Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The U.S. as Seen through Stone's Savages

While the natural world and the political world are seething and bubbling in turmoil, you wouldn't know it if you lived in the Republican paradise of Laguna Beach, Orange County, California. Oliver Stone's latest film, Savages, begins in this setting of multi-million dollar mansions rising from the hills and cliffs. There, looking down onto the Pacific, the narrator, a young woman named Ophelia, begins to inform us of her story. But while her name is the same as Shakespeare's Ophelia, the similarities don't go much farther. Shakespeare's Ophelia, it should be noted, was notoriously rejected by Hamlet. This Ophelia, however, is not rejected at all. In addition to being the paramour of two young men, much of the film revolves on not rejecting, but rescuing her.

While there appear to be two men in Ophelia's life, in many respects each is really half of a person. Only together do they they create a whole one. As she puts it at the film's beginning, one is hot and one is cold. She could have also said that one is red, and the other is blue. Indeed, it is not difficult to see the two young men - Ben and Chon - as the two faces of US power. Chon is an Afghanistan and Iraq war vet who, among other scars of war, seems to be suffering from PTSD. A war vet, he represents the Republicans. Ben, on the other hand, having double-majored in botany and business at that hotbed of elitist, liberal thought, UC Berkeley, represents the Democrats. He is both a scientist and a businessperson. Well, actually, Chon is a businessman, too. The two are partners. And like the Democrats and the Republicans, the two young men see the world through the lens of business. In their military, science, and business specializations, they are to some degree a microcosm of the military-industrial complex as well. Partners, hot and cold, dark and light - because the two are one, they can share the love of one young woman with no visible conflict, able to afford to live in this stupendously affluent beach-side paradise is because of the fact that the two young men enjoy a stupendously successful marijuana business.

Each possesses specific talents. But while Ben is an intelligent botanist, able to cultivate exceptionally sought-after marijuana, he suffers from certain liberal delusions. At one point he even expresses his conviction that the world can be changed simply by supplying people with ten-dollar solar panels and fourteen dollar laptops. The ex-soldier Chon merely scoffs at this notion that the world can be saved through liberal business ventures. Recognizing that business and war are very much the same thing, and that successful business is always subtended by violence, he advocates the use of force and violence to achieve the partners' business aims. And as is the case with American politics, when push comes to shove Chon's violent measures prevail over Ben's limited objections - in the end, Chon's (the republicans) plans are the ones taken with Ben's (the democrats) full support. Still, Chon would be nowhere without the idealistic, technically competent, bourgeois businessperson of Ben.

While its meaning is not entirely clear, it is difficult to miss the recurrence of this motif of the double in Savages. Beyond the double lovers of O, and the double-major of Ben, there are double kidnappings, double-crossings, and even a surprise double toward the end of the film which I will not divulge. Moreover, there is the double war of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is of particular interest considering Stone's oeuvre. To be sure, it is not difficult to see why Stone would be attracted to this story - adapted from Don Winslow's novel. In many ways the story links the themes pervading Stone's work as a whole: war (Platoon, etc.) and business (Wall Street). Until Savages, war vets and businesspeople have occupied different roles in Stone's work and have been relegated to different films. In Savages they are blended. And perhaps this shows a more sophisticated, cynical, and subtle political critique on Stone's part.

For example, unlike the vets of Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, the vets in Savages do not return to a country embroiled in an anti-war and civil rights movement. They do not tune in, turn on, and drop out to join a "counter-culture," and/or demonstrate against the patriarchal state. Rather, they return to a country that seems oblivious to the fact that there are (aside from the war on drugs) wars raging around the world at all - or, perhaps, there is awareness of this, but it is entirely normal - the new obvious normal that doesn't surprise. As such, rather than fighting against the state, these vets take the far more simple (business) tack of simply paying it off - bribing the DEA agent, played by Travolta, to leave them alone to grow rich dealing in the shadow economy. So, though they might appear to be living in and promoting the "counter-culture" in their own way, unlike their Vietnam-era analogues they are ultimately not bucking the status quo at all. For Chon and Ben, marijuana represents a commodity - they are not giving it away. As businessmen, they are out to make a buck, and are more or less at peace with the state - or have at least reached a type of detente - through their agreement with Travolta's Dennis. So, they are businessmen, not visionaries. Indeed, in these respects they are much like Steve Jobs - businessman-confused-for-visionary par excellence. And like Steve Jobs, they engage with the "counter-culture" as businessmen, to make money. Sure, Ben may feel as though he is doing something good for the world through his business pursuits. But at the end of the day both he and Chon are worried about the bottom-line, employing a large staff of employees and bankers, and doing nothing to rock the bourgeois boat. As "enlightened entrepreneurs" like Jobs, they are also adherents of the type of hedonistic Buddhism that, as Slavoj Zizek argues, is the prevailing ideology of the day. In fact, by the middle of the film Chon is quoting the Dalai Lama (that proponent of aristocracy) to bolster support for his argument for a more violent approach to solving their problem.

To some degree, their problem stems from the fact that they are just such good businessmen. Because their product is so outstanding, the fictitious Baja Cartel - headed by Elena (Salma Hayek) - decides that it just must absorb their business. In an acquisition not too distant from Gordon Gecko's hostile takeovers, the cartel begins to exert pressure. Analogies are drawn again and again to WalMart and other corporate practices, which ought to be enough to demonstrate that these two - and those they represent in the real world - are by no means revolutionaries. When our heroes, the two that are one, don't go along with the plan, their lover, O, is kidnapped. The rest of the film involves their attempt to get her back. Enlisting Dennis's reluctant help, the two that are one embark upon a plan to rescue O. As I don't want to ruin the film, I will divulge no more of the story.

In the end, Savages is entertaining but suffers from a variety of buffoonishness. While there are interesting parallels between Chon and Ben and American political-economy, and between the Vietnam War vets of Stone's earlier films and the mostly (intentionally?) anonymous vets of Savages, there is little else to chew on. Perhaps the most interesting thing to see is the Afghanistan and Iraq War vets employment of guerilla tactics picked up in the wars - notably the use of IEDs - to further the rescue of O. Among other things, this may lead one to consider whether today's vets - who possess these martial skills - will ever use them in the U.S., as is done in the film. And, if they do, will they be used to further the interests of warlords and businesspeople, like some 21st century sort of Freikorps? Or will they become political in a meaningful way, furthering a politics of liberation - as opposed to its mere semblance in the hedonism business - like the vets in Stone's other movies? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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