Only Lovers Left Alive

The following review is one giant SPOILER.

There is a cryptic scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive where vampire lovers Adam and Eve notice a few small Amanita muscaria mushrooms growing in the back yard of Adam’s factory loft. They seem somewhat out of place and out of time; the fungi, they note, are out of season. Eve talks to them like they’re people. She and Adam share a knowing glance and leave them be. We don’t see them again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a rock and roll movie that only Jarmusch could make. An atmosphere of cool apathy permeates this story about Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a depressed, nosferatic rock star genius living in the husk of Detroit city. He spends his days accumulating vintage instruments, avoiding impending fame like the plague, contemplating suicide, and drinking illicit blood bank donations with all the ceremony and satisfaction of a wealthy heroin addict.

His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier where her vampire friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) keeps her supplied with good blood. We wonder why Adam and Eve live on opposite sides of the world, and their unique situation dawns on us; being immortal, their concept of time might make years apart seem like a weekend separation.

Seeing Adam’s depression over Skype, Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. When she arrives there is some relief; the couple feed together, listening to records, catching up on each others’ age-old wisdom and isolation (Adam has remained off the grid with a Tesla-inspired generator he constructed piecemeal in his back yard).

Their relationship with humanity is strained. They refer to humans as “zombies,” implying unthinking consumers who lack the scope for real creativity. Eve is regarded with suspicion wherever she goes and the only human company Adam can stand is Ian, a fan of Adam’s music who tracks down vintage guitars and whatever else Adam needs no questions asked (i.e. a bullet made of the hardest wood available, with which Adam contemplates ending it all).

But their relationship with humanity seems to be necessary. Adam has been creating music for ages, but cannot own up to it. A life of fame would expose his immortality, so he’s been getting the work out via “zombies,” human conduits who take all the fame and the slack. We also learn that Christopher Marlowe was the creative force behind some of history’s great literature, including Shakespeare.

Enter Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s mischievous little sister who immediately gets on Adam’s nerves. They put her up, share their stash of blood, and even let her talk them into a night on the town. After a rock show, Adam, Eve, Ava and Ian travel back to the loft and you just know Ava wants to get into trouble. When Adam and Eve wake the next night, they find Ian’s corpse.

With his only human connection severed, Adam decides to leave his loft full of instruments to go to Tangier with Eve. They’re dangerously low on blood but counting on Marlowe to hook them up when they land. But they arrive to find him in a bad way; blood poisoning is common and a bad batch has made it past his safeguards. He’s had his last, leaving the Lovers to fend for themselves.

Withdrawal from feeding takes its toll, and the Lovers walk the streets, hoping they won’t have to hunt fresh prey. A compelling musical performance distracts Adam while Eve slinks into the night to find him a gift to buoy his spirits. She comes back with a lute, a completely atavistic instrument they both find beautiful and perfect.

Wasting away on the street, lute in hand, they happen upon two young lovers sharing an intimate moment. They watch the couple admiringly. And then, without any better options, they descend on them. In the closing moment of the film we see Adam and Eve approaching the young lovers, canines exposed.

The pace of the movie is somewhat languorous, and in the theater I felt the narrative was engaging but suffered from a lack of drive. There was, of course, no explosive climax. Each scene seemed to roll out from the last without much added momentum. When the credits rolled, my first thought was that this was a very cool movie with superb acting (Tilda Swinton is 100% compelling), but it’s probably not Jarmusch’s best.

About a day later, thinking about the themes that carry through the film, I started to glimpse a profundity behind the narrative, though even now it refuses to crystallize completely for me. The film wasn’t focused on dramatic thrill; Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on art and immortality.

In the world of the film, history’s great visionary artists have been the puppets of immortal vampires. These vampires (the serious ones, anyway) have no time for a society of zombies. But they remain attached to civilization so that they can giver their art an outlet in the world. The film’s vampires do what they can to enrich “zombie” society from afar.

Those Amanita mushrooms are emblematic of our heroes. These are the visionary, psychedelic mushrooms of legend, offering ancient Siberian shamans a glimpse into the transcendent world beyond. To eat them is to see the world and the self in ecstatic ways. Out of place and out of season, and bearing promises of vision, the Lovers left the mushrooms be. The vampires themselves have artistic, visionary work to do, work that will show the “zombies” new ways to perceive the world and themselves. And like these mushrooms, they just want to be left alone.

It seems perfect coming from Jim Jarmusch. The drive to put art into the world and move on, to avoid getting caught up in fame, to disregard critics and commercial success, and to bring Vision into the world; these are virtues of real artists. The work will last forever, and by extension, the artist. Thinking about the immortal visionaries at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive, I feel appropriately exhorted to “publish or perish.”

High Maintenance

Between HBO, AMC, and Netflix, I’ve apparently been missing out on a whole world of web series. But thankfully, I’ve finally been turned onto one good enough to recommend. High Maintenance is a short web series based loosely around a pot dealer in New York, and it brings a refreshing, masterful touch to a “genre” that suffers from, for lack of a better word, stupidity.

After getting up to date with their 15 short episodes (between 5 and 15 minutes each, with more episodes to come), I browsed a few reviews of the series online. While most reviews were absolutely glowing, I noticed a striking similarity with respect to the authors’ (and presumably society’s) preconceived notions; almost all the reviewers had low expectations.

Pop culture has fed us a consistent diet of stoner stereotypes; from the indelibly bad stoner-face of Jim Breuer in Half Baked, to the inept goof-off James Franco played in Pineapple Express, the popular opinion of pot enthusiasts is that they’re inevitably lazy and incompetent.

Being inundated with these stereotypes seems to have paralyzed people into an Anslinger-era position on the evils of cannabis. Take this ridiculous opinion piece from The Windsor Star, for example. Devoid of facts (or any relevant information, for that matter), this article is full of nonsense and media-fed stereotypes. The article’s author reinforces the outdated and false picture of pot smokers with a confidence only ignorance can provide.

I’m so bored of clichés, as we all should be. I don’t want to watch a show about black people “acting black,” or gay people “acting gay.” There is more fodder for storytelling in treating black people, white people, gay people, pot smokers, etc. as real people who have more going on than what gets dreamt up by lazy writers.

Which is what makes High Maintenance so great. It’s hilarious, moving, awkward, and irreverent because it focuses on the various individuals that cross paths with this pot dealer (who is himself so likeable I’m thinking of calling him up). Each episode is a little slice of life, brimming with authenticity and originality. Creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld step outside the expected tropes and in each episode round out a great narrative.

Watch High Maintenance on Vimeo.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

Arts vs. Crowds

If you’re the type of performer who finds a comfortable venue in small clubs and bars, particularly if you’re a musician or standup comedian, you’ve had to deal with obnoxious crowds. It’s just a fact of the business, like late hours and occasionally free beer.

Performers should want the crowd to feel engaged and enthusiastic about what it is they’re doing and sometimes they even goad the audience into participation, but some nights the vibrations in the room or a slight miscalculation of pints-per-hour can send certain types right over the edge.

Hecklers can be nice-and-annoying, but more often are annoying-and-annoying. Screaming “Canada loves you!” at Bill Maher might seem nice—it is a compliment, technically—but this eruption means little or nothing to a man performing for thousands. My bet is that the standing ovation will clue him in that at least some small part of Canada (heckler included) loves him.

Some hecklers seem jealous that lights are pointed at the comedian on stage, and they try to compete by being obnoxious and loud. These people, presumably attending the show of their own free will, find it easier to antagonize the performer than to just walk out. That combative approach would be intimidating if it wasn’t draped over their desperation for some small piece of the limelight.

Some people yell “Freebird!” at every rock show, which wasn’t funny when I was a kid and hasn’t become funny since.

Usually artists have planned their material. Doing the odd request is fine, but it seems a bit condescending to me that a member of the audience would rather hear something familiar than something the artist has planned. If the artist has something worth saying, I don’t want them to digress for one loud person.

I suppose comedians have special purview here, since the role of the heckler is perfect for comedic riposte. That being said, I can’t wait to yell “Freebird” at Todd Barry this Friday.

For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Ontario Beer “Facts”

Ontario Beer Facts PamphletHave you seen these pamphlets yet? Apparently, somebody thought about privatizing alcohol sales, and then there was a murder. It opens into a tryptich display of a woman being robbed at gunpoint. They say that safety comes before profits, eluding that good, clean, wholesome people should be very afraid of privatization (but disregard public safety when it comes to cigarettes sold at convenience stores). Then the pamphlet directs us to www.ontariobeerfacts.ca to learn more. It tells us to get the facts.

For a pamphlet from a group that call themselves Ontario Beer Facts, surprisingly, this pamphlet contains no facts. Not one. I assume if privatization led directly to crime, there would be piles of statistics, figures, anything. But there isn’t. So, on to their website.

The website claims Ontarians pay some of the lowest prices in Canada for beer after adjusting for tax rate differences. Vague fact, maybe, but we’re getting close. They then claim that the average price per case of bottles is $32.08. So if you’re an Ontarian who regularly shells out between $36 and $45 dollars for a case of beer, realize that you’re actually paying less than that through the magic of tax adjustment!

They urgently claim that prices will rise with privatization, as they did in Alberta when the province privatized, failing to mention that prices rose in Ontario as well during the same time period. There is a tedious study that first claims how valuable it (the study itself) is, then goes on for dozens of pages but fails to realize that everything sold at convenience stores is marked up because we pay for convenience. Happily.

What about selection? The Beer Store sells 420 brands of beer. But sadly, they follow up that stone cold fact with the line, “space-constrained convenience stores and gas stations would have little space for local and craft brands.” This is not a fact, nor is it even an intelligent opinion. When Alberta privatized alcohol sales the selection of brands blossomed many times over.

My favorite fact from the website is at the very bottom, in significantly finer print than anything else on the page. It reads: “Ontario Beer Facts is brought to you by Canada’s National Brewers (CNB), a national trade association representing Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman Breweries Ltd.”

Now look back at the pamphlet. Doesn’t it strike you as the sort of symbolic scare tactic you’d see coming from the mob boss of a huge drug cartel? “Eh, <sniff> I really hope nuthin’ terrible happens to your family this weekend if you even think of privatizing.” In fact, considering the direct appeal to fear, and the complete lack of information, I’d say a scare tactic is all it is.

The Art of Belief

How does a man like Orson Scott Card, who writes Ender Wiggin so honestly and tenderly in Ender’s Game, speak out so vociferously against homosexuality? It seems strange that a smart, contemporary artist could be so opposed to the freedom of people to love whoever they love. I tend to think of artists as open-minded and liberal, favoring freedom of expression (in all its forms), and I tend to think of bigots as ignorant. It’s disarming to think that those traits can coexist within one person.

It’s hard to accept, but some people we want to despise have admirable talents. On the other hand, many people we respect probably have horrible beliefs or habits we choose to ignore. And while people with one set of priorities and beliefs might respect and admire Joey Artist, another group of people with differing beliefs and priorities will almost surely despise him.

Beliefs are very strange this way; a person can be seemingly rational and open-minded but hold an isolated belief makes them completely irrational in certain scenarios. If a fully conscious person takes on an ignorant belief system, we have a hard time separating them from those beliefs. But when a person is indoctrinated early, that judgment gets a little stickier.

Is it strange that an anti-Semite like Wagner can compose some heart wrenching operas and a passionate actor like Marlon Brando or Klaus Kinski can turn out to be an asshole in real life? Well, we do live in a world where a college-educated man can make himself into a bomb to kill people because they interpret a book differently. Take out one or two bad traits from any of these people and our opinions change radically. Beliefs are contagious like viruses and we sometimes don’t know how susceptible a person is until it’s too late.

The arts are especially strange in this way because fearful or hateful or awful people can leave behind great and beautiful works of art. We might hate the person and everything they stand for, but the work remains. There is no anti-gay message in Ender’s Game, yet people organized boycotts of the film because of Card’s beliefs. If we could surgically remove his offensive beliefs, the movie probably wouldn’t change but the public reaction to it would.

I somehow find it easy to love artists that I hate. Uncompromising auteurs that don’t care about being nice people are compelling. Sometimes I share so little emotional ground with an artist like that I find him repulsive, yet I need to see his art. Being creative, he tries to give us a piece of himself, something he values so much he devotes his life to its expression. This may or may not have anything to do with the one particular belief or habit we find so terrible.

And it might give us a glimpse into that person’s internal conflicts and enable us to empathize. There is a reasonable argument to be made that it’s more important for us to regard art made by people with beliefs other than our own. What better way to try to understand those beliefs? It probably doesn’t work very often, to be fair, but you see my point.

A genius might become hateful if his subscribed beliefs tell him to be hateful. It’s hard to imagine that Orson Scott Card has analyzed his own bigotry in any rational, ethical light. More likely he was taken in by certain congenial beliefs within a larger framework, a belief structure, and then he allowed the rest of that belief structure to warp some of his views of reality. What makes someone susceptible to these distortions is the whole je ne sais quoi of human psychology.

Beliefs shouldn’t come sold as a package deal (as in religion); they should be purchased individually by experience and good evidence. Any ready-made belief system can tell us what to think for better or for worse. Without the belief system, we’re free to have no opinion. This is truly a good thing because it means that in theory we can look at new evidence impartially.

I want an artist to create for art’s sake. I don’t want a polemic disguised as art. If the artist creates a work of depth and originality, I will appreciate that work for what it is, regardless of who created it. On the other hand, I might buy a nice guy a beer, but I won’t lie about liking his crappy art. My opinions about a person don’t come as a package deal either. I may have several opinions about one person, each based on some kind of evidence. For example, Orson Scott Card is a great writer, but a terrible human rights advocate. Also, there is a chance he’s the second most talented “Orson” in history.

Game of Thrones Season 4: Fleeting Departures

Of all the great television series I watch, Game of Thrones is the easiest to look forward to. The sets, costumes, performances, and the scope of the story are like nothing I’ve ever seen on television, and this is to the credit of both George R. R. Martin for writing such and amazing series, and to the producers who execute the show to HBO standards (the highest standards on television).

The first three seasons have basically been jaw-dropping, and 90% of the content has been pulled from the source materials, the first book of which was released in 1996. But as the seasons fly by, the show has been creating more and more material not found in the original novels, presumably in accordance with Martin’s wishes, as he is an executive producer.

Season four, however, seems full of new material. The need for this is obvious; the show is on track to overtake Martin’s novels before A Song of Ice and Fire is finished. Without new material the show would overtake the novels, throwing both into the air. Basically no matter what they do, I’ll continue to watch because Game of Thrones is an event; it’s a world so rich and immersive it’s like a vacation once a week.

But a trend this year has somewhat dulled my anticipation. Some of the new storylines seem hesitant, afraid to commit to any bold new directions that stray from the source material. The audience has already accepted that the show is different from the books, but it seems the producers don’t want to alienate fans of the books by making it too different. The following contains SPOILERS.

Last season the show elaborated the torture of Theon Greyjoy by the bastard Ramsay Snow. This wasn’t in the books explicitly, and it’s only in the fifth novel A Dance With Dragons that we learn what happened to Theon. Since Ramsay is a compelling character and torture is cinematic and edgy, it made sense to continue this story in the show’s third season.

In the most recent episode, Theon’s sister (Yara in the show, Asha in the books) storms Ramsay’s keep with a group of men. But when she meets with Theon, he’s apparently been broken for good. He fights against her, obviously so programmed to fear Ramsay that the thought of leaving is too much.

Somehow, a savage battle inside a small kennel leaves both Yara and Ramsay alive, and Yara flees without Theon. Her real brother is dead, she decides. She had never treated him like a brother before, but decided, maybe for familial honour, to travel dangerous seas to get him back and when she is faced with difficulty, she gives up, returning us safely to the canon of the books (in which no storyline like this takes place). It’s a lot of work on her part to just give up and move on.

The mutineer crows north of the Wall are an ad hoc story creation and their brutal treatment of Craster’s daughters agitated many viewers. Jon decides to take a party to the keep and dispatch with them so Mance Rayder can’t learn the truth about how few crows occupy Castle Black.

This departure from the books was again a welcome storyline, one that could be told to completion without disturbing the events of the books. But when Bran and company are captured by the mutineers, I couldn’t quite get on board. Considering how callously the mutineers treated their former leader and current captives, the fact that they left Bran, Jojen, Meera and Hodor virtually untouched seemed an unlikely allowance to keep the audience from outrage.

Of course nothing will happen to these characters; we know from the novels they get much further north than Craster’s Keep. But because there seemed like a chance that Bran might be reunited with Jon, even for a moment, it was compelling. And once again, at the moment when these two brothers could have met, Bran decides it isn’t worth it; the chance Jon will refuse to let him go north is too much to risk, so Bran leaves to find the three-eyed raven and the mystical tree, bringing us back to the books once more.

Ramsay’s spy Locke was so perfectly cast and well written that I wasn’t sure where his true motivations were. His appearance at Castle Black was noted by Jon, and his fighting skills demonstrated he could be of value on the mutineer mission. And just as we learn something about him (by his attempted kidnapping of Bran), Bran warg-brain’s Hodor into pulling Locke’s head off. Once again, a curious addition to the novels’ storyline is quickly attenuated, bringing us back to safe ground.

I haven’t felt like much of a snob with regards to the liberties the show has taken. In fact, I could do with more. The additional focus on Margaery Tyrell, the change of Robb’s wife, the amplification of homosexual content, and Theon’s torture all felt like interesting cinematic angles to take from the books, and if not warranted, at least not too gratuitous. But this season has taken many strong departures only to collapse them, returning us abruptly back to the books. (That White Walker scene was great though, wasn’t it?)

Game of Thrones might be the first series of it’s kind; I’ve never heard of a television adaptation of a work in progress. It’s interesting to watch it unfold, but part of me wishes that the show was bold enough to truly depart, to be it’s own creation. Martin works on the show and should be able to keep the major points aligned with his vision. But with so many pieces in play, significant changes might be impossible.

The somewhat tepid departures from the books and their quick, convenient resolutions in season four have left me feeling that I’ve been watching a diluted product. And while Game of Thrones remains one of the best shows on television, my anticipation leading up to Sunday nights has recently been lukewarm.

Fortunately, the trial of Tyrion has ignited the fuse on more than one of ASoIaF’s great showdowns, and the final few episodes of the season should prove to be satisfying and adequately gut wrenching. They might not be Red-Wedding-level gut wrenching, but who would want to go through that emotional garburator more than once?

Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's DuneIn 1974, the new guru of psychedelic underground cinema Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make a sprawling, trippy adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The adaptation was never made, but fortunately for us the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune gives us the next best thing: an impassioned blow for blow of the creative process by the man himself.

Jodorowsky sells this movie with his magnetic personality, and turns what is essentially a documentary of talking heads and still images into a spiritual quest to transcend the material plane. He explains that he wanted Dune to give audiences an LSD experience without taking any drugs. He wanted this movie to be a prophet, a psychopomp, and a god. He explains it all with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and he is completely serious.

His mission was to assemble a group of spiritual warriors to make the film, and Jodorowsky brims with enthusiasm as he explains how he assembled his team: writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall, Prometheus); artists Moebeus, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger; Orson Welles; Salvador Dali; Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, who underwent two years of extensive spiritual and martial arts training for the role of Paul Atreides.

Bound up in a massive, glossy tome are drawings for every character, costume and set illustrations in detail, the full script, and the entire storyboard sketched by Moebius of over 3000 windows. Very few copies were made of the book, and Michel Seydoux, Dune’s intended producer, sent the coveted items to film studios as a selling tool.

The lore of this film is massive, inspired, star-studded, and ultra-ambitious. For this documentary, essentially a eulogy for a dead project, I couldn’t ask for better subject matter. But anyone familiar with film production knows that the process is a series of compromises, and often where the ambition is largest, the pressures of the industry weigh the most.

Jodorowsky is a visionary, and nobody has ever made anything quite like his movies. Particularly impressive are the mystical spaghetti western El Topo and the psychedelic film par excellence The Holy Mountain. But re-watching these films (as I sometimes do) reveals slight cracks in the technical edifice, imperfections in the execution, minutely skewed camera angles, dated special effects, and some grating sound design. Jodorowsky is a master, but inspiration and vision are his strongest suits. With studio money and input, I question whether the final product would have satisfied his vision.

As it turns out, Hollywood was afraid of Jodorowsky and no studios were willing to furnish the $15M budget. Watching the expressions of the artists interviewed in Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was impressed by the expansive feeling of “what might have been,” a sentiment shared by everyone so greatly it seemed like a bittersweet triumph that Dune became a legend instead of a film (disregarding David Lynch’s version).

As a consolation prize we see the disparate parts of Dune reflected in a myriad of groundbreaking science fiction works like Alien, Blade Runner, and Contact, and in Jodorowsky’s own comic books. The ideas behind Jodorowsky’s adaptation have resonated strongly through the film world for decades until finally, solve et coagula, we have Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fully entertaining documentary about the passions that drive art.