Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Great Acid Movies #52: THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970)
The weird thing about acid (and its affiliates) is just how life-changing even one experience can be. If our mind can be likened to a big old Victorian house, most of us just live on the first floor. The basement is locked; the attic and second floor bedrooms boarded up. Who knows if rats or squatters are living there? Better not to open them up just in case. Eventually we become convinced the boarded up doors are just walls. Any attempt to open them just fills us with fear, the whole downstairs seems to quake in separation anxiety --where are you?? Come down this instant!
Then, one night, LSD comes along and kicks open the boarded doors, and unlocks the basement and attic, forcing us through the whole house on a sweeping grand tour. It turns out the rest of the rooms in the house aren't dirty and dusty and empty as we thought - but teeming with art, carpets from distant lands, incense and peppermints. Even if we never see those rooms again after we come back down the stairs, we at least know they're there. If we have a bad trip of course, he shows us the basement, where all the slimy monsters live; but there's another set of stairs there that leads down... to the attic - you come out on top, in a spiritual awakening.
Dogmatic shrinks might tell us those newly discovered rooms are all hallucinations, but honey - until you've tried it, you don't get a vote. If a hallucination seems more real than reality, it's at least worth examining, especially when quantum physics shows us just how impossible true objectivity is. I could tell you Portugal doesn't exist. After all, I've never been there. Bush ran his presidency that way and still got a second term, In fact, the appearance of matter is a hallucination anyway; if we could see the world as it really is we'd see not a chair but a frequency spectrum, vibrating waves...
THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970) operates along this line of philosophy, detailing the way LSD's door-kicking habit disrupts the don't ask/don't tell dysfunctional denial-based cohabitation of the all-American middle class family at the end of the 60s. It strikes me as the sort of film where the writers started out as anti-drug 'there is nothing real beyond the first floor' types, the 'I know every inch of my house so don't ask me what's behind those locked doors because there's nothing behind them, ok? Nothing!' types. But then, in the interest of fairness and perception, the filmmaker/s took acid halfway through preparation for shooting and changed their whole attitude. The result is a film divided. It still has the look and feel of an after-school special coupled to an earthy fly-on-the-wall semi-documentary style (ala say, MEDIUM COOL or ZABRISKIE POINT) but runs a deeper, stranger game. It takes the rare arpproach of truly progressive acid movies, and judges both sides as fucked, and runs off to start a whole new thing, balanced without judgement or condemnation, just trust in one another and the ability to fucking listen to each others' true pain.
Must be we're in Canada.
Eli Wallach and Julie Harris play the Masons, high-strung suburbanite parents of acid-dealing musician Artie (Stephen McHattie) and his naive sister, Maxie (Deborah Winters). After a big fight with the family, Artie gives Maxiee her first trip and her parents later find her freaking out in an upstairs closet. Recognizing symptoms of what they've been reading about in hysteria-mongering tabloids, the whole flock rushes to counseling and then bring it all up the next time they get together with their neighbors, who are steeped in enough adulterous affairs and debauched drinking they're bred to ignore and deny--in clouds of pointless self-righteous indignation--that there's a problem, until the patient therapist finally cracks some ICE STORM-style ice and lets the sunshine in.
That said, for all its acumen, PEOPLE NEXT DOOR can't stop beating a dead horse as far as making sure we compare Wallach's sweaty angry dad constantly validating his right to drink, smoke cigarettes (these are the socially sanctioned choices of their generation) and plow pertinent wives vs. the bladerunning between rock and roll Buddahood and psych ward schizophrenia that is his children's teenage wasteland.
The best moment is at the end, when mom comes to visit Maxie in the psych ward and finally realizes her daughter is actually the sanest one in the family, just unable to let go of her bipolar schizo "act" because she's both stubborn and a bit of a showboat. By opening her mind to admit her own need for wider perspective, mom and daughter are able to reach each other at last.
In the end, THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR is not a condemnation or a celebration, perhaps in that sense it's cinema's most compassionate yet non-corny look at aberrant social behavior until William Blatty's THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980). The moral: LSD can be used as an excuse to avoid responsibility just like any other potentially life-affirming drug or event. Metatextually speaking, the film walks it like it talks it, refusing to go the way of many other cautionary acid tales (i.e. GO ASK ALICE) which fall back on old demonizing myths to generate suspense and pacify the establishment, even if once again the family strengthens itself by ostracizing the father, paving the way for our current plague of either gone or feminized fathers. Now more than ever... we need the 70s dad, for all his sexism and drunken mischief, to return.