There are so many ways to read Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary of cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed effort make the film version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic, Dune.
It is, by turns, a love letter to seventies science fiction; a study of the clash between Hollywood filmmaking culture and the mores of the European avant garde; and a celebration of unrestrained creativity and artistic determination. I don’t mean to sound trite, but it is a film every creative, whatever they do, should see. The overall effect, for this reviewer at least, was akin to artistic vitamin shot. I walked out thinking, ‘if Jodorowsky was prepared to go to such lengths to realise his vision, hell, I can, too’.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is also wonderful glimpse into one of the greatest films never made, a list that includes Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Sergio Leonie’s M, the Rolling Stones’ short-lived attempt to make the little known but excellent 1964 dystopian novel Only Lovers Left Alive, and Terry Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote. But more on this particular aspect of the film later.
While eighty-four years of age in the documentary, Jodorowsky was born in Chile and split his career as an alternative film and theatre director between Mexico and Europe. His most successful movie, El Topo, made in 1970, depicted a black-clad gun-fighter who embarks on a violent and transformative journey across a nameless desert with his naked six-year-old son for company. Jodorowsky wrote, directed and starred in the film. He followed this up in 1973 with an even more impenetrable effort, The Holy Mountain, a bizarre, plotless psychedelic meditation on greed, religion and materialism, which nonetheless proved a cult hit.
Jodorowsky then teamed up with French producer Michel Seydoux to adapt Dune. Set in a far distant future, Dune deals with the interstellar political, military and spiritual battle for control of a desert planet called Arrakis, the only source of a spice known as Melange, which gives pilots the mental and physical ability to control giant spaceships. The planet is inhabited by a race known as the Fremen, ferocious desert dwellers who have the power to secretly ride the giant sandworms that roam the desert. The main character, Paul, is a member of the family or ‘House’ Atreides. House Atreides is given the lucrative task of mining spice on Arrakis, which sets them on a collision course with the ruthless House Harkonnen.
The complex plot of Dune made it a tough pitch to publishers, over twenty of whom rejected Herbert’s book, before it was acquired by small publisher, Chilton Books, best known for publishing auto repair manuals. But the very aspects that made Dune so challenging – its arcane narrative and religions and ecological overtones – made it a perfect vehicle for Jodorowsky.
The documentary shows Jodorowsky assembling a group of talented artists around him, including US screenwriter writer Dan O’Bannon, British illustrator Chris Foss, the macabre Swiss artist HR Giger, and new wave French cartoonist Jean Giraud, better known by his pseudonym, Moebius. They plot out the entire film via an estimated three thousand drawings – virtually every shot Jodorowsky intends – as well as sketches of the spaceships, costumes, characters and worlds. This material was bound and sent to the major Hollywood studios as a funding pitch. Jodorowsky also has a copy of the book, which he refers to constantly through the documentary, like an illicit Samizdat document.
Next, he recruits his perfect cast, a series of bizarre encounters with Pink Floyd (who he wanted to do part of the soundtrack), Salvador Dali (slated to play the interstellar emperor), Orson Welles (Baron Harkonnen) and Mick Jagger, to name a few. Jodorowsky leads a cast of talking heads in describing each of these meetings, how he cajoled, bribed and flattered each of his intended subjects until they agreed to appear in his film.
The encounters have added pathos, given the passing of so many years, and most of the people concerned. There is no doubt they have also been embellished with each re-telling. But that doesn’t matter. The main thing is Jodorowsky’s manic storytelling style and passion, his ability to do the deal. The only compromise he won’t make is altering his artistic vision.
‘I wanted to make something sacred,’ Jodorowsky says early in the documentary. ‘A film that gives LSD hallucinations, without taking LSD.’ It’s just one of the numerous things, along with the epic scale, the cost, the strange Euro-trash aesthetic, that signpost his version of Dune doesn’t have a chance in hell of being made.
It’s a testament to Jodorowsky’s power of persuasion, his ability to describe his vision, and the success of the documentary in showing this, that despite the forgone conclusion, it’s impossible not to share Jodorowsky’s still palpable disappointment at discovering the financing for his film has fallen through.
Dune was subsequently given to David Lynch. The resulting1984 film, worthy of its own making-of documentary, was a traumatic experience for the director and a critical and box-office flop, not even recouping its production cost. Jodorowsky’s loss is leavened by his joy at being reluctantly dragged to a cinema to watch Lynch’s Dune, only to realise it was a failure. He mischievously smiles at his mean-spirited remark and says, ‘It’s only human, no?’
While Jodorowsky never got to make Dune, the fingerprints of his vision are all over aspects of the look and feel of numerous well-known science fiction films that have come since, including Star Wars (1977) Alien (1979), Flash Gordon (1980), Bladerunner (1982), The Matrix (1999) and Prometheus (2012). It raises the tantalising prospect that although the studios didn’t want a bar of his film or his maverick ways, they kept the book assembled by Jodorowsky and his team, and have systematically taken key ideas from it ever since.
Star Wars, along with Jaws in 1975, are the two films most credited with reinvigorating America’s mainstream studio system and ushering in the era of the big-budget, special-effects laden spectaculars. This terminated an adventurous period of US cinema in which the industry, wracked by the uncertainty created by the counterculture and the domestic blowback of the war in Vietnam, produced a raft of excellent, sophisticated films. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, one of the many people assembled to comment on the legacy of Jodorowsky’s non-film, asks the audience to imagine how different cinema might be if this, not Star Wars, had been the breakout science fiction hit of the seventies.
Refn’s comment is not just an astute observation on the ebb and flow of Hollywood filmmaking. Rather, it encapsulates the core appeal and importance of this documentary and of the lure of great unmade films. They are cinematic time machines that allow us to travel back and imagine a different hegemony, to look at what might have been instead of what is.
Jodorowsky’s Dune showed as part of the 2014 the Melbourne International Film Festival.