Sunday, March 06, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #9: THE DOORS
For a generation that came of age in the late 1960s / early 1970s, there was no ignoring the influence of Jim Morrison. For a kid growing up in rural Virginia in the late 1980s / early 1990s, it was a little easier… at least until Oliver Stone made THE DOORS. There are a two main reasons that the film made such an impression on me:
1) Val Kilmer becomes Jim Morrison. Today I can’t watch footage of the real Jim Morrison without thinking of Val Kilmer’s performance, and I can’t watch Val Kilmer in any other film without thinking of Jim Morrison. That’s true of only one other performance that I can think of: Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. (Every time I watch a Johnny Depp movie, I notice at least one small moment when he lapses into his Hunter Thompson persona… and it often thrills me more than anything else in the movie.)
2) Every single scene in THE DOORS is driven by music and/or poetry. It would have been easy enough to make a film that simply hit the high notes, but this film delves deep into the band’s catalogue. I was familiar with the staples ("Break on Through," "Light My Fire," etc.) which played routinely on Charlottesville’s classic rock station (3WV, anyone?), but this was my introduction to “Love Street,” “Indian Summer,” “Dead Cats, Dead Rats,” poems from An American Prayer and the epic “Celebration of the Lizard.” I already appreciated the music of The Doors, but the impressionistic poetry really hooked me. I became captivated, like so many before me, by Jim Morrison’s attempts to “reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages.”
The big debate is whether or not Oliver Stone should have made a film about the man behind the myth instead of perpetuating the exaggerated popular perception. The film begins with the Morrison's claim that he was possessed by a dead Indian as a young child. Stone builds the movie around this moment of willful self-invention, repeatedly featuring the rock god's ghostly Indian companion in important scenes – most notably, a sequence where The Doors drop acid in the Mojave Desert and Jim descends like Orpheus into an Indian cave to be quickened. Stone does all this to forward the film’s overarching idea of Jim Morrison as “shaman” – a leader who suffers and dies to “purify the tribe.”
Jim’s band mate Ray Manzarek has been pretty outspoken about his dislike for what follows. He’s essentially said that Stone misrepresents his friend as a drunken buffoon rather than a radical intellectual; as someone who uses drugs to escape pain rather than to "break on through." Manzarek is even more blunt in his autobiography, where he writes about Stone’s attempt to recreate one of Jim Morrison’s student films:
“…Oliver tried to re-create Jim’s film based on what I told him and what I’m now telling you. Of course, he went completely over the top. A grotesque exaggeration. And how he turned Jim into a disciple of Adolf Hitler, well… perhaps someone ought to look into Mr. Stone’s psyche; into what I perceive to be his latent anti-Semitism, and not-so-latent fascist tendencies. I like to think that little student movie is as revealing of Oliver’s real problems as anything he’s ever done. It’s all there in capsule form. A wonderful reduction of psychotic leanings.
And what a misreading of Friedrich Nietzsche. Typical Leopold and Loeb-type of misinterpretation. If you don’t understand the concept of the Ubermensch, Oliver, don’t quote Nietzsche. Don’t do what the Nazis did. Don’t interpret the warriors freedom from the lowered state of consciousness of the first three chakras. That only begets a Hell’s Angels type of man. It uses the will to power as a justification to be the bringer of death instead of a bringer of joy and creativity. The lowered consciousness shouldn’t approach Nietzsche. He’s too dangerous. Nietzsche would have you leave all your preconceptions, all your childish beliefs, all your fears, and step into the light of freedom and divine responsibility. He would have you become a creator, if you dared. A creator who was responsible for the continuation of this existence. A lover of life. A dancer. A proud, bold, laughing man who delights in all the nuances and dangers of this all-too-brief life of ours. Not a naysayer or an extinguisher of life, but one who embraces it all and says, “Again!” And if you don’t understand that, don’t get too close to the fire. It’s highly volatile. This heat is definitely more than you should approach, Mr. Oliver Stone.”
Manzarek’s rant is as over the top as Stone’s fake student film (it’s hard to take someone seriously when they’re criticizing someone else’s chakras), but he has a point: Nietzsche’s philosophy is life-affirming, not nihilistic. And I like to think that Jim Morrison’s “road of excess” was equally life-affirming. That's what drew me into the myth.
In my mind, Stone’s film breaks down into three acts. The first act is about Jim Morrison, a precocious young man who wanted to break through his own insecurities and do something meaningful. (There is no hint, in the film, of the chunky intellectual military brat presented in Danny Sugarman’s book No One Here Gets Out Alive.) In Act 2, the rock god explodes. Overwhelmed by his own public mystique, Jim loses himself in the fashioning of a modern-day myth. Though he initiates his “prolonged derangement of the senses, to attain the unknown,” he’s ultimately at the mercy of forces greater than himself, a mortal participant – not a god – in the great Dionysian revelry. Accordingly, the third act is tragedy: the “fake hero” implodes. Like Zarathustra, he has his limitations.
How else could it end? This is the way the Sixties ended. When I first saw the film as a teenager in the early 1990s, however, THE DOORS didn’t seem to me like a cautionary tale. It seemed like a celebration of life in extremis and I got caught up in the dance, anticipating a different ending: “I am of today and before… but there is something in me that is of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and time to come.“ The would-be hero dies, but the music and the poetry obviously live on. All these years later, people are still making pilgrimages to Morrison's mysterious grave in Paris, searching for something larger than everyday life.
I haven't made that trip, but I did make a trip last fall to Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert, the shooting location where Jim Morrison’s first acid trip culminates. While I was there, one of the guides said that Oliver Stone and company defaced this natural preserve by painting their own petroglyphs on the walls. (Note the white paint on the walls in the second to last photo.)