Jim Morrison's Unfinished Opus?
There is a charming little film called 1969, in which a character played by a very young Keifer Sutherland makes the observation that the 60s didnt really come to his fictional little Maryland town until the decade was nearly over. I remember being struck by this statement at the time I first watched the film, as this was the case with the sleepy little New England town in which I grew up, and I imagine it was also true of many other sleepy little American towns. Nonetheless, it is a fact which is for the most part overlooked in the almost super-human efforts many have since taken to prove they were a part of that timing. In retrospect, it has become cliché that the time period we call the 60s was a unique period in which the world as we knew it changed completely. Of course there were some moments which at the time were clear would be of historical significance - JFKs assassination, landing on the moon - for the most part however, those who were a part of the time went about their usual business of living life in the moment, without giving a second thought to what might or might not be made of the time later.
To me, the early light shows of the time period have always provided a perfect metaphor for the 60s. Nothing could be more thoroughly unsophisticated, and yet so unique than one of these productions, accomplished by mixing oil with colored water atop an overhead projector. While completely revolutionary, the art form was at the same time almost laughable for its naiveté. And this too is an aspect of the 60s which is now completely forgotten - the fact that we were all so naive, finding our way through a political, cultural and social revolution with nothing but the glow at the end of a joint and our lava lamps by which to see.
Another much overlooked aspect of the time period is that one had to be of a certain age to really experience the 60s. Those who were not yet old enough to be dealing with the issue of sex, or who were old enough to have achieved a certain level of comfort with their participation in sex, missed out on one of the most important aspects of the timing - a particular confusion, even disorientation, which came from growing up in the repression and expectations of the 50s, only to be handed a previously unknown freedom to experiment - and just at the time when these questions are most perplexing, even without having ones entire reality turned upside down.
But this is not a treatise on the 60s - at least not to any degree greater than that which is necessary to view this film with some understanding, for a work of art is a product of its time, and must be evaluated within the context of its timing - to attempt any critical analysis without this factor is absolute folly. HWY never had the advantage of being viewed in the context of its own time, and it is unlikely there is any time period with more potential than the 60s to be misunderstood, or to be the victim of revisionism. Since then, we have lost any memory of the naiveté which was inherent in the very fabric of life experience. We have become sophisticated to the point of being jaded, even bored - a perspective from which we can have no possible understanding of the art, the thought, or the lives of that time.
By its very nature, art is experimental. And experimentation is always a risk. A creative genius with the courage to be truly experimental is just as likely to produce the occasional goose egg as he is the masterpiece, and many believe that this is the case with HWY. Indeed, this is possibly an element of it, but I believe there is a lot more to it than that. One critical element which is often overlooked is the nature of experimental film making during the 60s. While all artists attempt the unique, filmmakers during the 60s had a big advantage, in that film was still in its infancy in comparison to other media. Music, performance, and other forms of visual art had a history of centuries, while the totality of film making history was barely more than half a century. Yet the average experimental film of the 60s might employ unusual camera and editing techniques, or make a concerted effort to be more open to improvisation than had previously been the case. HWY, on the other hand, was a grand experiment in capturing the flow of consciousness in the moment - a revolutionary concept as both art form and spiritual journey - and something which could not have been accomplished in any other way than to allow the film to take on the life of its own which Jim spoke of in interviews. Taken in this context, HWY can only be viewed as cutting-edge.
It is difficult to get those who have seen this film to talk about it. I have heard everything from polite excuses to outright shock expressed with regard to it. Some who have viewed this film have described the experience as embarrassing, with the underlying implication that perhaps Jim wasnt the filmmaker he would have liked to believe he was. But there is evidence to suggest that any such conclusion is premature. Michael McClure worked on a screenplay for his novel The Beard with Jim, and had some interesting observations about Jims methods which I believe shed a great deal of light on the purpose of the film. McClure said that Jims suggestion (for The Beard) was that they produce an outline, followed by a treatment, and then a script, but in the interest of saving time, McClure opted to go straight to the script. He later expressed regret for that decision, believing that the work suffered for this omission. He went on to express his great respect for Jims methods and talent in this regard.
This leads me to question the original intent of making this film. The majority of those who have expressed their disappointment with HWY have I believe, gone on the assumption that it was a completed, or nearly completed work. While others conjecture that perhaps the film was not in a state of completion, I believe it had a far different purpose altogether - that it was a preliminary creative exercise, which was never intended to be viewed as anything like a finished work, but rather can be compared to one of many sketches an artist might make in the process of developing a concept for a work, rather than the work itself. My theory is that the intention was to take the ideas which came from this experiment, and use them to develop a story, or part of a story for a future project. This methodology is far more in alignment with what we know of Jims working habits - both as described by McClure, and also from his writing techniques. Jim did not dash off his poetry. He allowed the original ideas to flow, and then develop over time, re-writing the work until he felt his choice of words and form accurately captured the subtleties of the thoughts and feelings he wished to convey. Due to these factors, I believe that making any assumption beyond HWY as a preliminary sketch, as it were, would be a mistake.
Ultimately, of course, short of any information which might be provided by Frank Lisciandro, Babe Hill or Paul Ferrara, we cannot truly know. But I find it interesting nonetheless, that this little film of Jims has surfaced after all these years to provide the only experience his fans can know of Jims proclivity to provoke discomfort in those around him - so even if it cannot provide any true indication of his abilities as a filmmaker, for no other reason than this, I find it a very valuable work indeed.
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