19 NOVEMBER 1994, Page 68


Airheads (`15' selected cinemas)

Sick or what?

Mark Steyn

Wen Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers was released in America, it briefly toppled Forrest Gump as the week's box- office champ. I promptly departed for the Baie des Chaleurs in New Brunswick, far from any movies except a sort of Acadian French version of The Piano, but confident that I could catch up with Stone's boffo smash when next south of the border. In fact, by the time I returned, Killers had all but vanished. In New York, I had to schlepp miles downtown to find the one fleapit it was still playing — all alone, as no person of the opposite sex was prepared to accompany me. There were seven other people in the theatre: the only couple quickly scrammed, followed by a squeamish social misfit; that left me and four guys, who all looked like trainee serial killers. Hollywood accounting is a mysterious busi- ness, but, however they crunch the num- bers, the rapid disappearance of this film restores my faith in democracy.

In Britain, of course, we do things differ- ently. Alarmed by stories of copycat killings in France and America, the British Board of Film Classification has been unable to agree on a certificate and so postponed this week's opening indefinitely. I disagree with the BBFC. Stone's film is pornography Bonnie and Clyde re-shot as a high-style pop video, where violent death is just something to be wittily choreographed. But you won't beat this trash by making it a censorship issue and debating it in the pages of The Guardian. The only place to defeat it is at the box-office.

`Violence is natural. It's in our blood, it's in our DNA,' says Stone. 'We're born with it. The film makes you address your rela- tionship to violence.' Actually, it makes you address Oliver Stone's relationship to vio- lence. In one scene, an interview with a ludicrous 'true crime' TV host (you always know who the baddies are in a Stone pic- ture because he can't resist patronising them), Woody Harrelson, the lead sociopath, turns implausibly articulate and starts relating his theories on killing. It's weird to hear what's so obviously the direc- tor's voice issuing from a psycho. Perhaps, with so much violence in his DNA, we should be grateful Stone gets his kicks making movies rather than taking his AK47 down to Burger King.

Whenever I hear a film-maker say he's only reflecting a sick society, I think: maybe you should get out of Hollywood more often. The problem with society is not that society is sick, but that so much of our cul- ture is. Stone has the pre-occupations of a supermarket tabloid: moronic serial killers, Kennedy conspiracy theories (JFK), prema- turely deceased rock idols (The Doors), and fat people who gross out on junk food (the latter half of Heaven and Earth). But, instead of saying, 'What happened, man? They kick you out of school before you got to joined-up handwriting?', the serious papers hail him as an incisive dissector of our diseased society. Stone ends his movie channel-surfing through tabloid TV: Zap! here's Tonya Harding; Zap! here's OJ. But Tonya is already forgotten, and the gavel- to-gavel OJ coverage is mostly stupefyingly responsible, bogged down in the minutiae of DNA admissibility and jury selection. You're the one who wants to turn it into a high-tech Ice Follies of 1934, Oliver.

How did it come about that our most respected artists spend millions of dollars chasing the same cheap thrills as pulp thrillers and skin mags? If you look at the biggest-selling novel (The Bridges of Madi- son County) or record (Whitney Houston's `I Will Always Love You') or movie (For- rest Gump), popular taste seems to be just as sentimentally middlebrow as it was a century ago. In America, country music outsells rap; in Britain, last year, Doris Day outsold every American rapper. Yet our cultural cheerleaders remain hung up on designer violence: Ziegfeld claimed he 'glo- rified the American girl'; today, Stone and Tarantino and co. lavish the same love and attention and big splashy spectacular effects on glorifying the American jerk.

You'll learn more about the state of soci- ety from Airheads, a simple-minded come- dy about a brain-dead rock band which holds up a radio station: now there's a metaphor for contemporary culture if ever I heard one. It's also cheerfully straightfor- ward about the stupidity of rock music. `What are you called?' asks the weary disc- jockey.

`The Lone Rangers.'

`How can you pluralise the Lone Ranger?'


`Well, there's three of you. You're not exactly — lone.'

`I don't understand what you mean.'