Kicking the Tweets
« Noah (2014) | Main | Sabotage (2014) »

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)

Myth Bluster

As in all manners, we must begin with honesty: I've haven't read Frank Herbert's sci-fi masterpiece, Dune, nor seen David Lynch's 1984 big-screen adaptation of it. I've also never watched anything written or directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the eccentric Chilean auteur who spent more than two years working on his own Dune feature--a decade before Lynch started preproduction.

I have seen Jodorowsky's Dune, though, and can highly recommend it for newcomers and diehards alike. Frank Pavich has created a gorgeous, trippy documentary about the most star-studded, ambitious,  expertly crafted, and expensive space fantasy that never got off the ground. Imagine Alien's Dan O'Bannon adapting a pre-Star Wars blockbuster starring Mick Jagger, David Carradine, and Orson Welles--whose characters navigate H.R. Giger environments in Chris Foss-designed spacecraft, while wearing costumes drawn by Moebius, and scored to Pink Floyd's most out-there arrangements. It almost happened. And though I admire everyone who would've been involved in that production, I'm grateful to whatever cosmic forces strangled this epic in utero.

Very opinionated and even more animated, Jodorowsky boasts several times during the film that neither he nor many of the key creatives bothered to read the source material ahead of production. He molded a friend's synopsis of Herbert's work into a vision that came to barely resemble it. The attitude that art is a wholly malleable beast, free of constraints or discipline, represents a school of thought that I, personally, can't get behind. That Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn pops up as a talking head here, singing the praises of Jodorowsky's misunderstood genius, is all the proof I need that this lost version of Dune had a strong likelihood of being more "theatre of the mind" than theatrical experience--a "What do you think it means, maaaan?" slap in the face to the truly diligent and inspired creators Jodorowsky had at his disposal.

You may wonder how I can accuse someone who spent years prepping a Warhol-length motion picture of not being diligent. It occurs to me, having watched the numerous clips and commentary Pavich provides regarding Jodorowsky's early career, that the filmmaker happened into the art form and futzed about until he wound up with a few motion pictures under his belt. The fact that he forced his twelve-year-old son, Brontis, to undergo six-hours of martial arts training, seven days a week, for two years, in order to play the film's young hero reminds me of the great Olivier/Hoffman anecdote about acting: the best actors don't actually prepare to save the universe, they're just really good at pretending to.

The same goes for Jodorowsky who, if left to his own devices, might have spent millions in studio cash soliciting NASA to step up their study of interstellar travel. In many ways, this movie reminded me of Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Lost in La Mancha, which chronicled Terry Gilliam's doomed production of Don Quixote. While Gilliam and Jodorowsky share the same "screw the rules" mentality, Gilliam has at least demonstrated an ability not only to play weird within a straight system, but also to get talented cohorts to bring truly fantastical ideas to the big screen.

The jury is out on Jodorowsky, and while I might assume his version of Dunewould have been more interesting than Lynch's, I can't guarantee it would have been better. Indeed, Pavich's documentary winds up being a ninety minute commercial for the Tolstoy-esque visual bible that Jodorowsky and producer Michel Seydoux shopped around Hollywood in the mid-70s. The fact that only two copies are known to still exist, and that there are no plans to mass-publish it as a gift to fans of filmmaking, art, and design, is a bigger slap in the face than George Lucas' (momentary) refusal to release the unmolested Holy Trilogy on home video.

Packed with storyboards, photographs, character studies and ship paintings, along with an obsessively annotated screenplay, the book is the real star of Jodorowsky's Dune--and the main reason I suggest catching it on the big screen. In particular, Pavich directs an animatic of the film's opening scene as history's longest and most elaborate three-dimensional tracking shot, pushing straight through galaxies, space-pirate battles, and ravaged planetary systems before zeroing in on the main setting. I don't know that anyone was even thinking in these terms when Jodorowsky dreamt up this stuff, but I could easily see someone like Alfonso Cuaron getting hold of this sacred guide and melting psyches the world over.

You might wonder how everything fell apart, especially with such big-name players already on board and toiling away. Essentially, the major studios took one look at Jodorowsky's filmography and assessed (perhaps rightfully so) that he had no business spending tens of millions of their dollars on anything. Indeed, the turning point of Jodorowsky's Dune, for me, was the minutes-long rant the artist indulged in--whining about executives, and bemoaning the fact that they have so much say over what art gets seen and by how many people. I used to empathize with this world view, but I can no longer accept it.

Jodorowsky can blame the suits all he wants, but the hard fact is that everyone needs to eat. In the nearly four decades since this project began, we've not seen Jodorowsky's vision for Dune anywhere but in a documentary about its spectacular failure. Can the fault truly lie with the bean counters? Or should our martyr-protagonist turn his accusatory stare on the actors, artists, writers, carpenters, and VFX people who wouldn't sign up for his multi-year crusade, in service of a project that a few thousand people might pay for, hate, and then forget?

This petulance, this whining, is what spoke loudest to me of Jodorowsky's lack of understanding as to why he has remained a cult curiosity all these years. A true artist, by his measure, shouldn't live for widespread acclaim and vast fortunes. But I'm left with an off-putting sense that he never got over losing out to Lucas, Lynch, or the scores of others who cannibalized his crew and concepts on the way to making indisputably classic science fiction. For a few minutes, the happy-go-lucky mad genius lets his mask slip just enough to see what's underneath--and it's blacker and more chilling than all of uncharted space.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>