Like “My Architect” (which, coincidentally, was also billed at the Hamptons fest), “The Morrison Project” — a documentary made by the progeny of an extraordinary, bizarre father — functions as both a testament and therapy. But while architect Louis Kahn left monuments of grace and beauty, writer Jean Morrison’s legacy was one of pain, abuse and addiction. Winner of the Golden Starfish award for best documentary, Amy Morrison Williams’ clear-eyed structuring of past, highly emotional, quasi-sensationalistic domestic happenings make pic a shoo-in for cable, although redundancies and occasional wobbliness of historical perspective may limit theatrical chances.
“Project” paints a dual portrait of a ravaged household (the eight members of the Morrison clan) and a toxic environment (the Lower East Side of the ’60s and ’70s). Starting with a montage of striking black-and-white photos of Morrison taken by longtime friend and sometime narrator John Rosenthal, docu introduces a complex figure — beat writer, neighbor of Allen Ginsberg and other counterculture luminaries, professor of German philosophy, Kafka scholar, musician, linguist, philanderer — who charmed and fascinated everyone he met.
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The older children who remember this Morrison speak with nostalgia of his dazzling if sporadic eruptions into their lives.
But, it seems, everything changed when a jealous husband of one of Morrison’s many extramarital conquests ambushed Jean, whacking him repeatedly on the back of the head with a steel plate. The brilliant intellectual was transformed into a brain-damaged, violent, bitter man who regularly brutalized his offspring.
What had been alibied as artistic suffering now was perceived as outright grinding poverty, a financial desperation greatly exacerbated by the wounded Morrison’s inability to earn a living and the need to keep up with the cost of his medication. To compound the problem, the Morrison brood were minority white kids in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, and everyone took turns beating them up.
Wife/mother Joelle, holding down several jobs to support the Morrison bunch, was largely absent, and the kids, under attack both inside and outside the home, developed coping mechanisms that may have helped in the short term but were crippling in the long. Helmer Morrison Williams alternates old photos of her family with modern interview footage of four out of the surviving five now 30- and 40-year-old siblings, all veterans of drug or alcohol recovery programs, who recount the fallout. She adds her face and voice to the mix.
Wisely delaying many revelations for late in the docu, Williams reveals several crucial elements of Jean Morrison’s backstory at a point in the film when it fits into a larger context of addiction and dependency. It turns out that Morrison served as a young Marine in Korea and his experiences there resulted in self-loathing, nightmares and a heavy amphetamine habit which contributed to the womanizing that ultimately proved to be his downfall.
Even more surprising is the late-breaking discovery that Jean Morrison himself is alive and living with his daughter/filmmaker as, finally, he takes center-stage to speak for himself (he subsequently died some months after the film was completed).
As long as pic stays concentrated on the family, slight stylistic indulgences and inconsistencies of technique come off as minor glitches in a compelling real-life drama. But when Morrison Williams inexplicably inserts several video montages of mural-covered locales in present-day Lower East Side, she not only confuses the time-frame, but she calls into question the absence of any contemporaneous ’60s and ’70s footage of the neighborhood. Indeed, the very narrowness of focus that makes pic so intense sabotages its offhand attempts at historical relevance.
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