Doors Week: That Damned Movie

The Doors Movie Poster
Kilmer gives a robust, entertaining performance. But it is a performance as impersonation, not as reality.

Oliver Stone is a liar, a propagandist and an artist.

Wall Street is a great movie as I remember it (though I haven’t watched it in years), Platoon has some wonderful performances and moving scenes (and exposed me to one of my favorite pieces of music, Adagio for Strings) and other than that, he’s a tool–bag.

One movie in particular he’s gotten a continual pass for is his “biopic” about The Doors. Setting aside the fact that the movie is really and truly a myth–infused biopic about Jim Morrison (note: not the band), it’s frustrating to look back at how far that stupid movie went to keeping me trapped in a well of worshipping a false idol instead of appreciating a troubled artist for who he truly was.

But let’s be honest, The Doors is crafted to perpetuate a cultural mythos to elevate the importance of a bunch of burned–out society kids who lost site of the fact that life is a series of compromises and not everyone gets to make a living being an artist who majored in French art history. It’s a lesson forgotten by the Occupy movement decades later.

The main reason I bring it up (aside from my occasional, obligatory “hippie” rant) is that The Doors is more a love letter to a time period than anything else. Morrison’s life is merely a prop for Stone to wax poetic about how much cooler life was when “everyone” was tripping balls.

I Loved It at the Time

When I was sixteen years old, I was dumb like most sixteen year olds. I like to think that I was a different kind of dumb though; I stayed out of a great deal of trouble by choice and not just chance. Also, I lived in the middle of nowhere and had no car or license, so that helped too.

Anyway, a long time ago my brother took me to see Awakenings with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. He’d already seen it, but insisted it would be a good movie to see. He was correct about that in general, but in specific he had conned me into seeing it because he had seen the preview for The Doors in front of it. Being the awesome brother he is, he went to see the movie again just so he could be the first to let me know about the movie and see my reaction to the preview. Much as he and I used to fight back then, he’s always been pretty awesome to his kid brother.

Needless to say, I was out of my mind with anticipation. I shortly began counting the days down to the release date of March 1 1991. I was focused on the film. This was to be the Greatest Film of All Time. People hyped Kilmer’s performance ahead of the release. I read article after article about it; in the days before the Internet, it was vastly more difficult to read about a movie and 7-11 magazine racks were a necessary library for me.

I saw the movie on opening day after school. I skipped a last chance at practice for a piece I was performing with a friend at the Metro Championships for Speech & Debate. To this day, his mother remembers me as the guy who screwed up his chances at Nationals that year when we didn’t qualify to go. I felt really bad about it for a long time.

And let’s be clear, I thought it was one of the greatest movies ever made.

I walked out of that theatre convinced that Morrison was some sort of demi–god, my parents were fools for not being a part of the 1960s counter–culture and Oliver Stone and Val Kilmer deserved every Oscar ever made. And can you blame me? The movie is a frenetic orgy of glorified drug use, alcohol abuse, hedonism and pseudo–intellectual bullsh** philosophy served with a side of hero worship.

When you’re sixteen, that is the definition of awesome.

As I Grew Older

I came to regard the film in later years as a well–crafted propaganda. I had read considerably more about Jim Morrison’s life, from sources more dedicated to examining the truth of it rather than the myth. The two best I can recommend are Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison and an obscure little book called The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia.

So when I went back and saw the movie again on video, the bologna stank a little more, but I felt it was a heck of a sandwich regardless. Who cared if Stone cropped this story and that, and maybe presented Morrison in a more political light than Morrison himself would have tolerated?

See, the dirty little secret is that Jim Morrison was not looking to be a political influence. Oliver Stone wants to be one though, and I guess Morrison was a convenient canvas on which to paint an agenda. Dead guys can’t correct history.

He was a pretty intelligent guy, had a talent for writing Beat poetry and more than half the time was saying crazy stuff just to mess with people. The myth grew largely out of the fact that he had a very dry sense of humor and didn’t feel a need to retract statements. People wanted to run with things, he let them have their fun.

The Turning Point

The point when I started to dislike the movie intensely was somewhat recently, when I read the aforementioned The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia. Morrison’s humanity suddenly came into clarity for me, as I was able to get in the under-reported part of his youth and sort of realize the reason he always spoke so strongly to disaffected, questioning kids is because he was one.

There was no Indian Soul that jumped into his body and turned him into a Shaman. He was a troubled man who told tall tales about his childhood because he hated his childhood. He hated being rootless, having to look for father figures in strangers while his father spent his time focused on his military career. He was the oldest son of a difficult man, seeking identity wherever he could find it.

And so now I look at the movie as a bunch of pretentious vignettes based on a phony mythology that does nothing to elevate the man on which it’s focused. If anything, it diminishes him and shows him as this strange caricature instead of a complex human being.

The Final Nail in the Coffin: Even Manzarek Thought the Movie was Off-Base

And so the movie falls apart when held against the fundamental fact that reality is often more complex and interesting than the stories we like to spin around it. Unfortunately, Stone set the template for these sorts of biopics that we accept. And I suppose I get frustrated because I see it as nothing more, now, than base manipulation.

Sadly, it also makes me look at Kilmer’s performance as nothing more than an impersonation of a myth. It’s still entertaining, but it’s not a real person, and therefore not a real character.

It would be easy to shrug it off, but Stone did it again that same year with JFK, a similarly well–constructed series of falsehoods shrouded in believable half–truths in order to further a myth.

Someone else once said that movies would become the new history texts. So yes, The Doors bothers me for the fact that it fooled me when I was a kid and is a shining example of how filmmakers are fooling kids (and adults) again and again through time. If anything, The Doors is the first real example of the type of “documentary” we’ve come to accept over time.

3 thoughts on “Doors Week: That Damned Movie

  1. I’ll trade you an ugly truth for an ugly truth:

    I did not place at Metros that year; I simply “qualified” for Nationals. It was one hell of a blow to my ego. And I was secretly very relieved that Kevin neither placed nor qualified.


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