, American ones) are unable to keep an image on screen for more than a few seconds. According to this aesthetic and moral complaint, fast cutting joins loud music and aggressive spectacle as the desensitising ills of modern, pop cinema.
Oliver Stone is probably more to blame for this trend than any other, single filmmaker. Since JFK (1991), Stone's style has become jazzy to the point of incomprehensibility. To call it MTV-like is a gross understatement. Different film stocks, flashbacks and flashforwards, multiple layers of songs and sound effects, subjective inserts and documentary montages – all spin around in a merry profusion that assaults the spectator.
Yet, for all that, Stone is incapable of making a wholly uninteresting film. And what makes his films at times insufferable is also what makes them vital and essential. Any Given Sunday is his best and most captivating work since Natural Born Killers (1994). It is also, far and away, the most exciting and enjoyable movie in his career to date.
Stone is so deeply into his own, bombastic style by now that he skims over minor details like plot, character and dramatic structure. There aren't many narrative moves in Any Given Sunday, and the few that do kick in are rather corny and predictable.
Tony (Al Pacino) is the ageing coach of a football team on a losing streak. The team's bossy owner, Christina (Cameron Diaz), has little time for Tony and his old-style ways. The players are also divided into old and new camps: Cap (Dennis Quaid) is increasingly nervous about his future prospects, while Willie (Jamie Foxx) is so sure of his youthful, star status that he disregards the game plan on the field.
Despite the profusion of star power, this film could so easily have been a total mess. Stone, however, has an unerring ability to capture, in vivid fragments, the explosive tangle of a multi-cultural, inter-generational, cross-class milieu. Power struggles occur on every level in this movie – during the game, in the boardroom, at home, in the doctor's office, in bed.
Despite the obligatory guff about the need for sportsmen to lose honourably, winning is the only thing that really matters to Stone or his characters. The film manages, somehow, to be both grandly moral and flakily amoral in its outlook.
This is a long film, but the energy level it maintains is astounding. It has a bold, outrageous humour that recalls the movies of Robert Aldrich, especially his football classic The Longest Yard (aka The Mean Machine, 1974). The scenes of the game are especially wonderful. Stone's incessant visual and aural effects – such as the cutaways to pixilated, heavenly clouds – can be mind-bogglingly tenuous in their connection to the core story, but such free association has become his true forte.
What has happened to the classical cinema of themes, psychology, subtle viewpoint and dramatic metaphor? Oliver Stone pulverised it all, at least as far as he is concerned, long ago. He strides like a mad visionary into the future of popular cinema – and we would be spoilsports not to follow him, at least occasionally.
© Adrian Martin July 2000