Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guilty Pleasure: Oliver Stone's The Doors part 2

Oliver Stone cannot really be said to belong in the first rank of great contemporary American film-makers. Although he has continued to pursue a fascinatingly adversarial politics through the medium of documentaries, his directorial career has arguably been hugging the ropes since Alexander. There is no doubt that the courage exhibited on September 11 deserved a uncomplicated cinematic eulogy; yet it seemed somehow deeply disappointing that Stone should be the one to direct it. It was more like Spielberg or Ron Howard territory, and hardly seemed apt for a once energetic maverick who had always railed against the mainstream narrative. W. only compounded the sense of a director who had lost his edge: a film of potentially raw relevance that vanished in the brisk smoke of its own ephemera. His last completed project, a belated sequel to the wonderful eighties mascot Wall Street, looks from this vantage far more like a work of funding convenience than passion.

Even at his peak, Stone never quite made the first rank. In the late eighties and throughout the nineties, his work had a frenetic pace, a vividness, that could produce something like the energy and fluidity of Scorsese at his best. (Both men were at different stages of their careers chronic cocaine addicts; it is likely that this drug's particular effects on the nervous system contributed something to the raw, sweaty, jittery intensity that characterizes both film-makers at their most vigorous.) Writing on Natural Born Killers in the New York Times, Janet Maslin nailed the director's signature style: "Mr. Stone's vision is impassioned, alarming, visually inventive, characteristically overpowering." Perhaps overpowering is the operative word. Even at his best, Stone's energy lacked the vital degree of focus and concentration to make him one of America's really great directors. JFK is in many respects an astonishing performance; but in the final analysis there is too much energy, too much persuasion, too much passion in the picture. It overwhelms both its subject and its viewer.

Yet, for all this, Stone was undoubtedly a vital, fascinating presence in American movies, and he had set for his cinema a grandly ambitious goal: to develop, from picture to picture, a sustained, deeply personal exploration of America's recent history. To this end, he dissected the Vietnam conflict in a trilogy ( Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth), presented the Kennedy assassination as a richly mythologised fall from grace in JFK, charted the beginnings of the conservative counter-revolution in Nixon, and explored that movement's apotheosis from a lateral perspective in the Reaganomic morality tale Wall Street. 1991's The Doors slots neatly into this tapestry of modern American history. It explores a facet of the sixties youth culture that was fortunate enough to avoid the trauma of Vietnam, but whose imagination was nevertheless distinctly coloured by the first properly interactive, mediated war; a facet of the youth culture whose explosive politics were to a large degree predicated on a brief, foolhardy rejection of the whole political reality and paradigm as it then stood. Stone's impressionistic rumination on the fast life and times of Jim Morrison unabashedly celebrates the hedonistic aspects of the sixties social revolution: his mythologised singer/outlaw undergoes a Dionysian adventure of self-discovery (and self-immolation) which is predicated on the constant transgression of boundaries and limits, and is most certainly not built for longevity. Neither glossing over or explicitly condemning the ravages of excess, The Doors is content to get high off the rough, exhilarating flames as Morrison's ship rises in the swell and goes just as swiftly to ground.

Stone's intention is never to explore what made Morrison tick as a person, or to look too deeply at the more prosaic realities lying behind the music, the iconography, and the mythic excesses. The Doors is not merely about printing the legend, but basking in it. After a beautifully lit preface and invocation set during the recording of An American Prayer, the movie begins with the aftermath of the fabled Indian accident in the New Mexican desert in 1949. And Stone plays it as fable - it is depicted as Morrison, and not the rest of his family, publicly recalled the incident. Whether it really happened that way, or was he confabulating, or deliberately embellishing, is unimportant. For Stone, it plays as a super-hero's origin story, and from that moment on, Morrison is Superman - or, at any rate, the kind of cultural superman Stone wants him to be. There are no hurdles to be overcome, no growing pains, no formative experiences - the movie merely cuts directly to the mid-sixties, where Morrison is now a prototypical latter day beatnik, strolling down the highway to met his destiny with a book in hand, and a look of questing curiosity on his face. Riders on the Storm barely misses a beat.

Interestingly, this shocking elision of the whole of Morrison's upbringing is in many respects fairly congruent with how Morrison himself lived his life. As soon as he had established himself as the Lizard King with the Doors, he effectively cut off his ties with family, claiming at one point in the press that his parents were dead. Later in the movie, he claims that his birth must have "happened during one of my blackouts", but in reality, Morrison cultivated his mystique carefully by consigning most of his past into a similar oblivion. That Stone should collude with his subject in this kind of personal myth-making bothers a lot of viewers. They see the role of the biographer as one that should demystify, should look at the man behind the screen. But the element of wilful fantasy in The Doors was was what made the movie so appealing to me as a teenager, and to a large degree, it's why I still have a lot of affection for it, despite its many flaws. Rock stardom is built on fantasy - built on the fact that the star himself performs a fantasy, and his fans partake vicariously in the fantasy through the star. And if The Doors is little more than Kilmer playing out his Morrison fantasy - as a proxy both for Stone and the audience - then this nevertheless seems to me to be perfectly congruent with the subject matter. An integral part of how we construct both cinematic fantasies, and fantasies of media stars and icons in general, is through the elision of dead time, through the cutting away of extraneous material, and through a sense of an identity that is carefully constructed, and seems to emerge fully formed when the cameras start to flash. After seeing Morrison on Kerouac's open road, we cut once again to Venice Beach, where a still-mobile Morrison emerges, in Roger Ebert's words, like "a young god from the sea." His subsequent courtship of Pamela (a fairly convincing but out of her depth Meg Ryan) is a total fantasy, which seems to have no antecedent prior to Stone. It is nothing more or less than a reverie of how they might have met one another, inspired by the song Love Street that plays over the soundtrack.

The Doors concentrates essentially on three facets of Morrison's persona: on the singer as a narcissistic sex object and celebrity; as a morbid, mystical would-be poet, pursued by peripheral visions of dead Indians, and infatuated with the notion of his own death; and finally as a gargantuan booze hound, self-sabotaging clown, and all-around selfish prick. When the movie jells, it moves with seamless, propulsive momentum. At that point in his career, Stone was very interested in moving away from linear, classical styles of editing that take their cue from the script and the progression of the action or plot. (During post-production on JFK, Stone hired advertising editor Hank Corwin because his "chaotic mind" was "totally alien to the film form.") Like Scorsese, he was tremendously excited by the energy of popular music, by a type of film-making where the music, and the actual editing rhythms themselves, determine how the action progresses, how the movie moves from one scene to the next. The Doors encapsulates these ideas perfectly. Even outside of concert/recording scenes, there's scarcely a moment that isn't scored to song. At its best, the movie utilizes the adrenaline seduction/surrender of popular music to articulate a life cresting a wave of chaotic abandon. The concert scenes themselves are skilfully executed, mixing a strong sense of documentary verisimilitude with an added cinematic quality that captures the drama of each individual performance.

All that said, The Doors is far from perfect. Despite Stone's obvious affinity for LA and the sixties counter-culture, there are quite a few moments where the details don't quite ring true. The handling of period is quite variable. Meg Ryan's speech about discovering that everything is beautiful on her maiden LSD voyage is a case in point. Now people certainly did speak that way in the sixties, but it feels almost a little lazy and obvious - like a writer whose only experience of the decade was via a couple of viewings of Woodstock. Similarly, the band's composition of Light My Fire feels rushed and very phony: "F-sharp, A-minor, its Jazz!" Kyle MacLachlan enthuses artificially. The thundering obviousness rears its ugly head again in the Warhol scene, where we are told that "Andy says everybody is going to be famous for fifteen minutes", ONLY THE MOST OBVIOUS FACTOID IMAGINABLE about Warhol.

Now the Warhol scene itself opens up a whole kettle of worms. Overall, I quite like the scene - it captures brilliantly the feeling of being a feted rock star, floating around soaking up booze and attention, with the skewered world of fashion firmly at your feet. The camera work is great - you can almost taste the booze, and feel your head going. And I don't really mind that the ambience is a little more like a nineties club inspired by the Factory than the Factory itself. (The Warhol milieu is most effectively evoked in Mary Harron's wonderful low-budget gem I Shot Andy Warhol.) As perhaps an even bigger fan of the Velvet Underground than the Doors, my one major gripe with Stone's movie is its absolutely shameful treatment of Nico.

Nico was undoubtedly a hot looking woman, but she was as far from the kind of vapid eye-candy Stone conjures up as you could possibly imagine. She had a strong, formidable, intelligent presence that held its own with any of the male rock icons. She wasn't assembly-line, average model type-beautiful, she was striking, in a manner that could be as eerie and austere as her voice. That Stone reduces her to a particularly bimbotic groupie, clad wholly out of character in a short skirt and fishnet tights, is inexplicable and inexcusable.
(One last thing on the Warhol scene: has anyone else noticed that when Jim is about to go in to meet Warhol, he appears to met himself on the way out? Its a weird little detail; I can't find a reference to it anywhere else.)

Flaws aside, The Doors still has a lot going for it, and much of that comes down to a literally astonishing lead turn from Val Kilmer. The whole cast, for the most part, are excellent, but all the major characters have essentially the same role: the Doors themselves, like Meg Ryan's Pam, are played basically as dutiful boy-scouts who can't tame Morrison and can't quite cut loose of him either, and ultimately can't save him from himself. Among the smaller parts, I love Michael Madsen's surly turn as Jim's drinking buddy and trouble-making hanger-on Tom Baker, and Michael Wincott's appearance and three packs a day voice make his Paul Rothchild an utterly believable creature of the LA music scene. But it's Kilmer's picture through and through. Like Dustin Hoffman's performance as Lenny Bruce, the role required the imitation of a public figure both in his private life and as a stage-performer. Kilmer nails every detail: the alternation of his speech between soft, stoned whisper and gravelly, fire and brimstone baritone; the irresistible energy and narcissism of the "young lion" period gradually giving way to the lack of focus and occasional mean streak of the later years.

Having lost the run of itself somewhat in the middle, The Doors ends on a strong, surprisingly affecting note. Incongruous in the midst of a children's party, a bemused and contemplative Jim sees a vision of himself as a child. The loss of our own childhood and youth is something we often see externalised in the sad decline of our idols. The American male idol seems particularly prone to these tragic falls from grace and beauty: Brando and Presley, Michael Jackson, Mickey Rourke, and others spring to mind. Morrison's story echoes this rise and fall in fast-forward. Oliver Stone's mediation on his legacy has drawn much criticism for its mythologising approach, but a large part of the attraction of figures like Jim Morrison lies in the fact that their lives were partially mythical anyway, and their identities remain inextricably wedded to the iconic aura they have created around themselves. Ray Manzarek has been particularly critical of the film, but it is arguable that his vision of Morrison - as a sensitive poet destroyed by the rough beast of his own fame - is itself just an other myth of a different stripe. Val Kilmer's unruly, unfettered force of nature feels closer to the Greek inscription on Morrison's tomb - "according to his own daimon" or "true to his own spirit" - and that's why The Doors remains a great rock n' roll movie, a dream spun in the rich darkness of the Californian sun.


  1. Great review! You really nailed what makes this film so special and amazing despite its flaws. However, I would argue that Stone became a world class director with JFK. That film is not just an incredible technical achievement but is an amazing piece of provocative political cinema. Whether you agree with his thesis or not, Stone really lays it all out and wraps it up in an engrossing thriller a la Costa Gavras' Z. I also think that NIXON is a towering achievement as well - arguably Stone's last truly great film. I felt that Stone really got in under Nixon's skin and showed what made this man tick, what motivated him to do what he did. In some respects, JFK and NIXON are two parts of a much larger film whose thesis is that the political system is a large, untameable beast that politicians try to temporarily control but are ultimately unable to for any amount of time.

  2. JD - I actually agree with with you for the most part on JFK. I think it's a film of excesses, but it is technically dazzling, and like you say, a work of extraordinary political provocation. I actually have never seen Nixon its entirety; must check it out properly.

    The last Stone flick i remember enjoying was U-Turn - pretty solid, if unspectacular neo-noir.

  3. Yeah, U-TURN was okay but felt like a rehash of several other better neo noirs (like RED ROCK WEST). I really need to revisit again though. Such a great cast of actors! ANY GIVEN SUNDAY is a guilty pleasure, esp. hearing Pacino giving all those rousing cliched speeches!