Stone Cold.
“Just often enough to keep me from giving up on religion, a small miracle comes along. Most critics have been brought up to see films through the jaundiced eye of politics, to pan everything on the principle of preserving their essential sense of intellectual superiority and moral righteousness. We, and I’ll include myself not as a critic per se, and certainly not flirting with the flinty left, or with an ax to grind, but as a skeptic; a soul-searching almost no-hoper who continually tries to reassure myself that the tripe really doesn’t matter, while keeping alive a small flickering flame of faith in the possibility of movies as the art of the 20th (and now the 21st Century).
And every once in a while a gem slips through the fine-grinding soul-crushing Hollywood mill, and I experience a feeling of strangeness, a realization that I’ve seen a picture that is the potentiality of film incarnate realized. And it’s a wonder. JFK is no such film. As a matter of fact there’s hardly anything to be said about it that hasn’t already been said about Oliver Stone’s previous films, and except for its divisive popularity in the press and with the public, I wouldn’t.”

I just re-watched the Oliver Stone by now way warmed-over chestnut JFK the other night on either YouTube or Amazon, already can’t remember which, and I thought I would dig out this old review I wrote when the film debuted way back in 1991. The whole conspiratorial thriller plot seems silly to me now, mostly because it’s so badly done: hysterical, cartoonish, hyperbolic, stridently ideological and a marvelously dishonest moral mess. The review is embarrassing in a lot of ways too, but I’ll reprint it here without edits, so we all can have a good laugh.

“A windy, sentimental opening, and the expected cathartic finish in between which a fun, brave tearful self-congratulatory good time has been had by all. The typical box office pander to what is lazy, weak, reactionary, vicarious, un-thought-provoking and essentially sentimental in all of us will, of course, instinctively sell swampfulls of tickets’ is what I wrote about Born on the Fourth of July, Stone’s much-lauded previous effort but one. Except for the fact that I can’t remember whether I meant by ‘windy’ ‘full of air’ or ‘twisting’ the same, same basically applies to JFK.

Stone has too many faults for me, mired in my precious honesty and common sense, to pick out for wisecracks perhaps to the neglect of salient virtues of a picture worth a hundred celebrated failures. Or maybe not. As a film director per se, however, his competence is unassailable: his perfect construction and application of montage; his deft and original camera work; his astounding confidence and aesthetic and technical brilliance. He shuns shim-sham and show-offy mechanics, and with the lily-fingered touch of almost-genius shows more mastery of a difficult craft than any one man decently should.

But, but. The director Jon Grierson wrote about his colleagues in Cinema Quarterly in 1933: “The believe that beauty will come in good time to inhabit the statement which is honest and lucid and deeply-felt (and) are sensible enough to conceive of art as the by-product. The opposite attempt… the pursuit of art for art’s sake was always a reflection of selfish wealth, selfish leisure and… self-serving decadence. We (must not make) structure our god.” The words are prescient today, and I think Stone fits into the opposite attempt camp because he’s always the perfect opportunist, forever launching that incredible ego into high, ebullient orbits.
JFK is insidious rather than obvious, sometimes, but more often that not it’s obvious when it should be insidious. The cynic might say that Stone’s movies (The Doors included) are true stories and since the screen is a realistic window it’s merely producing real life. But of course the answer lies in attitudes and emphasis, suggestions and comparisons, in the presence on the screen of a due sense of proportion and perspective in all these things. And facts matter, man. At their worst his films reflect an impoverished hedonism, an appalling absence of subtlety and compassion, while presenting problems and conflicts which are often misrepresented, sentimentalized, or treated, as in some of the battle scenes in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, as an excuse for a bit of tacit sadism or forced gory empathy on the viewer’s behalf, casually presented in passing.

Besides being paternalistic, (seemingly) controversial, and vaguely, and sometimes overtly misogynistic, JFK, as well as most of Stone’s other films in general somehow still seem to want to have an All-American, pro-America morality. But he just can’t bring himself to admit to it. He tries to be dead serious about certain convictions, even though I’m sure he himself doesn’t really know what they are, and through an extremely clever and effective psychological play on our emotions leads us on the same neon roller coaster he rides through his own ice cream castle dreams and into the nightmares of the soul. It’s one watt above total darkness, but always fake-scary and make-believe-y. We scream in the right places, and feel exhilarated when he wants us to, but we continue to have the same ambivalent emotions afterwards, as if we aren’t really sure what we saw, if anything, except a Stars and Stripes fluttering provocatively in the background, maybe.

Stone seems to view the average man, in this case Oswald, as a slightly innocent victim, and boring and harmless, and Oswald certainly was, wasn’t he? There’s just no way this insignificant, twisted hiccup could have changed the course of history all by himself. The magnitude of the seismic shift caused by his three well-aimed ounces of lead was too improbably disproportionate and great and unbelievably disproportionately great to have been caused by such an insignificant misguided commie malcontent alone, un-aided. There had to have been a vast unseen machinery at work, behind the scenes, made up of legions of powerful brutes and conspirators, connivers with malevolence in their hearts, mafia, political opponents, the Russians, anybody and everybody, bent on bringing about the end of the potential and promise of The Age of Camelot.

Stone thinks Jim Morrison worthy of hero worship, too: an artistic angel only a little bit fallen. Ron Kovic was a paragon of sacrifice, recovery and redemption – victims, all, of an unsympathetic, ideologically bankrupt and ultimately cruel society. Stone must feel that way about himself, a poor pity-party martyr, even though he grew up privileged (Trinity School, Yale, summers in Paris and Seine-en-Marne) and with a sense of honor and patriotism – he was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor when he enlisted and served in Vietnam. Which is why I can’t understand him and his torments; this lousy, lazy arrogance of passion, unhinged from reason or reality – the twisted ungratefulness of intellectual superiority, epicentered in a tortured unhappy psyche, and directed at a paternalistic constitutional government, that, though far from perfect, is, hands down, the best system designed to do (and does do) the greatest good to and for the greatest number of human being ever, ever invented.”

Watch the movie and decide for yourself. Snarkily, I can’t get past Kevin Costner’s clubman glasses and Chickahominy-grits accent.

Segues are thin on the ground around here, but we’re usually knee-deep in non sequiturs, sometimes waist high, and we’re aren’t afraid to toss them out with impunity at the slightest provocation, and sometimes even for comic effect. St. Mary’s, the Catholic Church on Spring Street was built in 1849 in the Gothic Revival style, designed by Patrick Keeley of Brooklyn, America’s first Catholic Church architect, whatever that means. When the United States Naval Academy was relocated to Newport during the Civil War (1860—1864), St. Mary’s served as the Midshipmen’s chapel. Most famously, John Fitzgerald Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier here on September 12, 1953, and they would attend services throughout his presidency whenever they were in town. According to the church’s website they always sat in pew #10. I can’t help but think of her, always and forever, as Jackie O. So there is a thin Kennedy thread throughout this story.

I haven’t been to mass regularly since I was in the Army, and I only used to go every morning because it got me out of breakfast formation. I’ve only been a few times since  – my brother asked me to be the godfather of his oldest son, and going through the Baptism Sponsorship brochure I was oh for six by only about the third page. But the priest was rooting for me, finally asking if I would at least renounce Satan and all his works and then something about pomp or pomps and I didn’t answer right away because I didn’t know what he meant exactly, but he waived me through anyway. No use having an altercation right at the baptismal font, was there? There could’ve been a joke in there somewhere, son, but I think I missed it. Somebody I knew got married at St. Mary’s or St. Joseph’s a long time ago, I can’t remember who, and then I went to a couple of funerals in the past year or two. That’s it.

But the tenuous theme here is JFK and the Catholic Church, and we’re going to throw Dante into the mix because he got hell exactly right: the ninth and lowest circle, right above the devil, is betrayal. Christopher Hitchens says unequivocally that all religions are evil, and I buy it. I think the truth is not even nuanced, as my man Montaigne maintains: “Ambition, avarice, cruelty, vengeance do not have enough natural impetuosity of their own; let us spark them and fan their flames by the glorious title of justice and piety.” I believe all men in their hearts are evil – we are all Apollyon – religion only collectivizes and incentivizes this deeply-rooted biological malevolence in the service of the, or some, lord god/higher good. Whether it be in the thrall of a cult, nationalism or ideology, vanity/ego/power is almost always the subtext, no matter the pretext. But we must take responsibility for ourselves.

I went to the 9:30 service this morning at Kennedy’s St. Mary’s and it left me so stone cold I’m not going to even write about it. There was not one ounce of originality or passion, on either side of the aisle, ­ but there was a bit of wit. During the homily, Father “Chris” (I’m assuming that’s his first name) wanted to tell us something he had done, but he misspoke and said “when God went.... Um, I mean, when the Lord... There I go again thinking I’m more important than I really am” or something to that effect. He chuckled and got a chuckle out of the congregation as well. That was it – I was in and out in about 35 soulless minutes.

I’ve mentioned the Pope in a couple of my previous posts, and his central role in the major divisions within the greater Catholic Church regarding the Nicene Creed, and then later with King Henry VIII and the whole Church of England divorce thing. I also mentioned the sex abuse scandal that was almost unbelievable at first, but that continues to disgrace the Catholic Church, which exploded in the ‘90s back in my old diocese of Boston. Cardinal Law was a low, sloppy beast – terrifying, sadistic, abhorrent. The criminality and obscene corruption went all the way up and all the way down – new documents have come to light that even Pope John Paul II (Pope John Paul I did an Andropov, so we won’t hold him to account) knew about the widespread, reprehensible rapes and sodomy catholic priests were committing on a daily basis, and he not only turned a blind eye, but sent a message down through his Bishops to shuffle the pedophiles around, and to absolutely not defrock or excommunicate anyone. Pope Francis hasn’t defrocked one guilty-as-sin priest either.

This “progressive” and popular Pope is shamefully undermining the foundation of Western Civilization and the main tenets of Christianity by urging Congress to give asylum to illegal immigrants. Are you kidding me? Well, it shouldn’t be surprising: this is the same church that gave asylum to Nazis after WW II, but didn’t lift a finger to help the persecuted Jews while they were being slaughtered in the millions. My question is: why side with the Nazis and not the Jews? Another question: how many immigrants has the Vatican granted asylum to? You don’t even have to hazard a guess since I looked it up – it’s exactly zero. And the majority of the immigrants in Europe at least subscribe to if not wholeheartedly support a faith that is bent on annihilating the infidels, e.g. the Christians, by cultural conquest if not outright murder. And this messenger of God also subscribes to limiting free speech, exhorting his flock “not to make fun of faith” and that anyone who hurls insults “has a punch awaiting him.” What about turning the other cheek and all the other love-your-brother Bible babble? This is brain-damaged crazy talk.

The Catholic Church is just about the most powerful force on the planet – according to my casual Google search they rake in $850 million per day, in the U.S. alone, which is absolutely staggering considering they’re a non-profit organization with essentially no accountability or oversight. Worldwide it’s probably double that. Attaching not only wrongheaded but essentially and surely suicidal ideas to that monstrous clout and reach is Armageddon, end-of-the-world scary stuff.
February 10, 2020 — Johnny Mustard