Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Unclean Thing

Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004) is a bit of a mess, but I was happy to see that Stone acted true to form and made a movie that sees ideas as plot devices, that is, he always tries to merge story and "theme" so that the two complement each other. In doing so, he may sacrifice any sense of responsibility to historic accuracy--as in J.F.K.--but I could care less. I have no stake in the facts of Alexander's life; I merely wanted to see what Stone was up to. I'm happy to say that as usual it's no good. What he's up to, that is.

First is Colin Farrell as Alexander. Farrell conveys an arresting combination of bully-boy bravado, outraged pride, and tortured insecurity that's more than a little disconcerting. I wonder how Alexander made it out the door, let alone to India, with such debilitating emotions, most of which trail back to his relationship with his parents, Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and Philip (Val Kilmer). Farrell takes advantage of the contradictions, compulsions and guilt that the screenplay (by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridas) has given him, and carries the weight of Oedipal irony with every step across his growing empire. Alexander's dilemma is fueled by the conflict between his father's position--standing between Alexander and the whole wide world--and his mother's will to make Alexander the Great. Stone and company lean heavily on the mother's bond with her son, disdain of her husband, and desire to compensate for her own lowered status as a barbarian. She transfers all these insecurities to the already-ambitious Alexander, and he is forever torn between his own desire for ascendancy and his guilt over supplanting his father, coupled with his attraction to and fear of his mother. Stone manages to stir this strident pot while sweeping us across Alexander's world, from seaside to jungle, from monsoon to desert. As he advances, Alexander is increasingly haunted by his father's death, his mother's fearful devotion, and his own dream of crossing every boundary, religious, political, and sexual, while remaining untouched by the guilt-ridden stain of excess.

Ultimately, Alexander fails. In Oedipus the King, the blind seer Teresias, who knows what Oedipus doesn't, that the latter has murdered his father and married his mother, finally breaks down under Oedipus' persistent and self-defeating quest for the truth, and tells Oedipus what he wants to know, and dreads: that Oedipus is the cause of all the troubles, "the unclean thing" that will defeat itself. Stone's Alexander tells a similar story, with the added bonus--and sometimes distraction--of a cast of thousands, wild parties, and battle elephants. Inevitably, and often, everything is drenched in blood, which, as Alexander's priests tell him, is the gods' food; and they feast on Alexander's anxieties and guilt as much as on his dreams of a world without boundaries

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