Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Arrakis on the Hoe

HR Giger
A great exhibition is forthcoming at the Plymouth Arts Centre this spring. Going under the awkwardly self-explanatory title Alexandro Jodorowsky’s Dune: An Exhibition of a Film of a Book That Never Was, it gathers together never realised production designs by Moebius, HR Giger and Chris Foss, the latter no doubt dealing with the look of the hardware. There was scarcely a British science fiction paperback which didn’t come adorned with a Chris Foss spaceship in the 1970s. This was the case even with a novel like Thomas Disch’s 334, which was set in a New York which differed little from the present day other than in the extent of its social dissolution and was less likely to escape Earth’s boundaries than a Len Deighton novel. Giger went on to define the look of Alien and gain widespread recognition (and a degree of notoriety following the inclusion of a poster deemed pornographic in the Dead Kennedy’s LP Frankenchrist, which resulted in a lengthy court case). Moebius also worked on the design for Alien, but his distinctive style really came to the fore a few years later, when he worked with the French director Rene Laloux on his first film since the 1973 animated film Fantastic Planet (or La Planete Sauvage). Les Maitres Du Temps (1982) features some gorgeous alien backdrops, with a slow-moving plot which allows for the details of flora and fauna to be dwelt upon, and which makes up for the rather sketchy visual realisation of the characters.

Chris Foss
The exhibition notes posit a split between an American technocratic take on cinematic SF and a possible European approach which seems less anxious to wrest control of the universe. This is in many ways similar to the disjuncture genre historians have pointed out between the literary strands of scientific romance, as exemplified by British writers such as HG Wells and Olaf Stapledon, and the American form of science fiction which drew from it but swiftly found its own particular style in the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. This became the dominant form and the source of much of the contempt in which the genre is often held. The magazines were a commercial market and demanded a constant and prolific output from their authors if they were to make a living. Nevertheless, good writers did emerge and the genre developed with energetic rapidity, as did many an artistic form which originated or found fertile soil in the US. The best SF would ultimately wed the two branches and go on to incorporate further generic hybridity (as exemplified by the contemporary movement dubbed ‘the new weird’). For a great overview of the European form, deriving from HG Wells, Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance In Britain: 1890-1950 is well worth a read, uncovering as it does many a long-forgotten gem (Sydney Fowler Wright being a particularly interesting rediscovery).

Star Wars is held up in the exhibition notes as being the faultline in the development of cinematic SF, representing a retreat into the simplistic pulp certainties of the early years of the genre. For the lazy or disinterested observer, this came to represent SF in toto, and was thus something of a set back (enjoyable as it indubitably was before tampering and corporatisation robbed it of any trace of its original charm). The films of the early 70s are often held up as being an example of a more mature approach to SF, although I’m not sure that simplistically one-dimensional dystopian gloom is an automatic indicator of maturity. Certainly, films such as Soylent Green are as simplistic in their own way as Star Wars, although they give an interesting insight into the pessimistic outlook of the West in the post-60s period. The exhibition, with a slight trace of jingoism, suggests that the unrealised Dune project might have offered a different path to that paved by George Lucas. It’s collaborative team represented a spectrum of European talent. Jodorowsky was Chilean but resident in Paris; Moebius was a French comics artist; Chris Foss was a British illustrator; and HR Giger a Swiss artist. A more modest glimpse of where such a European perspective might have led can be found in the animated films of Rene Laloux, made in collaboration with artists Roland Topor (Fantastic Planet), Moebius (Les Maitres du Temps) and Phillipe Caza (Gandahar). With their tight budgets and restricted distribution, they were never likely to offer much competition with the welter of post-Star Wars space opera, however.

Personally, I remain agnostic as far as the aura of culthood which surrounds Jodorowsky is concerned. His films certainly have the occasional scenes or tableaux of startling imaginative power. But they are scripted with a reckless arbitrariness, parading a bewildering series of images which often seem completely disconnected from one another. They rely too much on the indulgence of vague and unfocussed mysticism, with portentous yet largely empty symbolism thrown haphazardly at the screen. Their obscurity is due to incoherence rather than the depth or profundity to which they evidently aspire. Jodorowsky was taken up by the 60s counter culture (Holy Mountain receiving funding from John and Yoko) as the perfect ‘head’ director (ie weird yet vague enough that you could endlessly divine the ‘hidden’ meanings of the films). Frank Herbert’s Dune was similarly adopted as a favoured work, with its mystical religious cult with their use of mind-expanding drugs, its underlying (although not as dominant as some might suggest) ecological message and its depiction of an old, corrupt order being overturned by a new ‘enlightened’ one chiming with the times. Like another counter-cultural favourite, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, it is at heart a deeply conservative and old-fashioned SF novel, however. It has nothing of the genuine radicalism found in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds or the exhilarating iconoclasm of Harlan Ellison or Samuel Delany. An adaptation of Delany’s Babel-17 or Nova might provide a real alternative to the juvenilia of Star Wars, whilst remaining within the purview of what most people understand as constituting SF.

The exhibition will also feature the responses of three contemporary artists, Steve Claydon, Matthew Day Jackson and Vidya Gastaldon to Jodorowsky’s ideas for the film. A glance at their work suggests that all are well suited to the task and will come up with something interesting. All of which makes this visitation of colourful alien worlds to Plymouth’s expanses of grey concrete an enticing prospect.

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