Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a documentary

Jodorowsky’s Dune
Frank Pavich, director/producer

“What is the goal of life? It’s to create yourself a soul.”

Trouble at the first words, the quote above refuses humanity to anyone unwilling to put in the effort to “make” a soul. The hidden lie, of course, is: which totalitarian regime judges what work is soulful? And such is needed; something as ad omnibus as the pre-Revolutionary Roman Church which, after all, threw in the soul gratis with the flesh but held a proprietary accompt over how you treated it.

I have not seen El Topo or The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky but I will, because I wish to see what his Dune might have been like. That being said, any person who pauses to think should thank their lucky stars that Jodorowsky was stopped before he could make this film and destroy dozens of lives and untold wealth in the desert of Algiers.

Simply put: no man who could do what Jodorowsky did to his own son should have any position of authority ever. Those old silent films were not worth running cattle off of cliffs to their deaths; this film would have been no different.

Lots of charming stories are told by the would-be crew, most are quite entertaining and informative, painting Jodorowsky as an even more driven Steve Jobs. H.R. Giger sounds like a precocious prepubescent boy with a frog in his throat here; this dashes one’s expectations of a gravel-voiced necromantic cyberneticist but a surprising disconnect between a non-performing artist and his work is hardly new, just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s raging paranoia is not shocking but still unpleasant.

Indeed, as quirky as Jodorowsky is, with his expressive hands and onomatopoeia, the most threatening figures in this documentary are the rabid fanboys. Refn quietly seethes over the damage done by Star Wars and the “megabucks blockbuster structure,” ignoring that Jaws started that two years prior. Some blame the same big American film corporations that funded 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, both science fiction films with oddly spiritual takes, as out to destroy higher consciousness once and for all.

(Oddly, no one blames Michel Seydoux, who had never produced any film, let alone with a Chilean megalomaniac, before 1973, the year Seydoux distributed The Holy Mountain in Europe and offered, and failed, to fund said maniac’s next.)

The fanboys cite Frank Herbert’s spice “melange” as a consciousness-expanding drug, which makes some sense since Jodorowsky’s idea was to recreate ’60s LSD visions as drug-free cinema. But they also compare Arrakis, or Dune, to Afghanistan as a place of supreme geopolitical importance. What else do they get wrong?

In story, sandworms exude melange and are only found on Arrakis. Melange offers man life extension, expanded consciousness and awareness, and precognition. Only precognition allows safe use of the faster-than-light Holtzman drive. Thus melange alone creates the entire Galactic economy. The water of life, another sandworm product, offers access to past lives but it too becomes another control battle.

For Herbert, the spice of Dune is a hydraulic despotism, a lens to concentrate and examine political power, which is the core of Dune: a comparatively mature contemplation of power, its benefits and costs, its ultimate goals. I say “comparatively” because it is the sin of critics who know nothing of Renaissance England to babble about how William Shakespeare understood power and politics, who knew nothing of the sort. Shakespeare lived not too long after Agincourt, when men at arms did all the fighting as a disorganized mob, when authority end law extended as far as your mailed fist or naked voice could project. (When you read a Shakespearean king and his words suddenly shift into hyperdrive, the tingle up your spine is exactly this projection.)

Herbert began Dune as a novel about Liet-Kynes and desert ecologies, but by publication in 1965 (by Chiltons!) the true subject was power and CHOAM, his feo-totalitarian cartel earning most of its profits from spice, was explicitly based on OPEC (prescience indeed). Religion in Dune is taken seriously but never literally, as expression of human will, faith and drive. In Herbert, as in Heinlein, expanded consciousness leads only to philosophy on how and when to use governing force. Hippie visions need not apply.

David Lynch’s Dune was quite faithful to the book but inspires hostility from Jodorowsky and others, who come looking for religious ecstasy and get nothing but Machiavellian philosophy (the original maligned Republican). The friend who recommended Herbert’s novel to Jodorowsky may not have known how ill-fit the two minds were. Jodorowsky follows Strindberg, Lynch an American magical realism; Lynch frets the novel’s politics less. (Or perhaps magical naturalism: consider the ear in Blue Velvet: a call to adventure in the hero’s journey to the underworld, where nothing is supernatural at all but the world is still a strange and dangerous place.)

The fanboys also natter on how this unmade film influenced others. Some are honest and direct: Dan O’Bannon, post-Jodo, hired Giger to design the Xenomorph for Alien. But how many other films did this affect? They mention the Terminator’s computer readout vision as a legacy of the unmade Dune’s storyboards, but by 1973 we had already seen Westworld through Yul Brynner’s infrared vision. How many people saw Jodo’s storyboard books? How many were made when only two still exist?

As I watch, at some point, El Topo, I will not like it. Messianic, religio-political Latin/Catholic visions always leave me cold. But I hope to be fascinated at least once as I was by this documentary.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Robert Heinlein, the Authorized Biography

Robert A. Heinlein: in dialogue with his century: vol 1, 1907-1948: learning curve
William H. Patterson Jr
New York

Any reader of Mr Heinlein’s has been served pieces of the Old Man’s mind already; Mr Patterson’s magisterial work, so far, finally shows us the whole man, the author, his friends and his times and makes the picture whole. I learned a lot.

I was not previously aware that western Missouri had been depopulated by the Union army during the Civil War. The Heinleins were not bred Southerners, but post-war immigrants from far north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Mr Heinlein’s difficult history at Annapolis is fascinating, but only a part of a rather brittle young man’s slow, painful education in human failings. Mr. Patterson’s work here is complete and interesting, and I have only a few quibbles with some of his interpretations. It is also at the Academy that we read Heinlein’s voice for the first time: simple, direct, powerful, missing only the stories.

I was aware the Old Man was on the Left in the Depression, but the depth of his involvement here is nearly alarming. The Old Man seemed to be born sneering at “red Fascists” (Communists, to you) and “black reactionaries,” but was surprisingly devout in his devotion to Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells‘ Socialist visions of The Good Life.

We learn much about his second wife Leslyn, as large a figure as Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld, ending volume one by suffering with the Old Man in his painful divorce from the former and then (we know in advance) happy marriage to the latter.

Isaac Asimov dismissed Heinlein’s politics as uxorious, an Upton Sinclair Progressive with Democrat Leslyn, then a stern conservative with Republican Ginny. But the Old Man was always a fervent Jacksonian, disgusted at the thought of wasting American lives in a useless war for the British against Germany, whether in 1916 or 1939, then driving himself sick (Leslyn did the same) serving his country after Pearl Harbor (which battle gains fascinating depth here).

He advocated a world government to manage the post-Hiroshima threats and would always regard atomic weapons with a bitter heart. He was fascinated by general semantics throughout his life. His first, unpublished novel followed social credit theories before he decided that the theory threatened private property and thus individual autonomy, a Heinleinian non-starter. He mined that book for the rest of his life.

Mr Patterson does not bother to “explicate” the Old Man’s crystal-clear short stories and (with few exceptions) novels, he simply details Robert’s life and the people he shared it with. We learn little about “where the stories come from” that we hadn’t already read in Expanded Universe. But just as we hear an utterly familiar voice in Annapolis, so too is Our Hero unmistakably Robert A. Heinlein ab initio. Time may chasten him, people may force him to abandon positions untenable, but the Old Man is One throughout. Mr Patterson could not fake that inimitable voice. I thank him for letting it speak again, and placing again a pearl of great price in its proper setting.

Friday, July 04, 2014

“Visit secluded Shangri-La”

Title: Lost Horizon
Author: James Hilton
Date: 1933
Publisher: Macmillan & Co.
Place: London

I am not surprised to learn that Franklin Roosevelt adored this novel, naming both an aircraft carrier and his weekend getaway digs Shangri-La, and less so that his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, immediately changed the latter’s name to Camp David. (CV-38 vanished even sooner.)

Another found manuscript adventure story with a taste of meditative Utopia and post-Great War ennui, Lost Horizon became a success only after Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips did. Both are specimens of the novel of sentiment, which may be called the romance novel only without the latter’s nominal goals. Not for nothing was Frank Capra chosen to film it.

Hilton’s small novel (61,000 words) charms us still, nailed to its perch and period by its opening line:
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had.

This disappointed presence is dated and constant, but minimal.

The ending is a bit muddled. One imagines that Hilton did not want to write the murder of an escapee, and, of course, given the format, he needed someone to escape with the tale. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but it hardly mars the book as a whole.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The X-Persons

I am not linking to this:

www.esquire.com blogs culture overthinking-the-x-men

but I hate it. Mr Thompson says, more or less,  “Don’t overthink the X-Men. Let me overthink the X-Men, because you don’t get how racist and heteronormative they are.” Gruesome pablum.

Modern Grotesque

Stephen Green compares, properly, San Francisco's Planning Commission to the Red Guards : “In a 5–0 vote, it ordered Johnston to build a...