Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014
noxSquare

One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970′s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.





Seriously – Godzilla

27 05 2014
fanart by vladgheneli

fanart by vladgheneli

Warning: giant radioactive spoilers

I figured I’d better chime in on the new Godzilla movie. He’s kind of the mascot of this blog. I want to take him seriously, even though his movies tend to be aggressively ridiculous. Thankfully, Godzilla (2014) is not. At no time does the movie wink at itself with campy meta humor. For that feat alone, I can forgive the movie’s flaws. Bottom line: the story makes sense, the characters act like people, the effects are convincing, and the monsters are glorious.

Some of my favorite people online were disappointed that it wasn’t more of a horror/disaster movie, that instead Godzilla becomes a heroic figure. I do agree that there should have been room in the film for a more catastrophic, force-of-nature aspect of Godzilla. However, when I realized that there was more than one monster in the movie, I was absolutely elated. The film essentially jumps into sequel territory right away, which is a bold choice by Hollywood standards. But honestly, do we really need an origin story for Godzilla? Do we really need a whole movie of throwing ineffective planes and tanks his way? I was thrilled that this movie went straight to kaiju-wrasslin and Godzilla as both threat and protector.

Some of the plot was awkward. Some promising background elements were undeveloped. My biggest complaint is that the monster scenes were often cut short for no good reason. Individuals generally made rational decisions, while institutions made terrible ones, which to me feels true to life.

I’ve heard that a sequel has been green lit. They will have to bring in another classic monster. My favorite was always Gidorah, but it’s hard to imagine Legendary Pictures finding a workable rationale for a deeply weird monster from space. I predict Godzilla and Mothra teaming up against a new adversary.

What would be really cool is for a rival studio to make a Gamera movie. Warner Brothers? How about it?

 

 





Obsessives Anonymous

21 05 2014

Silence of the Lambs was on recently. I like that movie, mostly for Hannibal Lecter. I am a fan of monsters, from towering atomic lizards to human beings ruled by inhuman impulses. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs is a great monster; alien, powerful, horrifying yet sympathetic.

I went on a little Hannibal kick and dug out my paperback Red Dragon, which I hadn’t read for 20 years or so. The writing wasn’t to my taste as much as it once was, but I read on, happily anticipating the Lecter scenes, figuring I would reread the whole trilogy. But I got to Lecter, and was disappointed. He seemed much more materialistic and petty, not so much the lethally wise enigma Hopkins brought to life. I have a lot of books to read, so I put Red Dragon away.

The other movies with Hopkins as Lecter don’t quite measure up either. Something magical happened in Silence of the Lambs, some confluence of acting, co-acting, writing, directing, cinematography, I don’t know what all. But that quintessential Hannibal Lecter exists in that film, and nowhere else. I wanted more of him, more of Clarice, more FBI vs Hannibal, but there is no more to be had. I decided it’s better to enjoy the one movie that really speaks to me than to chase pale imitations.

This is a new behavior for me, with a range of applications. There are many books, comics, movies, and tv series that I enjoy deeply. Many of those are media-crossing franchises. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an obsessive fan. I have seen obsessive fans, some of them are my good friends, and there are levels of collecting and consuming and trivia-mining that I don’t come anywhere near. Still, I have been known to latch onto a book or a show like an escapism-eating lamprey. And once latched on, I’ve been known to eagerly scarf up every new iteration on screen or page. And the experience is almost always disappointing.

The king of this phenomenon is obviously George Lucas. But like the houses of Westeros, plenty of others are vying for the throne. Steven Moffat is gradually ruining Doctor Who. DC comics have placed their faith in crummy filmmakers. Peter Jackson is burying The Hobbit in bloated sub-plots and self-indulgent special effects. Such is the way of the world. A great story maintaining its greatness for many volumes and across media is miraculous. Of course it doesn’t happen every day.

I used to pin gigantic hopes on newly minted iterations of my favorite stories, like all my happiness depended on the film or the sequel or the series finale getting it right. And sometimes they do get it right, and I will always find that thrilling. But if they blow it, they blow it. Whatever version of the story I fell in love with still exists. I will not require it to update or expand to keep me interested.

Now I’m off to see Godzilla!

 

 

 





Prejudgey Critic vs Saving Mr. Banks

5 12 2013

So, it’s a movie from the world’s largest entertainment behemoth, about said behemoth’s founder at his cuddliest, trying to get a flakey artist to surrender her intellectual property in exchange for boatloads of cash?

Erm, no.





Despicable Me 2 vs Animation Snob

9 07 2013

Hey, I almost forgot! I saw Despicable Me 2 this weekend. In the interests of maintaining some semblance of occasional timeliness, here’s what I thought.

It was good. Funny gags, lots of minion stuff, adoption thread that continues to wreck me emotionally. My one complaint is that Lucy, the female lead, was poorly characterized. Her mix of secret agent skillz and sunny goofiness was just bland. I didn’t much care about her and didn’t buy her as a longtime villain fan. I blame clichéd animation techniques. If Lucy had been designed and animated with more restraint, taking more cues from Kristin Wiig’s style of understated lunacy, she could have brought much more to the table.





Twilight Made Me Care About Vampires

8 07 2013

draculaI’ve loved monsters– pretty much all of them– ever since I was a kid. Giant city-stompers, gothic creeps, alien weirdos, mythic creatures, I was a fan of them all. Except for vampires.

I’m not sure why. Probably because they are essentially human beings with little fangs. The thing I liked about monsters was their strangeness. I much preferred the Wolfman or the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Dracula. Even Frankenstein and the Mummy had more alien mystique than Dracula. Honestly, a guy in a tuxedo baring his teeth is pretty dorky.

I was in high school when Anne Rice came along with Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. My friends were big fans, and some of their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I became interested in the subtext of monsters, the underlying cultural fears that inspired them. But my craving for monsters was never about fear; it was more about escapism. I wanted non-human characters I could identify with. Rice’s books were the beginning of vampires as sympathetic characters, but if anything her vampires were more human than ever. I enjoyed her modern gothic stories, but the vampire remained my least favorite monster. I wanted someone to reinvent the werewolf instead. (No one did, so eventually I started writing my own updated werewolf story. I might even finish it one day.)

The vampires of The Lost Boys were, in my opinion, the coolest yet. Rather than bemoaning their curséd state, they embraced their power and flaunted their outsider status. By the time Bram Stoker’s Dracula came along in 1992, I had taken a college class in gothic fiction, read the original book, and was eager for a full-blooded (ha ha) film interpretation. That movie remains my favorite vampire story,* because it really plays up Dracula’s monstrous qualities. The style and cinematography emphasize unreality. Dracula takes on many bizarre forms; a bat-creature, a wolf-creature, an unnerving count with big brain hair, crazy fingernails, and an independent shadow. Even in his previous life as a medieval warrior he wear armor that looks like a flayed man’s muscular system, with a bestial snout. The tragic romance is perhaps overplayed, but that’s the nature of gothic romance. Also, the music kicks ass. (Unfortunately, there is Keanu Reeves. But on the plus side, Winona Ryder.)

It seems like I’m fully on board with vampires after Gary Oldman. Maybe I am. After college I saw the vampire as an essential member of the monster canon, but I still found almost any other monster to be inherently cooler. (Zombies are less cool. They only have scare value and are impossible to identify with.) I enjoy watching True Blood with Marcie. But, while the vampire drama is good, I’m more interested in every other character, including the humans.

And then….Twilight.

In fairness, I haven’t read any of the books. I have seen the first movie, and I’ve read and heard plenty of commentary on the whole series. In which, vampires shun the daylight because it… makes… them… sparkle.

Before long the awful stew of misplaced wish-fulfillment and Mormon family ideals boils over with harmful, regressive stereotyping. But really, the sparkling says it all. This is a non-vampire vampire. This is a monster stripped of all monstrosity. This is a fairy story masquerading as a vampire story. Now, there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, but if that’s what you’re telling, then tell a fairy story! Don’t hijack a monster and dress it up in sparkles for millions of readers too young to see what a crime against fiction you are committing!

Thanks to Stephanie Meyers’ libelous novels, I am suddenly up in arms about vampires. Suddenly I’m all about the wide range of erotic/thanatotic subtext, the crucial roles of blood, sunlight, and darkness, the  dramatic potential of a monster that speaks with erudite sophistication.

Like any legend, the vampire is always subject to interpretation, reinvention, even parody. But not betrayal. You cannot betray the essence of the legend. These things are important to some of us. These unique  creatures, powerful in their alienation, wrestling with good and evil impulses, have been a lifeline in hard times for some of us. Their bad side is not something you can jettison for narrative convenience.

I still think the fang-mouth is kinda dorky though.

*Actually, my favorite vampire story is Dexter on Showtime. While not technically a vampire story, it has the blood, and the cursed predator, and does everything I wish vampire stories would.





Person or Brand?

2 07 2013

brandingI just read this article about Paula Deen. (Also this, which seems like a more measured and responsible take on the whole controversy than I am capable of.) I don’t have much to say about the Deen story–I’ve never been a fan and I don’t mourn the loss of her career. What really jumped out at me in the first article was the bit about Food Network Star, which, much like American Idol, Shark Tank, and a host of other shows, offers contestants the chance to be “a big star who makes a lot of money and is successfully transformed into a brand.”

This is the Faustian bargain being pushed throughout our consumerist, media-heavy culture. Stop being a person, start being a brand. This is why I have no patience for any of the manufactured stars of reality tv competitions. Brands are artificial, hence inherently false. Brands are calculated to make lots of money.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but every time the word “brand” is used for a concept larger than an actual logo, my skin crawls. All of us independent artists are supposed to make brands of ourselves, which to me seems like the opposite of making authentic art. Franchised fictional properties are brands, not characters. News outlets work harder to brand themselves then to report the news. Even our political parties are now brands. How are we supposed to ever have a real discussion about anything when everyone is busy targeting demographics?

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Before long they’ll probably rule that brands are people too. We’ll have brands electing brands, an entirely brand-driven economy, with the few remaining people toiling in the service of brands. At least there will be plenty of sugary soda.








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