What other films do we have, besides this one, that really capture the exhilarating rush–and the decadent come-down–of the 60s culture-revolution? We have a number of fine literary portrayals, such as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and shading out of the culture-revolution into its more political side, we have Todd Gitlin’s excellent The Sixties, but I really don’t know of other good films. Odd. It would seem a naturally cinematic subject, right? There were some iffy-looking films made at the time, and in French cinema there’s the fine Louis Malle comedy May Fools about May 1968, but that’s about all that I’m recalling.
Not everyone is going to like The Doors, of course. For one, Stone punctuates it with a number of Doors concert-events and plays their songs at a higher-than-usual background volume during other scenes, and so you have to have openness to the band’s music. More significantly, not only does Stone not give us the standard music-star biopic, but he doesn’t even give us a plot. There’s a story, but it comes to us obliquely, emerging from a rush of happenings; and its logical end is not only foreshadowed early on, but could have happened much earlier on.
What Stone does give us are fragmentary glimpses of the 60s revolution insofar as they are linkable to the career of The Doors, and particularly to that of Jim Morrison. He immerses us in what we might call the Jim Morrison Experience. This is an experience at times thrilling, but more often nauseating, i.e., as the initial excitement of Jim’s attempt to “Break on Through” wears off, and we get repeatedly subjected to his alcoholism, lover-abuse, band-abuse, etc. Stone makes us hate experiencing what Jim is like in person, even as he glamorizes his stage persona. Given the facts, any biopic would have had to present some of Morrison’s ugliness, but this film rubs our faces in it. So while some persons criticize The Doors for its idolization of Jim Morrison, it turns out that his fans might have bigger problems with it than anyone else. One can find them here and there on the internet, complaining about Stone’s falsification of certain details, ala JFK. The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, for example, regards Stone as a “fascist” for making the film the way he did.
I confess to not being interested in arriving at a perfectly balanced assessment of just how vile a man Jim Morrison let himself become. This is due to having read things like Martha Bayles’s assessment (in the best book on rock), which begins with his poetry and proceeds to his character:
…at best Morrison’s poetry is a case of arrested development. Before he became a rock star, he showed some promise as an imagist…but the…volumes currently bearing Morrison’s name contain nothing but fragments and scraps, half-formed images, and free-associative meanderings. Morrison never made the sustained effort needed to write even passable free verse, and his emotional range—from petulant narcissism to dead-serious angst—is far narrower than the least of his poetic idols.
…The sole distinguishing characteristic of Morrison’s writings is psychological waywardness—derived, it appears from his unhappy childhood as the son of an aloof naval officer… According to his biographers Morrison’s chief boyhood pleasure was defying, confounding, and tormenting other people. And he never outgrew these impulses, because, from an early age, he began drinking heavily instead of wrestling with his emotional problems. As often happens with youthful alcoholics, booze became the formaldehyde in which his adolescent hang-ups were preserved.
So the question of how much goodness there was in Jim, and whether he could have been saved from himself had his “waywardness” not been seized upon by the Doors and their fans, i.e., by Rock, is not the important one. Not for us. Suffice it to say the he was a very troubled man that those of us with counter-cultural sympathies had our uses for, and vice-versa.
Stone recognized that the late Sixties really were a time of living mythology, of god-creation, and he wanted his film to both take us through that, and indeed make us complicit in it. So what matters is what Jim stood for.
What Jim wanted to inspire was an attempt at spiritual break-through, a “Nietzschean” embrace of the primal, the pagan, and the orgiastic. There were after all frightening aspects to both the sexual revolution’s exploration of the forbidden and the LSD journey into the psyche, and so the song of the Counter-Culture could not simply be a pantheistic reverie of flowers, love, and gentleness—it also had to rock us, shake us, to take us through a bad trip and on into some “other side.” Dark potentialities had to be present for that. These might be crudely represented by dabbling with witch-ceremonies and Hell’s Angels, or musically suggested by the aggressive and grandiose aspects of the emerging hard rock sound. Things could not be “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
In the film, when Jim and Ray talk about forming the band, and how they want it to help release the youth revolution they feel is straining at the gates circa ’65, Jim says it should be like Dionysius returning to Greece, drawing the young into great orgies. And in a number of ways, the film underlines Jim’s attempts to enact such a return-to-pagan-rites “Dionysianism” in his own life, both with lovers in the bedroom and as master-of-rock-ceremonies on-stage. But at a key mid-point, after having tasted all the fruits of rock success, in a bedroom scene after being unable to get it up for his main squeeze Pamela Courson, there is a moment where Jim plaintively asks, “Where’s the feast they promised us? Where’s the new wine?” Underlined by this becoming one of the film’s more painful scenes, in which he manipulates her and his own sex drive with a mock suicide-attempt, Stone’s suggestion is clear: Dionysianism is failing Jim. He is not breaking through to spiritual insight or poetry, and while he certainly laps up all the fame, sex, and booze he can, it is only the flirtation with death that really thrills him.
We do not feel sorry for him, but become more and more repelled by his alcoholic descent into a cumulatively suicidal hedonism. His stage act gets wilder and apparently more potent, but Stone intercuts it with episodes from his own life, which are entirely ugly and increasingly pathetic. Eventually, there is a scene on an airplane talking with one of his hanger-on biker-crowd drinking buddies about the future of rock, where Jim says, with moving sincerity, that what the rock audience really wants is something spiritual. At this, his buddy bursts out laughing, spewing beer onto his face. So much for the new wine.
This may not be the most accurate way to explain what happened to Jim Morrison, but it does very effectively represent what really happened with the Rock Counter-Culture. Stone’s film enacts in all its glory, seductiveness, and rushing confusion the myth that became its ruling good–the idea of spiritual quest occurring through hedonistic frenzy; and it not only shows its bad consequences, but how it was failing even on Morrison’s own poetic-mythic terms.
The importance of the myth goes beyond the 60s moment: Morrison was the performer who paved the way for Iggy Pop, the icon of punk, and later for Ian Curtis, the icon of post-punk despair. New versions of his self-immolation and his audience-challenging, and more typically, new formulas for the theater of regularizing such, became stock features of Rock. But if Rock’s prototype break-through expedition was at the fundamental level a failure, then this whole “classic” feature of the “rock experience” becomes questionable. Stone’s sympathies going into the film were perhaps with that expedition, rooting for it, trying to pinpoint where things went wrong so as to pick up the gauntlet; but whether he knew it initially or not, he found that the subject matter forced him to present the myth’s failure.
And he was alive enough to the contours of the Counter-Culture to know that the failure of the Dionysian-Morrisonian approach implicated a number of others. Here are the counter-cultural stances that get sketched by The Doors:
1) NYC Warhol-scene decadence.
Heroin not LSD. Domination not free love. When the Doors attend Andy Warhol’s party, Ray says “these people are vampires.” Jim’s quest is willing to explore inner darknesses to break through to spiritual truth, but these people only want to exploit such, and smirk at the very idea of quest. Andy gives Jim a mock-telephone, saying one can “talk to God” with it, but that “I don’t have anything to say to Him.” There is some attraction between Morrison and the Warhol crowd, as both are quite out of tune with the “all you need is love” vibe, but this real gulf remains.
2) Classic prole-style hedonism.
Jim’s bar buddies. Bourbon, beer, and big bellies. Hell’s Angels types. Adult versions of the juvenile delinquent. At a low and more conventional level, as cynical as 1), and as the beer-spew scene shows, likewise contemptuous of spiritual longings.
3) Jim’s break-on-through Dionysianism. Already described.
4) Rock-band mainstream hippie-ism.
The other Doors, especially Manzarek and Densmore. Go wild, but not too wild. Be practical. Do some business, make some money. And some revolution too. It’s artistically powerful to have a mad sex-god as your front-man, but he really might go insane, so watch yourself. Manage the madness. At one point, the drummer Densmore lamely expresses the protest this position makes against Jim’s continual intoxication: “We took acid to expand our minds, not to escape!” Of course, it had only been Jim’s audaciousness that got the band to really go into acid, and he had never voiced such a non-poetic and pat rationale for doing so, that is, he had never denied the mixed motives, even the disturbed motives, one might have for turning to hallucinogens.
5) Polly-annish Pantheism—pure hippie-ism.
Represented by the Pamela Courson character, played by Meg Ryan. Throughout, we see how naïve her all-accepting hippie-ism is compared to Jim’s creed, but likewise how for all her apparent sunniness she’s attracted to, and becomes enslaved by, Jim’s dark flame. Early on, she tells Jim that she had realized that all was good, and that even Jesus and Judas were really just two sides of the same thing. Unlike 4), this sort of hippie-creed will risk everything and believe to the hilt.
So The Doors shows us the basic dynamic of the Revolution: the troubled Dionysian idealism of the Jim-types (3) will be charged by and feed off the wild innocence of the many Pamela-types (5), with decisive help from the more-practical Doors-types(4). But the break-through sought is either impossible or very elusive, and so the Jim-type leaders will only wind up inviting in, and perhaps themselves largely become, types 2) and 1), those who will openly exploit and abuse the Pamela types. This is why Altamont really was more characteristic of the era and of its overall impact, than Woodstock was. And that dynamic goes back to the Revolution’s beginnings. As Joan Didion described, Haight-Asbury’s overall tone became dominated fairly early on by dealers, and by the sexual exploitation of young flower-child runaways. As Tom Wolfe described, the highlight of one of the earliest Merry Prankster parties was a 30-guy train on some stoned young woman.
I’m sorry to mention such heinous things, but they seem appropriate to mention with respect to The Doors, which my wife regards as a heinous film that she’d rather us not have in the house. She’s probably right, and it’s worth noting, that the official Catholic teaching on the moral dangers of film (recently recounted in light of the Aurora killings by Dawn Eden) agrees with her.
But while Stone would not be happy with my interpreting his film so as to sound the “Remember the Altamont Speedway!”cry, I think he would admit that such an interpretation is plausible enough, given the way he let the subject matter drive his film into being more honest, at least mythologically, about the Revolution than he had perhaps intended. (That’s my read–one web critic says the film fails because Stone never had the guts to take any point of view.) That is, despite his sympathetic fascination with Jim’s quest, he would have to admit there are more than few morals, old-time ones, that many viewers will tend to draw from the story. Similarly, I have to admit that one should not show this film to just anyone, given its seductive powers, its up-close portrayal of vileness, and, its…er…Dionysian imagery(that’s intellectual-talk for “lots of women getting naked”).
But I nonetheless say that The Doors is a real accomplishment, and one that correctly read can provide salutary lessons. So while I think Martha Bayles is right about Morrison’s character(and generally about all rock-related matters!), her assessment of the film is marred by her assuming that it was mainly an exercise in adulation and fantasy-enactment:
…one thing can be said for these lost souls of the 1960s: They didn’t just gaze into the abyss—they leaped. [unlike]…Oliver Stone, who trades in the stale fantasy of art as self-destruction without placing his own life, or ego, in any danger.
After complaining about the “technical impossibility” of Stone’s having the movie-Morrison jump into a frenzied crowd while continuing to sing, she goes on:
Mere mortals like Hendrix and Morrison had to wait until the end of the show to wreck their equipment. In Stone’s fantasy, there’s no need to wait, because there’s no such thing as destruction. The “artist” can smash his speakers again and again, and the volume will keep on pumping. He can smash his life again and again, and his celebrity will keep on growing.
That’s simply not fair. Stone shows us the personal destruction, arguably even too vividly. Bayles just doesn’t get what Stone is up to. Morrison invited us all to “ride the snake,” and Stone’s movie is an attempt to let us do so, to become carried away by the 60s frenzy as much as we can through a loud and relentless film. To live the mythology. After all, rock stars, and The Doors more than most, effectively did become gods and shamans to the Counter-Culture. That surely gives him the poetic license to pass over little realities like microphone dynamics and let Val Kilmer appear as god-like on-stage as is plausible.
Ultimately, because Stone also subjects us to the everyday consequences and human toll of the mythological overdrive, we can accept his making every effort to portray its glamor. In one scene, he even briefly reminds us of the most elementary anti-mythological fact, that Jim came from a particular American middle-class family, and he shows us that Jim seeks to avoid all notice of this. Despite what his film may have visually/surrealistically suggested so far, Stone reminds us that Jim did not just drop down onto Venice Beach out of, say, America’s Indian-haunted subconsciousness or the pages of Zarathustra. His film “prints the legend” in headline letters—to be true to the era it has to–but its reporting of reality is also there for all eyes to see.
Another time, my Songbook will take Morrison and The Doors on their own terms, analyzing their words and music, but as for The Doors, I say that it stands, despite its lack of conventional plot and Stone’s perhaps conflicted conception, as one of our best films on popular music, and the most insightful one about rock’s founding revolution.