Citizen Cain

by Stanley Kauffmann | July 12, 1999

The massacre at Columbine High School in April brought a flood of agonized responses. The whole country was sickened--yet again--by teenage mayhem, which didn't end with Columbine High. Causes for these horrors are being sought, and high among the suspected causes is the abhorrent film and TV violence now gorged on by teenagers. It is certainly hard to believe that so much slavering murder on large and small screens is not affecting adolescent fantasies.

But I have been worried by the broom-sweep in some of the comment. Most particularly, I was concerned by Gregg Easterbrook's article ("Watch and Learn," May 17) in which he attacked the disgusting pharisaic greed of those who exploit the juvenile appetite for blood. I was struck by the fact that, more pointedly than some others had done, Easterbrook included Natural Born Killers as an example of exploitative violence. I couldn't help feeling tangentially involved, because I had praised Oliver Stone's film when it appeared ("Apocalypse Now," October 3, 1994) and had admired it even more when I saw it again later that year. I felt obliged to look at the film again in the light of the Columbine events and Easterbrook's comment. This was easy to do: a tape of Natural Born Killers is now available in the director's version, with the restoration of about 150 small cuts--an addition of only about six minutes--that had been made to secure an R rating.

I have now to report that my admiration for this film is undiminished, has in fact grown. Natural Born Killers is a paradigm, furious yet sardonic, of some of the ills and the imbalances in American life, the festerings of injured ego, that exploded at Columbine High. (For me, there were fifteen victims at Columbine, not thirteen as usually cited. Why omit the two killers who then killed themselves? In any humane conspectus of crumpled teenage lives, they were victims, too.) It seems to me important to distinguish between Stone and the cheapjacks at the lower end of his profession. I'm not arguing that Stone's work ought to be available to children under seventeen, although I don't see how younger teenagers who are barred from certain films can be shielded from the violence in newspapers and on TV--for instance, the news from Columbine itself. I'm speaking here only of the effect of this film on adults. My interest is to see that it is not classed with exploitation films merely because it has at least as many murders as the worst of them. (Fifty-two in the three weeks of the killers' career in Stone's picture, and that's before the final prison explosion.)

Let me try to illustrate the film's quality with its opening ten or twelve minutes. (In actual fact, this "director's version" opens with a brief introduction by Stone in which he points out, with samples, some of the material that had been cut.) We first see a lonely stretch of desert road, then a wolf against the sky, then a close-up of a hissing snake. Then we are in a roadside diner where Mickey and Mallory, the title pair, are having coffee. While Mickey orders pie, Mallory goes to the jukebox, puts on a record, takes off her coat and begins to dance in her bustier and slinky slacks. Three men arrive at the diner. Two of them come in while the third works on their car outside. The youngest newcomer gravitates to the gyrating Mallory, dances alongside her, and soon makes moves on her. She attacks him fiercely. A brawl swiftly erupts in which the two newcomers, plus the waitress, plus the cook, are killed by Mickey and Mallory. The man outside tries to flee, but Mickey throws a knife through an open window and fells him.

Those are the basic data of the scene, probably to be found in the original story by Quentin Tarantino, author of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But they are only the scaffolding for the screenplay by Stone, David Veloz, and Richard Rutowski, which in turn couldn't have been much more than a scaffold for Stone's directing and editing. We do not know at the start of the diner sequence that Mickey and Mallory are already well launched on their calm, chuckly, savage murderings, but the atmosphere in the diner, set by lighting and camera angles, is ominous. As the sequence begins, a spate of images pours through the diner's TV, including a glimpse of Nixon saying "As I leave...." The camera, almost always canted to one side or another, keeps moving in and out on the characters, and the images keep changing, from color to black-and-white and back, and back again, suggesting that Mickey and Mallory are aware of themselves as figures in a film and keep thinking of ways to imitate movie action better. Bits from that opening desert road are intercut. Throughout the callous killing, Mickey is comically sage, like a judge dispensing justice instead of sudden death. The knife he throws after the fleeing man circles in comic slow-motion flight. Mallory is sensuously enjoying herself. When the scene is concluded--to their satisfaction--they embrace; the lighting melts into a rosy glow, and they dance slowly to La vie en rose.

Thus this opening diner scene fixes the texture that Stone uses in the whole picture, a texture that I once called "collage in forward motion." This unique, intricate, contrapuntal dynamics eventually incorporates comic strips and politics, nature and the unnatural, is both savagely satiric and chillingly flip, is the film's aesthetic and moral base.

Then come the opening credits, under which we get glimpses of the violence ahead. Then there is a scene under the desert stars, Mickey and Mallory outside their parked roadster. As she talks, we faintly see angels float down above her, angels whose (ironic) presence underscores her lack of guilt about the just-concluded diner blood-bath. Mickey tells her how much he loves her, and as she squats to pee, she says she has loved him ever since they met. Then, slam!, comes the title of a TV show, I Love Mallory, technically a flashback, in which the first meeting of Mickey and Mallory is presented as an episode of a sitcom, with a canned laugh-track. In the course of this episode, the pair decide to hook up. They barbarously murder her parents, and set off in her father's roadster--and all within the sitcom framework.

However a teenager might view these opening minutes, hardly any adult would think them scenes from a run-of-the-horror-mill flick. The mature viewer may dislike this material but can scarcely ignore that Stone is much less concerned with violence as such than with using it to thematic purpose. Very early on he makes clear that he is not only going to tell us his story, he is going to lampoon the telling of that story by the media, as the murders and other atrocities committed by this pair cram the maw of the media and titillate the lives of the fascinated public.

Throughout, Stone seems to view what is happening as a new take on Andre Bazin's definition of an image: "everything that the representation on the screen adds to the object there represented." Stone's film creates a symbiosis between the screen's usual reality and the Bazinian images of it--what the TV screen adds to reality. Instances abound. The flashback to the suicide of Mickey's father, deliberately committed in front of the son when he was a small child, is handled like a documentary. When Mickey is ultimately captured, a female Japanese TV reporter describes the scene to the camera--her comments are subtitled--as if to assure the world that, since it's on TV, it's true. The Walpurgisnacht prison riot at the end is caused by a live TV show in the prison.

This tape of the "restored" version is packaged with a second tape, consisting of outtakes, an alternate ending, and statements by Stone and others. Among his remarks, Stone says that in a film about two people who break rules, the filmmaker had to break a few rules, too. Several people in the cast, including the two principals, report that performing in this film had little to do with conventional directing and acting. Stone tried to keep his actors sizzling, improvising, open. But even without these interviews, we could know that this film blends design with spontaneity, just as the story blends action with the media's gobbling of it.

Is any film worth the life of anyone, especially of a teenager? The question is at the level of a game of Truth or Consequences. A more useful question is whether we want to restrict the cultural fullness of film that those teenagers will see after they mature. In our eagerness to change the conditions in which teenagers are stuffed with garbage, it would be easy to maim the possibilities for serious work intended for the mature audience--possibilities that are slim enough anyway.

A moment such as this one, when Columbine and comparable events have smitten us, carries some danger of overcompensation. For me, ours would be a poorer film world if Stone had not made, among his other rightly troubling pictures, Natural Born Killers. He understands that the ur-murderer Cain dwells right among us, within us, is only too easily stirred, and, when loosed nowadays, becomes a glamorous star. An artist who hates Cain's stardom as a corruption, who can slash it open with the blackest possible humor, is himself not a corrupter.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.

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