Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

jodorowskys_dune_xlgJodorowsky’s Dune started making waves on the festival circuit last year, and the more I heard about it, the more I wanted to see it. Here’s the short version, if you’re scratching your head: the celebrated surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) tried, in the 70s, to make a movie version of Dune. This documentary tells that story.

That brief synopsis, though, gives you no real idea of what is waiting for you in this film. I placed my new blu-ray in the player, ready to find out – and found I had the first defective disc I’d encountered since switching to blu-ray several years ago. An exchange was managed easily enough, but it was then late Saturday night before I got the chance to revisit it – and it turned out to be exactly what I needed, at exactly that time and place. And that is so Jodorowsky.

403827678_640I had been aware of the plans to make Dune – I think they were dutifully reported in Heavy Metal magazine, because, after all, Moebius was the first of Jodorowsky’s “spiritual warriors”, and because it was Jodorowsky. In the 70s, I had only the vaguest idea of who this Jodorowsky chap was; I had read about El Topo, but in the cities where I lived, Midnight Movies were composed mainly of all-night Beatles marathons and the occasional screening of Dawn of the Dead or 200 Motels. By the time I moved to a major metropolis, screenings of his work had become rare. For many years my only experience was Santa Sangre, which was marvelous, but not prime Jodo.

So watching Jodorowsky’s Dune was like revisiting those breathless dispatches from thirty some-odd years ago, when this insane artist was trying to make an insane movie and was gathering other insane artists into that purpose.

frame_0000I mentioned “spiritual warrior” earlier, and that is precisely how Jodorowsky viewed his collaborators. His movie wasn’t just going to change movies, it was going to change viewers’ very consciousness. Jean Giraud, aka the amazing French comic artist Moebius, was his camera from the very beginning, dashing out storyboards and costume designs at breathtaking speeds. Douglas Trumbull, fresh off 2001 and Silent Running, was turned down for not being ideally spiritual, and a chance viewing of Dark Star netted the next warrior: Dan O’Bannon.

And so it goes. In a series of interviews, these warriors tell about their being brought into the project; Chris Foss, for spaceship design, a Swiss artist you may have heard of, named H.R. Giger, for the design of the fascistic and depraved Harkonnen clan. But the bulk of Jodorowsky’s Dune is told by Jodorowsky himself, and his tales of the recruiting efforts are marvelous, the stuff of legend. Casting David Carradine as Duke Leto, meeting Mick Jagger at a party and asking him to play Feyd Ruatha on the spot, and getting an immediate “Yes.” Onto the trials of getting agreement from his two dream castings, Orson Welles for Baron Harkonnen and Salvador Dali as the insane Emperor of the Galaxy.

dune2Jodorowsky also planned to have different musical groups compose the music for each House and the systems they controlled: Pink Floyd for House Atreides, Magma for Harkonnen. No mention is made for who would be the group representing Arrakis, the title planet, but one can safely assume it wasn’t Toto.

As we all know, in this Universe, the movie didn’t happen. No studio was willing to put money into a massively expensive movie made by a madman they knew nothing about. (The budget was something like $15 million dollars – quite a chunk of change in those days, but then, Jodorowsky wanted to do things in 1975 that Industrial Light & Magic would not even attempt to do in a live action movie today. Some of the most impressive sequences in Jodorowsky’s Dune use limited animation to bring some of Moebius’ storyboard and Chris Foss’ designs to life)

Also humorous (in a bitter, twisted sort of way) was the concern that the movie would be too long, and it was requested that the script be cut down to an hour and a half. How long was the last Transformers again?

DunePioneerA movie of Dune was eventually made, as we all know, and it also one most people despise. I need to give that one another shot eventually (but not anytime soon). Jodorowsky’s version would have digressed further from Frank Herbert’s novel, but both have virtually the same denouement, the greening of Dune, instead of the open-ended nature of the novel, leading to many sequels. Movies must end, after all.

Jodorowsky’s Dune then goes on to point out how the Greatest Movie Never Made contributed its DNA to many, many movies in the coming years; the most obvious, the disappointed Dan O’Bannon gathering up some of his fellow spiritual warriors for Alien, but other examples resonating right up until the present day. Pretty awesome, really. When it is put forth that if Dune had been made, and if it had hit it big instead of Star Wars… what would be the state of cinema today?

I said this was what I had needed, at this particular time. I was exhausted after two shows, in pain, the torment of two audiences watching a comedy physically resisting the urge to jodorwsky-600-1395238092laugh out loud, all exacerbated by a triple low in the ol’ biorhythms. I was a sullen mess, but watching Jodorowsky exult over the details of a dream project that came this close to reality, the fond reminiscences of the artists he recruited, and his enthusiasm for what he tried to achieve – again, almost four decades after the fact – is exhilarating and beautiful.

It’s impossible to watch Jodorowsky’s Dune without falling at least a little in love with Alejandro Jodorowsky, and falling in love is something we all need to do a little more.

Jodorowsky’s Dune on Amazon

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part six

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

487303-1020-aOne of the things I went into this challenge swearing was that I was going to source every movie from my collection, local library system, or Netflix, and then I proceeded to immediately violate that vow. I had long meant to break my fast of non-documentary Werner Herzog, and there had been a box set of all the movies he had made with Klaus Kinski, put out by Anchor Bay in the 00’s. This monumental temptation combined with it being at its lowest price ever on Amazon – somewhere in the $25 range – tipped over into scheduling two of his most famous works for the month.

Aguirre takes place during Gonzalo Pizarro’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon River to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado. He did this by trekking his army – of soldiers and lots of Indian slaves – over the Andes mountains, and that is where the movie begins, with seemingly hundreds of people in period costumes (including two women) carefully picking their way down a mountain path, burdened by baggage and equipment. There is no trickery involved, no matte paintings or CGI, that is a bunch of people literally climbing down a mountain. This seems to be a prime indicator of how Herzog works.

Once at the immense river, Pizarro decides to send a party on rafts to see if they can find any indication of El Dorado within a week. He places Don Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Aguirre (Kinski) his second. Against Pizarro’s better judgement, Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s daughter Flores (Cecelia Rivera) are allowed to accompany them.

vlcsnap-2010-09-17-23h10m40s196The raft-borne party is almost immediately in trouble, encountering rapids that leave one raft trapped in an eddy against a cliff wall, and this is where the true power of Herzog’s approach is revealed: those are his actual actors on the rafts, in the rapids, and his actual cameras. Though you can never claim the movie employs a documentary approach, there is a visceral, fearsome quality to the footage that cannot be matched.

aguirrecut_55258Things get worse: the trapped raft is slaughtered in the night by unseen Indians. The Amazon rises fifteen feet, carrying away the original rafts and drowning much of the shoreline, denying the new rafts any but the rarest opportunity to make landfall. Rather than turn back as ordered, Aguirre leads a mutiny, intending to claim the city of gold not for Spain, but himself. Cannibals are encountered. An increasingly creaky and ill-kept cannon is employed. Starvation, fever, and sudden death by arrow, dart and spear become the norm, until the totally insane Aguirre finds himself master of a raft populated by corpses and monkeys.

Starvation and fever are probably apt terms for the grueling movie shoot. This is the movie that gave rise to the legend of Herzog pulling a gun on Kinski to keep him from walking off the set (if you can truly refer to these shooting locations as “sets”). Kinksi himself provides some pretty top-notch madness in his portrayal, his body seemingly becoming as contorted as his mind as the picture progresses. Though I never really got over the novelty of hearing Spanish conquistadors speaking German, the rest of the cast scurries to keep up with Kinski, and the ensemble is remarkable, not only in their acting but their stamina.

Mere summaries of the plot of Aguirre cannot match the visceral punch of the movie itself. This truly is a movie that must be seen, on its own terms, to truly appreciate. The money for that box set was damned well spent.

The trailer’s dubbed, but it is a very good dub:

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

l_83946_a0aafffeIt was almost impossible to not follow up Aguirre with Fitzcarraldo, as Herzog and Kinski return to Peru for another grueling historical adventure. This time we’re in the early 20th century and Kinski Is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo because the natives can’t pronounce “Fitzgerald”), a man who’s bankrupted himself attempting to build a Trans-Andean railroad. His main dream, though, is to build an opera house in this Peruvean rubber boom town, and since he can convince none of the rubber barons to put their money into this, he must become a rubber baron himself.

After a meeting with the most sympathetic of the barons, Fitzcarraldo has a daring plan: there is a section of the rain forest that is so far unexploited because of treacherous rapids. He aims to get to this unspoiled region by actually porting his 300-ton second-hand steamship over the narrowest isthmus between two rivers, a plan so daring that even the mechanic, a spy for the rubber baron, is impressed and joins in whole-heartedly. Clearing the jungle from the proposed path and actually moving the ship overland is only possible because the feared Jivaro natives, impressed by the boat, Fitzcarraldo’s immaculate white suits, and his phonograph records of Caruso, feel the boat is a holy vessel on a mission to purge evil spirits.

fitzcarraldo-posterFitzcarraldo is almost three hours long, but it’s one of those movies where it doesn’t feel like three hours, but at the end, you are exhausted and feel like you’ve been on that trip down the river yourself. True to form, Herzog doesn’t cheat with miniatures on that impossible portage – that is a real damn ship being dragged up an impossible slope, something engineers warned against. There is a part of Les Blank’s documentary on the making of the movie, Burden of Dreams, that shows a scene where one of the cables snaps during filming, and it’s quite likely that Kinski himself as well as other actors could have been decapitated or otherwise maimed. This is lunatic filmmaking at its finest, and the scenes of the ship slowly moving uphill invoke an incredible amount of tension in the viewer that would be impossible with models or CGI.

The movie also has lush scenery to spare and several shots that must have been ravishing on a big screen. Jason Robards at one point had the title role, but fell ill and was forbidden by his doctor to return to the production. Apparently Jack Nicholson at one point was the replacement, but felt the production was too insane, even for him. So it fell to Kinski, Herzog’s “best fiend”, and it has to be admitted that he brings to the role an injured vulnerability that plays well against the character’s seemingly unrealistic optimism. The experience would have been markedly different with the either of the earlier two actors.

And now I have got got got to see Burden of Dreams. I only know of that one scene through Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

beyond_the_valley_of_the_dollsThis was one of the conditions of the Challenge: watch 30 movies from Ebert’s Great Movies, and also this movie, which, while it was not on the list, was actually written by Roger Ebert.

The movie version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls made money, so a sequel was inevitable; Susann herself wrote one, but Fox didn’t like it. The conditions of the contract gave them the right to make the sequel, with or without Susann, so somehow it fell into the lap of Russ Meyer, leading to the disclaimer at the very beginning that this is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.

As Ebert points out on his commentary track on the DVD, Meyer wasn’t all that interested in making sex movies; his primary interests were melodrama and comedy, something that is apparent to anyone who ever watched more than one of his movies. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls offers melodrama in great dollops. Meyer and Ebert found Valley to be the tale of young innocents in the showbiz trade having their lives wrecked by sex and drugs, but it was sadly lacking in rock and roll. Ergo, Beyond is the tale of a female rock trio who move to LA, hit it big and immediately life gets complicated and melodramatic.

MPW-68199The screenplay is nothing special, outside of a few quotes that have become memorable camp classics. What Beyond does best is remind us of just how good a filmmaker Russ Meyer actually was – those montages over the rock songs of the Carrie Nations are superbly done, and actually progress the story. There is a backstage scene after one of their gigs that could have been crowded and sloppy, but instead clearly establishes every major character arc and relationship – it is really a small master class in managing such scenes.

Quite a bit is made of the blood-soaked ending, inspired by the Manson Family killings while Meyer and Ebert were still formulating the movie. You can see how actually conservative are the underpinnings of the story when the dead include the lesbian and the one character to have an abortion; but in case you missed it, the voice of Marvin Miller will appear at the end to recap what lessons you should have learned.

The acting is often as ripe as the dialogue, but that just serves to cement that everything here is of a piece. The Carrie Nations consists of two Playmates and a model, and they do just fine. John Lazar as quick-tongued promoter Z-Man is given all the best lines and delivers them with a quicksilver panache that makes you wonder why the hell you haven’t seen more of him in the intervening years. David Gurian, as the band’s unsophisticated manager, deserves some kind of acting award for making it look like having sex with (future Mrs. Russ Meyer) Edy Williams was a chore.

There is absolutely no use pretending Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is anything but trash. But as entertaining, well-made trash, it has very few real competitors.

El Topo (1970)

tumblr_m5z5m5q5cR1qzhoqfo1_1280It was either sheer perversity or sheer traditionalism that made me hit “Play” on El Topo at midnight. This is the movie that single-handedly started the Midnight Movie phenomenon, a phenomenon that even hit my teenage Texas town, which had a large college population. My midnight movies usually ran to Amicus double features or an amazing night with all four Beatles movies in a row, but their ancestry can be traced to El Topo, John and Yoko, and Beatles manager Allen Klein, who is the Abkco Films you see at the very beginning.

El Topo begins as an existential Western, with the title gunslinger (director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) traveling the desert with his naked 7 year-old son, dispensing harsh justice to a murderous villain called The Colonel and his bandits. He leaves his son with a group of rescued monks and heads into the desert to face the Four Masters that reside there. He defeats them by trickery, which exacts a large cost on his psyche when he realizes exactly what he has become, and what he has destroyed. At this point we are not even halfway through the movie; the rest tells of his redemption by helping a group of crippled outcasts escape from their underground prison.

El_TopoLike The Holy Mountain – a Jodorowsky movie I much prefer – a spare synopsis is not going to even begin to replicate the experience of actually seeing the movie. Jodorowsky’s imagery is not as outlandish here, but it is still lush and plentiful. A small town massacred by the Colonel, where there is so much blood in the streets it looks like rain puddles. The grave of the first Master becomes a beehive. The third master lives in a corral of rabbits, who start keeling over dead as El Topo approaches. A church where the worship service is composed of the congregation playing Russian Roulette. It goes on and on to a dizzying, violent end that makes a little more sense than The Holy Mountain, but only a little.

2013 is a pretty good year for Jodorowsky. His first movie in 23 years, The Dance of Reality is poised for release, a documentary about his aborted attempt to make the movie version of Dune has done well at Cannes. But all this serves to point up that the man has only made 9 movies in his life, and not for lack of trying. I have only seen three of those movies, and those were enough to convince me that this paucity of Jodorowsky movies is a damn crime against humanity.

The ABCs of March, Part Two

Yep, I’m still hard at work, doing the Letterboxd March Movie Madness challenge. That’s a movie a day, A for March 1st, B for March 2nd, und zo weiter. I’m even working a day ahead of time, because I know I have an unavoidable 12 hour work day on the 24th, and that ain’t gonna leave me in no movie-watchin’ condition.

Our latest chunk:

Emperor of the North (1973)

Emperor of the North spanish1933 was a pretty dismal year for America; the Great Depression is in full effect, homeless families are everywhere, and the nation is struggling to get back on its feet. But we’re not here for any Grapes of Wrath-type stuff, we are focusing on just one small part of the culture at that time: the hobo nation and its bellicose relationship with Big Railroad.

A career hobo who goes by the moniker A Number One (Lee Marvin) is King of the Road, Emperor of the North Pole, and a number of other sobriquets amongst his peripatetic brethren, but there is one thing he hasn’t yet accomplished: riding on the train of an infamously murderous conductor called The Shack (Ernest Borgnine), who has never allowed a hobo to survive a stolen ride on his train. In fact, our introduction to the man involves him bopping an oblivious tramp on the head with a large hammer and then laughing while the screaming man is cut in half under the wheels of the train. Complicating matters is a youthful braggart calling himself Cigarette (Keith Carradine), who spends his time either learning from A Number One or double-crossing him.

Emperor of the North is a pretty unique picture, providing some interesting insights into the clannish hobo culture and the dynamics of a freight train crew. The battle of wits between The Shack and A Number One provide the best parts of the movie, with the wily hobo generally a step ahead, but hampered by the extra, at first unwanted, baggage of Cigarette. A final betrayal by the callow youth causes the death of one crewman and the serious injury of another, and by this time we’re ready to let The Shack have his way with the treacherous whelp; but instead we get what we came for, a knockdown, drag-out fight between Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, using every weapon to hand that can be found on a moving freight train: chains, planks of wood, a fire axe.

1171129587Carradine actually manages to deliver a level of complexity into a thankless role; we see him actively choosing to make the bad decisions. Marvin is his usual cool bastard, but Borgnine… man, Borgnine is channeling every bad guy he ever played in his career, and The Shack is his ultimate, a man so consumed by anger he seems constantly on the verge of a stroke.

The film and entertainment world lost a lot of good people in 2012, but none of them punched me square in the heart like the passing of Ernest Borgnine. It affected me way more than I thought was possible, for a man who I had never met. I grew up with Quentin McHale, first when McHale’s Navy was first being broadcast, then in syndication, but it was during those first broadcasts that my Mom watched the movie Marty on TV one night. I watched it because it had McHale in it… but the sweet-natured butcher is only slightly similar to the fast-talking PT boat captain. Marty, of course, was Borgnine’s Oscar-winning performance, at even at that young age, I was aware I was watching something special.

1171129518Here was an actor who couldn’t be called handsome, or thin, but was operating at the top of his field. It wasn’t until later I became acquainted with his work as a heavy in other movies – From Here to Eternity, Bad Day at Black Rock – his characters are all over the map, from the gruff gladiator teacher in Demetrius and the Gladiators to the genial, mentally-challenged Cabbie in Escape from New YorkRED is a fairly tepid thriller elevated by its amazing cast, and it was genuinely satisfying and edifying to see Borgnine crop up in that. I miss him terribly.

Ahem. Anyway, see Emperor of the North. It’s very good.

Flareup (1969)

flareup-movie-poster-1969-1020254226Raquel Welch plays Michele, a Las Vegas go-go dancer in a time when it was possible to make a good living out of it as a respectable career choice, ie., never, except in FantasyLand. One of her dancer pals just got a divorce from an unstable type (Luke Askew, of course), who proceeds to gun her down in front of a ton of witnesses, but decides the only other ones worth killing are Michele and the other dancer. He later manages to run over the other dancer and the cop protecting her, and Michele heads off to Los Angeles to hide in plain sight by dancing at a club there. She falls in love with a nice guy (James Stacey), so now Askew has to kill him, too.

There are some things to like in Flareup. Raquel is always easy on the eyes, and the relationship building between her and Stacey may be slow and deliberate, but it’s fairly believable. It’s that word “believable” where the rest of the movie gets into trouble. We’re asked to believe that Michele is a feisty loner, an independent woman. All this is fine until the filmmakers decide that this means SHE IS A COMPLETE AND UTTER MORON. She repeatedly turns down and even escapes from police protection. She uses the fact that Askew killed both her friend and her police escort as an excuse, ignoring that if another armed policeman had been on the scene, everybody might still be alive.

rwelchflareup0106woThe movie’s other major flaw is allowing Askew to constantly catch up with Raquel, and almost pulling the trigger on her, only to be foiled by the sudden appearance of a cop. Flareup  is a total tease in this department, employing that device no fewer than three times, maybe more. The movie doesn’t inspire careful note-taking, or much of anything, really.

Outside the appearance of a few topless dancers (no, pervs, Raquel does not work topless) and the demise of Askew at the end, this could easily be mistaken for an overly-long Movie of the Week. Though if you want to see a movie where Raquel Welch is saved by a pistol-packing Action Gordon Jump, this is your chance.

Go Tell The Spartans (1978)

go_tell_the_spartansThis was supposed to be Good Night and Good Luck, which is even on The List, but I couldn’t find my copy of that. As I’m trying to only watch movies during this I’ve never seen, I turned to some movies I bought at the 12 for $50 sale at the WB Shop. It’s an older disc, with a 4:3 image of what wasn’t all that widescreen, but grumble grumble.

There was a sudden flap of Vietnam movies in the late 70s , and I had seen all of them, except this one, the first to hit the theaters (as an aside, I’m talking about real Vietnam movies, not Rambo or any number of Italian thrillers starring Chris Mitchum. Although I saw them, too).  It was released in 1978, barely three years after America had pulled out, and in an attempt to deal with that still-pulsing wound in the national psyche, it’s set in 1964, when we were still sending in “military advisors” without that being a euphemism.

Burt Lancaster is Major Barker, a career man since World War II who constantly finds himself dismayed and puzzled by the conflict around him. A group of new recruits comes in, and the understaffed Barker has no choice but to put them in charge of establishing a garrison in an abandoned village that the French gave up on ten years before. We get the standard types from central casting: the gung-ho second looey, big on regulations but short on experience; the veteran of the Korean Conflict, who knows what works in war but is burnt-out; the druggie, the draftee who volunteered for the duty, blah blah blah. Of course, once the garrison is established, the Cong take an interest in it, and our green recruits re going to get a swift education or die.

Hong and Wasson in Go Tell the SpartansGo Tell The Spartans has all the distinct tropes of what will constitute the Vietnam movie: the nighttime attacks, the attempts to understand and reach out to the native population, the betrayals that result from such attempts, the inability of the Western war machine to deal with a conflict that was so markedly different from any recent war. It manages to trot out all these and make a pretty decent war movie besides. Lancaster is terrific, and special kudos to first-timer Marc Singer as Barker’s executive officer and Craig Wasson as the mysterious draftee who “sure has a way with the dinks”. Also along are Evan Kim as the number one interpreter and chief torturer, “Cowboy” (man, Evan Kim should have had a much bigger career than he wound up with) and the always welcome James Hong, as a South Vietnamese soldier who bonds with Wasson despite the fact that the only English he knows is “A okay!”

Not a great or essential Vietnam movie, but a good one.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

theholymouWow. What a weird movie.

It’s tempting to leave the review at that (I certainly did on Letterboxd) – any attempt to fully describe The Holy Mountain is going to get bogged down in itself. Stripped to the minimum, it is a tale of a thief (Horacio Salinas) who is taken in by an alchemist (writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) for his plot to assemble the most powerful people in the land, run them through an accelerated enlightenment program, and using these newly-minted masters to assault the table of the nine immortals who sit atop the Holy Mountain, and take their place as gods.

holymountain2To say the journey is psychedelic and surreal is understating matters. The first half hour is nearly speechless, one bizarre image after another. As a vendor at a long-ago convention told me, “If you like seeing toads dressed in Aztec costumes get blown up, this is the movie for you.” Once we start getting introduced to the Alchemist’s chosen, “the most powerful people on the planet”, we shift into the increasingly absurd and humor so black it absorbs any light in its presence. These are awful people creating everything that is wrong in the world, and one is concerned that these are not the types of people you want to ascend to godhood – until you consider it later (especially if you’re an old hippie like myself) and you realize the Alchemist knows exactly what he is doing – these are the people that need to be taken out of the World, for the World’s own good. (Also, as the Alchemist proves earlier, the purest gold is made from shit)

If there is an actual flaw in the movie (for me, anyway – this flick is an incredibly subjective experience) it’s the voyage to the Holy Mountain and the rituals/exercises the party has to go through for enlightenment. But I’ll also concede that it all seems old hat to me because in my sophomore year – about this time – my unbearably cool young English teacher, Mrs. Watson, recommended Carlos Castaneda to me. And in the bright remove of those early 70s, it is amazing to me that those books were in my school library. Still, one can’t tell a tale of shamanism without showing some shamanism, so here we are.

screenApparently The Holy Mountain  was going to be the most expensive Mexican movie ever made, but wound up costing less than its projected $1.5 million budget. As with Jodorowsky’s other works, the imagery is rich and lush, and I’m surprised he brought it in for less than that. It is colorful, spellbinding, and absolutely berserk. You’re either going to watch it, or not. Personally, I advise watching it. Unlike some, I’m going to advise watching it sober, or at least as far away from any actual psychotropics as you can get. I won’t be responsible for anyone ignoring that particular piece of advice.