Surrealist filmmaker’s long-lost masterpiece comes to life in imaginative, inspirational documentary
Directed by Frank Pavich
“Every masterpiece has a touch of madness in it,” says one of the talking heads in Jodorowsky’s Dune by way of introduction. “Maybe Dune had a little too much.”
Back in the early ’70s, riding high on the fumes of his surrealist/symbolist hits El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was approached by French distributor/producer Michel Seydoux. The Frenchman suggested a collaboration. What was Jodorowsky’s dream project? Without hesitation, he named Frank Herbert’s head-trip sci-fi novel Dune. The book was wildly popular in the hippie-heavy climate of the early ’70s, but most of the movie studios had written it off as “unfilmable.” As a result Jodorowsky and Seydoux were able to snap up the rights for a song. Thus began one of the most absorbing tales of “what could have been” in the history of movies.
Jodorowsky wasn’t the first filmmaker to have a famously doomed project. (Stanley Kubrick’s vaporous Napoleon is an industry legend.) And Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t the first documentary to chronicle the devastating artistic demise of a movie project. (Lost in La Mancha, for example, traces the sad dissolution of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote project.) Nonetheless, Jodorowsky’s aborted sci-fi project sits atop the summit of lost masterpieces in terms of sheer artistic ambition and lingering cult obsession.
As with Lost in La Mancha, it’s heartbreaking to imagine what we, as audiences, were cheated out of seeing. How would the film industry have changed in 1975 had Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune beat Star Wars to theaters? On the other hand, the film was so radically ahead of its time. Perhaps its existence was always an impossibility. Listening to what the filmmakers had in mind, it’s inconceivable how such a grandiose project would have gotten off the ground with the primitive technology of the mid-’70s. Only now, with multimillion-dollar CGI technology behind it, could Jodorowsky’s vision have a chance of being realized. Perhaps this version of Dune was never anything but a dream. But oh, what a dream.
Rabid cult film fans have heard tantalizing dribs and drabs about Jodorowsky’s mythical white whale for decades. What’s shocking about this new documentary—tightly directed by reality show producer Frank Pavich—is how much of the proposed project is extant and how magnificent it all sounds. Jodorowsky and Seydoux were days away from the start of filming when the project collapsed under its own weight. Jodorowsky had, by luck or divine providence, lured an incredible roster of talents to the table: French illustrator Moebius, Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí, Swiss painter H.R. Giger, British prog rock band Pink Floyd, American effects artist Dan O’Bannon. It was going to be incredible.
Front and center, guiding us to the far-flung desert planet of Arrakis, is the controversial filmmaker himself, Alejandro Jodorowsky. If you’ve seen his films, you’re probably expecting some sort of mad mystic to appear onscreen and confound you with his crazy cosmic ideas. Amazingly Mr. Jodorowsky comes across as a courtly, well-spoken gentleman. Today he’s an enthusiastic, vibrant and quite handsome 85-year-old. (We should all be so lucky.) He’s like “The Most Interesting Man in the World” spouting theories on LSD and filmmaking. He’s beautifully, mesmerizingly bonkers, but damned if his artistic passion isn’t infectious. Heck, even if you’ve never experienced a Jodorowsky film (Not even Santa Sangre? C’mon!), Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating examination of the art of filmmaking and the business of film selling.
Unlike Lost in La Mancha, Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t a dispiriting glimpse at a magnificent piece of art we’ll never really get to see. Terry Gilliam’s literary adaptation fell apart due to comically brutal bad luck. By contrast Jodorowsky’s adaptation was going smooth as silk until it ran smack into the reality that Hollywood was never going to dump untold millions into a bizarro sci-fi flick helmed by a drugged-out Chilean mystic. But Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t a story about artistic failure. It’s an inspirational tale of artistic passion. Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune may never have made it to movie screens, but—after seeing Jodorowsky’s Dune—it’s hard to argue that the filmmaker failed to bring his vision to life. In fact, it’s all there today—mapped out in excruciating detail in a massive, fully storyboarded script. That iconic, hardbound script (only two of which exist today) made the rounds to all the studios in Hollywood and reads like a template for every blockbuster that came after it. Images from the book—costumes, sets, character sketches—crowd the frames of this documentary, giving viewers a clear visual idea of what the filmmakers were working toward. It’s not the 10-hour, live-action epic Jodorowsky was dreaming of, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.
If life is a journey and not a destination, then Jodorowsky’s Dune is a testament to stepping out on your own and forging forward, no matter what impediments the nay-sayers toss in front of you. Rather than adopt a bitter and cynical attitude, the documentary is cheerful, humorous and suffused with the wisdom of age. Toward the end of the film, Mr. Jodorowsky admits a bit of schadenfreude regarding the failure of David Lynch’s 1984 attempt at Dune. But Jodo (as his friends call him) is now clearly at ease with what he accomplished. He set out to create a work of art. That it exists in the imagination and not on celluloid can hardly be called a failure. In fact, maybe it’s all the better for it.