In this candid conversation with Rock Cellar Magazine, Oliver Stone discusses On History, the new book he co-authored with Tariq Ali, the activist/intellectual who inspired Mick Jagger to write Street Fighting Man.
Stone also chats about his related TV documentary series, rock ’n’ roll, his preference in the current presidential race (Ron Paul?), and oh…the fall of the American empire…
Rock Cellar Magazine: What drew you to make The Doors?
Oliver Stone: I had to. Jim Morrison was a poete maudit of my generation. He was ignored by many people. And the music spoke eloquently to me, moved me.
When he died young, I was very distraught – as I was with Jack Kennedy. And I just thought that given this chance – coming off of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street – I was given an opportunity, because the project was around for several years, and nobody had moved ahead with it.
I got a chance to write the script and do it, pretty much, with free form – the way I envisaged the songs being the driving force of the movie. The songs would tell the story of the movie. So a new form of craft was required. It was more like the early MTV concept, that you’d put the action into the song.
The movie is designed to advance through the songs, which more or less chronologically match his life, the way he laid them down. But it begins and ends with American Prayer, which is actually the last thing he did – the recording session of American Prayer. Amazingly overlooked – a wonderful poem, but overlooked.
RCM: Jim Morrison’s father was a general–?
OS: –An admiral. He was a big shot. I believe, that at one point during the Vietnam War he was a commander of the whole fleet in the South Pacific.
RCM: How do you think that might have affected Morrison?
OS: (Laughs) I can’t say; Patricia Kennealy tried to get to him by torturing him about his father’s involvement in the war. The way I think the movie portrays Jim Morrison, he’s tortured by so many demons; his father is only one of them. I met the father who by the way is a very nice man, a very, very solid lifetime Navy man. He gave us permission after the meeting to go ahead with his [Jim’s] life.
RCM: The first thing one sees as one enters the door to your office is a painting of Jimi Hendrix with the death certificate.
OS: Well, there’s no elaborate concept behind it. A friend of mine, who’s a painter, was doing a series of pop figures with their death certificates. I also have a Sinatra at home. I admired Hendrix very much, and at one point we discussed a Hendrix biography with the party that owned the rights, but it didn’t come to anything. You know, once through this kind of period is enough. I don’t think I would’ve been up for another one.
RCM: Discuss the use of rock songs on the soundtracks of your other movies.
OS: Oh man, so fuckin’ many, come on! I mean, so many styles. It’s all over Born on the Fourth of July, it’s certainly in Platoon, some of the music by Jefferson Airplane, the Temptations, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding – that’s more soul.
We used a lot of rock in Natural Born Killers, we used so many tunes. One of the more famous ones – besides Leonard Cohen, who’s a bit of a rock poet – would be Cowboy Junkies’ Sweet Jane. And in Any Given Sunday there’s a helluva lot of rap, as well as rock.
RCM: Let’s talk about your new book On History. There seems to be a lot of cultural amnesia in America today, in general. What do you tell people, especially younger people who say: “I don’t care about history. It’s just dates, facts, figures; it has nothing to do with my daily life. It’s boring.”
OS: It’s a deeply ignorant statement. That person may not have been taught history in a way that was exciting and entertaining.
History is the greatest story of all time. It’s amazing what comes out of history, and how many lessons it can teach us. We ignore it at our peril.
Among many other issues, is the fact the U.S. doesn’t have much memory of the Vietnam War; it’s why we got into the Iraq Wars, and will continue to be the aggressor militarily around the world without learning anything. Unlike the Germans, we never apologized for Vietnam, or for Hiroshima. Although some would say it was, certainly, Nagasaki wasn’t “defensible.”
RCM: How did On History come about?
OS: I’ve been working on this 10 hour documentary called The Untold History of the United States, 1900-2012, perhaps the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. 10 one-hour shows that come out this year on Showtime. [Scheduled for May, 2012.]
In conjunction with that I’ve been reading a lot of history, certainly catching up, and I met Tariq Ali in my journeys to South America, preparing for South of the Border. He co-wrote the script. He knows a lot about South America and he’s an erudite, interesting man. So I decided, perhaps in conjunction with the series, to do a long conversation with him.
He did a seven hour interview gratis with me in which I asked many of these questions. Because I was interested not only in his view of history as a Pakistani, but as a man from another place and time; a man who had experienced the same world I had, but in a different way.
For example, Tariq was very influenced– and his life was deeply influenced by the coup in Pakistan in 1958, which America had quite a bit to do with. So his viewpoint is more jaundiced than the average American who’s been brainwashed by our education system. He doesn’t see the U.S. as a benefactor to mankind; he sees it quite harshly at times.
Out of that discussion this book was boiled down by his publisher, Haymarket, and Anthony Arnove – he worked with Howard Zinn at length. The questions deal a lot with the Third World and a lot with the U.S.-Soviet relationship early on in the century and what the Cold War was really about.
RCM: So is your series in a Howard Zinn vein?
OS: Our series is classic documentary. We decided to dispense with talking heads; we don’t do any cutaways. We just do archive and narration, because the narration is done in a way that I think is interesting, by me.
It’s written by [history professor] Peter Cuznick, me, and [screenwriter] Matt Graham. The three of us have been exchanging drafts, we’d work on it, refine it: How do you get so much history, boil it down to 10 hours, and make it interesting to young people?
I think On History is a nice primer on this. It takes an hour and a half to read the book. You can read it on a bus. It’s a simple, slim volume, but when you finish reading it you’ve learned a lot about American history.
I guess we’re approaching it like history teachers, but our point of view is left of center though not radically so. Howard Zinn, we deeply admire, but he never did a movie. Howard writes beautifully well but we could not fit Howard Zinn into 10 hours. Nor would I call it a “people’s history;” I would say it’s definitely a liberal progressive history of the U.S.
RCM: As an example…?
OS: The Cold War itself. The whole concept we grew up with in school is that we have been aggressed by the Soviets since World War II; that they started the Cold War, and we responded. We deal with that very in depth, and it’s important because it sets up the mindset that has infected America since then.
Since WWII we’ve become the strongest, greatest national security state in the history of the world. We have fulfilled Orwell’s definition of “perennial war,” and paranoia.
So how did we get here? It wasn’t the world I knew as a young man. My father was a Republican. Conservative. He served under Eisenhower in Europe. I just remember this feeling that drove me to Vietnam: that we had to respond to communism because it was seeking to dominate the world. I think that’s a very important thing to overcome.
Once you can recognize fear and paranoia then you begin to have the methods and the instruments by which you can pick up on it… as it is evoked over and over again in our culture.
When George Bush talks about the terrorists as being the end of the world, he’s going to eradicate evil, you’ve reached an extreme of paranoia and, frankly, insanity.
You cannot eradicate evil in the world – to even talk about it in a public speech is beyond any concept of reason that my father would have had back in World War II.
RCM: As your series is called The Untold Story do you deal with episodes in history that may not be in the traditional textbook?
RCM: What are some examples?
OS: I don’t want to give too many because that’s part of what we’re doing! But we talk about Henry Wallace. [Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, 1941-1945.] We bring him into the picture.
RCM: In On History you talk about whether or not Wallace would have nuked Japan. What’s your personal opinion if he, instead of Harry Truman, had become the president after FDR’s death?
OS: I don’t think he would have, but I think you should look at the context of the series, because it’s really explained in depth. There are a lot of other decisions that are at work here. Wallace emerges as one of the unsung, forgotten heroes of our history.
You have to go back to understand the Roosevelt-Stalin relationship, and why that existed, and what Roosevelt and Stalin had in common. We reexamine Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, we reexamine the British Empire, we reexamine the emergence of the American empire. We examine Kennedy in that regard, and what he was trying to do. And Khrushchev and Gorbachev and Reagan… and we work our way up until the present day.
RCM: And you raise the question whether we would have even had a Cold War if Henry Wallace became president?
OS: True, we do. And it was clear that there were certain decisions taken early on, post-1945, that made it inevitable we would go to this war. But that we had a choice not to.
RCM: Does you documentary go into the Industrial Workers of the World or any of the general strikes?
OS: Yes it does. We go back in time to 1900 and the election between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley, and we work our way to a pivotal figure, Woodrow Wilson. Who of course was the progressive choice, the first Democratic president in 20 years. And who did more than (laughs) probably anybody to destroy the Wobblies during the World War I paranoia.
RCM: In On History Tariq Ali talks about the Ku Klux Klan as one of the largest political movements in U.S. history, with millions and millions of members.
OS: Yeah, people don’t know that. The 1920s – the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent.
RCM: And a huge march in Washington.
OS: Oh yeah. 30,000 Ku Klux Klan-ers showed up there, at least.
RCM: Is that also in the TV series?
OS: Oh yeah.
RCM: In the book you quote Tariq’s phrase “a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will.” What does that mean?
OS: Because Tariq is a man who has seen much of the worst, he sees what happens in the power vacuums in the Third World and how the U.S. controls much of what happens in the Third World, as well as in the First World. And we have a situation where we have a dominant empire.
Perhaps one of the worst things that ever happened to the U.S. is losing the Soviet Union as an equalizing balance and enemy; when it had a countervailing force. When we were left in that vacuum we abused that moment badly, and I think it led to a series of conditions where we’re going to expire, and we’ve overstretched ourselves because of our hubris.
RCM: How do you respond to this statement: “George H.W. Bush’s best friend was Saddam Hussein”? Because after we “won” the Cold War, people were clamoring for the peace dividend, and Saddam gave him an out.
OS: I wouldn’t say “best friend;” you’re being satiric in that. Yes, certainly, so did Manuel Noriega. Certainly Hussein did George Bush Sr. and America and the military industrial complex a great favor, continuing the concept that we have enemies that would threaten us. Although I don’t see how Iraq could have threatened the U.S., after the Soviet Union was so much more powerful.
Still, they were able to transform the peace dividend into fear and paranoia again – about terrorists, about Hussein, about Noriega in Panama. And they kept going. Gorbachev was saying, “Look, I’m going to cut all of the military down in Russia,” and the U.S. didn’t give him anything, really. In fact, we expanded NATO through the 1990s when we promised not to.
RCM: In Our History you ask if there’s “a potential wild card in an internal economic collapse of the empire”? Is America an empire? And if so, do you foresee the fall of the empire?
OS: Yes. Yes, both. I don’t think it’s a wild card, I think it’s a given. There’s no way that we can continue this spending spree.
In fact, I think in many ways the most interesting candidate – I’d even vote for him if he was running against Obama – is Ron Paul. Because he’s the only one of anybody who’s saying anything intelligent about the future of the world.
How do we go on being who we are? We have an identity crisis here. But as long as we keep running this fantasy through our minds that we can dominate history, it’s not a wild card, it’s a given!
RCM: What do you think of Francis Fukuyama’s notion of “the end of history”
OS: That was an extremely hubristic statement. The kind of madness that manifested itself in this country in the late ’90s, when Time was putting [Larry] Summers and [Robert] Rubin on the cover*, proclaiming in metaphor that this was the American triumph. This was the kind of madness that setup the disastrous 2000s.
* Time Magazine; February 15, 1999. Rubin, Summers, Greenspan: “The Committee to Save the World.”
And now, too – Obama… in welcoming home the troops was saying how we had achieved “stability, freedom and democracy” in Iraq. It was the same language that Bush used – and Obama was the guy who called Iraq a “dumb war.”
So you tell me, what have we learned? Or who’s faking, or who’s kidding who?
Why is it necessary for every candidate – except for Ron Paul – to pay obeisance to this hypocrisy that the U.S. is a good force in the world, and that it is the dominant force, and can be the policeman of the world? Since when? What gave us that right? The right of empire, the right of force?
RCM: Unexamined assumptions…
OS: They’re based on this idea, this myth, Woodrow Wilson passed on when we entered World War I that we’re exporting democracy and freedom.
RCM: On History uses the word “counterfactual.” Do you mean that in the sense that JFK was meant to be a “counter myth” or “counter narrative”?
OS: “Counter myth.” Tariq said “counterfactual.” He means, “what if?” this had happened.
Tariq’s a Marxist; but he’s a pure Marxist in the sense that he’s an intellectual Marxist. He does believe in those theories and that has not prevented us from becoming friends and admirers, in different ways of thought.
I’m still rooting for some element of capitalism to come through and be fair…!
RCM: Anything else you’d like to mention about On History?
OS: I’m very proud of it. It’s a nice, slim volume, it’s unpretentious – it just comes at you. Easy to read on a subway, or in a cab or plane. And you learn a hell of a lot.
RCM: How about organizations you’re involved in. Any pet causes?
OS: The World Resources Institute, they’re out to save the climate… I think that’s crucial. To try – less pollution of the world, energy, future thought.
RCM: So how’s On History doing on the bestseller lists?
OS: Well, without advertising, it’s a small publishing house and they don’t normally get reviewed, I suppose, especially leftist publications. We got number seven in Los Angeles on the nonfictional paperback. The New York Times is a hard list to break, apparently…!
GET THE BOOK ON HISTORY HERE: HAYMARKET BOOKS WEBSITE
BOOK TOUR; ON HISTORY
Jan. 19, 2012 – New York Public Library, NYC (Tariq Ali & Oliver Stone)
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Jan. 20, 2012 – Princeton University
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Jan. 21, 2012 – Busboys and Poets; Washington, DC
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Jan. 23, 2012 – Rothko Chapel; Houston TX
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TARIQ ALI is an internationally acclaimed Pakistani writer and filmmaker. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, and seven novels (translated into over a dozen languages) as well as scripts for the stage and screen. He is an editor of New Left Review and lives in London.
Oscars: Best Director for Platoon (1986) Best Director for Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) Best Screenplay for Midnight Express (1978)
Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay for Nixon (1996) Best Director for JFK (1991) Best Picture for JFK (1991) Best Screenplay for JFK (1991) Best Picture for Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) Best Screenplay for Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) Best Screenplay for Platoon (1986) Best Screenplay for Salvador (1986) for Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) Best Screenplay for Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) Best Screenplay for Platoon (1986) Best Screenplay for Salvador (1986)