15/04/14 Film Essay # , , , ,

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
Director: Frank Pavich
Stars: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger


To see Jodorowsky’s Dune is to enter a magical world of cosmological possibility.

Theoretically, the film is a documentary about the making of a famous movie that never got made.  In actuality, it’s a tribute to the human spirit…especially the human spirit at the age of 85 as created by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky’s life story carries the flair of a tale from The Arabian Nights.

When Michel Seydoux asked Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970’s, “If you could make any film you wanted to make, what would it be?” it was as if the Genie leapt from Aladdin’s Lamp, asking, “If I were to grant you one wish, what would it be?”

Intuitively – admitting he’d not read the novel that pops from his mouth –Jodorowsky named Frank Herbert’s complex, sophisticated and internationally acclaimed science fiction book, Dune.

Elaborating, Jodorowsky explains.  “I choose to live a life creating my soul.” He might well have added, “I want to become a spice planet feeding dreams to the peoples of the cosmos everywhere.”


(This is the poster for the film never made.)

When life gets larger than fiction, a documentary is born.

It’s not news that Jodorosky never got to make Dune.  It’s probably not even news that Jodorowsky’s Dune influenced more in failure than it might have in success.  One science fiction film after another lifted ideas from its extensive story-boarded illustrations.  What is news is that Jodorowsky’s life shines forth brighter than ever 35 years after he took up the Genie’s offer and left his film forever in the collective mind to imagine.  On screen himself, he’s a talking myth, expanding reality with an inspired vision of possibility for old age as he ages.

When Jodorowsky set out to make Dune, he said he was not making a picture.  He was making a prophet, a film that would change the minds of young and old.  He saw film as an impactful, dynamic force that could change the way people think, bring them into a more meaningful and generous connection with one another. In his own words, he explains how he intended the film to open his own ego, to spirit him to another level of consciousness. He loved – and still does love — being ambitious.

To accomplish his mission, he needed what he called “spiritual warriors”, artists of superb talent who would bring his fantastical vision of Dune to life for all to see.

And so he began, approaching carefully selected artists with an unusual, dream-come-true offer.    In various ways, he made the invitation.  “Come with me, do what you do best and follow your imagination further than you’ve gone before – without restraint.  Together we will bring forth a film that will change people’s lives.”

As he’s interviewed in the documentary, Jodorowsky recounts each journey he took to engage each artist who joined him.  It’s a fun trip, not for the feint of heart. Jodorowsky is a man who never met an obstacle he didn’t like. When he couldn’t feel the spirit behind the talent, he simply left the room.

Many of Jodorowsky’s dream team are very young, all very talented and many very famous. Each is visually recognizable by their art on paper, on the stage or the big screen.

There’s Dan O’Bannon – American screenwriter and special effects designer (Dark Star), Chris Foss – English illustrator of sci-fi book covers, Jean “Moebius” Giraud – French cartoonist and H.R. Giger, Swiss painter and graphic artist (Aliens).

Jodorowsky’s Dune cast included such luminous figures as Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali. Also, Pink Floyd and the French Group Magma.

Incredibly, with great anecdotes for each negotiation, they all say ‘yes’.

The man is a master negotiator.  Close listening to the stories of how he brought each artist to say ‘yes’ provide an education.  O’Bannon moved to Paris with barely a dime in his pocket.  Dali insisted on $100,000 a minute – even after Jodorowsky cast his girl friend!  One colorful story, told in a tone of true wonder, recounts Mick Jagger meeting his eye across a crowded room and how ‘yes’ was made via a smile of recognition and a handclasp.

Director Frank Pavich skillfully and delightfully reveals Jodorowsky’s soul making endeavor with Dune and his certainty that dreams pursued exist in real life whether or not they ever materialize.  The years between Hollywood’s rejection of Dune and Jodorowsky’s renewed dedication to filmmaking at 84 reveal a man who never stopped creating.  There may be no connection between Jodorwsky’s desire to create soul in himself and his pick of a sci-fi novel that celebrates spice as the secret ingredient that drives ambitious heights of creative achievement but I’d like to believe there is.

For all those who want to receive the boon of an elder hero, a hero who did not get to bring his prophet to the big screen but who embodies, in his late years, his own spice-inspired ending to Herbert’s Dune, see Jodorowsky’s Dune.

When Jodorowsky says “To me, the picture, I did it”, his psycho-magical self leaps personally from the screen to cultural psyche to make his point.


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15/02/14 Film Essay # , ,

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)
Director: Teller
Writers: Penn Jillette, Teller
Stars: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull


17th Century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer is famous for painting like an angel with light. He was a phenomenon, unique in his day with a painting technique cloaked in mystery to our day.  Three hundred and fifty years later, we walk into a movie theater and wait confidently to be carried away by an invisible wizard lighting our way in the dark.  We expect nuances of color so real, details so explicit and illusions so compelling that the line between our imaginations and what’s up on the big screen disappears.  Faux light is at least as real as the light of dawn or evening or in-between.  So, it’s easy to understand that a 21st century man could get damn curious about how a man in the 17th century pulled it off.

It’s Tim Jenison’s curiosity, hidden out of sight from even his best friends, that comes to light in the Penn and Teller documentary, Tim’s Vermeer. If the noted mythologist, Joseph Campbell were alive, he’d be proud.  Tim Jenison is definitely a man who takes heed of Campbell’s famous call to action, “Follow your bliss”.  Tim sets out to paint Vermeer’s masterpiece, “The Music Lesson”, and using a camera obscura device in tandem with a small mirror to project and paint images, he does what he believes Vermeer discovered mid-1600’s.  He committed his time and a lot of hard work to replicate paints, furniture for an actual room like the one Vermeer painted in and the equipment he believes Vermeer used.

Tim is no painter but he is an inventor of tools of light that give us sensations of vibrancy.  He founded NewTek, a company that makes affordable desktop video-production tools. With deep pockets and enterprising friends, he set off on a quest for the secret behind Vermeer’s masterpieces.  He proceeded from hypothesis to “Aha” to experimentation, even getting one of his ideas in the bathtub.  He still has the water-splotched sketches of what he was guessing.  And mistakes, like fabled inventors before him, figured well in his pursuit of how things might have worked for Vermeer.

There’s an old saying that genius is in the details.  Never has there been a greater truth.  As Tim’s story unfolds, his journey of discovery and accomplishment is a fascinating revelation of detail and a tour de force.  And, it would appear, Vermeer got there first.  It’s very likely that Vermeer discovered the secret to reproducing light on a canvas as seen in the world around him by capturing it as a camera would, pinpoint by pinpoint.  By watching Tim reproduce the effort to reproduce one painting of Vermeer is enough to suggest that Vermeer lived in some enthralled state of being.  The work is too demanding for an ordinary soul.

When Tim shows David Hockney how he paints as Vermeer might have with a mirror while he matches colors, Hockney welcomes his research.   As a master artist in his own right who’s recently been painting on an iPad and written a controversial book about the use of optic machines in painting, Hockney shares Tim’s hypothesis that artists use optical tools. Later, when Tim is looking for evidence that he’s on the right track, he makes good use of Hockney saying, “All paintings are documents.” A detail of Vermeer’s painting keeps Tim going when he’s in doubt.

When a seasoned mind and technology meet, sparks fly. What Tim seems to have discovered is that Vermeer invented a technique to further his vision and give us a wonder for the ages.  The critics of this documentary seem to exemplify an occupational hazard, attacking Tim’s quest as belittling Vermeer as some sort of technician.  Far from the source of creativity, they just don’t get it.  Hockney lauds artistic genius and applauds Vermeer with absolutely no disclaimer for any mechanical device involved.  But it’s Tim, waxing eloquent about Vermeer’s effect on him after he sees the original of his copy in Buckingham Palace, who makes us realize there’s no substitute for the real thing.  Would that we could all see it!

In the hands of Penn and Teller, the making of Tim’s Vermeer is delightful, endlessly interesting and inspirational.  The documentary shows what’s possible when an idea is pursued with a big heart and lots of focused energy until the only thing left to do is shed tears of joy and praise the genius of humankind!

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22/11/02 Film Essay # , ,

Frida (2002)

Frida (2002)
Director: Julie Taymor
Writers: Clancy Sigal (screenplay), Diane Lake (screenplay), Gregory Nava (screenplay), Anna Thomas (screenplay), Hayden Herrera (book)
Stars: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush


“If you have ever stood in front of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, wishing you knew the real woman who lived that neverending pain, those wild choices and odd triumph of becoming one of the few women painters ever to become a household word, you’re in for a treat withFrida. Filmmaker, Julie Taymor, peels Frida straight from her canvas, giving us the gift of her vivacious, courageous spirit in full living color.”

In the film’s opening scenes, Frida Kahlo is being carried from her cobalt blue, red-trimmed house in a small wooden bed onto the back end of an open truck. Frieda smiles through excruciating pain as the cobble-stoned road jostles her fragile body. Where is she going? She turns her head and – with a little film magic – enters the blossoming body of a teenage girl racing through a hallway without encumbrance.

Exuberantly full of life and gathering boys as she runs, a young Frida laughingly exposes Diego Rivera in an illicit sexual moment with one of his nude models. Only moments later, Frida herself tumbles half-dressed from a scramble in a closet with a young boyfriend. And, before we can blink an eye, Frida’s vagina is pierced by a steel rod in the infamous bus accident that turned her voluptuous body into one that would never know another pain free day.

Frida captures Frida’s quixotic heroism, inspiring us all to embrace that belief in the triumph of spirit that we often find elusive. Life, for Frida, was far more than any materialistic, corporeal existence. She spun her art from somewhere deep within that broken, crumbling body that gave out too soon. Her vibrant sexuality sustained her in the darkest moments of despair and disillusionment, bringing her great joy, infusing her with stature and rescuing her more than once with an adventure that lifted her beyond the ordinary. She was a woman who left few stones unturned. We’ve known the details – the open marriage with Diego, the fling with Josephine Baker and the affair with Leon Trotsky – but until this film, we had no picture of her charisma, the allure of her astonishing vitality. Lying flat on her back, she painted. Second fiddle to a genius, she flourished. Humiliated, she took charge. Seemingly, to the end, she was like the three-year-old who says unabashedly and without reservation, “I’m adorable”.

“So, where are you going?” this portrait of Frida asks. It’s not a question of destination. It’s a matter of choice. It’s a matter of the choices we make, every day. It’s the path of the Uroboros (the rippling circle of life symbolized by a snake biting its tail), making new beginnings from old endings. Where was Frida going in the flatbed of that truck? You can answer that question for yourself after you see the film.

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