Queen of the Highway
When Jim Morrison died in 1971, he left behind a will, with simple instructions that the rights to his intellectual property, including all of his writings and his share of the rights to the music of the Doors, were to go to his so-called “soul mate,” Pamela Courson. Being a heroin junkie, Pamela’s time on earth was destined to be brief. When she died of an overdose three years later, she left no will. The rights to Morrison’s work reverted to Pamela’s next of kin, her father, Columbus “Corky” Courson. The parents of Jim Morrison sued the Coursons numerous times over the years to get their share of the estate. They finally won, and the rights were split. Yet, Corky remains the executor of the estate to this day.
Pam’s father took on his new assignment as guardian of Morrison’s work with gusto. During the making of The Doors, Courson proved troublesome to director Oliver Stone. According to James Riordan’s Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker (ISBN: 078686026X), “The Coursons weren’t at all pleased with Stone’s script and tried to slow the production down. The producers had already agreed not to portray Pamela Courson as having anything to do with Morrison’s death. The family didn’t want Pam to be shown taking drugs in the film. Though she died of an overdose, the family believed that the trauma of her lover’s death had driven her to the drug. Stone disagreed, whereupon the Coursons refused to let him use Morrison’s later poetry. They wanted to exchange the poetry for more control over the film, and he refused.”
Corky has released Morrison’s writings over the years in drips and drabs, but he still sits on a wealth of priceless material. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek told Rockmine Magazine, “[The surviving Doors] are not in control of James Douglas Morrison Publishing Incorporated Corporation; that belongs to Corky Courson. So, there’s a sixty-five year-old retired high school principal that has Jim Morrison’s poetry and he’s been cataloguing it and categorizing it for the last decade. There were boxes of stuff. He has it all, and he’s done absolutely nothing with it.”
Unfortunately, Courson’s legal control of the Morrison work is not limited to his writings. It also includes Jim’s one attempt at cinematic expression, his legendary 1969 experimental film, HWY: An American Pastoral.
Killer on the Road
Already getting a taste of filmmaking while attending UCLA with Ray Manzarek, Paul Ferrara, and Frank Lisciandro, Morrison and The Doors found themselves featured in 1969’s Feast of Friend. Created by Lisciandro, Ferrara, and Ferrara’s high school chum Babe Hill, the film is an underrated documentary, with glimpses of a performance by The Doors that caused a near-riot. Well shot and edited, and loaded with classic Doors tunes throughout, it still has yet to see the light of a legitimate video release.
Inspired by this cinematic excursion, Morrison founded his own production company (in order to keep these efforts as a separate entity from The Doors) and hired Lisciandro, Hill, and Ferrara to help him create a new, fictional work. Writing and financing the project on his own, production of HWY began in the spring of 1969.
A stark 50-minute-long film with little dialogue, HWY abundantly references ’60s cinema. Present are influences of Jodorowsky, Antonioni, Warhol, Anger, Godard, and Brakhage. In this way, HWY will likely have a much deeper meaning to experimental film students than to the average Doors fan.
In a 1969 interview with Howard Smith, Morrison summarized the film: “Essentially, there’s no plot, no story in the traditional sense; a person, played by me, comes down out of the mountains and hitchhikes his way through the desert into a modern city, which happens to be L.A., and that’s where it ends.”
“The only reason I [acted in HWY] is because I couldn’t think of anyone else to do it, you know, and it was just as easy for me to do it. I might do some films. I don’t know. I’m not that crazy about being an actor, I’d rather be a director or a writer, something like that, but you know, if I had the chance, I’d probably do a few films. Why not?”
As with any experimental film, no written description can do it proper justice. The easiest way to describe the film is as a synopsis.
00:00Full moon in daylight, a jet contrail rips across the blue afternoon sky.
01:00A waterfall and a small pond. Jim swims calmly as a piper plays on the soundtrack. Jim emerges, stands up out of the water: He is wearing his infamous Leather Pants!
02:00Slow zoom in on a tree, with a peace symbol carved into the bark.
02:30Jim rests on the shore, laying back, using his coat for a pillow, as an “Om” plays on the soundtrack, strongly reminiscent of El Topo.
02:45Jim sits on a sandbank, getting dressed. The rocks in the background are graffiti-ed with names and numbers. The music changes and becomes joyful and jazzy, as Jim walks out of the canyon. He looks up and watches the plane pass overhead.
06:00Jim sits on the grass, under a tree, chewing on a twig, contemplative.
07:00A long shot of Jim hitchhiking goes on for several minutes as we hear his famous rap about witnessing an Indian car crash as a child (as heard on An American Prayer, an album of spoken-word poetry backed by Doors music).
13:00Jim plays “toreador” with his coat, using passing cars as “bulls.”
14:00Jim investigates the desert. He finds a “walking stick” and scratches the sand with it.
16:00Jim emerges from a car buried partially in the sand, and then throws a large boulder onto it. He jumps up and down on the roof, ending with a pirouette before jumping off.
17:00The hitchhiker stands by the side of the road and levels his thumb in the calm calculus of reason. A GT500Mustang pulls over. Driver’s POV as Jim grins at him expectantly through the passenger-side window, then enters the car.
18:00POV shots driving through the desert, eyes on the road, hand upon the wheel. “Bald Mountain,” a great folksy tune written and performed by Paul and Georgia Ferrera, plays on the soundtrack.
20:00Flash cut to Jim driving. The owner of the car has disappeared...
21:00Jim in a roadside store, examining a rack of books. He spins the rack slowly, and the camera lovingly pans over the titles, as the rack starts to “whine” rustily. The sound continues into the next scene.
22:00A helicopter flies overhead in the afternoon sun, as motorists stop and gather around a small coyote that has been hit by a car. The “whine” of the bookrack has turned into an unearthly whining on the soundtrack, as Jim looks around uneasily and then walks into the sunlight, silhouetted against it for an instant. The coyote trembles, dying.
24:00The highpoint of the film: A sudden jump cut to Jim, driving the car at breakneck speed, slamming a beer. He lets out a fierce and truly spine-chilling scream (which blends on the soundtrack with a vicious, animalistic growl) as if the spirit of the coyote has jumped into him. The scream continues for several incredible seconds as Morrison’s face twists into a demonic grimace, eyes rolling back in his head. When he finally ends it, a lascivious, self-satisfied satyr leer crosses his face, and he calmly continues to drink.
25:00Desert driving and “doing donuts” in the sand.
26:00Jim stops for a second, looks around, then drives off again as an unearthly tumult blares on the soundtrack.
26:30Jim dances Indian-style with a group of children.
27:00The camera takes the children’s POV, as Jim looks back at them from the window of the car. He grins and drives on.
28:00Scorpio Risin’: The leather-clad legs of the Lizard King as he hovers over a map in the middle of the night, with the headlights of the car in the background.
30:00Jim pulls into a gas station, gets out and greets the elderly attendant cheerfully, “Ahhh... hot motherfucker, ain’t it?” He shares a smoke with another attendant and shows him his walking stick. He pays with a (stolen?) credit card, looks back through the window at the camera and, with a friendly wave, he drives on.
32:00POV traveling shot through driver’s window while churchly organ music fills the soundtrack.
33:00More POV through the driver’s window, as we start to enter L.A. in the afternoon. The soundtrack is a changing blend of children laughing, a preacher giving a sermon, the various sounds of the city in passing. This rather impressive sequence goes on for several minutes and has a similar quality to some of the traveling shots in Easy Rider. Yards, slums, resorts by the ocean, police directions, organ music, seagulls, chime music.
40:00A time-lapse shot of an L.A. street corner, afternoon to evening. Prominent in the shot is a sign, “Phone Booth.”
42:00Distant shot of the phone booth with Jim inside. On the soundtrack, he “confesses” to poet Michael McClure about a killing in the desert. (This famous sound clip also appears on An American Prayer).
45:00The Lizard King takes a piss.
46:00Jim stands outside of a club, talking with others and smoking. “Is this T.J. or L.A.? I get mixed up sometime.”
48:00Now inside of the club, Jim takes an elevator, turns to the camera, talking and grinning while jazz plays in the background.
49:00Jim’s dark silhouette against the Los Angeles skyline as he dances dangerously. He is literally “on the edge,” seventeen stories above Sunset Boulevard.
50:00Shots of the city at night, getting closer and closer, as air-raid sirens scream and bombs explode on the soundtrack. Without further fanfare (or end credits), the movie is over.
Enough to Base a Movie On?
“It’s an uncommercial type film,” Morrison told the Los Angeles Free Press in 1970. “I had always been fascinated with a story of a hitchhiker who becomes a mass murderer. I set out to make that film but it turned into a different film. A much more subtle fantasy.”
The potential for enjoyment of HWY depends on your patience. If you are familiar with the pacing of experimental films and it doesn’t bother you, then you’ll probably find HWY very interesting. If you are looking at it from the sole perspective of a Doors fan, you might find about ten minutes of it riveting and be bored stiff the rest of the time.
Morrison biographer (and professional sycophant) Danny Sugerman definitely falls into the latter category. “I always thought it would be cool to cut and edit the best parts to “L.A. Woman” and “Riders on the Storm.” But then everyone would complain, ‘you edited it, we wanted to see the whole thing.’ You don’t want to see the whole thing. An hour of Jim hitchhiking. Jim pissing. A dead coyote. I love watching Jim and I can’t watch HWY for a third time.”
“[The filmmakers] went to the desert to shoot “ten minutes,” got stoned on mushrooms, and shot hours and hours of Jim hitchhiking. Jim wasn’t great at formatting; he needed an editor and a director. Unfortunately, Paul Ferrara was a great cameraman, but Frank Lisciandro was no filmmaker and it shows. Interesting only as a glimpse of Jim during this period and how unfocused he became without some disciplined, Apollonian sensibility working with him. Ray, Robby and John took his ideas and refined and expanded on them, making them coalesce and work. Frank, Paul and Babe were, alas, incapable of providing him this support in this film endeavor.”
The voice of opposition to this narrow-minded view of the film is Lisciandro, who told Cashiers du Cinemart, “Poetry is not for every taste, nor is HWY. Morrison seemed to have his own notions about images, storytelling, and pacing in a film, and I believe that his style had its origins in poetry. As a poet, he used imagery, symbolism, allusion, allegory, metaphor, and rhythm to create a poem. He brought these tools to the making of HWY.
“However, Jim was not a film technician, although he knew the importance of lighting, camera placement, editing, etc. He didn’t say, ‘Put the camera here and I’ll walk over there.’ Instead we would discuss the scene, look at the location, all of us make suggestions, and walk through the action. Paul Ferrara would indicate where he thought the camera should go; I would ask for places in the scene where I could make cuts. For example, I’d request that Jim walk into the shot or that in the next shot we needed to change the camera angle for a close-up. In all of this, he trusted us to do our jobs.
“The film wasn’t made in a conventional way. It was improvised from a Morrison scenario, which he had entitled “The Hitchhiker.” At no time during the filming of (what is now called) “HWY” did any of us believe that the film was to be completed in a few days of shooting. We considered this initial production phase a warm-up for the actual filming of the scenario, which included other characters and many more locations.
“We went out to the desert near Palm Springs, California to shoot some scenes and put together a sort of trailer for the film that he wanted to make. Our idea was that once a studio or independent film producer saw what we had created, they would fund the production with Jim as the screenwriter/actor and the rest of us as the primary crewmembers. We shot at an incredible ratio of about 1.5:1. Most everything in HWY was done in one take.
“While editing the film, I added whatever music or sound effects I felt the scenes needed, drawing from my own collection of ethnic music and effects. It had become my practice to add bits of music and other sounds to a film as it was being edited. Jim mostly approved of whatever I added. His enthusiasm spurred me to find other sound textures, which eventually were mixed with the music that Fred Myrow composed and recorded.
“We edited the footage, added music, sound effects and a title sequence, and made prints. By the time the editing started, Jim was certain that the original footage contained what he wanted to say. Despite our opposition, he was adamant about his refusal to continue shooting more scenes, although many more scenes were originally (and often) discussed.
“Maybe he just ran out of money and felt he had done enough to show potential investors what he could do as an actor and filmmaker. I had the feeling that he was very pleased with the way the editing was progressing; and that he became aware that with these arid, symbolic scenes he was establishing his signature as a filmmaker.
“Each phase of the production of the film was more or less unstructured. Every moment was an opportunity to be spontaneous and creative and to try new techniques and approaches. This method of filmmaking might sound unprofessional, undisciplined, and somewhat haphazard. However, it allowed us to shake off preconceived and UCLA-learned rules of how a film should be made. The result is a work that doesn’t look like a traditional film, that has little or no narrative, and that forces the audience out of their habitual stare-at-the-screen-and-be-entertained passivity.
“Viewing HWY is unlike watching TV. The experience is more like reading a ’difficult’ poem where the meaning, or meanings, is not readily accessible. The enjoyment of poetry consists, at least in some part, in the intellectual and intuitive exercise of unraveling and understanding the poet’s symbols, references, and metaphors.”
As a lifelong Doors fan, I had always wanted to see HWY. It only had a very few semi-public showings. At a Morrison anniversary celebration in Paris a few years ago, a screening of HWY caused a near riot outside the small theatre showing it, such was the demand for a viewing. Recently, (for the 30th anniversary of Morrison’s death) it was shown once again in this manner in Paris, in a theatre with only 400 seats! And in the mid-’90s, it appears to have been shown at an Italian film festival (due, no doubt, to the valiant efforts of Lisciandro, who resides there). Otherwise, the film has remained “lost” for over three decades, needlessly rotting away in the private vault of Corky Courson... until now.
Late in 2000, rumors began to surface on Usenet groups: video transfers of HWY were finding their way into the hands of avid collectors. According to these rumors, the copy was a time-coded vault print. Lisciandro reportedly claimed that it originated from him, and that the original had been stolen from him. During our interview, Lisciandro refused to comment on this subject. However, throughout his e-mail exchanges with CdC, he was insistent on knowing where we had heard these rumors, and the identities of anyone selling copies of HWY. Unfortunately, he seemed more concerned with suppressing bootlegs than with correcting the injustice of this film’s suppression from the public. At the same time, he seems to be one of the few people who really care about the film’s fate.
When I first heard of bootleg copies cropping up, I knew that the film was at last about to surface on the Net. Being a collector of ultrarare cinema, I launched a campaign to locate as pristine a copy of it as possible. Before long, I found it (from a source who shall remain nameless). The copy came at a hefty price. Very hefty. After some financial juggling, I paid the asking price. The picture and sound quality of the VHS version is very good, with a few minor glitches here and there.
Meanwhile, a group of Doors bootleg collectors calling themselves the “Carnival Dogs” also secured a copy of the film (their source is unknown). The Carnival Dogs fancy themselves on a moral mission to wipe out the unauthorized selling of Doors recordings. They devised the idea of distributing free copies of HWY via a bizarre (and nearly incomprehensible) “tree” scheme, mass-producing video CD bootlegs of the film and sending them out to other collectors. Their justification was that this would eliminate the “profiteers,” because if enough copies made their way around, nobody would have to pay for it-a nice sounding, albeit impractical idea. The only way that bootlegging will stop is when the film receives a legitimate release.
After investigation, it became apparent that the Carnival Dogs is composed mostly of college students, “led” by Robert Lang, of Boston University. Lang has sent threatening e-mails to other bootleggers in the past. One such e-mail, posted on a public newsgroup by the recipient, reads as follows: “I belong to a group that is committed to putting the profit-making scumbag bootleggers out of business. We are constantly monitoring these internet auctions and sales for these culprits. Once identified, their info is passed on to The Doors’ management who, in turn, calls their legal services to protect their rights. This isn’t the first time people tried to steal from the dead, and Mr. Courson was successful in not only getting these sales knocked out of ebay.com but two individuals landed in court with very large fines.”
When questioned directly about such statements, Lang admitted to CdC that he was less than truthful: “This was an outright lie/scare tactic, but I wish it were true. I’ve been told that it’s fact that they have stopped illicit sales of HWY in the past. It was Corky who got involved and took action.”
For the sake of comparison, I obtained a VCD version from the Carnival Dogs. The VCD is mediocre at best: muddy, washed out, unfocused, artifacted. Its online origins are obvious.
Take It As It Comes
Now that HWY has become available, the debate has been raging over the probity of bootlegging such a significant entry in American independent cinema. Some self-righteous individuals believe that HWY breaking into the bootleg video market is a bad thing. Patricia Butler, author of Angels Dance and Angels Die: The Tragic Romance of Pamela and Jim Morrison (ISBN: 0825672708), a soap opera-ish book about Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson’s relationship, has stated publicly, “No one deserves to have their rights violated just because a relatively miniscule segment of the general population wants to satisfy its curiosity.”
I have a different opinion. I believe this is “poetic” justice. The only crimes being committed are by Columbus “Corky” Courson and the people who defend his “right” to bury this film. After investigating this story, it is painfully obvious that the Morrison estate is controlled by a clueless old man from Santa Barbara, California who never should have been given the rights to Morrison’s work in the first place. Courson only received these rights by “benefit” of his daughter’s relationship with Morrison and her untimely death.
Will HWY ever get the legitimate release it deserves? Says Lisciandro, “When the bootleg sales of HWY started over the Internet, I initiated a campaign to convince the copyright owners to allow an official release of the film. I think it’s going to happen sooner than later.”
Fortunately, the Doors organization has been making efforts to put out a lot of unreleased Doors material in “authorized” releases under their Bright Midnight label (http://www.thedoors.com), and for that I applaud them. Currently working for The Doors management, Danny Sugerman has a major influence on what is released and in what form (uncut as Morrison meant it to be, or sliced and diced, as Sugerman would apparently prefer it). “I hope that the Estate will let the Doors use it for Bright Midnight’s release of Feast of Friend on DVD and home video. We have a good print at least.”
The film is there, complete, and that’s how it should be released. It should belong to the world... but until then, the world will have to resort to watching it via bootleg video.