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Ten of the best from 2014

December 22, 2014

I wrote more in 2014 than I have done for a while. Right at the end of 2013 I left my job at Future Publishing and it drew into sharp focus something that had been true for a while: I don’t write for a living. I produce videos.

This made the writing that I choose to do feel much more like my responsibility. I don’t need to do it – so why should I do anything I’m not proud of? Why should any of it be bad?

And the answer is because writing is hard, and sometimes it goes wrong. But the point stands – for the first time in years, I set out to write more, and much better. I read more and I thought harder, and I’m happy with at least some of the results. And, because every now and then we should give ourselves a fucking break already, I decided to collect together ten of the pieces I’m happiest with as a way of saying “Well done, Nathan, that wasn’t shit.”

I’m also doing it because my wife, Sarah, told me to. She’s done a post like this as well, here. A sensible person would read it.

Here are mine

“One Chants Out Between Two Worlds…” – Twin Peaks, cinema and television

the quote in the headline above, from Twin Peaks’ sinister poem recited by Mike the One-Armed Man, catches something of Lynch himself, and his career-long oscillation between cinema and television. I thought of how Blue Velvet pre-figured Twin Peaks, how Mulholland Dr was planned as another ABC series and then warped and wrangled into a prismatic self-contained cinematic whole.

About David Lynch, the textures of different mediums, and the importance of ideas.

Edge Of Tomorrow and the growing overlap between cinema and video games

….the film itself is still not directly analogous to games, although perhaps the act of filmmaking is. Film production is an imperfect stop-start process in which certain moments – certain scenes – are repeated until they’re successfully completed. Few people remember the existential cul-de-sacs of failed gameplay – instead our minds, like a film’s editor, cut together a continuous experience from the loose reels.

Can films absorb the grammar, as well as the langauge, of games?

Avant Garde Dogs

BAFTA’s meeting with Naughty Dog is an encounter of two curious parties at the border of interrelated worlds. BAFTA is the film body with a growing interest in interactive experiences. Naughty Dog reaches out from the other direction, a games studio that has studied the story craft of Hollywood closely and adapted it with great success.

How Naughty Dog patrols the border between cinema and games.

Left Behind: The different futures games imagine for our sons and daughters

My son was being told, is told every day, that he can join the ranks of the elite athlete superstars we have elevated to the highest strata of the cultural firmament; that he can earn the instant adoration of thousands with a sharp turn and a kick of the ball. That he can win the World Cup. My daughter was being told that, if she got her eyeliner just so, and matched her clutch bag flawlessly with her earrings, she could fulfill her own potential by becoming an accessory in turn for the protagonist of a different story.

And, well, fuck that idea.

Why skewed representation in games is a stupid, bad thing.

Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost

Here are some recent thoughts of mine: I am playing too much Destiny. Also, games might be an expression of the futility of the human condition.

Something to do with grinding, checkpoints, and the progress of human civilisation.

Monty Python – A Night at The Circus

I had forgotten. I’d forgotten not just that I know the words to everything, as became clear during the opening Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but that I know the rhythms and variations of the old Drury Lane, Hollywood Bowl and Secret Policeman’s Ball performances that I used to fall asleep listening to during what was quite obviously an utterly sexless adolescence.

On seeing Monty Python, and in defence of the joy of enjoying.

A short stride and a head turn ago

I’m regularly surprised by how much I’ve forgotten, how much I missed, and how differently the other mes, drifting behind somewhere unreachable but still connected by a thin cord of remembering and responsibility, thought about everything. The idiots.

A family visit to my early childhood home in London, some play with thoughts and memories.

Going back to Chinatown – the nea-noir classic at 40

What the film is about – what Gittes becomes obsessively drawn to – is something deeper than sleaze or scandal, which are after all part of the accepted language of Hollywood. The film, and the abusive incestuous secret it conceals, capture something about perversity and its relationship to power, and the entitlement of the powerful to abuse and exploit.

How Roman Polanki’s noir captured the abusive soul of Hollywood that would lead to his own prosecution for rape.

Guardians Of The Galaxy – So Serene On The Screen

…it strikes at how ideas work, circling and charming before manifesting in ways sometimes the thinker doesn’t see, and because it acknowledges how ideas also have to be reconciled to a system of production and an industry, and how the two often invisibly together to make things.

On Guardians Of The Galaxy, Serenity, and the perseverance of ideas.

Remembering Bob Hoskins

Bob Hoskins was already a person before he became an actor. It’s one of those facts that makes a revelatory sense when you hear it – that by the time he won his first part at the Unity Theatre in 1969 (accidentally, while waiting for a friend at the bar) he was 27, and had worked as a lorry driver, a window cleaner and a market trader. In other words, he had lived, and in doing so had gained a gift for the kind of effortless un-performance that defines his now closed career.

I try to nail the bruising warmth of a brilliant performer.

It is happening again: It’s Showtime for Twin Peaks, and we should be excited

October 20, 2014

Laura Palmer

David Lynch and Mark Frost announced recently that Twin Peaks will be returning as a nine-episode series on Showtime in 2016.

My immediate response was: this is a great thing. In the widening gap since the release of Inland Empire I’d been wondering whether I’d be lucky enough to see anything new from Lynch on-screen, and now I will, as he’ll be directing all nine episodes of the Showtime series. It’s easy to take for granted outstanding artists working among us – mark this, because we will be watching the end of one of the great Hollywood (though not-really-Hollywood, and all the more about Hollywood because of it) careers.

There’s also a bit of fairytale to the return of this show in particular. The sense of loss and longing around Twin Peaks has always seemed hopeless and wistful against the implacability of studios and networks, ever since the days when the show was buffeted ominously about the late-night TV schedules by ABC. But now that feeling has not only been recognised, but alleviated. There is something odd and human in the way that certain precious, imperfect cultural objects, impractical in their own time, gradually accumulate value through their absence – a swelling reservoir of that loss and longing – until making them real again suddenly seems like the obvious thing to do. It’s almost an act of collective forgiveness – like Alvin’s journey to reconcile with his brother in Lynch’s The Straight Story, it’s about the truth that wanting to be together again while we still can is more important than the details of why things didn’t work in the past.

Although obviously I – and lots of people who love Twin Peaks – do care about why things didn’t work in the past. And that’s why the best news about the new series, as far as I’m concerned, is where and how it’s being made.

Lynch has always had a tumultuous relationship with television, both as a format and as an industry. I recently wrote about this relationship, and how the line from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (“one chants out between two worlds”) seems to

…catch something of Lynch himself, and his career-long oscillation between cinema and television. I thought of how Blue Velvet pre-figured Twin Peaks, how Mulholland Dr was planned as another ABC series and then warped and wrangled into a prismatic self-contained cinematic whole. His career comes packaged with a sense of contortion.

You get a sense of this contortion in the way Lynch has spoken about television in the past. Even when making Twin Peaks, he was scornful of the medium in relation to cinema:

The power of most movies is in the bigness of the image and the sound and the romance. On TV the sound suffers and the impact suffers. With just a flick of the eye or turn of the head, you see the TV stand, you see the rug, you see some little piece of paper with writing on it, or a strange toaster or something. You’re out of the picture in a second. In a theater, when the screen is big and the sound is right, a movie is very powerful even if it stinks.

On the recent Twin Peaks Blu-ray set, though, there’s evidence that Lynch’s position has softened. In one of the extras included in the set Grace Zabriskie suggests that there’s “something to be said for home viewing.” Lynch agrees:

If they get good sound systems and big screens, it could be pretty good. Shut everything off, get your bag of popcorn, and get into it

Note that Lynch hasn’t budged on the things that make a good viewing experience, and rather he addresses them – sound, image, distraction – point by point. But he does recognise that the technological improvements made since Twin Peaks was broadcast mean it’s now possible to recreate that experience outside the theatre.

And this is the point – television has changed, both the form, and the industry. The new Twin Peaks will be on Showtime, a cable channel that’s as far removed from network television in 1991 as your 46-inch plasma is away from the glowing, rattling boxes crammed into the living rooms of the last century. Thanks to The Sopranos, thanks to a shifting marketplace, thanks to the way audiences watch television now and what we expect from it, cable – not just HBO but FX, AMC, and Showtime – has attracted and fostered an extraordinary creative community, synonymous with quality storytelling and long-form filmmaking.

It’s tempting to see cable as a natural home for Lynch, a third place between television and cinema, a place that combines the possibilities of continuing storylines which he finds so intriguing with the power and elegance of cinema, a place where he can stop oscillating and contorting and let his ideas take shape. And here’s a thing – Lynch has actually worked on cable before, with a mini-series called Hotel Room on HBO – before it was HBO – back in 1993. The wonderful opening sequence featured these lines, spoken by Lynch

For a millennium the space for the hotel room existed – undefined. Mankind captured it, gave it shape, and passed through. And sometimes when passing through, they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.

This might be my favourite idea in all of Lynch’s work – the industriousness of construction, of snaring a space in mid-air to become a stage for the significances that pass between people – but here it’s particularly meaningful, as I hope that Showtime can be that place, that hotel room, that Lynch can once more pass through.

The Weekliest Think: Breaking Windows, and why you should listen to 99% Invisible

October 13, 2014

broken-windowYesterday I was listening to 99% Invisible. It’s a podcast series, and if you don’t listen to it already you should try, because it’s well produced and tells interesting, concise stories about design. This is design in a wider sense, a sense that always makes me think of something that ex-Naughty Dog developer and current academic Richard Lemarchand said when I profiled him for Edge a few years back:

At the end of the day design is about human psychology, and that’s a subject that’s always been fascinating to me. Who are we? What makes us tick? How do we see the world, and how do we interact with it? To my mind it’s really just to do with being inquisitive about everything in life.

So 99% Invisible is about design in a larger way, which means it can be about anything to do with things which are deliberately crafted, or how we interact with them. Episodes I recommend particularly urgently include Thomassons, which is about vestiges of maintained but non-functional civic infrastructure, Future Screens Are Mostly Blue, about the imagined interfaces of science fiction consoles, and Hand Painted Signs, about the fading art of manual sign-making. Listening to the show will make you think about dozens of small, constructed areas of life and your relationship to them, from priority queues to pedestrian crossings. They are always relevant.

The one I listened to this evening, as I did the washing up, was called Broken Window. It was a story about Melissa Lee who, as a teenager in Baltimore, accidentally broke an apartment window with her friend. They’d fled, initially – they were good kids and felt a drop of panic and dread – but then tried, and failed, to find the owner of the apartment. Melissa grew up and went to college, travelled the world and began a career, but every time she came home, for more than 20 years, she would see the window, and it would still be broken.

There’s no grand or subtle hook to this episode. It’s a story about how an event marked physically in the space around us can draw us back to a particular time and moment. Melissa is always 13, always sad and sorry when she sees the window. But also, as it so unfailingly seems to manage, the show broke in on my experience and included more than one ‘Oh, man, me too’ moments.

Well, three, specifically. That is the number of windows I can distinctly remember breaking in my life. The first was with a football, in the garden of the Victorian terraced house we lived in for a few years after we left London – actually it was the next-door garden, and not our window, and I remember watching with a prescient horror as the ball, half-deflated and heavy, swung and dipped and couldn’t miss. That drop of panic and dread – I shared that with Melissa (‘Oh man, me too’) as I hopped and turned from the house like I could wish it all away. It’s why I wanted to write about the episode. The ball left an impossible circle in the frosted bathroom glass, a cartoon mark of my crime, which stayed there until my dad took it out and replaced the pane.

The second window left a different mark, that I can still see on my hand. Six years later, I am 14, and out aimlessly with aimless, bored friends. Running down a street in town and banging on every door seems like a good idea, the houses tightly boxed together and pushed up to the pavement with no front garden. We’re banging and laughing and running, and then my hand goes through one of the doors, the noise and the empty air something I don’t understand, until I look down at my wet, red hand. Unlike Melissa, I do not even try to find the owner of the house to explain. The S-shaped sliver between the furthest knuckles of my left hand reminds me of this every time it catches the light. (‘Oh man, me too’).

The last window I remember the clearest of all. It’s April in 2000, and I am 18 and at university in Sheffield. This is the night I see Fight Club for the first time. At university I am studying film for the first time and trying very hard to become a person, and Fight Club seems important because of this. We see it in a mixed crowd, the guys from my flat, the girls from the flat above, a few months after the theatrical run, in the Union auditorium. We have a drink, before or after, and there’s an electricity to having seen something powerful (we group-read American Psycho in this first year, a year of fumbling ironically and frantically with being men). None of this had any bearing on the window, though. We walked back up to Broomhill from the Union, the rain that settles over Sheffield from October to May greasing pavements and roads, and I run over a crossing with hands in jean pockets, slipping on a wooden trap door, up the step of an Indian restaurant, and shoulder-first into their menu board.

There’s a drop of panic and dread, and I run 30 yards down the road. But then I stop, and think, and go back to say something. (‘Oh man, me too’). The restaurant is busy, and the guy I speak to listens at first and then looks through me, says it’s fine. I offer to leave my details – I remember writing them down – but there’s a sense of me wasting their time on top of their money, and the meaninglessness of my contrition. There’s a suggestion among my friends, the ones further back down the road, that Fight Club made me break a window instead of rain and pockets, but none of them know that I’ve already broken a window through mischief, and I won’t do it again because I am becoming a person, just slower than all subsequent versions of me would like.

This is what reflecting on design can do: bring you to the realisation that you’ve had the answer to Ed Norton’s question for 14 years already. ‘Is that what a man looks like?’ A man looks like someone slipping on wooden boards with his hands trapped inside his pocket, and then saying sorry.

Manifest Destiny: Playing the Raid, and why scores make dickheads of us all

October 6, 2014

Destiny raid

“What kind of dickhead would give this game a 6/10?”

I did Destiny’s raid this weekend (if you don’t know: Destiny is a game about space, the raid is a particularly challenging part of the game that can only be attempted after about 40 hours of play and with an organised team of six, and the chances of you getting anything out of the rest of this post are imperceptibly small).

The above quote is what one of our six-man party exclaimed, about two hours into the seven-hour marathon that constituted our assault on the Vault Of Glass, as we approached an enormous expanse of subterranean architecture that stopped us all in our tracks. I laughed really hard – at that moment the ridiculousness of dismissing Destiny with a score, or indeed summarising it at all without a solar system’s worth of caveats and contradictions, struck me as particularly funny.

Of course, I am the dickhead who gave Destiny 4/5 for the Observer, a score I more or less knew was indefensible as I gave it, despite having played the game (including the alpha and beta) for around 30 hours at that point. Here’s a bit from that review:

While the game’s presentation is striding and confident, its attempt to expand the social possibilities of a historically lonely, linear genre can leave the world feeling strangely empty. Players can team up for co-op missions, explore the semi-open world together, or meet strangers purging fallen Earth of unwanted enemies. But the flexible structure enabling this social freedom prevents the game from feeling tightly curated – the lush, colourful landscapes slightly detached from the action they host.

This is basically right – and there’s an argument here about the function of a review, and the idea that a lot of people interested in whether they should spend £50 on Destiny on that initial weekend will never play for 10 hours, let alone 30, which confers a legitimacy on these early verdicts (I say verdict, I tried, awkwardly, to be as circumspect – and yet authoritative – as possible. In 250 words).

Still – it’s not an argument I particularly want to get into, except to acknowledge that I understand why these early reviews exist, and why some of them were 6/10: because Destiny is split between an essential hollowness that borders on insanity, and a mechanical superiority that makes it endlessly playable regardless. The game is consciously designed around a principle of futile repetition – players beating the same bosses over and over only for things to remain the same. It doesn’t have no story, it actually has a sort of structural anti-story, a self-erasing lack of narrative that’s only bearable because we’re all having so much instant, mindless fun.

It’s a problem. Destiny is half-brilliant, on the way to somewhere rather than having arrived. The imperfect integration of its elements allows us to peek in and watch those constituent parts – gameplay, story, Skinner box compulsion – wriggle and contort without ever meshing into a truly viable whole.

And then there’s the Vault Of Glass. I really wanted to write this because, if there’s anything left of the original hopes of what Destiny could be – that truly viable whole – I think it’s found in the Raid.

The Raid is a kind of experience that doesn’t exist in any other game. Expensively produced and marketed games like Destiny are made for mass audiences. The cost of hauling them into existence demands they appeal to as many people as possible (which is almost certainly why Destiny’s story has been neutered into a flat nothing, rather than risk an alienating complexity). And yet the Raid makes incredible demands: that you spend dozens of hours reaching level 26, that you find five other players who’ve done the same, that you collectively commit several more hours (between seven and ten seems average, to finish in single session) to the attempt itself. And then once inside, it demands you work together in a way no other shooter – certainly none that hope to attract the gaming everybody – ever has. It demands hours of trial and error, of effective communication, of repeated wipes, of optimistic restarts. And it demands throughout that you aim steady and move fast, because this is still a shooter, among the finest.

It’s not a perfect experience. Actually it’s hard to say what it is. It’s fascinating. And it is new – yes, traditional MMOs have been doing raids for years which, from a top-line perspective, demand very similar things, but shifting these demands and this experience into a console shooter changes them in a way that makes them substantially different.

What does all this mean? It doesn’t fix Destiny, which might anyway be unfixable and, at the same time, in need of no fixing. It wouldn’t change my score – I’d still give it 4/5, though this time I’d feel like less of a dickhead doing it. And it doesn’t really tell us where Destiny is going – it will expand and change, and any forthright predictions we make about it now will only make dickheads of us all in time. But do play the Raid – find friends, earn your levels, and experience something that none of you ever has before.

Alien Isolationism

October 4, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 16.53.48

The reviews for Alien: Isolation emerged this week – the game follows next Friday – and while the game scored pretty well, what’s really interesting is the divide between the scores given by UK and US-based critics.

At the top line, at least (and let’s be clear – I refuse to do any maths or real research about this) the UK went for 8s and 9s, the US for 6s and 7s: Eurogamer liked it, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly loved it, while IGN, Gamespot and Polygon were less enthusiastic.

This is interesting because, while there’s a chance the UK writers are unconsciously rooting for an English studio (the game was made in Horsham by Creative Assembly), I actually think the divide springs from the thing that I find most interesting and valuable about the game: the way it presents space, and specifically, the very British way it presents space.

This isn’t an accident – Creative Assembly has always been clear that Isolation takes inspiration from the frigid horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien, rather than its action-heavy sequel (which, as I discuss in this Edge piece on Edge Of Tomorrow, casts a long shadow over video game aesthetics). Here’s a passage from my review of the game:

And what is being shown? Panels. Fat-keyed computer consoles. Hexagonal architecture. Isolation hasn’t so much copied the worn, antiseptic future of Scott’s film as it has absorbed it on a molecular level. The game is beautiful – not just film grain and lighting pretty, but artfully constructed in a way that makes it deeply pleasurable to simply be inside.

The last bit is really the key – it is a science fiction that is so intelligently put together that simply taking it in is compelling, without action or violence. I described this on Twitter as “Pinewood craft”, meaning it has the same detail and depth of setting as the great influential science fiction movies filmed by British technicians in the ’60s and ’70s, with their diligent practical effects and precise camerawork – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Alien.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 16.56.01It turns out this was a perfectly moronic thing to call it, as Star Wars was shot at Elstree, Alien at Shepperton, and 2001 at a combination of the two, though I think the point still stands. What Alien: Isolation achieves is an environment so practically and perfectly realised that it heightens the very reality of what we’re seeing. It’s the shadows that fall across the surface if the Death Star, the flawless invisible rotations of 2001’s gravity walks, the grim industry of the Nostromo.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) GARY LOCKWOOD TTO 016FOHThere’s a romance in this idea, for sure. Al Hope from Creative Assembly has talked about digging up old sound reels from the production of Alien, complete with gruff cockney voices bookending each effect with references and suggestions – this is a great PR gambit because we (certainly I) want to see a correlation between the hands-on modellers, set-builders and craftsmen who built these films, and the tactile blue-collar futures they present. This is why we’re all so pleased Star Wars VII has come back to England (it really is Pinewood this time), to help us flush away the green screen nothing of the prequel trilogy, and the pervasiveness of digital effects everywhere. Realities look better when you build them.

A thought I’ll save for another day is how this practical streak runs through the also very British apocalyptic fiction I’ve been steeped in recently, with writers like John Christopher, Nevile Shute, Sir Fred Hoyle and – of course – John Wyndham pinning down the precise ways in which we’ll fall and be broken apart, a pragmatic approach to the end. But that’s what also convinces me that there is a particular sensibility, a particular Britishness, that runs through Alien: Isolation, and accounts for its bumpy travels.

The Weekliest Think: Doom and Rage

October 3, 2014

Rage Against the Machine

I’ve been posting a bit more recently and enjoying it, and so – because of this, and because of the fact I thought of the phrase ‘The Weekliest Think’ on my cycle to work this morning – I’ve decided to do a regular post. Every week, in case that wasn’t obvious.

This week is something I’ve been promising to write since the summer – it’s about two creative works from the early 1990s that share a peculiar rightness: they are id Software’s Doom, and Rage Against The Machine’s first, self-titled album.

The path that led to writing this was finally reading Masters Of Doom a little earlier this year. It’s a solid, in-depth account of the making of Doom and – more strikingly – the wider state of games development in the early 1990s, a time of smaller teams and quicker turnarounds, when an idea sharp and fast enough could reach escape velocity and become something.

I liked the book particularly because, as evidenced by the tortuously introspective tone of my recent posts, I’m enjoying the perspective that comes with distance and age – or more specifically the disorienting, expansive feeling that comes with context being given to something I experienced pre-internet. I feel like this is a bigger subject, actually, and a weirdness experienced particularly sharply by my generation, who entered adulthood just as the web became ubiquitous and information became the air around us. The sense of it is grasped perfectly by Jenn Fran (though she was writing specifically about how a gaming community was revealed by the emergence of the internet):

The concept of gamers as a unified community was new to me – to all of us. It felt like when someone suddenly turns up the lights in a darkened bar and you realise there are a lot of people in the same room

This quote stuck with me because I first played Doom – a lot of Doom – in the pre-lights up era, alone and adolescent, sealed off from the continual flow of context and consensus to which all our experiences are now subject. And it also struck me because reading Masters Of Doom, supplementing my singular take on Doom with an external history, felt like turning the lights on. The story it told connected with the things I remember – the layout of specific levels, Star Wars WADs on illicit discs passed round at school, the agony and payoff of networking PCs – and made it possible to pin myself on the map of the Doom cultural sweep.

I’ve taken the long way round to saying that I replayed Doom after I finished the book, and still found it extraordinary. This is what I mean by peculiar rightness – there’s a self-contained perfection to Doom, an integrity of theme and execution, a flow to the twitch and glide, to the violence and the technology. It stands as undiminished in a way that Wolfenstein and Quake – the before and after for id Software – simply don’t. I just took a break to play Doom again and I am totally right about all these things.

Replaying Doom led me naturally to something else. Doom came out in 1993 – I probably got hold of it at the end of that year, when my family’s first PC arrived, or in 1994 – just a few months after the release of Rage Against The Machine’s first album, at the end of 1992. As best as I can remember (I’ve not read a contextualising history of MTV or Our Price yet) things hung around then a little more than they do now – the albums that defined the imported American alternative scene stood on the racks of the high street and in rotation on radio and TV for longer than they might now. Whatever – the point is that for a kid on the spiral arm of the cultural galaxy, living in a crap tiny town actually called Cuxton, Doom and Rage Against The Machine were for all intents and purposes simultaneous.

And then they were actually simultaneous, as Rage became the soundtrack for Doom, and the two meshed and intersected. Most obviously, the anger of the music, it’s percussive bursts and explosions, was an idiot fit for the shotgun release of Doom. But this was just happy theming – there was no fury in the way I played the game, more like focused relaxation, strafing through familiar waves and patterns. So – and here’s where I step away from anything I can really stand up – there’s something else that links the two, aside from being compressed and fossilized together in my memory. It’s something to do with America, with dissatisfaction, with the certainty and purpose of gifted youth, and the creative agility of small, tight groups.

The other thing about distance and age is that some things fall away and some things remain. I am not planning to write anything soon about Terrorvision’s How To Make Friends And Influence People, or Rise Of The Triad. At some point it becomes clear that some of the things you liked, that fit and made sense of something, have a quality that is lasting and significant. And that’s the claim I’m really making for Doom and Rage Against The Machine, and their peculiar rightness.

I wonder if I am the first one.

P.S. I also just listened to How To Make Friends and holy hell I’m actually really enjoying it, maybe I was talking rubbish this whole time.

P.P.S. I’ve changed it from The Weekest Think to The Weekliest Think, because a) it gets across the idea that it’s weekly better and, b) Weekest made me sad every time I read it because it makes the thinking sound rubbish.

Jodorowsky’s Dune and the power of the unmade

September 18, 2014

Jodorowskys-Dune-PosterI saw Jodorowsky’s Dune recently, and in many ways it feels like a film I was predisposed to love – it’s about unmade things, the elusive travel of ideas, and it tells a story that, eventually, leads to David Lynch.

Jodorowsky’s Dune, if you don’t know, is a documentary made about an elaborate but abortive attempt to film Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel in the 1970s, led by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The project falls into that tradition of post-studio system international filmmaking where, slipped from the leash of Hollywood authority, characters of great charisma and uncertain reliability gathered momentum for grand follies-in-the-making (Terry Gilliam seems drawn – or forced – into this space frequently, and there’s something about the ambition and the financial fragility of these projects that shouts “fiasco!”)

The simplest story the documentary tells a about a passionate storyteller enrolling a supergroup of artists, actors and collaborators, convinced that he has the chance to make a film that can change the world (or at least to convince us that he’s convinced, because Jodorowsky is roguish and it’s difficult to tell). But to me the film is more importantly about the perfection of things not made or finished, and also the idea that “made” is a more fluid term than we might normally recognise.

This is evidenced by the existence of the documentary itself, a tribute to the never-realised (and so never tested, but crucially never dispelled) possibilities of Jodorowsky’s film. This is the hook of the unmade, the seductiveness of what might have been – there is a power to the unfinished text because of its perfect potential. Although it’s also impossible to watch the documentary without realising that in a way – in several ways – Jodorowsky’s Dune has been made. The director put together a comprehensive and meticulous storyboard with the illustrator Jean Giraud (Jodorowsky offhandedly describes the creation of the book as “shooting”, and Nicolas Winding Refn describes having it performed to him by Jodorowsky) while the documentary itself breathes a basic life into some of these sequences, which are animated using the original drawings.

Most compellingly, though, the creative energy gathered and prepared by Jodorowsky was, after the collapse of his Dune, released into the industry and dispersed among various projects. His unmade film was hugely influential – not just, as the documentary comes close to suggesting, because his storyboards did the rounds of the Hollywood studios, but, I prefer to think, because of the way ideas and creativity crackle and leap, the way relationships are formed and the unbound potential of projects manifests itself as things finished and appreciable.

There’s no coincidence in how tightly the offshoots of Jodorowsky’s project remained entwined. The key figures – Giraud, as well as effects designer Dan O’Bannon and artists HR Giger and Chris Foss – worked on Ridley Scott’s Alien shortly afterwards. And the documentary doesn’t mention that following Alien Scott then dallied with Dune himself, working with Giger in pre-production before leaving to make Blade Runner, where he wanted to work with Giraud (who declined) and did work with Douglas Trumbull (who had turned Jodorowsky down a few years earlier), a beautiful symmetry of near-misses and connections.

(Actually, proving both that the internal workings of my mind are very obvious and yet often remain hidden from me, I wrote similarly about the perseverance of ideas in this recent post about Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is particularly relevant because Chris Foss designed some of the ships for that, too. An irresistible aside: in Simon Parkin’s piece for the New Yorker – which simply calls Guardians “a new Marvel film” – Foss says “To be truthful, I didn’t bother asking which film I was there for. I just drew spaceships, which is all most people seem to want from me.”)

Eventually Dune did get made, with Scott replaced by David Lynch (there’s a wonderful moment when Jodorowsky remembers seeing Lynch’s film, and his ecstasy as he realises it’s a disaster). In a fairly direct way this leaves Blade Runner, released in 1982, and Dune, released in 1984, as the final, manifested product of Jodorowsky’s project. Except, of course, neither film has a definitive ‘final’ form – they’ve both been famously subject to repeated re-edits amid studio interference and audience speculation about lost cuts and what might have been. This is the same wisftul force that surrounds Jodorowsky’s Dune. Even when things are made, they are subject to the power and potential of the unmade.

What I get from all this, and why I value the documentary, is that it makes it possible to see all production, and all creativity, as a constant, unending process, one that is shaped occasionally into finite forms by the intervention of industry and circumstance. And sometimes the pressure of these interventions, and the fragility of the things being created, results in a formal instability – Dune’s TV edit, the five versions of Blade Runner included on the blu-ray release and, I probably shouldn’t add because this post is longer than I wanted but I will anyway, the three versions of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which was made at the same time as Dune but released a year later following a running battle with Universal).

Watch it for all these reasons. And watch it because Jodorowsky himself is a consummate storyteller – he seems almost compelled to tell stories – who remains passionate, sly and wonderful even his 80s  (another Gilliam link is that it’s hard to watch Jodorowsky rage at the shortsightedness of the industry without calling to mind Don Quixote). Watch it.

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