I live in a cinema wasteland. We used to have one tiny scary movie theatre here before it was torn down and we were ultimately abandoned to the fate of Netflix. The floor was positively glue-like, from all the spilled cola that was never cleaned away. My dad used to say “Not a bad place to watch a movie if you bring a soapbox to put your feet on and a clothespin to hold your nose.”
So the local demographics aren’t great. And I don’t know anything about the movie distribution business but I’m not totally surprised that the people responsible for distributing Oliver Stone’s South of the Border took a pass on this place back when they were scheduling openings for the documentary last summer. Unless I was going to organize a screening myself. Which, thanks, but no.
Anyway, when I predicted more than a year ago that South of the Border would be another disappointment, based mainly on Stone’s dreadful documentary Comandante (if you can put Machetera to sleep during an interview with Fidel Castro, that’s saying something), and some uninspiring previews where Stone revealed his complete inability to pronounce Hugo Chávez’s name correctly, I was unaware of one pretty important detail. Unlike Comandante, Oliver Stone did not write South of the Border. That task went to Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali. And naturally, they did a masterful job. It’s too bad that movie distribution has reached such a miserable state that the people who most need to watch this film are the least likely to see it, but maybe there’s still a chance for it to have some influence at the State Department, or even on Obama’s staff.
So has Stone finally achieved redemption in the documentary field? Stepping back and hiring better writers is evidence of humility, no? Well, not so fast. As Chávez responded when Stone asked if there were no black sheep in the Chávez family: “I didn’t say that.”
The most revealing part to me (and also the most infuriating) is found in the Extras section of the DVD, where Stone returns to Venezuela in 2010 and asks Chávez for his assessment of Obama. “I think he made a huge mistake in naming Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State,” he answers. Hello!! I sat straight up, awaiting the explanation that was certainly forthcoming. Why? Would Chávez go on the record here about Obama’s shame in Honduras? This in fact was the one really jarring part of the movie – Honduras was invisible. Ditto Haiti. Ali & Weisbrot obviously had to make some editorial decisions somewhere, but if you’re going to spend so much time talking about a U.S.A. fabricated coup in Venezuela, a word or two about the (first) one that happened on Obama’s watch (and its similarities to the two that happened on Bush’s) is not going to disrupt the whole story. Actually it is the story.
So I held my breath – what would Chávez say?
I would never find out. The self-centered, beastly, sexist Stone rose up like a creature from the swamp and drowned the opportunity.
The next thing I knew, I was hearing some contorted question from Stone to Chávez about whether because Obama lacked a strong father figure and has a powerful wife, he is basically a mama’s boy, or has issues with women, or I don’t know what, but after Chávez answered (correctly) that he himself is a feminist, suddenly Stone summoned Chávez’s daughter so that he could pepper her with questions about whether like “all women” she liked to shop. Meanwhile, Stone pulled a gold something or other out of his pocket, boasted about its realness (“I can sell this anywhere”), forced Chávez to play heads or tails with him (why??!), and the moment vanished. Chased away, by Stone’s utter boorishness. I have no inside information about what Weisbrot must have had to endure as Stone’s nanny on last summer’s extended road trips to screen the film, but I can guess. I do note that all that time on the road together did absolutely nothing for Stone’s pronunciation of Chávez’s name.
Oliver! Journalism is not that hard!
It was an outtake after all, but Stone’s swamp thing makes an appearance in the regular film as well. Walking down the street alongside Havana’s harbor, Stone offers a rambling interview with . . . himself, where he compares Fidel to Hemingway’s Santiago, from The Old Man and the Sea, and the Cuban Revolution to Santiago’s shark-consumed marlin (I guess), and explains that there is good capitalism and bad capitalism, good presumably being the kind that buys you a mansion in Telluride and a ticket to ask Cristina Fernández about how many shoes she owns, and bad being, well, something else.
Is the film worth seeing? Yes. It certainly exceeded my expectations. Not as entertaining as a Michael Moore doc but still a useful educational tool. Just bring a soapbox to put your feet on and a clothespin to hold your nose.