Tuesday, June 15, 2010

California Dreaming on the Psychoanalytic Couch: A Review of When You’re Strange; A Film About The Doors, directed by Tom Dicillo (2009)

Images: film poster; portrait of Jim Morrison from the website Simply Art Online, published by Michael Arnold

I can still see the long line of people in the mall. Each has in hand a ticket to Oliver Stone’s new film The Doors.

The year is 1991. The Doors and the counter-culture they represent are experiencing a cross-generational revival. Some attribute the trend to the optimism that follows the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Every student of consequence at my suburban high school, or so I think at the time, is standing in line. Some, like myself, are devote fans of the American rock band, which released six albums between 1967 to 1971 and recorded many of the period’s best popular songs (“Light My Fire”). Others attend out of respect. Still others are merely curios. All hope to walk home with some deeper insight into the dilemma of growing up absurd - as Paul Goodman once put the matter - in a stale suburb.

My passion for The Doors was born one cold autumn night in the Canadian suburb of Burlington, Ontario. I was walking home with a friend, aged sixteen and well past curfew. Along the way he got me listen to a tape of The Doors. The first song I listened to, with its dissonant notation and macabre narrative, was “Not to Touch the Earth”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_-HqcNum7M.
Raised a strict Baptist, I'd never heard such sinister music before: “Some outlaws lived by the side of a lake," Morrison intoned, "The minister’s daughter’s in love with the snake, who lives in a well by the side of a road, wake up, girl, we’re almost home!”

To my surprise I found myself hopelessly attracted to this rather disturbing music.
Within a week of hearing "Not to Touch the Earth," I’d viewed Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a film of a 1968 Doors concert. I'd also purchased The Best of The Doors on tape from a head-shop on Toronto’s Yonge Street.

Historical documentaries sometimes suffer from an obvious necessity: digging up enough original film or photographic material to fill an hour or more of program time. Many a mediocre documentary hangs its prospects on a narrow collection of photos and film sequences. Not so in the case of Tom Dicillo's When You’re Strange: 
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1333667/Textured and personal, The Doors visual archive includes even film sequences shot by Jim Morrison, the band's lead singer. Dicillo's preference for moving pictures invests the film with a welcome lyricism. As a result, the film communicates in depth without feeling overworked or cluttered.

Though lyrical, the film unfailingly reconstructs the key turning points in the history of The Doors. It achieves this in one sense by adding a narrator, voiced by Johnny Depp, whose running commentary situates the viewer in the context of late 1960s America. Depp's narrator also offers authoritative insights into Morrison’s psyche and personality.

One thing a friend of mine told me after we'd seen the show was how much she appreciated being exposed by the film to the history and politics of the counter-culture era. Though in her late twenties, she could not recall seeing the footage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, which the film cites toward its conclusion, before. Her high school history courses stopped abruptly at the end of the Second World War. Her experience reinforced for me the necessity of continuing to tell the stories of the 1960s for future generations.

icillo's film has another great strength: it effectively documents Morrison's troubled personality and often sinister stage presence. It quickly becomes clear when Morrison's wild and at times obscene stage antics result from inspiration as opposed to substance abuse. Moments when his antics register as shamanic invocations or acts of great theatre shock the viewer or audience into considering at an emotional or visceral level the extent to which contemporary society forces healthy human impulses down into the soul's underground. Morrison's posthumously published poem “An American Prayer" expresses this point poignantly:

Do you know the warm progress under the stars?
Do you know we exist?
Have you forgotten the keys to the kingdom?
Have you been born yet
and are you alive?

Still, like many documentaries, When You're Strange picks up too many ideas only to put them down again without adequate comment; the film tracks the development of key themes and ideas in The Door's music, but only superficially. As well, Morrison's celebrity ends up the central focus of a film that otherwise purports to document the story of a band.

It's been twenty years since I stood in line waiting to see Stone's The Doors. I wouldn't call myself a passionate fan of the band any more, but I still respect its accomplishments as an avante guard band and believe the band remains culturally and historically significant. Few bands captured the zeitgeist of their era as well as The Doors. Morrison's narcissism, chauvinism, and self-destructiveness now seem tragic, if not farcical at times. Yet the band approached the world and the human condition in the venerable spirit of the Romantic tradition. At worst, Morrison stands, as one recent writer has put it, as the last Holy Fool, and Holy Fools, as history attests, deserve a hearing.

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