Monday, November 16, 2009

The Doors

Oliver Stone might have fallen to the wayside this decade, but I have already made my feelings clear on the level of talent he displayed throughout the '80s and '90s. There was one black sheep from this period, however, that I knew I had to confront some day, Stone's biopic of Doors frontman Jim Morrison. Indeed, that Stone would call his film The Doors is the first offense of the film, as he doesn't give a damn about any of the other members. Unfortunately, it is not remotely the last, and after I suffered through this empty display of fandom I wanted to run back to JFK or Platoon to remind me that Stone could mix technical flash with something, anything, of substance.

The Doors opens with Morrison at UCLA's film school, weathering both criticism and accolades from his peers over his avant-garde short film. When the professor asks Morrison for his own thoughts on the picture, the young man stands up and announces he's quitting. Later, he tells his buddy Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) that he's off movies; he wants to be a musician now. Stone goes through the motions of introducing guitarist Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and drummer John Densmore (Kevin Dillon), and before we've even had time to care about any of these characters we are meant to celebrate them landing a record deal after shocking audiences at the Whiskey a Go Go in L.A.

At least the pacing of this initial segment suggests that this glorified piece of fan service will be over quickly, a fluff piece that annoys those who want something of substance but its inoffensive in its brevity. If only that were the case; no, Stone suddenly slams on the brakes to pore over the minutiae of Doors mythology, much of which, according to Manzarek, is a fabrication. He distorts infamous incidents such as the band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show or the Miami concert were Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure. No real reflection exists, other than the constant focus upon alcohol and its destructive influence on the singer.

Val Kilmer received considerable acclaim for his performance as Morrison, but the only impressive facet I can identify is that he sang the songs himself. Well, I should blame the screenplay, but Kilmer clearly took to it as if it was a great piece of writing, because he does his best to sell Jim as a tragic hero. Instead, Kilmer and Stone inadvertently paint Morrison as a drunken, narcissistic fool; Morrison is his biggest fan, and he buys into his own image as the Lizard King with such fervor that he not only lashes out in drunken arrogance but places himself above petty human feelings. His mounting obsession with death is not so much morbid as grating and vain.

Therein lies the ultimate irony of Stone's vision: in a quest to paint Morrison as a dreamer undone by vices, he instead created a damning portrait of the vacuity of the hippie ideology, one whose good ideas of freedom, love and peace were snuffed out by its own buried sense of objectivistic greed and drug-induced mental stagnation. Ebert compared the film to "being stuck in a bar with an obnoxious drunk, when you're not drinking," but that hardly scratches the surface of what makes Morrison so unpleasant. Alcohol does not turn Morrison into a monster; it is merely the monster's beverage of choice. The band, understandably, grows to resent him almost as much as we do. Their producer, Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott), gives an obviously rehearsed spiel about how he watched Janis Joplin ruin herself and won't sit by and watch it again, but he does not follow his words with actions. One senses that the band just wants him to go away, and if he dies so be it. I must confess that I have rarely wanted a character to die as badly as I kept waiting for Morrison to finally snuff it in a bathtub.

The only moments I enjoyed involved Morrison's mistress Patricia Keneally (Kathleen Quinlan), a rock journalist who engages in various rituals of witchcraft, including drinking blood. Her weirdness cures Morrison of his alcoholic impotence -- itself hilarious when juxtaposed with his sex god preening -- if only for a moment. But this is a minor part of a seemingly endless film, and instead of this warped, off-kilter romance we must focus on the frightening one between Morrison and his partner Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan).

Stone's camera pans through the Père Lachaise Cemetery at the end are meant to enshrine Morrison as one of the key figures of his time, but as the director runs over the grave markers of such artists as Proust and Rossini, he only emphasizes the dark irony of Morrison's life that he brings to light. I have to question my own belief that Stone wanted to paint an ultimately supportive portrait of Morrison, because by the end of this film only a madman or a fool would think of Morrison as anything else than the drunken lout he detractors always took him for, a sophomoric poet whose crap lyrics made for great rock precisely because -- if we all break out our degrees from the Lester Bangs School of Rock Appreciation -- they were simple-minded, chauvinistic, and made to be played loud. Stone wanted to make a eulogy for the '60s, and instead he crafted its most damning condemnation since Gimme Shelter.

1 comment:

  1. The greatest shame of the film is the band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan show you mention. The way Ray Manzarek describes it, the truth was better than the fiction of the film!