by Ted Ekering
The principle similarity between Cohen's sensibilities and those of Natural Born Killers is in Oliver Stone's anti-art stance. Stone has often employed editing for the sake of disrupting the narrative, rather than propelling it, but with Natural Born Killers there's scarcely a single cut that doesn't deliberately call attention to itself. The "seamless" continuity editing practices of mainstream Hollywood films are abandoned completely here, as are many other cinematic devices designed to conceal the mechanisms of film production. "It's been described as the biggest experimental film, or the biggest student film ever made," explains producer Jane Hamsher, identifying no less than eighteen separate formats used in photographing the film. The whole reflexive editing strategy is an exercise in deconstructivism, in calling attention to the process of narrative construction, and Stone sees this practice as a narrative strategy in itself: "Once [Mickey and Mallory] kill, they've entered this world of breaking all the rules. It's fitting that the filmmaker is also breaking the rules with them."
By employing the same self-conscious parody and rejection of artistic sensibilities as Leonard Cohen does with works such as "The Poems Don't Love Us Any More," Stone has, paradoxically enough, made what is considered an "art" film. While he argues that his approach is dictated by the subject matter, it is the very subject of Natural Born Killers that has led to all the controversy and criticism the film has received. The ridiculous level of violence has convinced many to simply label it as an exploitation film, rather than an artistic expression, that uses lurid and objectionable subject matter as a way of attracting attention and making money. The same criticism has, of course, been leveled against much of Cohen's work, especially the sexually explicit Beautiful Losers and the deliberately objectionable Flowers for Hitler. Leonard Cohen often identifies with the outcasts and monsters of our society, "incorrigible betrayers of the self," and by doing the same with Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone has suffered much of the same criticism.
Despite the conceit Stone displays in making a film with mass murderers as heroes and calling it an artistic statement, there are little touches of self-deprecation he has scattered throughout the film. Like Cohen, he balances arrogant pretension with self-conscious indulgence, allowing the characters to be openly critical of the Hollywood establishment and Stone's own work. "This looks like it was edited with a fucking meat cleaver," comments Robert Downey, Jr. in the film, following one of the expository "American Maniacs" sequences. "I been thinking 'bout why they're makin' all these stupid fuckin' movies," muses Woody Harrelson in the role of Mickey, watching Brian DePalma's Scarface on a hotel room TV set. "Doesn't anybody out there in Hollywood believe in kissin' any more?" Having written the screenplay for Scarface, Stone of course picks the most graphically violent scene to feature in Natural Born Killers, using the characters to critique his own work in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek manner reminiscent of much of Cohen's writing, such as the poem beginning "I have no talent left."
Scarface is but one of the hundreds of pop cultural references in the film, a staple in any Quentin Tarantino script and common to Oliver Stone's work as well. Like Cohen's use of pop cultural iconography, Stone often uses the least reputable sources, such as the frequent intercutting of television commercials, sound effects taken from Warner Brothers cartoons, and television sitcom conventions (such as the laugh track heard during the "I Love Mallory" sequence).
One of the lowest examples of pop culture "schlock" used is from the brief drive-in sequence cut from the final release print, featuring scenes from John Badham's Bird on a WireŽ (probably the most disreputable Leonard Cohen reference yet). Most significantly, both Natural Born Killers and Cohen's songs often come dangerously close to becoming what they allude to, occasionally achieving the dubious honor of pop cultural icons themselves.
Recurring themes of Cohen's poetry and songs also find an outlet in the film, through both Tarantino's story and Stone's direction. Despite the nihilistic subject matter, Natural Born Killers is essentially a love story, and the romance between Mickey and Mallory is presented in much the same manner as how Cohen often presents romantic relationships. While Mickey and Mallory are usually regarded as equally important to the rest of the characters, their own relationship often takes the form of that of master and pupil, or master and slave, and these roles are constantly in a state of flux. They're both very willful, emotional characters, and their devotion to one another often leads them to behave in irrational or unpredictable ways.
In addition to the romantic undercurrent, then, several characters also share a certain preoccupation with sexuality, just as this preoccupation is apparent in much of Cohen's writing. Perspectives on sex range from Mallory's timid expression of insecurity, "Do you think I'm still sexy?" to Jack Scagnetti's violent rape and strangulation of a prostitute, sex representing everything from affection to horror. The same range of perspectives is evident in Cohen's work as well, of course, from "you can feel the presence of their intense love" ("You Have the Lovers") to "you had to open little boys/with a pen-knife" ("Disguises"). Here Stone's nihilism simply can't equal Cohen's.
Even Cohen's frequent exploration of sainthood is expressed in Natural Born Killers, through Mickey's live interview with TV tabloid journalist Wayne Gale. Much of what Mickey describes in his relationship with Mallory echoes Cohen's ideas of sainthood, as defined in Beautiful Losers:
A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in a kind of balance in the chaos of existence... It is a kind of balance that is his glory.
In the interview, Mickey equates this concept of sainthood with the act of murder. He describes it as a process of evolution, and while lacking Cohen's eloquence, he also acknowledges the importance of love in the equation, offering the metaphor of the demon to describe "the chaos of existence":
"Everybody got the demon in here, okay? The demon lives in here. It feeds on your hate -- it cuts, kills, rapes -- it uses your weak- ness, your fear... A little, uh, madness goin' on. I don't know. Death just -- death kinda becomes what you are. After a while, you begin to like it...
To Mickey, the purity of the saint is the purity of the murderer, and the only way to achieve this glory is through the balance of the energy of love and the madness of "the demon." Stone is not interested in presenting Mickey Knox as any kind of saint figure, however, and instead uses computer animation to briefly distort Mickey's features into something that suggests "the demon" much more literally. Stone uses the interview scene instead as a critique of the media, intercutting sudden shots of Wayne Gale with a pitchfork and horns, and later uses the same "demon" distortion effect on Gale's face as well. Whether or not Mickey and Mallory see themselves as "such balancing monsters of love" is largely irrelevant to Stone, who uses Cohen's ideas merely to echo his own.
Stone's use of "Waiting for the Miracle" to begin Natural Born Killers is somewhat shallow, especially in relation to the significance of the later two songs. While the music sets the tone for the opening scene, and Cohen's weathered voice seems perfectly suited to the images of death in the desert that open the film, there's no discernible significance to the lyrics. Unless Stone means to suggest "the miracle" of the title to be the first murders we see onscreen, which is a weak analogy at best, the song is simply there for the ambience provided by the music, and Stone only includes the first three verses (less than half the song) as it is. Coupled with the sounds of searing heat and the distant sound of a storm approaching, and accompanying shots of empty landscapes and dead animals, the song makes for an effective opening despite its thematic incongruencies. Stone obviously felt the use of the song was successful, because it also opens the Natural Born Killers soundtrack album.
The second verse of "Waiting for the Miracle" is briefly repeated in the hotel room scene, as Mickey and Mallory begin to make love. The slow, mechanical rhythms of the bass line suit the rhythmic motions of the lovers, and the harmony adds a sense of foreboding as Stone cuts to a shot of a woman bound and gagged in the corner, kneeling on the floor in her underwear. Here, the lyrics also hold a great deal more significance, particularly the juxtaposition of the line "but, you see, my hands were tied" as the bound woman is shown in close-up, with "it must've hurt your pride" as Mallory gets angry at Mickey for wanting the woman to join them. Cohen's songs become increasingly significant as the film progresses.
"When we were shooting the movie, we had written a lot of music into the scripts," explains Stone. This practice is clear from the opening scene, when Juliette Lewis sings along with a song playing on the jukebox behind her (a song later added to the sound track in post- production), but it's the only time that a character directly interacts with the background music.
Nevertheless, several sequences in the latter half of the film feature songs that not only match the rhythm of the scenes but offer commentary on the action, and this is particularly evident with the use of Cohen's "Anthem." The song begins in the middle of the second verse, as Mickey and Mallory are escaping Betonga Penitentiary in the midst of a full-scale riot, and the lyrics are obviously identifying with Mickey and Mallory as they engineer their escape. Every line of Cohen's comments on the action in this scene, and it seems likely that the sequence was written with this song in mind:
Can't run no more
Mickey and Mallory won't "run no more" with the "lawless crowd" of convicts tearing the place apart, and are instead focusing on escaping the prison. McClusky, the warden conspiring to kill the couple during their transfer to another facility, is one of the "killers in high places," and the prayers he says out loud take the form of threats he shouts in Mickey's face as the murderer announces his intention to walk out the front door. "That will never happen!" McClusky yells in vain. "It is happening," Mickey answers, as Cohen sings "they've summoned up a thundercloud," and Stone cuts to a close-up on the shotguns pointed at the heads of his hostages. They're already hearing from him.
Ring the bells that still can ring
In the pandemonium of the riot, convicts are partying as if it were pagan Rome, as overtly celebratory as Cohen suggests with "ring the bells." McClusky's "perfect offering" to Mickey and Mallory that accompanies the next line is another wonderful threat: "I will personally hunt you down, blow the head off your fucking whore wife, and plant your sick ass into the ground, all by myself!" Mickey answers by locking McClusky on the inside of the gate after he and Mallory have made it through, while Cohen reminds us that there is a crack in everything, including the prison system. By this point, the song has become the primary element on the sound track. The light that gets in comes from behind McClusky, sharply illuminating the shocked expression on his face as he realizes that he's about to get lynched by the rampaging mob of convicts.
The most ironic commentary provided by "Anthem" comes with this final verse, as McClusky is pulled screaming from the bars of the gate and into the center of the mob. "Every heart/to love will come," sings Cohen, "but like a refugee," as McClusky screams for the last time before the mob envelops him. As Mickey and Mallory complete their escape, the final chorus is sung with a very celebratory air from the backup singers, almost like a gospel. The "perfect offering" Cohen sings of this time is McClusky's severed head, hoisted on a stick above the heads of the crowd (seen only in the unrated director's cut). This image dissolves to one of bright sunlight, where the crack that lets the light in lies between the branches of a tree. Having completed the transition to the following scene, Stone allows the music to fade back into the background.
Finally, Stone's choice of "The Future," presented in its entirety overlaying the end credits, demonstrates the significance of this song to the film as a whole. While a series of rapid cuts and lap dissolves retell much of the story in images, "The Future" restates the dominant themes of the film with lyrics, actually making reference to specific elements of the narrative. Beginning the song with allusions to child abuse, Cohen seems to be describing Mickey and Mallory in great detail, including their traumatic childhood lives (particularly with "There's no one left to torture"). Recurring elements of physical and sexual domination follow, with "Give me absolute control" and "lie beside me, baby,/that's an order!" Obviously, the most overt reference to be read from the song is Cohen's definition of the future as "murder," a statement he makes three times over the course of the song.
The questioning of repentance during the chorus is also significant to Natural Born Killers, because it illustrates Mickey and Mallory's moral and ethical perspectives. "Mickey and Mallory Knox know the difference between right and wrong," explains Steven Wright in the role of psychiatrist Dr. Emil Reingold. "They just don't give a damn." Why should repentance hold any meaning to those without conscience? In their eyes, "Love's the only engine of survival," so nothing else matters beyond the two of them. It's a romance of Shakespearian magnitude, with often Shakespearian naivete as well. The rebelling servants Cohen sings of in the second verse are immediately juxtaposed with images of Mallory's parents, their murder, and the glint in her little brother's eye when she tells him, "You're free now, Kevin." This rejection of parental authority is one of numerous ways the "ancient Western code" is broken in the film.
Because Oliver Stone is so conscious of the effects of the media, and goes out of his way to make it clear in the film, "your private life will suddenly explode" can only be interpreted one way, and that's against Wayne Gale and the media representation in Natural Born Killers. Gale addresses some significant lines of his own to Mickey and Mallory that echo these sentiments: "The day you two killed, your ass belonged to us! To the public! To the media! That's how it is, and we are married, mate!" He's not only a "media scumbag" (as defined by Jack Scagnetti), he's arrogant enough to argue his perceived rights over Mickey and Mallory because of his media affiliations.
A couple of the following lines describe Stone's production design and visual excess, such as "they'll be phantoms," and "there'll be fires on the road." Both phantoms and fires appear right from the opening scenes, beginning with the enigmatic Owen's first appearance in the film, reading a paper in the diner (with a headline reading 666 DEATH) in a shot he proceeds to dissolve out of, as if he was never really there. Since an alternate ending shot for the film had Owen killing Mickey and Mallory, this early shot clearly sets him up as the angel of death. The title sequence immediately follows the diner scene, featuring an omnipresent fire motif licking flames up from the ground, fires reaching up into the sky, and even a tunnel of orange fire leading on into oblivion.
Often fire also appears in rear-projection plates against windows or the sides of buildings, helping to establish the psychological landscape Stone tries to develop with the rear-projection work. Whenever ghosts or spirits are seen, however, they are separately photographed elements that are superimposed, like the angels that surround Mallory when she mentions them in the desert in the scene following the title sequence. "She has sad sickness," the old Indian in the desert tells his grandson. "Lost in a world of ghosts."
Mallory's simplistic visions, that she recites as the angels surround her, set her up as an obvious example of the "lousy little poets" Cohen sings about. "I see angels, Mickey. They're coming down for us from heaven... and I see the future. There's no death, 'cause you and I, we're angels." Mickey's response to her subjective, idyllic daydreams about the future is always the same, and always meant to express how moved he is by her words. "That's poetry," he responds. Mickey, for his part, is even worse, using lines as terrible as "you should change your name to Beautiful," upon first meeting Mallory.
One of the most direct echoes of "The Future" in Natural Born Killers, to conclude with, is Mickey's obsession with Charles Manson, an extension of the "all the lousy little poets/coming round/trying to sound like Charlie Manson" line. The whole point of Mickey's initial conversation with Wayne Gale is to establish this:
"The episode we did on Mickey and Mallory was one of our most popular ones."
Here, Oliver Stone and Leonard Cohen are doing precisely the same thing, using the admiration of mass murderers to address just how sick our culture has become. This is a common theme to both Cohen and Stone, and it finds its fullest expression in Natural Born Killers. Of all of Oliver Stone's work, this is the one film that most echoes Leonard Cohen's own sensibilities.
Still, I doubt Cohen liked the movie.
Copyright of the essay © 1997 by Ted Ekering, Canada. All rights reserved.
Copyright of the lyrics © by Stranger Music Inc, Los Angeles.
Read also Heidi Nelson Hochenedel's essay on the movie.