The music of The Doors has a timeless appeal. Born in an era of technological innovation, distant conflict, charismatic cult figures, and social transformation, the band’s enigmatic frontman, Jim Morrison, tapped into the dark underbelly of the American cultural imagination, dredging a literary and cinematic heritage that has allowed them to take on enduring universal appeal. While much is made of Morrison’s musical contribution, less is known about his initial interest in cinema.
There was a time, after all, when Morrison was debating pursuing a career in filmmaking. ”Cinema returns us to anima, religion of matter, which gives each thing its special divinity and sees gods in all things and beings,” he once wrote “Cinema, heir of alchemy, last of an erotic science’.”
Morrison believed that film would offer him the necessary outlet for his poetic ambitions. So, in 1964, he decided to enrol as a film student at UCLA. Misunderstood by his fellow students and criticised by his teachers, he found his experimentalism was not recieved in the way he had expected. Indeed, the only film he managed to make at UCLA caused an uproar when it was screened in front of his senior class in May 1965.
The film opens with a group of priests chanting in a circle. It then abruptly cuts to a TV test pattern before cutting once again to a group of men smoking and watching a pornographic film. After Morrison is seen taking a huge toke on a joint, his eyes bulge. The film cuts to footage of an atomic explosion, followed by a sequence in which a blonde woman gives a striptease in front of a TV screening footage of SS officers marching in tight formation. As you can imagine, the screening did not go well.
While his time at UCLA did not lead to a career as a celebrated film director, it did introduce Morrison to the films of Josef Von Sternberg, who had tutored at UCLA until 1963. He often wrote of the director’s films in his journal, noting how much he’d enjoyed The Blue Angel, The Devil Is A Woman, and his all-time favourite, Anatahan. Set in Japan, this mesmeric piece of meta-cinema tells the story of twelve Japanese seamen who, in the summer of 1944, are stranded on an abandoned island called Anatahan and, during their seven-year stay, undertake a battle for supremacy that will cost them their lives.
Morrison was likely attracted to the flagrant artificiality at the heart of Anatahan. The film is very obviously set in an artificial jungle environment, the fakeness of which the director voluntarily clarifies with a title card reading: “in a studio constructed for this purpose in Kyoto.”
At the same time, Von Sternberg begins narrating the action in the style of a documentary filmmaker, although he has also previously established that we are in the realms of narrative film. Morrison was a big fan of Cinéma vérité – a form of documentary filmmaking – so its little wonder this particular aspect of Anatahan appealed to him. On release, the film was lambasted by critics, and today it is rarely mentioned outside film buff circles. Still, it’s well worth a watch – not least because it was the last film Von Sternberg ever made.