Monday, 26 April 2010

Jodorowsky's Dune - The Ideal Film

I stepped on to the train last week and travelled along the edge of sea and estuary, skirting the boundaries of moorland and threading through verdant hills until we entered we entered the concrete city. In short, I took a day trip to Plymouth, a place where the weather forecast seems stuck to a permanent prediction that it will be ‘partly cloudy’, as if the all-pervasive greyness of the post-war development is refracted back into the sky. The object of my journey was the exhibition which centred around the production designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s swiftly abandoned Dune project. It was subtitled ‘an exhibition of a film of a book that never was’, a circumlocuitous way of including Frank Herbert’s novel in the equation. Indeed, ther was a shelf upon which the novel was to be found in all the varying colours of its paperback publishing history. The exhibition was displayed in an arts centre housed in a small row of old and rather rickety half-timbered buildings of some vintage at the end of a quiet terraced street which leads you to a very busy road and the rather unlovely surrounds of the bus station. Beyond this is a completely inaccessible traffic island about which a stream of traffic constantly circulates, and on which the ruins of a bombed out church are stranded. It serves as a perfect metaphor for the post-war development of the city. There is a sense that the terraced street into which the arts centre has been inserted marks some sort of frontier, or interzone, between old and new. It’s both on the edge of the new city, and off at an angle from the old Barbican dockside area. It’s a small pocket of the old everyday city which was somehow missed by the Luftwaffe, who otherwise did such a thorough job of levelling everything in their sites. Given their peripheral location, the arts centre is probably doing a good job in preserving these houses, which might otherwise fall to rack and ruin. It’s a rather incongruous setting for an exhibition which offers the dreams of advanced technology and interplanetary travel that are central to space opera.

Jodorowsky talks of his ideas for a film of Dune in terms of his own mystically inclined worldview, which had been expounded with varying degrees of clarity in El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The exhibition notes quote him as saying “there is a Hebraic legend which says: ‘the Messiah will not be a man but a day: the day when all human beings will be illuminated’. Kabbalists speak about a cosmic consciousness, a species of meta-Universe. And this for me was what the Dune project was”. The modern artists in this exhibition follow this mystical interpretation rather than the more conventional Ruritanian tale set against a Lawrence of Arabia backdrop which lies beneath the science fiction exoticism of Herbert’s novel. The three artists who Jodorowsky recruited to work with him, Chris Foss, HR Giger and Moebius, essentially do their own thing.

HR Giger - Harkonnen Castle
HR Giger seems to do little to adapt his style to the material at hand. Perhaps Jodorowsky hired him because he felt that this style would fit in with his own ideas of the look of the planet of Arrakis and its architecture. I’m not sure that Giger’s obsessively reiterated biomorphic forms are appropriate in this context. They are more suited to portraying the dessicated remains of a civilisation (or the husks of its inhabitants) rather than one which is in full, if decadent, flower. They were perfect for Alien, therefore. On the other hand, with a little subsequent redrawing, they could have suggested structures shaped by sandblown centuries, buildings with the bones showing through. Giger’s Harkonnen Castle is essentially a huge statue of its inhabitant, as if it had accreted around his recumbent form. It squats like a huge and bloated Buddha, gaping outlets like the mouths of shells allowing for the expulsion of vast quantities of waste. If this is a rounded and feminine form, for all that it’s moulded around its male inhabitant, then Giger’s staircase is aggressively phallic. Swords thrust out from either side to lend each step of the way a menacing air of threat and impending violence. This is further displayed in his skull fronted train (an odd design choice for a public transport system) which seems made for high speed collisions.

Chris Foss - Spice Container
Chris Foss’ Spice Ship is a very feminine form, its great, transparent belly pregnant with the billowing clouds of blue spice. The Emperor’s Artificial Planet and The Emperor’s Palace reflect the symmetrical polygonal forms of the Pythagorean solids, which were held by Pythagoras, Plato and their followers to represent a mathematical purity which provided the underlying structure and ordered harmony of the universe. These geometrical forms stand in opposition to the more natural, rounded forms, and together they embody the forces of order and chaos, the manufactured and the naturally evolved. A geometrical form hewn from stone which falls short of the perfection of the Pythagorean solids features amongst the objects in Albrecht Durer’s print Melancolia. It represents one of the ways in which the mind can become weighed down. Abstract notions of ideal forms don’t necessarily help when struggling with human imperfections in the chaotic flux of the world of coarse matter. The prints of Chris Foss’ characteristic and vividly coloured spaceships, which graced many a Panther SF paperback in the 70s, have sketches in the borders at the bottom which depict technologised landscapes (spaceports and mesas), setting the scene for the interplanetary civilisation whose vehicles he has imagined. Moebius’ costume designs were seen only within a supplement taken from a copy of the French comic, or bands desinees, magazine Metal Hurlant (known over here as Heavy Metal), which was laid out sequentially on a low table, covered with Perspex. My grasp of French is somewhat basic, and certainly insufficient to warrant bending down to read at length. Moebius’ costumes looked colourful and exotic, with a customary liking for the bulbous, and were once again recognisably in his characteristic style. If the film, as Jodorowsky had envisaged it, had kept true to the designs of these three artists, it would have emerged as a strange, hybrid creature, a patchwork cockatrice of a beast.

The works produced by the three artists inspired by Jodorowsky and his collaborators’ ideas for Dune were scattered through three rooms on three levels of the arts centre. In the basement, you come face to face with a silver metallic mask draped, made by American artist Steven Claydon, which has a wild sprouting of raffia-like hair, resembling either the matted locks of a sadhu, or the untamed split ends of a hippie in the Jerry Garcia mould. This disconcerting visage could be the death mask of a prophet, or that of a deranged killer. The uncertainty of its provenance reminds us that the abandonment of rationality in favour of mysticism, which was a marked tendency in the era of the 60s and early 70s, can open the door for charismatic psychopaths (Charles Manson being the emblematic example) whose ravings are accepted as profound insights by minds which have been exhorted to abandon ego and reject ingrained pattern of thinking. In turning away from the established systems of belief and figures of authority, many sought alternative sources, and there were plenty who were happy to take on a messianic mantle and provide them with the wisdom which their instant enlightenment had granted them. Science fiction played its part, providing material which was thrown into the general collage of voguish ideas, alongside ill-digested eastern religions and half-baked occultism. The novels which became cult accoutrements for the counter-culture tended towards the fascistic, Robert A Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land being a good example. Ideas of evolutionary advancement towards higher forms reinforced the idea amongst many that there was something innately special about them, that they were set apart from the wider society, which remained stubbornly unenlightened. Such views were embodied in Jefferson Airplane’s song Crown of Creation, which lifts whole chunks of its lyrics verbatim from John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.

There are aspects of Jodorowsky’s films which are visually striking and which show evidence of a powerful imagination at work. But they seem to be a product of that self-absorbed mysticism of the time, which turned inwards and became detached from the world and, in that detachment, came to consider itself superior to or beyond its concerns. The films toy with religious iconography and sententious symbolism, but there never seems to be any overall coherence. Although perhaps Jodorowsky would argue that the lack of coherence was a way to jolt the mind from prefixed patterns of thinking and seeing. The enthusiasm with which they were received in some quarters (and Holy Mountain was funded due to the enthusiastic support of John Lennon) may simply be the dope-addled mind’s enjoyment of weirdness for its own sake. To convey mystical insight, clarity is needed above all, but here, any illumination tends to get lost in a mist of obfuscation. Exhibition curator Tom Morton wonders whether Jodorowsky’s film of Dune, had it been realised, would have marked a new direction for cinematic SF. It might rather have appeared as a singular grand folly, marking the last sunset days of a dying era. The failure to get beyond the preliminary sketch stage is in itself an indication that those last days were in fact already gone, the shadows of dusk having crept up unnoticed.

Claydon’s mask, which could represent Jodorowsky the mad magician, has eyes which are bulging out on spiralling tubular protuberances. They are like the fixtures of screw-top lightbulbs, the bulbs themselves, we can imagine, lodged behind the eye sockets, producing a dazzling flood of inward illumination. The face itself is peppered with pinprick holes, through which this inner light would leak back out into the world in pointillistic beams. On the opposite wall, Claydon has hung a bifurcated print of the writer Somerset Maugham. I have absolutely no idea why he has done this, and it frankly meant nothing to me (I didn’t even realise it was Somerset Maugham at the time). Perhaps Maugham’s supercilious, disdainful gaze is supposed to represent the attitude of the literary (and artistic) establishment towards science fiction. Or it may be a simple facing off on the gallery walls between an aloof and coolly balanced view of art, and the wild-eyed and wholly unbalanced outlook of the mask; The old opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The mask’s three dimensionality, together with the fact Maugham’s portrait has been sliced in half, suggests that the latter is definitely in the ascendant here.

French artist Vidya Gastaldon seems to have chosen, and perhaps wisely, not to read all of Herbert’s novel, but to select passages at random with the use of the I-Ching on which to base her works. The use of the I-Ching would be particularly apposite had she be choosing passages from the novels of Philip K Dick, given his personal use of the oracle and his incorporation of its interweaving of chance and order into the alternate world of The Man in the High Castle. Gastaldon includes the extracts from the book which she has chanced upon (or been guided towards?) in her pictures, etched in pencil, and the words provide a contextual anchor for the swirling watercolour landscapes which surround them. They also provide the titles for the paintings. The quote ‘what senses do we lack that we cannot hear another world around us’ is inscribed to the side of a landscape which is being engulfed in an all-pervasive sandstorm. An ear has formed within the sand clouds and eyes have flowered on stalks below. The desert possesses its own godlike sentience, watching over and listening in to whatever is occurring within its boundaries. Another picture has eyes floating in the sky, an image which has further resonance Philip K Dick’s work, notably his novel Eye In The Sky. Gastaldon paints the desert in psychedelicised colours - bright oranges, yellows and reds (vermillion sands). In The Lasting Conquest of the Night, her sandworms billow like clouds, soft and bulbous forms with large, bassett-hound eyes. They seem more playful than threatening. They are feminine forms, rounded and non-angular, which spew out Pythagorean polygonal solids in their wake. In another picture, these worms, which she manages to make utterly unphallic, become more aggressive, having developed a ring of sharp, bared vagina dentate. The landscapes are semi-animate, the lines of distinction between flora and fauna, sand and sky blurred and indeterminate.

Vidya Gastaldon - I Must Not Fear Death
British artist Matthew Day Jackson’s To Infinity…is found upstairs an makes for an immediately arresting encounter (you can see it at the head of this post). A golden skeleton hangs from the wall, topped with a black ebony-like skull. To the right, a progression of skulls traces an evolutionary sequence, the curve of the brain pan becoming ever more geometrical, its surfaces smoothing out into regular, flat planes until finally the eye sockets, which have transformed into a kind of visor, disappear altogether and we are left with a black pyramid. This is the tetrahedron, the simplest and therefore purest of the Pythagorean polygonal solids. One face is sprinkled with gold paint, which resembles a star field against the black background, and there is a small circle of pearl embedded in its midst, like a milky planet. The skull, now with no doors of perception, contains the mind which is in itself sufficient to encompass the universe. It is a progression which neatly summarises the mystical version of Dune which Jodorowsky envisaged. The skull imagines the development of a perception of the universe in its ideal form, beyond the limited, indirect vision offered by the senses. It is the form in which Jodorowsky’s film remains.

1 comment:

Manolo said...

Yes it could have been the best movie ever !