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Craig's Movie Club
Movie Reviews

Spotlight on: Oliver Stone's The Doors

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The Doors Oliver Stone's The Doors

"The movie will begin in five moments,"
The mindless voice announced.
"All those unseated will await the next show."

We filed slowly, languidly into the hall.
The auditorium was vast and silent.
As we seated and were darkened, the voice continued:

"The program for this evening is not new,
You've seen this entertainment through and through.
You've seen your birth, your life and death,
You might recall all of the rest.
Did you have a good world when you died?
Enough to base a movie on?"
-- "The Movie" from An American Prayer

When I went to Paris recently, the one place I had to visit -- above the Champs-Elysees, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe -- was Pére-Lachaise Cemetery, home in death of hundreds of people who either were born, lived, or died in Paris. My main goal, along with seeing the graves of Colette, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde (with the famous lip prints of his posthumous fans), and Honore de Balzac, was to see that of Jim Morrison, vocalist, lyricist, and resident Lizard King of the seminal late 1960s-early 1970s band, the Doors.

My reasons were suspect, to say the least. When I was twelve, my bohemian mentor uncle gave me an intensive introduction to rock music: Zeppelin, Doors, Beatles, Stones, etc. Anything an educated modern music listener should know, historically speaking. I immediately latched on to the Doors.

Their simple melodic structure and provocative lyrics were exactly what my burgeoning adolescent brain was seeking. To get more in depth information, I read the Jerry Hopkins / Danny Sugerman biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive (title taken from the song "Five to One") and was confronted with a couple of important facts: that Morrison had died two days before I was born and that his mother's maiden name was Clarke, the same as mine. I came to the instant conclusion that I was the reincarnation of James Douglas Morrison. (He, of course, would want to "keep it in the family.")

Of course, people who know me remark on the total lack of similarity between us, and to that I've always responded, "If your life ended up the way his did, wouldn't you want to change everything about it?" This explains away my all-but-teetotaling behavior, my risk aversion, and my absence of a portfolio of pretentious poetry.

It's all right, go ahead and laugh. I'm only half serious. I'm not about to try to cash in on this adolescent fantasy by hooking up with Patricia Kennealy (or "Kennealy-Morrison," as she insists on calling herself), or writing books like Shirley MacLaine, or suing to collect royalties, or anything like that. I'm quite content to write my little reviews and go on with my nice, quiet homebody life where I've yet to ingest anything harder than alcohol or set foot in a recording studio (oh, wait, does that Monkees cover we did in high school count?).

After all, I've already outlived him, so it must be working.

What this all has to do with Oliver Stone's film of The Doors is tangential at best. But it came out in 1991, so it's likely that the people who wanted to see it have done so, and the rest of you are just reading to gather ammunition for a nasty letter. (Feel free, by the way, I can appreciate a good verbal thrashing every now and then.) But it's a good flick. It's not the most accurate portrait of the band, or of Morrison in particular (Stone has admitted to dramatic license and composite characters), but it's damned entertaining and Val Kilmer captures the essence of Morrison, even down to the way he carried himself and his vocal mannerisms. According to an interview on the DVD, Kilmer sent Stone a tape of himself singing Doors songs mixed in with originals. When Stone realized he couldn't tell the difference, he gave Kilmer the part.

The Doors covers the period from the time Jim met Pamela Courson (played by Meg Ryan, chosen for her "All-American" qualities), who would become his common law wife, to his death, encompassing the band's short life (only about six years) as well as hitting the high (and low) points of his personal life, including his relationship with the abovementioned Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan, in what Stone calls the film's bravest performance). Interviews with Kennealy included on the DVD show clearly that this was not done to her liking as other women's acts were included in the character that was her namesake. (Stone now admits that perhaps he should have fictionalized the character.)

It's discoveries like the preceding that make the Artisan DVD such a joy to explore. For a film that did not do very well at the box office, the extras are plentiful with interviews, deleted scenes, and a full-length commentary merely scratching the surface. Any questions the viewer may have about The Doors (like the often odd casting and the importance of Stone's own cameo) are answered somewhere among the two discs multiple features.

But watching The Doors itself is an experience similar to an altered state. Stone pioneered his use of different film stocks, special effects, and sound layering (including the use of the Doors' catalog to score scenes, making the soundtrack a must-have for fans) in ways that foresee their usage in his later films like JFK, and culminating in the surreal presentation of the cinematographically brilliant Natural Born Killers. I'm not what one would call a fan of the director, but a few of his films find their way to my screen time and time again, for different reasons. JFK for Stone's ability to make a gripping film out of volumes of dry facts and suppositions; Natural Born Killers for its pure visceral rollercoaster ride combined with unreal artistic expression for the sake of cinema; and The Doors mostly for the performance of Kilmer, but also for its portrait of a period. Stone said around this time of his career that all of his films were about Vietnam in some way or another, and that The Doors was about what was going on over here while he was over there. That deadly subtext adds another layer to what could be a simply fun -- though very dark -- movie and makes it all the more able to grab my attention through the slow parts.

And The Doors is not a perfect film. Often, it seems that a scene was shot to make a point -- or to represent a multitude of other similar scenes -- rather than simply to entertain; and the casting isn't always dead on in terms of matching an actor's personality to the role, but when it does work (e.g., Michael Madsen as Tom Baker, Crispin Glover as Andy Warhol, Kilmer as Morrison), I am riveted to that performance. Similarly, set pieces involving "spiritual journeys" tend to be hypnotic despite their pretense, merely due to the acrobatic camera work or the like.

So it is that the movie is less than the sum of its parts, but still a stunning achievement, especially when taken as a film, and not as a biopic. "Morrison" is, at his core, an interesting character, and whether all the events in The Doors really happened does not detract from that -- although the lack of a truly riveting supporting cast sometimes does take away from the whole. If you like the film, you'll really appreciate the DVD, and if you saw it before and didn't like it, give it another chance. Like many other films that aren't perfect but appeal to a passionate audience, The Doors is an ambitious film that manages to remain charming in spite of its flaws and passionate in the face of inaccuracy.

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