Persia On My Mind

Tuesday, 30 November 2004 — 8:55pm | Film, Full reviews

I never thought I’d be comparing Alexander the Great to Cole Porter and Ray Charles, but here I go.

These three historical figures have more in common than you would immediately suspect, but the most topical of these analogies is that all three have been the subject of recent biographical motion pictures that suffer from what is fundamentally the same problem.

Reading over my review of De-Lovely again, it shocks me just how many of the same criticisms can be applied to both Ray and Alexander. That is not to say that these films are equally compelling; they aren’t, and it is easy to stratify this trifecta on the basis of what they did right or wrong in retelling the struggles of a historical figure. Needless to say, this would make for an interesting comparative study.

Let’s begin with Alexander, as there is more to say.

I want to make it very clear that my verdict on Oliver Stone’s latest, after only one sitting, is that it is in no way an outright bad movie. Nor is its 173-minute running time inherently too long. To think that one could tackle such a subject as Alexander in less than three hours is folly, and is a sign that today’s audiences are either impatient, or just thoroughly spoiled by once-in-a-lifetime masterpieces like the three theatrical-edition instalments of The Lord of the Rings, where three hours apiece simply wasn’t enough. Mind you, I imagine that sitting through the historical epics of yore was an easier task when the intermission served as a pee break, but the element that permits enthralling Overtures and Entr’actes is a composer with the neo-Romantic bombast of Max Steiner or Maurice Jarre. In spite of the fact that his choral theme to 1492: Conquest of Paradise is better remembered than everything else to do with the film combined, Vangelis is not the man for the job. So yes, it’s three hours long. If you can’t take it, learn how to watch a movie.

This is not to say that Alexander doesn’t suffer from pacing problems; it most certainly does. That has less to do with its aggregate length than with the selection and placement of specific problematic scenes, and the storytelling structure as a whole.

Alexander‘s biggest structural problem is Ptolemy. It begins with old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in Alexandria, reminiscing about the glory days and dictating the story of Alexander to a scribe. The narration becomes an intermittent running commentary throughout the movie, so there is no question about this being a conscious stylistic choice. Well, it was a bad one. This is not to say that voiceovers are necessarily bad or that they never work, but Alexander is a case study in how and why not to use them. The first problem it presents is that far too often, Ptolemy talks and talks about what a legend Alexander was, how his companions will be lost in history whilst he will remain, and what a pity it is that nobody caught on to the great Alexandrian vision earlier. He shouldn’t have to tell us these things. The movie should be the addresser telling, nay, showing the audience that Alexander was great. If that fails, the movie fails. A narrator who goes out of his way to tell the audience how important a movie they are watching is a crutch that only serves as an accessory to that failure.

The second problem with Ptolemy’s narration is its use as a transitional device – or rather, a crutch for non-existent transitions between events that have nothing to do with each other, aside from their featuring that blond-haired guy played by Colin Farrell. We see a major sequence depicting something biographically significant – and when it’s over, we’re back in Alexandria with Ptolemy, where he tells us this happened. And then that happened. And then this happened. And then we get to this other part that, if you can believe our luck, we caught on film. Let’s see it.

This device makes much of Alexander play like a Greatest Hits album where half the songs have no business being there, but are included anyway. It is what Goldman would call “the good parts version,” but unlike The Princess Bride, they selected the wrong parts. The right parts would have something to do with each other, instead of floating in a sea of disconnected scenes.

Bio-pics are a challenge in that if you want to tell someone’s life story, it’s often a matter of crunching several decades into a two- or three-hour span. You need be selective, and you need to create a focused dramatic arc around that selection. Such dramatic arcs do eventually emerge in Alexander, but it takes a while before they materialize in an identifiable form. One would think that Stone and company would have it easy when dealing with a historical figure who only lived to the age of thirty-two, but that is apparently untrue. It’s almost like there was a checklist of essentials to get through; after all, one could not possibly hope to make the definitive Alexander movie without his taming Bucephalus, defeating Darius at Gaugamela, and preferring “both snails and oysters” (to borrow a sexual euphemism from Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of Crassus in Spartacus). There’s nothing wrong with including them all, but only if they are connected by a cohesive narrative fabric.

By the end of the movie, it becomes easier to perceive exactly what it is Stone and his co-writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis are aiming for, but it still does not excuse the presentation of the overarching themes as being unclear in and of themselves. What Alexander lacks is a sense of causality.

Film is by its very nature a sequential medium. A certain sequence may depict an event in history, but it is defined by the scenes surrounding it just as much as it defines itself. There are few complaints to be had with Stone’s staging of the Battle of Gaugamela – it’s clean, tactical, and documentarian in its elegance. But there is a reason why it cannot be counted in the annals of the great cinematic battles: there’s no buildup.

And by that, I don’t mean the inspirational pre-battle address in the manner of Henry V. Show-stealing battle scenes are a matter of building anticipation, and exceeding it. This applies to the storyline as a whole. In Saving Private Ryan, we enter the re-enactment of D-Day not on the beaches where soldiers fight, but in the boats where soldiers puke. In The Empire Strikes Back, we have both offensive reconaissance and defensive preparations long before Admiral Ozzel ever comes out of hyperspace too close for comfort. In Lawrence of Arabia, we have a whole excursion across the desert that makes the ride into Aqaba all the more cadential. Let’s not even get into The Two Towers and The Return of the King and how they understood this to perfection, but consider the Last Alliance’s battle in The Fellowship of the Ring: no setup but a voiceover narration made for a scene that cannot be considered a dramatic climax by any stretch of the imagination.

In Fellowship, this was excusable because the end of the Second Age was a part of the prologue, and never claimed to be anything more. It was the only all-out army-on-army entanglement in the entire instalment, but one of the least gripping scenes. Alexander tries to do this with Gaugamela, but this is an hour into the movie. The rising action prior to the first wide shot we see of Alexander’s forces marching across the desert consists of Ptolemy telling us that Philip died, Alexander took the throne, and now we’re in Persia. So much for causality. So much for showing us how Alexander got there, or that the battle is at all deserving of the attention it receives.

That’s the main fault that Alexander suffers: things just happen for the sake of having happened in Alexander’s life itself, and not inductively from the premises of earlier scenes. The highlight of Oliver Stone’s career, JFK, got as far as it did not by showing one exhibit after another of disconnected evidence, but in putting the jigsaw puzzle together. As far as assembling jigsaws are concerned, it seems like Stone was trying to pull off a Citizen Kane of a life story without time, but the only thing he retained was a “Rosebud”-like deathbed shot where it is a ring, not a snowglobe, that crashes to the floor.

But that’s negativity aplenty. In spite of it, Alexander has its shining moments. Every now and then, there is an instance of discernible excellence, and one must appreciate the meticulous detail of Stone’s craft and visual imagination. And though it takes far too long and hops from one islet of ideas to the next, the movie eventually finds its footing.

There are essentially five things that Alexander ends up saying about its subject. The first and most successful statement is that Alexander’s motivation and ultimate undoing was an unswerving, quixotic desire to reach the ends of the earth and defy every obstacle in his way. This comes off rather favourably. In the best scene in the movie, Alexander shivers in the blistery cold as he overlooks the neverending panorama of the Himalayan peaks. They are not the seas he expected to find, so he pushes into India until those seas can be found. And as his troops suffer from the attrition of homesickness and fatigue, his authority and grandeur wanes until it is constrained only to himself. Yet he rides on, and the entirety of his personality is encapsulated in the scene when he is finally stopped, where he rides on into the thick of a jungle battle until Bucephalus rears up on his hind legs, dwarfed by an elephant doing the same. It’s an iconic shot, showing us that the only thing that could stop Alexander the Great was facing something greater than himself.

One cannot help but notice the irony of a movie about a character whose tragic downfall comes of overextension, when that movie’s own failing is that it overextends.

The second, third, fourth and fifth things that Alexander says are as follows: Alexander is Herakles, Alexander is Achilles, Alexander is Prometheus, and Alexander is Oedipus. In these respects, the execution is hit-and-miss. It is easy to appreciate minor touches like when Alexander wears a skin like that of the Nemean Lion, or the brief flashes of mythical etchings that he first sees as a youth that tell of the heroes and their violent fates. The Oedipal angle works from the beginning, and Alexander’s relationships with his mother and father make for one of the few lines of true continuity in the piece, although it could be said that perhaps Alexander’s more Freudian desires are explicated with far more in-your-face repetition than necessary. As Prometheus, Alexander delivers his own brand of the fires of creation to the world he shapes, and man as a universal being. His respect for conquered cultures as equals lends itself to this, as does the oft-repeated image of an eagle that equates him with his Persian nemesis Darius and foreshadows his analogous betrayal.

The Achillean angle is what falls flat on its face. Mostly, it involves drawing a parallel between Alexander/Hephaestion and Achilles/Patroclus. (This isn’t Troy, so no, they’re not cousins.) Ignoring for a moment that the usually-better Jared Leto (who plays Hephaestion) is a complete non-presence, Stone never really decides whether or not he’s trying to show the audience that in Alexandrian Greece, homosexuality was a societal norm. Bafflingly, the relationship is treated casually, but at the same time secluded. Troy, at the very least, had the balls to take a stance.

Lest this review degenerate into a replication of the Kerry-Bush rhetoric on gay marriage, let us proceed to a brief rundown of the more cosmetic elements like a good old-fashioned and respectable review that evaluates the film in terms of its components, starting with the actors. Colin Farrell displays the right sort of youthfulness for the titular role, and commands attention whilst on the screen. He has the poise of a boy conqueror whose achievements came too early. Alexander ages well; his younger self, played by Connor Paolo, is the spitting image of Farrell, who ages through an eight-year span quite well on his own terms. Val Kilmer’s performance as Alexander’s father Philip is the best in the film, and arguably the high watermark of Kilmer’s career. Much has been made of Angelina Jolie’s accent in playing his mother Olympias, but it lends to her exoticism in a way that matches her symbolic predilection for snakes. This does not stop her from overplaying the role in other ways that stop this from being recognized as one of her better performances, though it is clearly her most ambitious.

Alexander gets full marks for its visual design. The depiction of Babylon is picturesque, infused with epic grandeur, yet subdued enough that it does not overtake the foreground. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto delivers shots you want to frame, and convinces us that while snow-capped mountains and Subcontinental jungles are familiar sights, every new environment still feels like an explored frontier. There is a scene late in the film where Alexander is injured, and world around him becomes tinted with a swirl of red; it serves a function, but is nothing mindblowing, and will not appease anyone who is already annoyed with the film by that point.

On paper, Greece’s own Vangelis would seem the perfect match to score this movie. After a twelve-year absence from cinema, his return produces mixed results. The sombre, quiet piano melodies work; the synthetic percussion underscoring the bigger scenes ranges from insignificant to grating. This is nothing new, but nothing unexpected for the Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner veteran.

The dialogue is almost exclusively in a high and quasi-poetic register appropriate to the tone of the movie. As detailed above, the screenplay’s problems lie in structure. At the same time, it is clear that Stone lets the visuals carry most of the storytelling burden. Much of the dialogue is but rhetoric; and whenever the movie spotlights the dialogue over the images, as it does in the Ptolemy scenes and the more erotic moments, its weaknesses are bared for everyone to see.

The final verdict on Alexander is that it is neither excellent nor poor, but is a seriously troubled film that wavers between disconnected clumps of greatness and mediocrity. Judging by the vitriol directed towards it from both laypeople and the critical community at large, it is underrated, but not by enough to make it fully satisfying, either.

As an aside, it is curious to see how confused and beleaguered the reaction is to seeing a historical bio-epic position itself in contention for Best Picture in all the early rumour mills, then shoot itself in the foot, only to be shot even further once it’s down. It’s almost like they have no recent point of reference. How quickly we forget Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc starring Milla Jovovich, a movie that was subject to similar circumstances, and another that despite its almost universal panning, I found not half bad, but perhaps flawed (and evidently immemorable). The hostility directed towards Oliver Stone’s first real foray in a genre that most filmmakers dream of doing is likely not so much an indicator of a magnitude of failure, so much as a magnitude of disappointment. And to be honest, it’s not like we didn’t have reason to set our expectations high.

As a second aside, seeing Alexander reminded me of another film that was never made – yet another historical portrait of a thundering conqueror to be written and directed by a auteur-director with whom audiences had a love-hate relationship. Few now recall that Stanley Kubrick’s dream project was to film the life story of one Napoleon Bonaparte, and spent much of his life collecting Napoleonic memorabilia for the sake of research. The film nearly got off the ground in 1969, but the Rod Steiger-starring Waterloo, which nobody remembers, got squarely in his way.

The first time I read Kubrick’s script for Napoleon a few years ago, I remember being somewhat underwhelmed. Now I know why. Had it been made in that form, it would have turned out much like Alexander, in that it is a collage of events unified by an intrusive narrator. Now, screenplays only say so much – most of the storytelling in cinema lies in what you see on screen – but this tells us, at the very least, that to successfully build a cohesive narrative around the life and times of someone larger than both life and time is no small wonder, even for the titans of the industry.

The better biographical motion picture of 2004, Ray, has no narrator, but exhibits the same tendency as both De-Lovely and Alexander in that it is less a portrait of a man than it is a portrait of events, an approach that preserves biography at the expense of drama. The difference is that in Ray, the remaining drama works.

But that’s a different story for another day.

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