I was bartending at a hotel in New Mexico a few years after Natural Born Killers came out when the woman who was the set decorator walked in. It was a slow spring afternoon. The winds that cut the high desert from March until May whipped up dirt and fine stones in the street. Dust caked the quarter panels and hoods of Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus waiting in the street for the valets to corral them into the garage.
I don't remember how our conversation circled around to her job. For some reason a lot of conversations over the bar in those days moved in that direction. I was fresh out of college and most people were interested to learn what I was doing in New Mexico. Santa Fe is a town full of artists, and tourists and visitors love to live vicariously through the broke painters, writers, and musicians slinging drinks or waiting tables or parking cars. That's the kind of work towns like Santa Fe offer offer wannabe artists trying to make a stake in their craft.
When I told her that Natural Born Killers was a movie I really liked, and Oliver Stone was an artist I held in high esteem, she was more than eager to idle the afternoon away with stories from set. Although, the most interesting stories came from pre-production. My favorite story was her tale of Oliver Stone, herself, and a few other key players driving around the back roads of New Mexico high on LSD trying to find the films visual palette. She also told me about a list of four books he required everyone to read for inspiration. I recall her saying that each of the books were disturbing in their own way. However, spoke at length about one book that left a particular scar on her psyche. The book examined in detail the horrors of a prison riot at the state penitentiary. This riot has been agreed upon by most experts as one the worst in our nations history. A unique design of the architecture led to this riot last long enough that the full range of depravity could be reigned down on the guards and the least popular inmates. A few years later, I read the book she described. However, another decade down the line I would incorporate much of the horrors of that riot in my first novel, SACRIFICE. But in a weird twist of inspiration, most of what I wrote about came more from the woman's description than the actually source material. That is one of my favorite things about art. Art references other art in the most unexpected ways. It is a living organism desperate to thrive and it reaches out its long tentacles to grab things from any where it can find it. It begs, borrows, and steals. It eats the world in order to stay alive.
For me, that is the tremendous genius of Natural Born Killers. It is a movie that references so much. It is an onslaught of the senses riffing on the history of the world, cinema, violence, and depravity. It is a conversation between genres and the very medium of film. There are internal and external conversations with in the very construct of the film itself. It is more than just a cultural reference of a moment in our nations history. It is a comment on the very medium itself.
Oliver Stone is trying to capture hell on film. Like many of best Medievalist and renaissance painters, he is trying to tap into the horror a living hell. Which takes me back to the set decorators story about driving through the desert on hallucinatory drugs trying to find a vision. This is not far from the Medieval mystics, spiritualist, and artists eating plants and fungus that triggered hallucinations that ultimately brought them into communication with God or I'm quite certain at times--the devil. Recently, I was listening to a podcast with Ezra Klein of the Vox Network, talking about LSD. One thing that struck me as particularly interesting was the experiment with LSD and terminal cancer patients. In the interview, the subject of the interview spoke to the fact that LSD opens a particular area of the brain that diminishes the ego. And by diminishing the ego the patient feels more connected with the universe, the earth, and finds a peace with dying. They begin to see that they are part of something greater than themselves. And the more the interviewee spoke, the more it sounded like much of the language of Jesus. Humility is what gives us peace with our lives on earth. When we suppress the ego we find a greater level of fulfillment and peace in our lives.
I do not think that Natural Born Killers is a particularly spiritual film. But I do believe that Oliver Stone in the 1990s was searching deeply for something. Much of that was mashed up with a sort of hackneyed political point of view. But underneath he seemed to be trying to find an answer to the emptiness of humanities search for vanity and fame. Mickey and Malory are on a blood lust fandango across the southwest for fame and notoriety. They want both a story told about them, but more so, to have a story about themselves to be told. And the easiest story to make the headlines is a story about blood and rage.
I can't help think that the early LSD journey that is echoed throughout this story opens a spiritual door that gives the shallowness of Mickey and Malory a larger canvas than they deserve.