Thursday, May 29, 2014

Film: Doomed Messiah

Jodorowsky's Dune, Directed by Frank Pavich, 2014

The unsung song always seems the sweetest. The unrung bell is always the clearest. The unfinished symphony the finest, the lost manuscript the masterwork. The what-ifs and might-have-beens fire the imagination, great works made all the greater for the fact that we have nothing to use them to compare them to their brethren.

So, the mid-seventies Alejandro Jodorowsky version of Frank Herbert's Dune. I liked the film about this film that never was, but I doubt that I would have liked the film this film was about.

So, here's the short form on this documentary [Spoilers, of course]. Alejandro Jodorowsky was a successful avant garde European filmmaker, who despite his lack of formal training, spun out some brain-bending films like El Topo. Given the chance for a larger film, he seized on Frank Herbert's Dune as a his next platform. He sketched out the entire movie as a storyboard, compiled in a foot-thick volume. He put together an all-star cast that typified the era - Art by Moebius, Foss, and Giger. Special Effects by Dan O'Bannon. Music by Pink Floyd. Orson Welles plays Baron Harkonnen. Mick Jagger plays Feyd Ratha. Salvadore Dali as the Emperor. It looks like it will become a magical film.

And then it fails. They go to Hollywood, scare a lot of people in the movie industry who won't give Jodorowsky the funding to pull this off, and, in this pre-Kickstarter age, that's that. The project is abandoned, though parts of it survive - O'Bannon, Foss and Giger become involved in Alien, which Moebius did art as well. Jodorowsky doesn't do another movie, instead drifting off to other media. But as a result of the documentary, he once more decides to team up with his producer again and create new films. Happy ending after all.

As a film, Jodorowsky's Dune is revealing. The bulk of the story involves him putting the band together - Welles is recruited by getting his favorite chef assigned to cook for the shoot. Dali was brought aboard by an accounting trick that would make him the most highly paid actor ever. Jagger was almost a mystical experience of lovers locking eyes across a crowded room. It was the jet-set of the era going sci-fi This is like in the caper film where the lead gets together the diverse members of his crew for the big heist. It is a great build-up, but in the end the entire robbery fails to work because no one thought to bring a key for that first door.

I think I like Jodorowsky's Dune more than I would like Jodorowsky's Dune. One important person missing from the film is Frank Herbert, the original author, Yes, he's dead, but his son is still around, but the writer of the text is missing, even to the point of being quoted. It feels like Herbert, like Tolkien, sold the movie rights, comfortable that no one would ever be able to film the book, but that's just a guess, and the movie does not go into the issue, nor if Herbert had any input in the film. More than a few of the participants in the film confess that they never read the book in the first place (one of the exceptions was Salvador Dali's protege/companion,Amanda Lear, who was to play the Princess Irulan). Everyone treated the original text as a rough, found object, a piece of nature to be shaped as they so desired.

Then, there are the liberties taken in that shaping. The later David Lynch movie version of the book was hauled over the hot coals for diverging from the text, but Jodorowsky takes greater divergence at both start and end. Jodorowsky's Duke Leto has been castrated, but Lady Jessica still conceives using blood, not semen (in the book, she defies her Order to produce the son Leto wished for). Jodorowsky's Paul dies at the end of the picture, but his consciousness enters all beings, as opposed to becoming the eventual god-emperor. Interesting stuff, and used in the Jodorowsky's later comics, but not part of the Dune universe.  And that frustrates because the original text works on so many levels that it doesn't need a lot of extra levels to make it work.

Finally, the documentary creates the illusion that the work was so wonderful that it was buried deep and forgotten about it, locked in the Vault of Movies Too Good to be Made. I remember the Gieger Dune drawings showing up several times, in Omni and elsewhere. The various pieces and contributors survive to show up elsewhere.  Jodorowsky's Dune traces the influence the unmade picture had on later works - which varies from direct (Alien and its supporting universe) to indirect (Palace scene in Flash Gordon, which has similarities to the palace scene Dune). Jodorwsky's original plot found other outlets in The Incal  (art by Moebius) and Metabarons comics. Ideas and concepts do not evaporate, but merely sublimate, transforming into other things over time.

As a documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune is worth seeing. The non-movie that it was based one would likely have set the popular sci-fi media back a few years, and end up haunting film festivals as a "lost classic" which cost a bunch, did not do well at the box office, found a solid fanbase in college-level movie classes, and was help up for years afterwards as a reason why "sci-fi doesn't sell."

More later,

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Digging to China

So. China.
The view from my window.

I spent about five days this past week in Beijing on a press tour for the release of Guild Wars 2 in China. It was very much a flying tour - in late one day, followed by two days of promotion, with a day of playing tourist and leaving at ohgodearly the final day.

I fear I cannot go all Anthony Bourdain here, musing on the nature of an entire nation from a mere few hours spent within its borders. For most of the trip, I was in "The Bubble" - that safe, secure, mostly-English-speaking territory that caters to the international traveler. The hotel (the Shangri-La) was of the luxury class, and I and my comrades spent the first day and a half there doing interviews with the the Chinese web press. When we traveled, it was with drivers and translator/guides.  Language in the interviews was a challenge, but we were fortunate to have an excellent translator and a lot of patience.

The evening of the first day of interviews, we were feted with a traditional Beijing (Peking) Duck feast at two huge tables groaning heavy with small plates of jellyfish, tofu, veggies, seasoned pork, a tasty meatball soup and of course the duck itself, served with a variety of condiments including what was very probably pop rocks. "You eat like a Chinese", said my translator, meaning it as a complement that I was omnivorous and leaped at the opportunity to try things. But even I could not manage the dessert, a cold green bean soup that had the consistency of baby food (I remain convinced was a prank put on the menu to freak the Westerners and see how many had had too much of the excellent local beer).

Me and a friend
The evening of the second day was the big celebration party for GW2 launching in china, which was hosted by the our distributor, Kong Zhong. The setting was in an "art zone" , a former industrial district, on a huge stage placed between a decommissioned gas works and what I swear was a industrial ceramic kiln. The celebration was impressive - speeches from Mike "MO" O'Brien and the head of Kong Zhong, along with numerous other luminaries. Songs, including Jike Juan Yi, known also as "Summer:, winner of the Chinese version of the Voice, doing a version of Ree's song, "Fear Not This Night". And then there was interpretive dance. And drone cameras. It all culminated in the unveiling of a 30-foot-tall stature of Rytlock, which will be installed in the art zone for the next year. We were treated as rock stars there, introduced to the crowd, with front row seats, and a good time was had by all. I have some shots of the entire event, but a better collection can be found here. Max is a young man from the US who was visiting Beijing to see family, and wandered down to see if he could get in. We got him a ticket and he in turn took some great shots.

Forbidden City, with crowds
After two strong days of promotion, we did get an off day to play tourist. The Forbidden City was vast and impressive and crowded with tour groups. It literally swallowed huge hordes of people, who became noticeable only when they bunched around to take pictures of the throne of the former emperor. It was a vast complex that broke the brain with its size and scope.

The Summer Palace, oddly, was its reverse. Also a home of the Emperors, it was more pastoral and tree-covered, hugging the shores of a great man-made lake, the material so removed to create a great man-made mountain called the Hill of Longevity (probably by someone who never had to climb it). We ended up on the back flank of said hill and found a beautiful garden (Garden of Harmonious Interests, I believe), which was stellar in its calm beauty. As opposed to the crowds of the Forbidden City, the portions of the Summer Palace were uncrowded, with people playing cards, playing instruments, doing caligraphy, and one group of middle-aged folk singing old political/military songs from their iPads. It was very pleasant, though my comrades were afraid I would give up the ghost trying to climb the ironically-named Hill of Longevity.
Garden of Harmonious Instincts

In general, it was a great trip. I had been warned of pollution numerous times, but it rained the day we arrived and winds shifted, and by the end of my time there I could see the surrounding hills without problems. Traffic was thick but nothing that a native of LA would be impressed by, and most of the drivers had that psychic ability to navigate through crowded lanes. The early summer foliage, high-rises, office buildings, industrial parts, and wide variety of neighborhoods reminded me of Chicago more than anything else. Only when in the heart of the city, driving past Tienanmen Square and the Communist Party headquarters, did I get the strong feeling of being in another country entirely.

But yes, it has left me more than a little exhausted, and I hope to recover well enough to get back to work tomorrow.

More later,

[Update:] Here's the entire GW2  presentation, in a mix of Chinese and English! And a news report in which I get translated!