Monday, October 5, 2015


(Note: This might just be the flimsiest premise for a blog post I've ever come up with, but damn it, it's been far too long since I've written anything, and I needed to get my feet wet again. In other news, let it be known that I'm officially switching from italicizing film titles to capitalizing them. I know; it's a stupendous, earth-shattering decision, and I agonized over it for weeks, or maybe just fifteen minutes.)

The weekend before last, I had the rare and welcome opportunity to attend a theatrical screening of Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at The Hollywood Theatre in Portland. I'd actually been lucky enough to see it in a cinema once before, while on a trip to Munich, Germany, but it was over twenty years ago, and in the intervening two decades it's become one of my favorite films of all time. Having watched it repeatedly in its various home video incarnations, I've become quite familiar with it, and therefore my mind wandered a bit here and there during the screening (the guy sitting behind me who kept tapping his damn foot through the movie didn't help). When it came to the first scene with Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti, who plays the scheming railroad tycoon Morton, my thoughts drifted to one of his other big English-language films which was released a year later: ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, the sixth James Bond film. Over the course of the evening, it gradually occurred to me that, other than Ferzetti's mere presence, the two films share a few more things in common, and just for the hell of it, I thought I'd jot them down.

(One of the most obvious things they have in common is that both of them have lengthy titles that begin with the letter O, so from here on out, I'll refer to them as OUATITW and OHMSS respectively for the sake of brevity.)

Let's start with Gabriele Ferzetti's characters in the two films. Both are imperfect men who maintain a veneer of respectability while profiting handsomely from illegal activities. In OUATITW, Morton is a wealthy railroad baron who suffers from "tuberculosis of the bones," which renders him unable to walk without assistance. He travels his railroad in a luxurious rail car specially outfitted with overhead bars that he uses to pull himself upright. In his zeal to complete the construction of his westward-reaching rail line, Morton unwisely employs Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless hired gun whose job it is to "remove small obstacles from the tracks." The largest such obstacle is Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), whose property lies along the proposed line. Morton wants the property, and sends Frank to try and scare McBain into selling out, but Frank, psychopath that he is, murders McBain and his children in cold blood instead. ("People scare better when they're dead," Frank sanguinely observes.)

As venal as he is, Morton is not entirely unsympathetic. He seems genuinely upset by Frank's murderous actions, which he never sanctioned, and he's concerned that Frank also intends to kill McBain's widow and sole heir to the property, Jill (Claudia Cardinale). Morton tries to convince Frank that money, not murder, is the way to solve their problem. When that fails, he unsuccessfully attempts to have Frank killed. Events have been set in motion, though, and in the end, he pays dearly for choosing to do business with a cold-blooded killer. The character of Morton also evokes our sympathy due to his affliction, and from the humiliation he endures from Frank, who kicks Morton's crutches away and sends him crashing to the ground at one point. His death scene is rather ignominious as well, finding him as it does mortally wounded and crawling away from his train toward a dirty puddle.

Ferzetti's character in OHMSS starts out firmly on the wrong side of the law, but by the end of the film, he's done the right thing, even if it's for selfish reasons. He plays Draco, a notorious underworld figure who poses as a legitimate businessman. He also happens to be the father of Tracy (Diana Rigg), a troubled woman whom James Bond (George Lazenby) encounters on a seemingly deserted beach when he foils her attempt at suicide. After meeting a few more times, Bond and Tracy fall in love, and Draco, concerned for his daughter's happiness, urges Bond to marry her, even offering to throw in a huge chunk of change as a dowry. Bond, however, is more concerned with locating his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas), and he convinces Draco to use his considerable criminal resources to locate Blofeld. In the ensuing events, Tracy is kidnapped by Blofeld, and when Bond's bosses forbid him from undertaking a rescue mission, he enlists the help of Draco and his henchmen for an all-out assault on Blofeld's alpine lair. Of course, Draco's primary motivation for helping Bond is to save the life of his daughter, whom he clearly adores, but by doing so, he also plays a part in stopping Blofeld's latest plot for world domination. Inadvertently or not, he ends up as something of a hero.

Another similarity between the two films has to do with the casting of two very important roles. The Bond film and Leone's epic each had several predecessors, and each series of films featured an increasingly popular and recognizable actor in a lead role: Sean Connery in the Bond series and Clint Eastwood in Leone's "Dollars" trilogy of westerns. (While OUATITW can't rightfully be considered part of a series, it was still the latest in a string of Italian westerns directed by Leone and therefore bears some relation to the earlier films.) Audiences undoubtedly expected to see each actor back at the forefront of these latest films, but they were nowhere to be found. Leone wanted Eastwood for the role of Harmonica in OUATITW, but Eastwood turned it down, and it ultimately went to Charles Bronson, who turned in one of his finest performances. Connery had already declared that 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE would be his last outing as James Bond (although he did return to the role twice more in the future), forcing the producers to recast the role, which they did by hiring the then-unknown Lazenby. In both cases, the absence of the previous films' stars undoubtedly hurt their performance at the box office.

Both films also featured highly lauded music scores by veterans of each series. Every prior Leone western had featured a score by the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and nearly every Bond film to date had been scored by Englishman John Barry. Both men returned to score OUATITW and OHMSS respectively, and they ended up turning in soundtracks that are widely considered to be the finest of each series, if not of their entire careers. While Morricone's idiosyncratic music added immeasurable value to Leone's "Dollars" trilogy, the maestro outdid himself with the magnificent, operatic score for OUATITW. Leone had him compose and record the music before filming had started to it could be played on set; in that sense, it's inextricably entwined with the action on screen. Each character has their own unique theme, and the music personifies each of them beautifully. Barry's score for OHMSS is equally brilliant. The film features one of the very few solely instrumental main title themes in the Bond series, and it's a wonderfully dark, propulsive tune with chugging electric bass, contemporary (for the time) synthesizer flourishes and swirling strings. The rest of the score features some great suspense music, as well as some genuinely romantic compositions to accompany Bond and Tracy's courtship, topped off by the gorgeous ballad, "We Have All the Time in the World," warmly sung by Louis Armstrong. Of course, the song's title reflects the cruel irony of the film's final scene.

Speaking of which, one last thing the two films have in common are whirlwind marriages that are shockingly cut short by an assassin's bullet. OUATITW begins with one such tragedy, which reaches its emotional zenith when Jill McBain arrives at her new husband's ranch to find him and his entire family laid out on the very tables that were intended for their wedding party. OHMSS ends with one, as James Bond's new bride is cut down while they're en route to their honeymoon. While the scene in OUATITW is operatic in scale, full of big emotions, the scene in OHMSS is quietly heartbreaking and barely gives you time to register what has happened before the credits roll. It's also a bleakly ironic counterpoint to the opening scene in which Tracy attempts suicide. Having found a reason to live, she's subsequently murdered. Both scenes are devastating.

I'm sure there are other similarities between ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, but I'll leave them to you to discover. Both films are worth seeing over and over again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Failure to Launch: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE

"The Greatest Science Fiction Film Never Made." That's the tagline for Frank Pavich's documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, and after watching this enthralling, inspiring and just-a-little-bit-heartbreaking film, I'm inclined to agree. Pavich's film comprehensively chronicles the pre-production of director Alejandro Jodorowsky's planned 1970s adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel, which sadly fizzled out after two years of painstaking work due to lack of financing. Engaging commentary by several of the intended participants, film journalists, fellow filmmakers and, most enjoyably, the astoundingly spry, 84-year-old Jodorowsky himself, guide us through a remarkably fertile creative process that undoubtedly would have resulted in a genre milestone had it come to fruition.

A novice filmmaker with a background in theater, the Chilean-born Jodorowsky had only one previous feature under his belt when he found notoriety with his films El Topo (1970) and its followup, The Holy Mountain (1973). Their bizarre, surreal and shocking imagery appealed to counterculture audiences and they became among the first examples of what we now know as cult cinema, often being screened at midnight shows for audiences who were, shall we say, in an altered state of mind. After the success of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky teamed up with French producer Michel Seydoux, who granted him carte blanche for his next production. Jodorowsky's choice was an adaptation of Dune. Originally published a decade prior, Herbert's novel was widely considered to be a landmark of literary science fiction, and although Jodorowsky had not actually read it at the time, he was acutely aware of its cultural impact.

Jodorowsky's intent with Dune was to create a film that would simulate the effects of an LSD trip without actually having to take any drugs. He hoped it would prove a spiritual, transformative experience for young audiences, leading to a change in their way of viewing the world. To that aim, he assembled a cast and crew the likes of which had never been seen. Conceptual art was provided by renowned comic artist Jean "Mœbius" Giraud, science fiction book cover artist Chris Foss and a relatively unknown Swiss artist by the name of H.R. Giger. Jodorowsky secured progressive rock bands Pink Floyd and Magma to provide a soundtrack to the film. Most astoundingly, he rounded up what would have been one of the most wildly eclectic acting ensembles ever to appear on film, including David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier and in a mind-boggling casting coup, Salvador Dali, who was to be paid $100,000 per minute for his three to five minutes onscreen.

A consummate artist, Jodorowsky disdained commercial filmmaking, and his commitment to Dune's transcendental themes was reinforced by his refusal to work with preeminent special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey), whom he found to be too self-important and more of a coldly clinical technician, undeserving of the "spiritual warrior" status ascribed to the rest of his collaborators. Jodorowsky eventually settled on Dan O'Bannon, whose work on the low-budget science fiction film Dark Star, originally made with John Carpenter as a film school project, had impressed him.

With the script completed and Jodorowsky's dream team assembled in Paris, a voluminous amount of pre-production art was produced, resulting in a massively encyclopedic pitch book to be distributed to studio heads. Tragically, but perhaps not surprisingly, all of the studios passed. Although impressed by the volume of material that had been meticulously assembled, they were reluctant to entrust Jodorowsky with the millions of dollars necessary for his vision to be fulfilled. All too aware of the highly unconventional nature of his previous films, the studio bean counters could not foresee Jodorowsky's metaphysical version of Dune meeting with great commercial success. The plug was pulled, and what could have been one of the greatest science fiction films of all time faded into cinematic oblivion.

Jodorowsky's Dune somewhat magically brings this lost film to life, utilizing beautifully animated versions of the storyboards and production art to visualize what it might have ended up looking like. The effect is mesmerizing. Aside from the visual splendor, Pavich wisely allows Jodorowsky himself to tell much of the story. On camera for a large part of the film, alternating between his native Spanish and charmingly accented English (for which subtitles are provided, unnecessarily in my view), Jodorowsky never ceases to engage. Displaying the wit, vitality and joie de vivre of a man half his age or younger, he deftly leads the audience through this bittersweet tale of unfulfilled potential. He regales us with fascinating and amusing tales of his attempts to secure the participation of his favored collaborators, often crossing their paths seemingly by chance. His initial meeting with Pink Floyd got off to an unimpressive start, with the band seemingly more interested in their hamburgers than Jodorowsky's pitch, although he finally got their attention by insulting them. He persuaded a reluctant Orson Welles, whose girth was perfect for the role of the Baron Harkonnen, to sign on with the promise of gourmet meals from his favorite Parisian chef every day.

More background information is provided by such figures as producer Seydoux; the late O'Bannon (via his widow, Diane and audio recordings made prior to his 2009 death); filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley; artists Foss and Giger (who died shortly after this film's release); film journalist Devin Faraci and Jodorowsky's son Brontis, who was 12 years old at the time and underwent a grueling martial arts training regimen in preparation for one of the film's principal roles. Ultimately, though, the film was Jodorowsky's baby, and although he emphatically states that it was worth the effort simply to have tried, it's clear that, even forty years later, the failure to actually make the film is one of his biggest regrets. The disappointment is palpable; you can see it in his eyes. 

Jodorowsky's version of Dune may have never been realized, but its distinct visual style reverberated throughout the film world over the next few decades and continues to do so to this day. Pavich's documentary traces its undeniable influence on many of the major science fiction films that followed in its wake. Nearly all of Jodorowsky's design team went on (either independently or together) to work on a number of subsequent sci-fi films, the most obvious example being Ridley Scott's Alien, which was based on a story by O'Bannon and utilized the artistic talents of Giger and Foss (although Foss was eventually dismissed from the production).

A movie version of Dune was eventually made by David Lynch, under the auspices of producers Rafaella and Dino de Laurentiis, who had picked up the rights after Jodorowsky and Seydoux's failed attempt, but the film received terrible reviews and bombed at the box office. Lynch blamed the film's failure on interference from its producers, but he later stated that he shouldn't have taken it on in the first place. Jodorowsky admired Lynch, but he still found it painful to conceive of the fact that someone else had succeeded in bringing Dune to the screen, and he initially avoided the film. After being dragged to it by his sons, though, he experienced a bit of schadenfreude when he realized that Lynch's film was, to put it mildly, not good.

It's hard to say what sort of reception Jodorowsky's version would have received. It's entirely possible that audiences in the mid-70s would have been more receptive to his uniquely spiritual vision, but at the same time, the era of the modern blockbuster was dawning with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a decidedly more simplistic and audience-friendly type of film. Jodorowsky himself seems convinced that his Dune, had it been made, would have blown minds and changed lives. When he made this hyperbolic-sounding claim, near the beginning of Jodorowsky's Dune, I was a bit skeptical, but by the time the documentary drew to a close, he had me convinced.


Perhaps the sweetest coda to Pavich's wonderful film is that fact that its creation brought Jodorowsky and Seydoux together again after having been out of touch for decades. (The DVD and Blu-ray releases of Jodorowsky's Dune contain a marvelous deleted scene of the two men walking around Paris, chatting away and catching up.) Their friendship renewed, they decided to make another movie together, the result being last year's La Danza de la Realidad (The Dance of Reality), Jodorowsky's first directorial effort since 1990. It's one of his most sincere and heartfelt works, although it still delivers the strange and surreal elements his fans expect.

In the wake of the documentary's success, it's tempting to fantasize about Jodorowsky and Seydoux's version of Dune still being made. After all, both of them are still going strong, they both still have copies of the pitch book that contains all of the production art and storyboards, and pretty much no one considers Lynch's film (or the TV adaptation that followed) to be the definitive statement when it comes to Dune on film. The fact is, though, times and tastes have changed, and it would have even less of a chance of being properly financed in today's world. Thankfully, Jodorowsky's Dune briefly resurrects this incredible project from its own ashes and gives us enough of a taste that we can imagine the rest for ourselves.