Oliver Stone: The Doors (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: The Doors (1991)

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Oliver Stone looks to capture the intrigue around one of the most death-obsessed rockers in history with the biopic The Doors.

Your deluded love of rock and roll is the same as my genocideAndrewCommentaryBannerThe honeymoon may be over.  I have been surprised at how much I've loved the Oliver Stone films we've watched so far.  Even The Hand was much better than I was expecting.  Now I feel like I've been trapped in a burnt closet with a stoner's horrible poetry, a drum machine, and a bad harmonica player.  They warble, I wipe my eyes, and pray for the whole thing to end.

I am ok with The Doors and don't like Jim Morrison at all.  Morrison's legendary appeal is cemented in bad poetry that any angst-ridden college student could write after a bad night of drinking.  Whatever weight their music carried was because of the excellent musicians backing this nonsense that everyone bought into and a smart marketing team that realized he looked great without a shirt on.  Whatever dislike I have for him or most of what he produced certainly isn't rooted in aesthetics.

The saving grace of the film is that it seems Stone may feel the same way.  Morrison is so casually accepted as an icon of the darker free love and drug excesses of the '70s that no backstory is provided, but it seems one wasn't really needed.  There's no better way to explain this privileged, shallow, whiny creation that sprang forth from he and co-writer J. Randal Johnson's pens.  Then Val Kilmer brings form to their idea of Morrison, disappears into the sun, reemerges as a bird, and once reformed as a man drinks for a while and dies.

I'm deluding myself.  Morrison, either as portrayed or written, has no arc, history, or personality.  The film is an succession of bland performances lacking any of the energy that Stone's films have had previously while Kilmer falls down and whimpers weakly.  Whatever interest or mystery that could have been coaxed out of Morrison or the band is killed by taking the lazy approach of having the songs emerge fully formed after zero practicing, a few shots of booze, and an observant manager.

The only part of the film I enjoyed without hesitation was Crispin Glover as Andy Warhol.  He's barely in the film for two minutes, but is just the right amount of curious, nervous, and sincere in the way he approaches this man who is supposed to be the popular embodiment of death.  It's one of the few characters it feels Stone has an idea of what to do with, and while I would not have been excited at the prospect of Stone remaking Sleep, it may have been a more interesting experiment.  Morrison, devoid of the era, isn't as lucky.  He starts aimless, drunk, and ready for death only to exit the frame the same way.

Is the lack of a point the point?  Was it creatively fruitful for Stone to free associate Native Americans with Morrison's drug use?  Did Meg Ryan arrive on set by accident?  Nope; I certainly hope not; and she seems to have.

You know this phone won't be untrueKyle Commentary BannerI've never disliked The Doors as a band, but if this movie has anything to say about it, I could be brought around. You seem to have at least gotten something from it, even if just in the form of questions the film doesn't make any attempt to answer — I would have gladly upgraded to that experience. This is a limp, dead fish of a movie that flops around on screen for two-and-a-half hours to make sure we know that Jim Morrison was weird.

I'd say Stone overdid that point a bit — I was convinced pretty early on when Val Kilmer showed up in a tree outside a balcony like a 30-year old Peter Pan trying to steal some hippie girl away from a party. This scene functions to show us a few things: 1.) The movie will have absolutely no narrative coherence, as this whole sequence works only to shoehorn Meg Ryan into future events without introducing her in any way, and 2.) Jim Morrison, presumably, was good at climbing trees.

I mentioned last week that a common trap of biopics is to dutifully jump from chapter to chapter in a person's life as if the narrative is chained to some sort of “major events timeline.” Here is a one that falls into that trap without any major events — there are the performances on Ed Sullivan and the instances where he was arrested on stage, but the movie provides no context around them. They simply occur, mostly because Morrison is a dick, and then the film moves on as if nothing happened. Stone seems less interested in examining how Morrison and The Doors fit into the culture of the time than in propping up the mythology around him as some defiant, mystical... what? I think someone calls him a shaman at one point?

Your question of whether or not Stone's point was to show Morrison as an opaque conduit for clever marketing on which fans could project a sense of importance is probably key to why the movie fails on a broad level. We get no insight into the actual person behind all the nonsense, but we also get very little sense of why the culture of the time embraced such a persona so strongly. Stone seems to have nothing useful to say in viewing Morrison from any angle, and instead portrays his drug binges and mysticism in a way that is every bit as self-indulgent as the character we see on screen. There is a sad suspicion that behind the camera his opinion could really be as simple as “Jim is so cool.”

Nope. He isn't.Recording session from my personal hell

So, where’s the controversy?

Tiny Andrew CommentarySurprisingly little outside of the actual members of The Doors, who rejected the film unanimously.  It seems that most people want to think of Morrison as an ageless specter who haunted us for a brief time with his tunes.  The problem, like we’ve both said, is that the movie doesn’t do anything interesting with this.  This line of thinking is based in my endless optimism that someone would have something interesting to say about their hero, but that’s not the case here.  There’s only one interesting aspect that was also surprisingly uncontroversial that I’ll hit with the zeitgeist.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThey drink blood at one point? There's no controversy here, and remarkably Stone fails to capture any real sense of controversy around Morrison's own life.



Jam session

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThe Native American imagery that Stone employed when Morrison was feeling death around him has hit a cultural vein that hasn’t quite gone away.  I’m surprised no one was offended by it, but Stone’s bungled attempt at correlating the death of one kind of America to the preceding actual deaths of this lands original habitants is so poorly done that’s probably why.  But jokes abound have been made regarding this, my favorite coming from The Critic.  Had Stone made an attempt to anchor Morrison to the ‘60s in some way the intertwining images might have had some muscle.  Instead it’s a rolling punch-line at a director reaching too far.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryConsidering that the time the beginning of the movie is set in and the time the end of the movie is set in are virtually indistinguishable despite quite a bit of cultural change and upheaval during that period, I'd say he didn't.


Such a sensual vampire zombie rocker guy

That’s fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryAside from Crispin Glover, absolutely not.  Stone’s natural energy takes a backseat to embody Morrison’s gloomy death energy and the result is ghost Native Americans.  Even Kilmer’s performance, which I have been led to believe is the best part of the movie, is a bunch of dull mumbling whose strength comes from a physical resemblance versus a genuine embodiment of Morrison. The feeling I kept getting from the movie was Stone trying to make a film capturing a youth he didn’t have.  Whether this is true or not I can’t say with 100% certainty, but he was definitely trying to present something far beyond his reach.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe one thing we disagree on is that I actually like Kilmer's performance. He doesn't capture anything human or relatable about Morrison, but I think that's Stone's fault—the character as written is a spoiled middle-class brat who discovered that in terms of public personae there can be a fine line between mystery and a lack of substance, and then exploited it. Kilmer does a good job suggesting that all of Morrison's weirdness is an act performed by someone one fearful step away from having to develop an actual personality. This weakness that underlines the seemingly confident stage performances has the potential to be interesting, especially since Kilmer only gives tiny hints of the character acknowledging this for himself. In a movie that knew what to do with whatever he's sketching out here, it could be a great performance.

Regardless, I think we're both in agreement that this is the worst thing Stone has done so far. “So far” is such an important part of that sentence.

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Next week: JFK!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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