A Concept of Camera
This is an East-West story, just as what’s going on today. This is something to take very seriously and not to presume we know.
—Oliver Stone, commentary, Alexander: Director’s Cut
“It’s hard to go back to the past,” says Oliver Stone at the start of his commentary track for Alexander. “You have to be humble and bold, as Virgil says. But you can’t just jump into, in my opinion, a first person point of view on Alexander. Because we don’t know anything of Alexander, really.” In part, Stone advises, this is because the original sources—some 20 books written during his lifetime—have been lost, but it is also because he was so immensely legendary, almost immediately. Stone’s film about the fourth-century conqueror was also somewhat “mythic,” even before its release. With the protagonist loaded with brilliant ambitions, spastic insecurities, and grand delusions, it drew the sort of fire that usually attends Stone’s post-Platoon work, that it was overreaching, incoherent, and too expensive.
It’s true, Alexander is a mess, what with Colin Farrell’s bad blond wig and unexplained Irish accent (Stone notes that Connor Paolo, who plays Alexander as a boy, learned to mimic the accent, which begs the question: why didn’t Ferrell make his own match his fellow actors’?), Angelina Jolie’s snakes, and sheer hysteria of the storytelling. And then there’s the bigger issue, that the film portrays this grim warrior as a man of vision, wanting to obliterate barbarians and recreate the then-known world more or less in his own more “progressive” image.
At the same time, this Alexander is also a man of his moment—back then and in 2004. Inspired by his blustery drunk of a father, King Philip (Val Kilmer), to distrust all women, and by his teacher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) to lay with men in pursuit of intimacy and “knowledge” (“It is love between men that can lift us”), he pursues all liaisons equally. Sexuality, desire, and identity were less prone to categorization in ancient Macedonia. Alexander’s lifelong devotion to his boyhood friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto) was neither named (as in, declaring a political position) nor unusual. The film acknowledges this with shots of the young king’s inner circle members also sharing homo-desirous glances, and embraces, one inspiring Stone to observe, “It’s so cynical when 20th-century minds make fun of ‘the hug,’ or the virtues men can really bring to one another. It may not be homosexual in that sense, just men loving other men.”
According to narrator Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), “It was said later that Alexander was never defeated, except by Hephaistion’s thighs.” While the movie doesn’t show male-on-male sexual action, it does offer much sublimated imagery (battling, wrestling) and a graphic sex scene between the son-desiring Alexander and his “barbarian” wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson). Alexander shares his bed with assorted men, including the pretty Persian eunuch Bagoas (Francisco Bosch), whose introduction parallels Roxane’s: both seduce the king with elaborately sinuous dances, intercut with his approving looks. Stone suggests that Alexander is actually “trisexual,” as he not only loved men and women, but also “transgender” eunuchs, and more entertainingly, when soulmate Hephaistion arrives on Alexander’s wedding night to deliver a ring, Stone laughs out loud on the commentary track. It’s a reversal of the genre, he says, “What can I say? This is not Braveheart.” Thank god.
Though it may be “hard to go back to the past,” it’s something Stone does repeatedly in and via his films. These returns are legendarily harrowing, exhilarating, and strange, whether surreal and fragmented (think: JFK or Nixon) or “realist” and aggressively linear (the Vietnam war trilogy). Alexander is a bizarre, often enthralling mix of modes. Stone’s completely fascinating commentary for this director’s cut only underscores this schizzy effect. The new version of the film responds in part to the many criticisms of the theatrical release: it cuts some 20 minutes (including the most explicit moments of what Stone calls the “bisexual, pansexual aspect of Alexander,” namely, his bedding of Hephaistion) and also adds some 12 new minutes (from footage edited out the first time around). Some subtractions and additions are about making sense, as when Stone describes his effort to open the film with more focus on what’s ahead: during the introductory, Alexander’s 323 B.C. death scene, Stone says, he added shots of Alexander’s “generals around the bed.” And so he added 16 or 17 seconds worth of images to emphasize the faces and the “meaning of the ring… the majesty of this moment.”
Such emphasis is both balanced and countered by the “mystery” of Alexander. “The film will end on this question of mystery,” Stone asserts, “The lies of biography.” Given his own interests in biography, as a means to structure history, Stone’s suggestion here is telling: such a film cannot be definitive, and so it explores the limitations of knowledge and interpretation. Part of this exploration is formal—the new cut jumps back and forth in time even more frequently than the theatrical release. While it can’t help but cause some viewer consternation, such an emphatically non-linear approach makes a particular sense for the project at hand. For one thing, cutting to “Nine years earlier” or “One year later,” immerses you in Alexander’s subjective awareness. More interestingly, if you take seriously the suggestion concerning “the lies of biography,” these cuts actually challenge the idea that Alexander’s aggression, jealousy, desire, and ambition, result from clear causes.
Throughout the commentary, Stone worries about a variety of limits, some imposed by what he calls “somewhat modern audiences.” Thus, he explains his cuts to a scene he loves—Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) teaching young Alexander and Hephaistion about geography and “the social concepts of behavior, such as homosexuality, anger, moderation”—as a function of viewers’ impatience with “teaching.” At the same time, he’s happy enough to showcase the grandly scaled battle scenes, accompanied by Vangelis aptly “throbbing” and “chivalric” score, underlining Alexander’s perception of his masculine business: “To them, it’s a sport,” he says, “A man’s profession was war. The merchant class was a secondary class to them. Men fought.” (Alexander, after all, was king of Persia by 25, achieved in large part by his utter and apparently energetic ruthlessness in battle.)
In fact, as Stone tells it, this sort of war was “achieved” within limits, and solved conflicts. “There is something to be said for that, instead of this chemical, biological, remote, technological wars we fight, where we destroy cities and people and families. This is more like the Olympic Games, with blood.” And dust. The first gargantuan battle scene is awash in dust, yellow, harsh, hard to read. Stone declares his affection for dust, “because it saved us a tremendous amount of problems of background in each shot,” obfuscating not-quite-matches and chaos. In typically Stonian fashion (and likely you come to this film already loving or hating his tendency to expand the mundane and the practical into the philosophical and the spiritual), “It obscures at the same time that it allows you to see in a way that I think is much more perceptive. Because when you see, you’re more grateful for seeing.” He goes on to connect this idea to his work on Platoon, saying, “It’s hard to be in Vietnam, it’s hard to see. It cannot be unearned. It’s a concept of camera that you have to respect, that the camera just cannot have easy access.”
This “concept of camera” is precisely Stone’s genius. The stories he tells might wind about or even collapse, but his visual sensibility is consistently virtuoso. His violent images are stunning, and make clear the terrible costs of war, sports (Any Given Sunday), and media sensationalism (Natural Born Killers). Alexander piles on the spearings and dismemberings, the sheer numbers of bodies assaultive. Alexander’s destiny often appears glorious: as he rides his “high-spirited” black stallion Bucephalas toward a wholly intimidating gigantor elephant, the shot slows down so the mutual frenzy is both acutely visible and blurred into myth. Again, Alexander is in-between: a vain man and a noble leader, an egotistical warlord and a visionary.
Mostly unreadable with regard to individual feats, the film’s two major battle scenes are rightly awful, owing in large part to Rodrigo Prieto’s vivid cinematography. War is not splendid, the film suggests, only made so by revisionist memories. This much is clear in the battle at Gaugamela, where the Macedonian’s defeat the much larger force assembled by cowardly King Darius (Raz Degan); he doesn’t fight, while Alexander’s all over the battlefield. In a second battle, with the army on elephants in India, visual disorder makes Stone’s point concerning imperial hubris harder to parse. (Some of Stone’s own ambition—his commitment to the project over many years, his determination to make it worthy and to make his political points—is framed in the engaging documentary, “Behind the Scenes of Alexander With Sean Stone,” on the DVD’s second disc.) Alexander’s stated reason for creating multiple Alexandrias and “ruling the world” sounds propitious: if only the populations would mix, their differences might be abandoned, just as he might be left in charge.
To that end, his reasoning goes, marrying Roxane will lead to a consolidation of allegiances and territories. Stone describes their first night—following her discovery of Hephaistion in her bedroom—as a rape, as Alexander is “conquering new territory… discovering a new species.” For all his vanquishing, Alexander is beleaguered throughout his 32 years by his warring parents, literally and metaphorically. Introduced in mid-blow-out, Olympias and one-eyed Philip personify the conflict that will plague Alexander (he says of his mother, “It’s a high ransom she charges for nine months of lodging in the womb”). In their hysterical animosity (mom states outright, “In my womb I carried my avenger”), they produce the boy’s anxieties concerning power, treachery, and fidelity.
A devotee of Dionysus, Olympias cavorts with snakes and vigorously urges her son to pursue his fate as the son of Zeus (Philip being so loathsome, she writes him out of Alexander’s genetic equation), cooing that he’s her “little Achilles.” Unbeatably charismatic, Jolie plays Olympias ferociously, her accent illegible, her intimacy with her pretty son not a little creepy. Stone calls her “the Henry Kissinger of the day, and I probably flatter Kissinger by saying that” (honestly: who doesn’t love Oliver Stone at such moments?). So instrumental is Olympias in Alexander’s evolution that, even when he publicly rejects her, she dominates his thoughts (as he jumps on Roxane, the film cuts to mom with snake erect on her shoulder). Alexander’s relationship with his mother helps to make him what Stone calls “a new genre, a masculine-feminine action figure,” more like Monty Clift and James Dean than Russell Crowe. Just so, and in keeping with Stone’s “concept of camera,” Alexander remains mostly unknowable, a product of the legend, history, and the lies of biography.