Chasing The Light by Oliver Stone

1969.  Young Oliver Stone, back from Vietnam, kind of lost in his life, having barely escaped prison time for a drug charge in San Diego, enrolls at NYU’s School of the Arts, undergrad.  He makes a short film in 16mm with some 8mm color intercuts, about a young veteran, played by himself, who wanders New York, and throws a bag full of his photographs off the Staten Island ferry, with a voiceover of some lines from Celine’s Journey to the End of Night.

He shows it to his class.  The professor is Martin Scorsese.

When the film ended after some eleven taut minutes and the projector was turned off, I steeled myself in the silence for the usual sarcasm consistent with our class’s Chinese Cultural Revolution “auto-critique,” in which no one was spared.  What would my classmates say about this?

No one had yet spoken.  Words become very important in moments like this.  And Scorsese simply jumped all the discussion when he said, “Well – this is a filmmaker.”  I’ll never forget that.  “Why?  Because it’s personal.  You feel like the person who’s making it is living it,” he explained.  “That’s why you gotta keep it close to you, make it yours.” No one bitched, not even the usual critiques of my weird mix, sound problems, nothing.  In a sense, this was my coming out.  It was the first affirmation I’d had in… years.  This would be my diploma.

This book covers the first forty years of Stone’s life, with much of it centered on the making of Salvador, Platoon, and Scarface, after experiences in Vietnam and jail.

The movies of Stone’s later career – The Doors, JFK, W, Nixon – are the ones that mean the most to me, and those aren’t covered in this book.  But I was still pretty compelled by it, surprised by the sensitive, easily wounded young man who emerges, experienced in violence but capable of great tenderness.  Struggling with his father’s expectations, his socialite mother.  His fast rise in Hollywood, frustrations and joys, and the druggy swirl that almost undoes it all, like when he gave a rambling Golden Globe acceptance speech after “a few hits of coke, a quaalude or two, several glasses of wine.”  (Video of the speech since scrubbed from YouTube, unfortch).

How about Peter Guber pitching what became Midnight Express:

Make a little money for college. Innocent kid basically, knows nothing, first trip outside the country right?  They beat the shit out of him!  Everything in the world happens to him – and then he escapes from this island prison on a rowboat…. that’s right!  A rowboat, believe it or not.  Gets back to the mainland, then runs through a minefield across the Turkish border into Greece – right?  Unbelievable!  Great story!  Tension – like you wrote Platoon.  Every single second, you want to feel that tension!



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