A Riff Jodorowsky’s Dune (And Some Lovely Film Posters)

Art, Film

dune

Fans of Alejandro Jodorowsky and will likely already be familiar with the story that unfolds in Jodorowsky’s Dune, a new documentary by Frank Pavich. The short version: After the success of his midnight cult films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky moves to a castle in France to turn Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune into a film. Jodorowky put together a group of “spiritual warriors” to aid him in this quest, including the core team of Dan O’Bannon (who went on to create Alien), H.R. Giger, and the French artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, whose character designs and storyboards are the concrete manifestations of Jodorowsky’s vision. Jodorowsky also sought out Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd, and Mick Jagger, among others. The project resulted in a tome the size of several phonebooks, including paintings, designs, technical solutions, and a storyboard by Moebius—but no film. Studios shied away from Jodorowsky, daunted in no small part by the film’s proposed fourteen hour running time. Dino De Laurentiis eventually bought the film rights and handed the project to David Lynch, resulting in 1984′s admirable failure Dune.

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Jodorowsky’s Dune enriches and enhances the mythic status of Jodo (as he’s affectionately called by half the interviewees) and his non-film. Most of this enhancing comes from Jodo himself, whose shaman-presence radiates through the screen, charming the camera and the viewer. Here is someone spinning his own legend, telling stories he’s told a million times before, it seems, but weaving them into a more definitive tapestry—one that covers over half-truths, poses, and outright fraudulence. Like any great con-man, Jodo believes in his own bullshit and makes his audience want to believe it as well. His little stories—promising to buy off Orson Welles with a personal chef and plenty of wine, snapping at Pink Floyd while they wolf down hamburgers, a fateful across-the-room meeting with Mick Jagger, dueling with Dali—these anecdotes are the real life-force of the film.

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The other talking heads (and occasional disembodied voices) in the documentary offer a more nuanced, reality-based perspective, although it’s always clear that Jodo’s core team of “spiritual warriors” were willing to do whatever he asked of them (including Jodo’s son, who was to play the starring role of Paul Atreides—he had to endure several years of intense martial arts training). Jodorowsky’s influence on H.R. Giger and O’Bannon is especially clear, and the film makes a strong case that many of the concepts that landed in Jodo’s Dune-film-tome eventually showed up all over subsequent sci-fi and fantasy films.  

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Moebius is sorely missing here. He’s repeatedly (and correctly) credited as a genius, but his overall influence on the project is understated, and unless I blinked and missed it, there is no footage of him in the film—not even a voiceover (conflicting film rights?).

Perhaps what’s most significantly missing from the film is Frank Herbert. Early on, Jodorowsky admits that he hadn’t read Dune, just had the plot summarized by a friend. As the film progresses, it becomes evident that Jodorowsky probably never bothered to read the book. “I was raping Frank Herbert…but with love,” he declares at one point. Of course, it’s Jodorowsky’s Dune—not Herbert’s Dune.

The film also avoids spending much time on Lynch’s Dune, which is probably for the better. Still, there’s a wonderful moment near the end when Jodorowsky shares his thoughts on Lynch’s take (spoiler: He agreed with pretty much every other critic).

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Jodorowsky is clearly still angry that the film was never made. Like a magician practiced in misdirection, he spends much of the film hiding his wounded ego. His performance conveys the appearance—but not the spirit—of candor. In a rare moment that feels honest though, he grasps the tome he made with his spiritual warriors and expresses how much he would like somebodyanybody—to make the film.

Do we actually want Jodorowsky’s Dune? Isn’t it somehow better for the myth to exist, the chimera, the idealization, the-could-have-been? The filmmakers of Jodorowsky’s Dune offer us a version or a template or a guide. They do a wonderful job of synthesizing disparate materials into a unified audiovisual experience. Animation and original music bring the storyboards and concept art into vivid life, and Jodo’s voice commands and directs the viewer’s imagination. And this is the real joy of Jodorowsky’s Dune: A chance for the viewer to imagine, along with its shaman-author, the film that never happened.

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Franchise Films, Alternate Worlds, and Why Wong Kar Wai Should Direct the Next Star Wars Film

Art, Books, Film, Literature, Movies, Reviews, Writers

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News that J.J. Abrams will direct the seventh Star Wars film almost broke the internet yesterday. It’s easy to see why anyone who nerds out over franchise properties would take interest. After all, Abrams helmed the 2009 big-screen reboot of Star Trek, a film that shook the camp and cheese from the franchise’s previous films, replacing it with hip humor, thrilling action, and lots and lots of lens flare. Abrams’s sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness is perhaps the most anticipated franchise film of the year. 

I won’t speculate whether an Abrams Star Wars film will be successful or not—you probably wouldn’t want me to, because I hold the extreme minority opinion that Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith is a deeply profound and moving work of cinema art—but I do think that the choice to hand the next big film in the Star Wars franchise over to Abrams represents the worst in corporate thinking. This goes beyond the playground logic of Abrams swiping all the marbles—he gets both the “Star” franchises!—what it really points to is the bland, safe commercial mindset that guides the corporations who own these franchises. J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.

Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, perhaps at the exact moment that the innovations of the “New Hollywood” movement crested (before Heaven’s Gate crashed the whole damn thing in 1980). The films of this decade—Badlands, The Godfather films, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, Nashville, Dr. Strangelove, etc.—helped to redefine film as art; they also captured and illustrated a zeitgeist that’s almost impossible to define. And while plenty of filmmakers today continue in this spirit, their films are often pushed into the margins. The Hollywood studio system is tangled up in big budget spectacle. I have no problem with this, but at the same time I think that there’s something sad in it all—in the bland safety of having Abrams turn out Star Wars and Star Trek films—it all points to a beige homogeneity.

The problem I’m talking about is neatly summed up by Gus Van Sant in a 2008 interview with The Believer:

So, there were some projects I never really could get going, and one of them was Psycho. It was a project that I suggested earlier in the ’90s. It was the first time that I was able to actually do what I suggested. And the reason that I suggested Psycho to them was partly the artistic appropriation side, but it was also partly because I had been in the business long enough that I was aware of certain executives’ desires. The most interesting films that studios want to be making are sequels. They would rather make sequels than make the originals, which is always a kind of a funny Catch-22.

They have to make Bourne Identity before they make Bourne Ultimatum. They don’t really want to make Bourne Identity because it’s a trial thing. But they really want to make Bourne Ultimatum. So it was an idea I had—you know, why don’t you guys just start remaking your hits.

Lately it seems that the studios trip over themselves to reboot their franchises—the latest Spider-Man film (the one you probably forgot existed) being a choice example of corporate venality. In a way, it’s fascinating that Sam Raimi, something of an outsider director, was allowed to do the first Spider-Man films at all. Of course, now and then a franchise film (or potential franchise film) winds up in the hands of an auteur—take Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for example. Alfonso Cuarón’s third entry in the franchise can stand on its own (it certainly saved the franchise from the tepid visions of Chris Columbus). Even stranger, take Paul Verhoeven’s films RoboCop and Starship Troopers. These films were brilliant subversive satires, and what did Hollywood do to the movies that came after them? These franchises devolved into flavorless, flawed, run of the mill muck.

Of course, entertainment conglomerates have good (economic) reasons to “protect” their product. David Lynch’s Dune remains one of the great cautionary tales in recent cinema history. What could have reinvigorated “New Hollywood” instead proved a disastrous flop.  Dune never panned out as the blockbuster franchise that it could have been; instead, it gets to hang out in a strange limbo, greeting newer arrivals like Chris Weitz’s atrocious adaptation of The Golden Compass and Andrew Stanton’s underrated John Carter from Mars. It’s actually sort of surreal that we even gotDune film by David Lynch, complete with Kyle MacLachlan, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, and fucking Sting.

What’s even weirder is that Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt Dune, working with artists H.R. Geiger and Moebius. (Jodorowsky also planned to involve Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and  Karlheinz Stockhausen among others in the film). What a Jodorowsky Dune film might have looked like is a constant source of frustrated fun for film buffs.

But what about a Star Wars film by Jodorowsky? What might that look like?

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Sean Hartter imagines such prospects in his marvelous posters for films from an alternative universe. Hartter’s posters—most of which include not just cast and director but also specific studios, producers, and soundtrack composers and musicians—conjure up wonderful could-have-beens. They posit the kind of daring spirit and experimentalism I’d like to see more of from Hollywood franchises.

Most Hollywood franchises revere the illusion of stability in the property—the idea of a constancy of character throughout film to film. Even a franchise like the James Bond films, with its ever-rotating leads, tries to create the guise of a stable aesthetic along with narrative continuity. I would love to see something closer to the Alien franchise, the only line of films I can think of where each film bears the distinctive mark of its respective filmmaker; even if I don’t think Fincher’s Alien 3 is a particularly good film, at least it feels and looks and sounds like a Fincher film and not a weak approximation of a Cameron blockbuster or a stock repetition of Scott’s space horror (and Jeunet’s Resurrection—how weird is that one!).

But back to Bond for a moment—wouldn’t it be great to see Wes Anderson do James Bond, but as a Wes Anderson film? Or Werner Herzog? Or Cronenberg? What would Jane Campion do with Bond? (I’m tempted to add Jim Jarmusch, but he already made an excellent James Bond film called The Limits of Control). I’d love to see a range of auteur versions of the franchise. (Similarly, I’ve recently been fascinated by the way certain cult artists render major corporate franchise characters, like Dave Sim doing Iron Man, or Moebius doing Spider-Man, or Jaime Hernandez doing Wonder Woman). Obviously this fantasy will never happen—the auteur would have to have complete control—a Coen brothers’ Bond film would have to be first and foremost a Coen brothers film, not a 007 film—but hey, just like with Hartter’s posters, it’s fun to pretend.

Imagine a year of James Bond movies, one a month, featuring different directors, actors, studios, production designs. 007 films from Spike Lee, Tarantino, Almodavar, Lynne Ramsay, Lynch, Wong Kar Wai.

What would a Wong Kar Wai James Bond film look like?

What would a Wong Kar Wai Star Wars film look like?

I don’t know. I imagine it would be beautiful and moody and at times impressionistic. I imagine its narrative would tend toward obliqueness. I imagine it might infuriate die-hard fans (I imagine this last part with a big grin). I imagine that it would easily be the most human Star Wars film.

But beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what a Wong Kar Wai Star Wars film might look and sound and feel like because his films are powerful and moving and evoke the kind of imaginative capacity that marks great art, great original and originating art. Put another way, I can’t really imagine what a Wong Kar Wai Star Wars film would look like—which is precisely why I’d love to see one.

David Foster Wallace on David Lynch’s Dune

Art, Books, Film, Writers

1984’s Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch’s career, and it’s pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a small Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cutting-edge special effects (half the fourteen-month shooting schedule was given over to miniatures and stop-action). Plus Herbert’s novel itself is incredibly long and complex, and so besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though as good a technician as anyone in film, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them but will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control over the game and its rules and appurtenances—in short very definitely not an administrator.

Watching Dune again on video you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility, e.g. casting the nerdy and potato-faced Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s resoundingly unthespian Sting as a psycho villain, or—worse—trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized (w/ that slight thinking-out-loud reverb) on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking-face, a cheesy old device that Saturday Night Live had already been parodying for years when Dune came out. The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of De Laurentiis’s producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch’s final print right before the movie’s release, apparently already smelling disaster and wanting to get the movie down to more like a normal theatrical running-time. Even on video, it’s not hard to see where a lot of these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.

In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch’s “big break” as a filmmaker. The version of Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for him, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists In The Maw Of The Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist’s Innocence—seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul’s wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack (though probably a rich hack), doing f/x-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure plotless l6mm.’s for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers—Campion, the Coens, Jarmusch, Jaglom—seem to steer by. “The experience taught me a valuable lesson,” he told an interviewer years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”

—From “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace; collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

Alejandro Jodorowsky on David Lynch’s Dune (and Other Matters)

Art, Comics, Film

The AV Club’s Noel Murray interviews Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, he of Holy Mountain and apocalypse-Western El Topo fame. Jodorowsky famously almost adapted Frank Herbert’s Dune before David Lynch picked up that gauntlet. Here’s Jodorowsky on Lynch’s adaptation–

AVC: For a long time, you were involved with developing Dune into a feature film, before the project fell through. Did you ever see David Lynch’s Dune?

AJ: Yes, I’ve seen it. I was very scared when I saw it, because Dune was for me very important in my life. I was very sad I could not do it. When I saw that David Lynch would do it, I was very scared, because I admire him as a moviemaker, and I thought he would do well. But when I see the picture, I realize he never understood this picture. It’s not a David Lynch picture. It’s the producer who made that picture, no? Who made this horror. For David Lynch, it was a job. A commercial job. It never was that for me.

Jodorowsky’s version of Dune had entered pre-production, including early art from Jean Giraud (French comics artist Moebius). You can see some of Giraud’s character designs and storyboards here.

Jodorowsky famously wanted Salvador Dali to play the Emperor and Mick Jagger to play Feyd Rautha (a role that went to Sting in Lynch’s version).