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Film Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013; Directed by Frank Pavich)

For every great film that gets made, released, and added to the annals of cinematic history, there are many more that peter out before filming even begins. Lack of funding tends to be the primary impetus for failure in most instances. Films are tremendously expensive undertakings, and the more ambitious a vision, the more costly it is to bring it to the screen. Those holding the purse strings, be they Hollywood studio executives or independent producers, are notoriously hesitant to give over a healthy budget to anyone whose work does not promise significant returns on investment. Unlike, say, fine art, which can appreciate in value following its initial purchase, movies make their money at the box office and on home entertainment sales. Thus films with major popular appeal are rewarded more than those with less, and the larger budgets go to the projects that can draw the crowds.

This brings us to one of film history’s most legendary uncompleted projects, a conceptually spectacular and sprawling adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sociopolitically rich desert-planet science fiction novel Dune helmed by the enthusiastic, mystically-inclined Chilean-French surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Frank Pavich’s fascinating documentary examines the tremendous promise of the Dune project, as well as the persistent ripples of influence that it cast out on 1970s and 1980s speculative film despite sinking helplessly beneath the surface. It argues insistently and not unconvincingly that this unmade movie cast a longer aesthetic shadow than many of its era that were finished and released.

Jodorowsky’s name is not well-known outside of film geek circles, but before attempting to adapt Dune he was one of the key figures of the countercultural cinema of the early 1970s. He made the widely-agreed first “midnight feature”, the loopy blood-soaked Western El Topo, followed by the visually astonishing but insensible surrealist trip The Holy Mountain. With the European success of the latter, Jodorowsky’s producer was willing to let him chase his muse, and that muse lead him to Djodorwskysduneune.

To adapt Herbert’s expansive novel for the screen, Jodorowsky assembled a tremendous group of design talents, showing an artist’s eye for conceptualization unheard of before him but now characterisitic of blockbuster film design. Initially storyboarding extensively with French bande desinée illustrator Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Jodorowsky also approached British artist Chris Foss to design spaceship, buildings, and sets, Dan O’Bannon to execute the sure-to-be-revolutionary special effects, and the now-iconic Swiss painter H.R. Giger to lend his unsettling, dark organic-technological hybrid images to the film’s villains, the Harkonnen.

The storyboards and concept art that Pavich shows us portend a vision of rare magnificence impregnated with metaphorical resonance; Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive, attests to having been talked through Dune‘s storyboards and conceptual designs by Jodorowsky and refers to the resultant imagined film as “awesome”. Little wonder that O’Bannon, Foss, Giraud, and Giger formed the core of the art department for Ridley Scott’s Alien a few years later; O’Bannon wrote that script, inspired to make a film by his first glance at one of Giger’s unworldly nightmare beings after Jodorowsky threw them together.

Jodorowsky‘s Dune traces the stillborn project’s influence through the following decades of film, its ideas seeding Star Wars, Blade Runner, Prometheus and more, in addition to the bande desinée work that Jodorowsky worked on in subsequent years (it includes little discussion of his later films, rarely rated very highly by film buffs). Speculating that the compendious Dune concept books that Jodorowsky presented to Hollywood studios who passed on funding the project were pillaged for ideas by those who saw them, Pavich’s interview subjects make a compelling case for the power of Jodorowsky’s vision and the breadth of its influence, even without a final celluloid product. The motion re-creations of conceived sequences demonstrate that Jodorowsky was working on a level of ambition and visual prowess fully 30 years ahead of its time at least. Even now, in a Hollywood suffused with large-scale effects-heavy speculative genre blockbusters that share the wild fan-fiction assumptions with which Jodorowsky approached Herbert’s material, this film might be a bit too fantastical to be financed and made.

Pavich has constructed this story in a way that sometimes skirts around the real reason that this Dune was not made, blaming penny-counting Hollywood suits for passing up on a chance to shift the paradigm on filmmaking a couple of years before George Lucas dragged them into a new future with Star Wars. There is always something to this complaint, and few will go to bat for the hated figure of the studio executive, ever waiting to thwart artistic freedom in the name of commerce (which is generally agreed to be what happened to David Lynch’s released version of Dune in 1984).

But it becomes quite clear before too long that the Achilles’ heel of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune was Alejandro Jodorowsky. He presents as exactly the sort of massively talented and uncompromising auteur who could oversee a $15 million budget’s catastrophic ballooning to twice that amount, the stuff of studio executive nightmares. He was deeply involved in mystical beliefs, which have developed over the years into a semi-religious practice called “psychomagic”, and proposed changing the ending of Herbert’s tale into a galactic vision of spiritual unity. He refused to consider cutting down his film to manageable commercial feature length, insisting that if the story took 12 or 20 hours to be told onscreen, then that was what was demanded and had to be respected.

Jodorowsky is more visual artist than narrative filmmaker, and he had absolutely no instincts for the sort of commercial filmmaking that his proposed budget required in 1975. Peter Jackson had never made a big commercial hit before New Line Cinema gambled its financial future on The Lord of the Rings, but the studio must have recognized his populist instincts and anticipated that he would be capable of crafting Tolkien’s books into accessible but visionary works of mass art, as he did to great success and acclaim. Jodorowsky is at least two parts raving madman, a mindset typified by his casting choices. He proposed casting his own son as the lead, and tasked the boy with two years of ruthless martial arts training in preparation; approached David Carradine and Mick Jagger for central roles; had his producer offer surrealist painter Salvador Dalí $100,000 per minute for a cameo as the Emperor of the Universe; and convinced Orson Welles to play a disgustingly obese villain by pledging to hire an elite chef to make him meals on set.

Jodorowsky’s Dune includes a statement by its subject early on concerning the essential interrelation between madness and art, and then proceeds to demonstrate the truth of the statement for the rest of its running time. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s conception of Dune was truly impressive, but because it was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s conception, a conception was all it could ever be. The ambitious, impractical imagination that made it look so remarkable also made it unfeasible in its time and place (and, to be honest, maybe in any time and place). It now exists only in its creator’s mind and in his copy of the storyboard book, a brick-sized testament to artistic purity that remains unsullied by market forces but also unseen by the people. This documentary is about the incommensurability of art and commerce at its extreme fringes, and about the one mad film director would thought that just maybe he could convince them to accord, if only once.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. February 5, 2015 at 2:23 pm

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