Undoing the Knots of Perception

Dateline Bangkok, Fourth quarter 2009

Undoing the Knots of Perception

Oliver Stone looked a bit like an old lion with a hangover but the Hollywood director – winner of three Oscars and maker of countless classic movies – showed some of his impressive intellectual depth during an appearance in front of a packed clubhouse in late January.

It might seem a bit congruous that a man like Stone, famous for films like “Platoon” and others about the Vietnam War, should be a guest speaker brought here sponsored by the International Peace Foundation. Yet he provided an admirable, honest and insightful analysis of his troubled homeland and why his countrymen supported George W Bush launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Talking about peace to foreign correspondents is not that easy”. He acknowledged at the start, “but you’re journalists and you like to hear stories.”

Newspapers, he said, were often a “boggle of events” that bewildered the average man in the street. “Our societies do work, but you wouldn’t know that from reading newspapers or watching TV news.”

News in America had been taken over by companies seeking to make profits and twisted “for entertainment purposes”, he said. “That’s why I did “Natural  Born Killers” in ’94 against what I saw was a media landscape exploiting violence… it is just terrible. The news should not be for making money.”

Stone has just finished a three-year project, a 10-hour documentary called “The Secret History of America”, which has been bought by Showtime in the US. His keen interest in history – and a deeper analysis of the “big stories and patterns” of recent decades – was evident all evening.
America’s fight against communism during the 50s and 60s descended into hysteria, he said, and “the world had suffered greatly for this delusion… I think we [the US] have intervened in 60-70 countries to fight communism.”

Yet, he noted, many countries were prone to mass delusion or history written by the victors. His mother was French and he had grown up hearing tales aplenty about the French Resistance during World War Two. He later learnt that most of the French had had to conform – to live and cooperate with the Germans during the Nazi occupation.

Joseph Stalin was a hero to the people of Russia, yet they didn’t know until decades later about the great purges the Russian leader had launched, in which millions were killed. Similarly, many American thought they were the main force to have beaten the Germans in WWII, and ignorant of the Russians’ staggering sacrifice – 20 to 25 million troops killed.

“And in china, I see a young people crippled by amnesia about their own society, with older generations who’ve gone through Lewis Caroll-type 180-degree changes” from a brutal communist regime to one “that now worships money”.

“I think we all live a lie at some point in our lives – the forces of conformism are so strong, I’m trying to be a realist though and undo some of these knots of perception that we all have and I’ve devoted my movies to trying to undo these knots. I’ve seen so much evidence of history being rewritten.. levels of deception in Russia, China, my own country. History belongs essentially to the victor and we can never under-estimate the power of corruption to rewrite history.”

The last decade, he said, “was the worst decade of my life”, under George Bush Junior, who he flayed as “perhaps the most dangerous [US] president in history” and a man who had trouble grasping concepts.

Republicans were “bone-heads”, he felt, open to use of nuclear bombs as well as conventional weapons, while people’s rights had been “sacrificed to the false god of security”. The emails, medical accounts or sexual mores of all Americans could now be scrutinised. Corporations were treated like human beings and permitted to donate unlimited amounts of money to propaganda groups.

“We can each be destroyed reputationally, physically, financially by our own government, if they so wanted.”

The current push for 60-seat filibuster majorities on the Hill was ludicrous, he said, and like holding democracy hostage. “We find ourselves in perilous time in my 60-plus years – a rather terrifying world.”

The son of a New-York banker, Stone is also working on a sequel to his 1987 hit “Wall Street”. While the excessive greed of the 1980s shocked him, he was stunned to find, two decades on, serious was counted in the thousands of millions: billions. He likened the 2007 “credit bubble” to a heart attack for the business community and a serious wake-up call to the world.

A self-confessed contrarian, Stone described television as a narcotic as dangerous as heroin or cocaine. Yet he hopes movies can help “heal the tribe, not divide it”.

James Cameron’s futuristic blockbuster Avatar, about an “ecological paradise”, had crawled into the subconscious of millions of viewers and worked subversively – like the best movies did, “as guerillas of the mind”.

“Mr Cameron leads the pack. He has created a fable and it works”.

Could the world heal itself and come together to beat global warming? Only through “the sweat of needing” would we get there, he said.

They queued up for question – strictly limited to one per person, till Marwaan called “enough”. It was a terrific insight into one of the great storytellers of our time.