Jodorowsky’s Dune is a paean to the joy of creation, disguised as a documentary of surrealist Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed 1975 attempt to bring his outlandish vision of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel to the screen. It could inspire you to dust off that story idea or pick up your drawing pencil again, because director Jodorowsky’s artistic enthusiasm is contagious.
Though he’s 84, the decades slough away when he’s discussing the work, and Jodorowsky is remarkably unembittered by the project’s ultimate failure; his eyes light up discussing the potentialities of the project. You get a creative contact high off his giddiness. And conservatives will appreciate his anecdote about dodging the Mexican film unions when he tried to make his first movie without their approval.
Describing his reinterpretation of the story (amusingly, no one involved had actually read the book beforehand), Jodorowsky…well, let him describe it: “I was raping Frank Herbert, but with love, with love.” Simply animated storyboards give tantalizing hints of what his Dune would have looked like, not to be confused with David Lynch’s critically-reviled 1984 movie, which Jodorowsky cheerfully admits to hating. But would Jodorowsky’s Dune been the life-changing spiritual experience he promised?
First-time director Frank Pavich doesn’t challenge Jodorowsky’s version of events, or his insistence that his Dune would have been world-changing. In Jodorowsky’s telling, the project comes together by happy accident and chance meetings. For a supposedly head-in-the-clouds, midnight-movie surrealist nut, best known for the midnight movie staple El Topo, he made some surprisingly shrewd choices for his team (“spiritual warriors,” he calls them). His outlandish casting ideas actually sound pitch-perfect: Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, David Carradine. And who else to play the Emperor of the Universe but Salvador Dali, whose insufferable pretensions and demands (a burning giraffe?) make Jodorowsky, no slouch in the ego department, look the modest craftsman in comparison.
Dune survivors — now-renowned artists H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, plus writer Dan O’Bannon — teamed up on the influential Alien, which marked a distinctive Gothic departure from Star Wars and Trek, spawning Blade Runner and other dark-themed science fiction. Animated storyboard scenes put alongside Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark are marshaled as evidence that the garish, rococo visual style of the scrubbed project influenced other movies, like a black hole that draws in objects around it while remaining invisible.
You don’t have to swallow the documentary’s unstated premise that the lost film would have reached the heights of Jodorowsky’s aspiration. In fact, watching it makes you ponder the inevitable gap between glittering ideas and the gritty reality that artists have been trying to cross ever since the first Homo Sapiens painted bison in red ochre on the walls of caves. As Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl put it in his review, “The most perfect works of art are those suspended between conception and realization, the ones that seize you up with how great they’re gonna be.” Although the project was aborted, Jodorowsky’s Dune is not a downer but an inspiration, all the better for having never been made — perhaps couldn’t have been made, given studio constraints and mid-70s technology.
If it had been actually filmed, it would have been instantly burdened with the thousand-and-one daily compromises, imperfections, and plain bad artistic choices that mark human art. If it had been released, it could have been a grievously expensive, deeply divisive flop and languished decades before gaining an appreciative audience (e.g. David Lynch’s own Dune). Instead it resides forever in abstract perfection on storyboards, paintings, and as a dreamy ideal in the minds of its would-be creators. And we all need dreams.
image via / circlecinema.com