Thursday, August 19, 2010

When You're Strange. (2009) Tom DiCillo

There are so many reasons to fall in love with film.

There's a hundred different ways to appreciate the medium, which gives someone like me a hundred different ways to describe it. Maybe more.

You can love a film for its form, for its visuals, for the way it uses space and time. You can love it for its message, that there's a core truth there just itching to be talked about -- something you respond to, something that makes your heart flutter and feel wild. You can love it for its heavy editing, or long, extended takes with no editing, or scenes that creatively cut to form a backwards chronology.

You can love it for its romantic characters that you want to fall in love with, too.

You can love it for the sheer power of image as it drips off the screen into your heart.

We love some movies for the joy they bring -- they make us laugh! We love others for their longing, even their sorrow. Some sad movies touch our soul and cause our eyes to well up with tears, when it has been years since we cried before seeing it. We love others for their maze of dream logic, the way they confuse us and make us wander through the labyrinth designs of our mind. (I'm talking to you, Inception!)

In the next few days I'll once again be seeing, and this time writing about Julie Taymor's Titus. It's a film I love for its visual gravity, a sometimes gruelling and dark picture but nonetheless a perfectly imagined eye myth. I love it, too, for the way it brings the rich words of Shakespeare to life.

When I wrote about 35 rhums, which came alive for me in reading someone else's review, I learned how a small, quiet ensemble film made use of repetition and ellipsis, and the more I considered the approach the more beautiful the structure became.

When I described I Am Love, I was blown away at the way it uses various approaches in cinematography which bring spacing to the different storied sections of the film. I was also riveted by Tilda Swinton's amazing, restrained performance. (All of these reasons and I've barely mentioned acting!)

When I wrote about Vincere I talked about the archival footage that was spliced into the narrative -- old black and white WWI footage flying dead-on into the center of a the story, shaking the film from mere history to a stylized dance.

The symbolic language of cinema affects us physically, mentally, spiritually, socially. It has even been known to change minds and inspire revolution.

The way the following film got to me was through its music. As English essayist and critic Walter Pater noted, "All art aspires to the condition of music." When You're Strange would be a good little doc on a nice little band, if it weren't for the particular music of this particular band, which makes the film, and thus the art, great.

Music moves over us in so many ways. It can soothe, comfort, arouse, bring anger, cause us to rebel at injustice, cause us to rebel at our parents. Music washes over us and brings inspiration, madness, beauty, chaos. Arcade Fire is creating a lot of memorable, loving havoc in my life right now.

When wrapped in the lush confines of celluloid, music makes the possibilities endless.

I've loved The Doors since first hearing Steve Taylor's song, "Jim Morrison's Grave," years ago. Hearing their music today, Taylor rightly points out, is, "like a watch still ticking on a dead man's wrist." It is timeless because it captures the ethos of a particular era. It puts it in a frame, a picture of another time, like Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette on a gallery wall -- but culturally violent, dark and stained, a picture of escape from cursed ruin.

Hearing The Doors today helps us relate to a harsh moment in American history where all seemed lost, fractured, crippled -- and out of control, too, thanks to rock music, hippie culture, and the youth movement. Studying the band with the narrating help of Johnny Depp, When You're Strange extracts a great deal of archival footage from their five or six short years together. In watching the clips from the time they were made we relate not only to the band, but to sixties insanity as well.

Any time I see a documentary regarding events from, say, 1965-1974, I think to myself, "These people are absolute nutter-butters." I think UFOs and cows tripping over the moon. Lock up each and every person, because the good folk from this era are as gone as Pink Floyd.

Music and its makers pushed at the need for revolution. Were The Doors really a part of that? You don't really think of them immediately in that way. When you think of Jim Morrison you think of a bearded burned out poet, drunk and reciting lyrics about an Oedipal nightmare into a mirror by candlelight. But when you go back through the albums you'll find songs that captured the heart of the need for revolution: "Five to One" and “Unknown Soldier" are the quickest examples that come to mind.

We need a revolution today just like they needed one then. But we are much more rich and apathetic than the kids of the sixties. One might idolize a time like the sixties, thinking, "Yeah, well, at least they did something." But if films like The Most Dangerous Man in America and The U.S. vs. John Lennon and When You're Strange are an indication of what it might look like to actually have a cultural revolution right here and right now -- wow. I can't decide whether all that insanity is a better course of action or not. Do we really want kids shot on college campuses here because they want change there?

There is little doubt that if things went down the way they're shown in When You're Strange, you might as well be out of your mind on acid and let the pretend demons drown out the literal ones. And that is essentially what happened to Jim Morrison. He had to escape it all: his own inflated rock-god ego, the insanity of being a human and being worshipped, greedy men that wanted a hand in his pocket, corrupt politics and institutions, a self-righteous church, the movements, the war, and his Air Force father whom he obviously feared. His way to escape all this was simply to let it all hang out, to push his depravity as far as he could, and to let his mind melt dead in the face of alcohol and drugs.

This film can be loved, even celebrated, for a great rock and roll band and their great music, yes. But it is also an excellent chronology on what and when things went wrong for the band. We see Jim slip into chaos. We see band mates that want to help but are unable to. We see him taunt crowds, enjoy rioting atmospheres, even incite the fans into his own turmoil. Over the years the band went from THE MUSIC to THE SPECTACLE. It is only natural the spectacle would eventually collapse on itself.

The documentary presents events that are portrayed closer to the Oliver Stone biopic than I thought. That is very cool -- I've often wondered how close that stylized film is.

There is no doubt these guys were one of the first great dark bands that blew flower power out the window and sought both reality and escape from reality. They were skeptical of hope, living in the dark, pointing to it everywhere. The dark was reality at that time. The only known escape was to zone out.

It's too bad Morrison had to let the reality of the times completely tear his life apart, leaving him dead at the age of twenty-seven. It's too bad he couldn't really be part of the answer. Too beaten by the world and so enraptured in his insanity, he couldn't recognize that reality changes as we change reality.

Thanks for the music, Jim. Still, I feel for you. For the hard life you lived, for the hard life you brought on yourself. We've still got a piece of you in the legacy of music you left behind. I'm thinking it was a more beautiful contribution than you could even fathom.

May you rest in peace.

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