Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Opening Some Doors

"Actually, I don't remember being born. It must have happened during one of my blackouts."

Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer)

Watching Oliver Stone's "The Doors," which premiered on this date in 1991, was "like being stuck in a bar with an obnoxious drunk," film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "when you're not drinking."

It wasn't quite that bad — although my reaction the first time I saw the movie was probably close to Ebert's. Make no mistake about it. "The Doors" was not for the faint of heart.

And I agree, it could be painful to watch. So, too, it seems to me, it would have been painful to watch Jim Morrison's life unfold — but the audience wasn't spared a portrayal of that.

That is what Stone was trying to do with his biopic. It was about the band, of course, but Morrison was the band. He was the one who wrote most of the lyrics. He was the one the fans came to see. And you couldn't tell that story without telling what came before.

It wasn't hard to see why Val Kilmer was cast as Morrison. Compare pictures of the two. Kilmer is virtually the spitting image of Morrison.

I don't know how much Meg Ryan resembled Morrison's common–law wife Pam. I'm not sure I have ever seen a picture of her.

But I have heard they had a volatile relationship, and that part came across loud and clear in the movie.

As I understand it, they had an open relationship, and Pam had problems with that. Everything boiled over at a group gathering of the Doors and their significant others. If you have seen the movie, I have no doubt you will remember the scene. Pam became an hysterical, screaming maniac, thoroughly disrupting the occasion and driving people away. Now, Pam was a hippie chick, but the whole communal scene never seemed to work for her, and Meg Ryan did a good job of presenting what must have been a very complex character.

Yet I'm convinced Ebert was onto something when he wrote that Pam really was one of many "supporting characters who drift in and out of focus during his long, sad binge."

The character who had the most significance — other than, I suppose, the members of the band — was played Kathleen Quinlan, "an older rock journalist," wrote Ebert, "who is heavily into sadomasochism and the trappings of witchcraft."

The part of the film in which she managed to penetrate the haze of booze and drugs that enveloped Morrison was worth the price of admission.

"[T]he character is miles different from anything she has played before," Ebert wrote, "and brilliantly conceived and executed."

I agree, although Quinlan has taken on other acting challenges since "The Doors," rendering Ebert's judgment less absolute. In 1991, though, it was still a stretch for an actress who was nominated for an Oscar early in her career for her portrayal of a schizophrenic young woman.

Ebert acknowledged the movie was "not always very pleasant," and that is something I have observed in less tactful language, I suppose. Ebert explained it better than I can:

"There are the songs, of course, and some electrifying concert moments," Ebert wrote, "but mostly there is the mournful, self–pitying descent of this young man into selfish and boring stupor. Having seen this movie, I am not sad to have missed the opportunity to meet Jim Morrison, and I can think of few fates more painful than being part of his support system. The last hour of the film, in particular, is a dirge of wretched excess, of drunken would–be orgies and obnoxious behavior, of concerts in which the audiences wait for hours for the spectacle of Morrison stumbling onstage to fake a few songs or, notoriously, to expose himself."

Yeah, that about covers it.

I have noticed that Oliver Stone always seems to walk a tightrope between art and documentary in his films — and he doesn't always maintain his balance. "The Doors" was no different.

Ebert observed that "the concert scenes ... play with the authenticity of a documentary." They are convincing. If you didn't know better, you would swear you were watching archival footage of the Doors in concert.

But then the artistic part comes in, and it isn't so artistic. The artsy part, I presume, was when Stone tried to capture Morrison's drug experiences on film — but, in hindsight, it seems to me that the artsy part was really the gritty slices of Morrison's life — which included his fascination with death.

Once again, Ebert nails it.

"He's like Edgar Allen Poe on acid, crawling along the ledges outside hotel windows, or begging his lovers to stab him in the heart."

I guess the Morrison character summed it up best in the movie when he said, "This is the strangest life I've ever known."