Posts Tagged ‘historical accuracy’

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The Doors is one story of rock icon Jim Morrison, directed and written by Oliver Stone with Randall Jahnson.  The film combines historical recreation with shamanistic mysticism weaving in and out like threads of a dream.  This is, in my opinion, one of Stone’s best films alongside JFK.

The Doors movie is a pack of lies.”
-Ray Manzarek

Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ late keyboardist, greatly disliked the film, and he called it a “powder movie,” implying that cocaine was more of an inspiration than were psychedelics.  He also disliked Val Kilmer’s portrayal of fallen rocker Morrison.

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The band’s initial formation was linked to psychedelic experiences in the mid 60s, and that is a plot point in the movie.  The band’s name is itself an allusion to a psychedelic awakening and is taken from a William Blake quote about the “doors of perception.”

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Obviously a reference to Plato’s Cave in there.  We are the blind, deaf, dumb slaves and only through opening these doors of perception can we realize our full lives, our potentials, our true places in the universe.  These were the kinds of ideas that drove Jim Morrison.  These themes reappear in his songs and in his personal journey.

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With such a controversial story, the principal character long dead, the survivors fighting with the director for their own visions it’s amazing the film got made in the first place.  Robbie Krieger, John Densmore and Patricia Kennealy all served as advisers on the Stone film, however they did complain that Stone went his own way much of the time.  The historical accuracy of the film is challenged, but this is a fictional portrayal of a very mystical character.  “The Lizard King” was not your typical subject, and I’m not seeing that the inaccuracies greatly changed the public’s perception of Morrison.  He did, in the end, kill himself with heroin.  He was known for excess and bouts of outrageous behavior.  If the specifics changed somewhat for dramatic effect and through the fog of memory and time, the main thrust does not seem to have been significantly altered — to me anyway, but then again Manzarek was there.  The most formidable detractor of the film has been the Doors’ keyboardist.  His main beef is the concept of “sensationalism.”

“What are the poems about? And man, they’re about much further out stuff than the sensationalism going around now, the sensationalism of the Oliver Stone movie.”

Is this a valid critique?  Did the film gloss over the more esoteric and provocative ideas of Morrison in favor of sex, drugs and rock and roll?  Perhaps so, but a two hour poetry reading just doesn’t work either.  Balance is key, and Morrison’s verses without the edgy sound of the band would have gone nowhere.  This marriage of intellectual and visceral is part of the terrain.  What is sensationalism?  Is it a real thing?  Does it actually exist?  Or is it more of an opinion that someone was expecting one thing, and got something else instead?

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Ray Manzarek also complained loudly about Oliver Stone’s presentation of Jim Morrison:

“Jim with a bottle all the time. It was ridiculous . . . It was not about Jim Morrison. It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk. God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy? The guy I knew was not on that screen.”

Excess and wild behavior are more cinematic, but the idea that Morrison wasn’t presented sober and with emphasis on his words and ideas is false.  Much screen time is devoted to the early period, Morrison’s poetry, acclimation to stardom and interviews.  Manzarek was biased before production even began and refused to talk to Kilmer or anyone involved on the project after talks with director Stone broke down.

As a first-person eyewitness, however, Ray Manzarek is not shy about Morrison’s legendary excesses:

“Jesus Christ, at the fucking University of Michigan homecoming with the football players, Jimbo took over and Jim was simply not able to perform. It was so bad that John and Robbie left the stage. I picked up a guitar and played some John Lee Hooker kind of stuff hoping we could get through at least something and Jim was just drunk as a skunk berating tuxedoed guys and gowned, coiffured girls who had come to hear the band with that hit song Light My Fire and instead they get The Dirty Doors. It was like a tragedy, man. (laughs)  We got banned from the Big 10.  The letter went out.  Never hire this filthy, dirty, disgusting band ever again.”

Robbie Krieger:

“When the Doors broke up Ray had his idea of how the band should be portrayed and John and I had ours”.

Stone’s talent for combining various film formats and looks that signify different time periods and subplots works fantastically to deepen our understanding, or at least our appreciation for, Morrison.  This is, however, not a happy tale, and everyone already knows how it ends.  That kind of hurdle can kill a lot of films, as suspense is somewhat diminished.  But The Doors lived on, and Morrison lived on past his own demise and to this day.  The movie attempts to show why.  The band arguably changed rock and roll forever, and they did so in the most turbulent period, the late 1960s, dragging music from corporate plastic prefabricated product into the realms of mystery and psychological aggression.

Stone makes movies for grownups, and the material is blunt, sexual, edge of the law and beyond.  He isn’t restrained by the usual Hollywood sensibilities, pandering to 13 year olds and the producers who think like them.  He presents the facts, and he presents the interpretation of the visions taken from Morrison’s works and interviews.  Stone attempted to expand the consciousness of the film beyond what is in front of the camera and to tie it to the age, the shifting culture – all very difficult to do.  Some were unconvinced, or perhaps they misunderstood the intent, but Stone out on a ledge is far more interesting than most directors’ straight bio-pic.  Keeping with Morrison’s own intent, to cleanse the doors of perception, Oliver Stone approached the material from every conceivable angle, to subvert preconceptions.  That’s a very Morrison thing to do, and it should be appreciated as such.

The surviving band members have since put together a documentary, When You’re Strange (2010) from old documentary footage.  Manzarek is highly pleased with this portrayal.

When You’re Strange: The End

 

by Jennifer Epps

The period epic Lincoln may be the least Spielbergian movie that director Steven Spielberg has ever made.  Not only is it shot in a remarkably straight-forward way for such a visual stylist, but it is also an unhurried, contemplative, and actually quite subtle film for a director whose recent ventures were War Horse and The Adventures of TinTin. Therefore: never say never. Lincoln  is proof that Spielberg can be a great storyteller when he has a great script.

He has that here, thanks to perhaps America’s most intellectual and politically passionate playwright, Tony Kushner (Angels in America). The dialogue is a thing of beauty — both literate and folksy, touching on grand ideas as well as the frailty of ordinary humans — and it often feels like the thoughtful, opinionated discussions by the Founders in HBO’s John Adams. Like that award-sweeping miniseries, which was based on a 650-page biography, Lincoln  accomplishes an impressive feat — it adapts a door-stopper, in this case Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 750-page history Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and winnows out the important and meaningful information. It feels rich and alive but not rambling (the graveyard of lo, so many bio-pics), because it focuses with determined precision on a 4-month period around the end of the Civil War when Lincoln was most actively and most urgently pursuing an amendment to outlaw slavery. At the same time, however, Kushner and Spielberg leaven all the epic stuff about changing America forever with just the right number of small details: Abe’s animosity toward wearing leather gloves; how much he spoils his youngest son; the unhappiness of his marriage; and the look in his eye when his aides want decisions and instead he digs in his heels and tells a drawling anecdote.

Though the characterization of the eponymous character, as written by Kushner and performed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is mesmerizing, Lincoln is not just a biography of a president but also a biography of radical change — a process story about the passage of the 13th Amendment, with some similarities to earlier types of process stories, like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing,  though more monumental. It turns out that the steps on the road to the abolition of slavery were anything but noble: there are nowhere near enough votes to pass the amendment, and the imminent end of the Civil War hangs over Lincoln’s head, making him fear that those he has freed will be ordered back into servitude if his Emancipation Proclamation has no peacetime equivalent. A point is reached when the only way to secure the needed support for a firm end to slavery is to bribe, threaten, cheat, and deceive. Or in the words of a Lincoln ally near the close of the film: the 13th Amendment was “passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” (Lincoln was never quite a saint, though, as this article shows.)

The sausage-making of politics is not supposed to be palatable to watch, but in this case, the hijinks are quite delightful. Like  the Godfather, or Nixon, honest Abe has to take a back seat so his name cannot  be linked to anything unsavory. This leaves lots of the most dynamic work up to supporting players — who are bursting with vim and vigor, and deliciously well-cast: James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson play three low-lifes  hired to extort co-operation from members of Congress; Peter McRobbie and Lee Pace are vociferous Democratic congressmen staunchly opposed to abolition; Tommy Lee Jones is the radical, hotheaded abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens; Michael Stuhlbarg is a timid politician pressured into doing the right thing; and David Strathairn is the reserved, pragmatic Secretary of State, William  Seward, who finds Lincoln’s plans ill-advised and yet helps make them happen. (His characterization has met with the approval of the director of the historic Seward House, though two significant moments from Seward’s relationship with Lincoln were left out of the film.)

President Lincoln is in almost every scene, and with Day-Lewis in the role he quietly dominates each one. But there is also an enveloping tapestry of Republicans, Democrats, abolitionists, soldiers and advisors, all of them struggling through a uniquely turbulent time. Neurotic Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) is there, adoring yet resenting her husband — she seems to wish she had married a more ordinary man. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s defiant son, ill-suited for following in his dad’s intellectual footsteps. Jared Harris is the Union’s dignified General, Ulysses Grant; Hal Holbrook (who has himself played Lincoln on TV) is Francis Blair, a southern Republican with contacts on the Confederate side (he will later turn Democrat);  and Jackie Earle Haley is a beady-eyed emissary from the South, registering all the humiliation and anger of his people when he realizes slavery — the region’s economic staple — is history.

Though there are ignoble actions going on, there’s never any  doubt in the movie that Lincoln possesses a fundamental morality, that he cares  deeply about ending slavery. He is down-to-earth and modest, but we can see the remarkable person underneath: wise, shrewd, humane, and committed. Day-Lewis plays him as an idiosyncratic but consummate leader who listens intently to  even the humblest interlocutors, his eyes peering into their souls. He is introduced, in fact, at an army base, meeting with soldiers one-on-one. He is the epitome of gentle courtesy and rapt attention, whether listening to his boisterous pre-pubescent son or to a challenging black soldier who wants to make sure Lincoln understands the issues. Yes, it’s a hagiographic depiction, with the  crowd-pleasing humor and warmth that fits so comfortably with a holiday season release, but it’s also a layered portrait, permitted by the director to flower slowly. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln draws people to him simply by thinking, and he manages to radiate energy just sitting and staring at the floor.

And there’s a lot of thinking required. The burdens of leadership weigh heavily upon his shoulders. Like Shakespeare’s Henry V, he likes to perambulate among the common people because he is faced with an awesome responsibility — and difficult choices. The long and winding path to abolition hits a pivotal crossroads when ending the Civil War and ending slavery come to be at odds with each other. Lincoln could engage with the South’s proffered peace delegation right away, or he could delay so as to have  the leverage to pass the amendment. (His public argument having been that the South is fighting to preserve slavery, and that they won’t sue for peace unless they see that slavery is no longer an option, he stands to lose the support of those on the fence, those who don’t care much whether slavery continues or  not.) Lincoln’s dilemma becomes even more terrible and personal when his own son enlists — and Mrs. Lincoln has a meltdown over the prospect of losing a second son in the war.

I had expected Lincoln  to glorify militarism more, especially considering Spielberg’s recent foray into  the First World War. I think he’s consciously trying not to do that: the movie’s very first imagery is the silent ugliness of the Civil War, as soldiers from both the North and the South, the Northern regiment being black, wrestle bitterly in a muddy drizzle. But it’s not actually a war movie: most of the film seems to  take place in wood-paneled drawing rooms and offices, in a dim gloom broken up by cold natural light. The war is referred to frequently but barely glimpsed; it is a merely abstract, background concept. I’m sure Kushner could have  conveyed the horrors of the Civil War if that had been the assignment — besides writing a heart-rending play on Afghanistan, he co-authored the last serious film Spielberg directed, the espionage drama Munich  (an action thriller about a Mossad agent’s soul-searching), and he adapted Bertolt Brecht’s classic anti-war play Mother Courage  in 2006. But that was in fact not the assignment, and at the end of the picture, Lincoln’s speech to the troops, about fighting until every last whiplash is avenged, rings in the air.

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