Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jodorowski: Why Not?

I was recently privileged to watch the documentary Jodorowski's Dune, which has been showing on cable TV in the U.S. If you haven't seen it, seek it out as soon as you can. It may have the same remarkable effect on you that it has had on me.

It has changed how I think of what I do as a writer. And that's pretty profound, in and of itself.
Alejandro Jodorowski

Until I saw the documentary, I'd had no idea, frankly, who Jodorowski was (I now think of him as the sole legitimate living heir of Fellini) or that he had been among the first to obtain film rights (circa 1973) to Frank Herbert's great space epic. (The very first person to option Dune was Arthur P. Jacobs, who died of a heart attack soon after taking the project on.) The story of Jodorowski's involvement with Dune is quite literally fantastic, in every sense. Jodorowski's vision of Dune was and is breathtaking. He aproached Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and Magma to do the music. For acting talent, he enlisted Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and others. He signed artists H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Jean Giraud for set and character design. He wooed (and signed) Dan O'Bannon for special effects. The storyboards quickly grew to 3,000+ lovingly crafted images.

By the time Jodorowski went to Hollywood to look for a studio with whom to partner on production and distribution, much of the $9 million budget had already been spent in pre-production and the script had ballooned to the point where a 14-hour movie was inevitable. Predictably, the major Hollywood studios (although impressed with Jodorowski's pre-production work, and his roster of signed names) didn't know what to do with a 14-hour Shakespearean space drama. No one would touch it.

And so, the great tragedy of Jodorowski's Dune is that it never got made.

And yet the great triumph is, it did get made, in other ways. Dan O'Bannon went on to write Alien; H. R. Giger designed the monster for Alien. George Lucas, directly or indirectly, used various Herbert tropes and motifs in Star Wars; we see echoes of Jodorowski's vision in the Terminator movies, in Contact, Prometheus, Blade Runner. Plus, Jodorowski's storyboards for Dune spawned a series of groundbreaking science fiction comic books, most notably The Incal (which has been described as having a claim to be "the best comic book ever written") and also Technopriests and Metabarons.

Jodorowski's reaction to Hollywood's objections to the film is instructive. Studios told him: "But the movie will be fourteen hours long!" To which Jodorowski replied: "So what? So, what?"

Jodorowski's attitude was that film is cheap, and anyway, film isn't just film. Properly conceived, it's art. And art, properly so-called, is whatever it needs to be. If it needs to be 397 minutes of improvisational piano meditations packaged as ten vinyl records in a boxed set (Keith Jarrett's Sun Bear Concerts), let it be that. If it needs to be a 13-volume, 1.2 million-word novel (Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu), let it be that.

If it needs to be a 14-hour film that takes seven nightly trips to the theatre to see in its entirety—then why not? Let it be the first such! Someone has to be the first to do it, yes?

Jodorowski wanted Salvador Dali to play a certain part in Dune. He tracked the elusive artist down. Dali asked: "Can I have a helicopter?" Jodorowski: "Yes, you can have a helicopter." Dali: "Can I have a burning giraffe?" Jodorowski: "You can have a burning giraffe." Dali said he would have to think about it, but added that for him to do the film, he would have to emerge as the highest paid actor in motion picture history. Jodorowski calculated the onscreen time of the character. It was something like six minutes, total. Jodorowski's reply: "You'll be paid $100,000 per onscreen minute." Dali was delighted. He agreed to do the film.

This was Jodorowski's approach: Think big. Go all the way. No limits. Do whatever it takes. Let the work be whatever it needs to be.

How many of us work that way?

Do you work that way? Or are you contrained by "industry rules," genre "requirements," someone else's preconceived notion of what art is. The status quo. Orthodoxy. Best practices. Fucking recipes.

Your own ideas. Are they your own? Or are you force-fitting what you do into someone else's pre-measured box? "A first novel shouldn't be more than 100,000 words." "A good story shouldn't have more than a dozen characters." "A story shouldn't be heavy with description."

Why, not?

This is a new era for publishing. I was talking with my wife about this. She mentioned Marcel Duchamp, our favorite artist. She had only to mention his name. I knew at once what she was thinking. (If you haven't yet read Calvin Tomkin's biography of Duchamp, run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and obtain a copy at once.) And I thought to myself: Publishing is at a crossroads, now, similar to that faced by visual artists in the years just after World War I. It's possible, now, for publishing (no longer encumbered by the old rules of ink and pulp, circa 1999; no longer laboring under the heavy-handed hegemonic control of a few all-powerful Big Publishers) to go in entirely new directions. If a book needs to be words on paper, it can be; but if it needs to be more than that (whatever "more" means), it can be that, instead.

It can be.

Think about it.

What does your work need to be? What does it demand to be? What does it cry out to be?

Let it be that.

"But you can't—"

Oh really?

Why, not?

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