It’s not entirely unknown that Dune has been one of my favorite books for a long time. I find it quite involving as a world-building piece of literature, akin to The Lord of the Rings‘ dedication to establishing the environment and atmosphere of its story. It’s a philosophical and psychological landscape bound between its pages. It’s purely informative in its wordplay, but it makes itself open to a spirituality involved purely into the content of itself. It makes a lot of sense to try and adapt such an influential landmark of science fiction culture into a visual medium to expand and involve the complete consciousness of the unexpecting audience. It’s ambitious and awesome.
‘Course, the matter of that when you wish to see its film adaptations is that you will be involved with what is by far David Lynch’s worst work (to which he himself disowns) or an overbloated work created solely for the Sci Fi channel which… is the Sci Fi channel (sorry, Syfy!).
But this is not the story of Dune itself. It is the story of what could have been with Dune. The story of what is maybe the most famous movie never to have been made, giving The Man Who Would Be Don Quixote a run for its money. It is cinema’s Last Dangerous Visions.
As a niche group of people would actively delve into either science-fiction, cinema, or Dune culture (all of which I belong to) know, Alejandro Jodorowsky was an icon of Mexican cinema during the 70s. His hit films of The Holy Mountain and El Topo had been cult hits for avant-garde junkies all over Europe and the Americas and getting him into the inner circles of artists and professionals all over the globe. He was no Steven Spielberg or Andy Warhol, but it wasn’t a stretch to find him at Andy Warhol’s birthday party. Because he was at such a high point in his career that few people get to reach, his next film could be whatever art project he wanted.
He cries out “DUNE!!!” and he gets Dune. For a very short while. He collects all these great names to be involved with the movie from Dan O’Bannon, Mick Jagger, Udo Kier, Pink Floyd, Alain Delon, Magma, Gerladine Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Moebius, Chris Foss, Gloria Swanson, and even notably, the late great artist H.R. Giger. They spend millions simply working on the plans of the production, dreaming up what they could possibly do with the money that is already used up, and before they knew it, they had a movie that they wanted to make… they wanted so fucking badly to get made… but they just couldn’t. The money wasn’t there and nobody would believe in Jodorowsky’s vision, no matter how many faint praises he was drenched in and so he had to shut out the lights on the way out of this project for the final time. Afterwards, Dino de Laurentiis got his hands on the rights and, after his own failed initial attempt, gets David Lynch to direct an adaptation and that movie pretty much destroys souls, so I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it. I only watch it because it is Dune and the pain in my heart reminds me that I am unfortunately alive.
Anyway, Jodorowsky’s Dune tells that tale in a much-more detailed and involved manner than I just did. It talks about the ideals that the project represented in Jodorowsky’s mind and it brims with the absolute joy and energy of anticipating such a “world-changing” event in film history. The makers of the film never break this informative manner of presenting all of the testimonies of the people involved (with some excess coming from critics and admirers of Jodorowsky that really don’t have much to say beyond “oh yeah, it would have been spectacular”) but with the blessed interviewing of Jodorowsky himself we have a ball of manic enthusiasm at the visions he wanted to bring to the world, regardless of how many clear story liberties he takes with Dune (by changing the ending of the tale flat-out like Jodorwsky did, you completely discard one of the major themes of the tale in its attitude towards religion). He and producer/former creative partner Michel Seydoux are the true centers of this picture’s storytelling providing a double-sided account of the troubled development where Jodorowsky is the gayly raving hypeman for this project and Seydoux is the voice of reason – sometimes very impressed by the measures Jodorowsky goes through that turn out to work for the time being, but ultimately grounding the experience as knowing that sooner or later, the money is going to be not there anymore and Dune shall be dried up.
In the middle of all this, we get a look at the illustrations and comic-book like literary pitches of the large tome that Jodorowsky and company used to approach all the major studios and it is pretty glorious to watch, it’s own animated headtrip. It’s a little taste of what’s behind the mystery of the project that I will go completely cuckoo if the book ends up itself wide-published prior to Jodorowsky’s death. Forget the amibitions behind, the beautiful imagery it beholds breaks away from the normal stylings of Moebius, Foss, and Giger to a more universally thematic connection together without losing each artists’ very apparent signature within it. They are all Jodorowsky’s foot soldiers, telling the same story through their definitive flourishes. These pictures are glorious. And to accompany their work, we have the telling of some of the most involved figures within the pre-production, the people who believed in it most and gave their hand in. They all have just a little bit of lived-in space to provide the story of the doomed film beyond just being a peering eye account that would appear on an episode of 60 Minutes. Even Giger is there to tell the tale, having only passed away after the production of the documentary, and O’Bannon who had died long prior, but thankfully we have audio recordings of the sci-fi film legend to bring him about and his widow to relay his experiences within the tumultuous period of the film. It’s especially amusing to keep witnessing the constant attempts to explain Dune to people involved with the development process who turn to have not read the book at all, like a real-life Tropic Thunder.
If there are things I could hold against Jodorowsky’s Dune, there is an absolute air of pretentiousness that surrounds the never-existing film of Dune. Which is certainly to be expected by Jodorowsky himself if only to underscore his absolute passion for the project, but just the amount of fluff that the other interviewees that had no hand in the actual production whatsoever already counting chickens for it, stating how much its influence most have obviously stretched into all these different films that could never have been thought up by anyone other than Jodorowsky. They act like the movie was Citizen Kane before it even comes around to earning that amount of praise from people who have no idea what the movie would have ended up looking like or entailing. It sort of lights a fire under my ass and gives it a lot worse of a taste than I feel the documentary earns. It even gets to its climax when the critics have the audacity to go on and claim all these different shots in later science fiction cinema had been lifted straight from the storyboards that the directors of the films they talk about have probably never even known existed, probably the critics being so damn disappointed that Star Wars came ’round the corner to change cinema history instead. Director Frank Pavich’s work on Jodorowsky’s Dune is a very sterile form of documentary filming (which explains why I probably went this fucking far in the review without naming him once… there’s a bit of animation and flash for drug simulation but that’s it), without the thrust of Errol Morris or the stylistic sensibility of vision like Werner Herzog and Les Blank, and he gladly doesn’t give these critics much more of a chance of developing these dumb ideas so much as just stating them, but I really fucking wish Pavich had just done away with this part of the documentary altogether, because it starts to turn into Room 237 and man, would that make Jodorowsky’s Dune full of shit.
If there is any obvious influence that could be stated, it was in the failure of the project and how it affected the careers of the people involved – Jodorowsky’s disillusionment, O’Bannon’s mental breakdown, Dali’s obscurity and controversy for his Pro-Franco attitude in public, and so on. Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t afford us as much a look into those collapsed ruins of heightened ambition enough to earn its ending of absolute optimism and passion for the artistry of the soul and I do indeed wish it lingered a bit longer on the negative effects so that the positives of the individuals involved in the movie, most notably in the success of Alien, would be more potent. We still see some of the devastation within Jodorowsky’s attitude in the latter third of the film but, like Pavich’s eye allows, we’re not as involved in heartbreak so much as witnessing heartbreak. Maybe that’s just tasteless to me or too emotionally manipulative, but I think it would make for complete and more moving storytelling of how sometimes you have to take some sufferings within the pursuit of film and roll with it if you really want to stick around.
But that doesn’t stop Jodorowsky’s Dune from being a very inspiring piece of oral history to enjoy for a while and that’s thanks once more to the involvement of Jodorowsky and Seydoux themselves. It was all thanks to their dreams of what could be done with film and it’s fantastic to get to hear out the dream straight from the source, hoping that maybe it’ll leak into us when we dream ourselves and waking up thinking ourselves the Muad’dib one day.
…. seriously though, I wanted that fucking book mass-produced. It need it on my bookshelf!