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. I frankly think you're all hallucinating! Sort of how Bush ran his presidency! 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 strikes me as the sort of film where the writers started out as foyer 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, and then took acid halfway through the movie and changed their minds. It's got the look and feel of an after-school special, but runs a deeper game.
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 sis her first trip and her parents later find Maxie's blown her mind out in a closet, and the whole flock rushes to counseling and to talk to the neighbors, who are mixed up with Masons in a loose ring of adulterous affairs and debauched drinking they're bred to ignore and deny in clouds of pointless self-righteous indignation 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 sleep around 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 "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 (Similar to Michael Douglas at his daughter's NA meeting at the end of TRAFFIC: "We're here to listen" only it goes both ways).
In the end, THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR is not a condemnation or a celebration, and it's more than either, probably 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 micro-managerial or totally absent fathers (with so little in between).