Monday, April 28, 2014

Movie Curiosities Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

If you've never heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky, there’s a long list of reasons why. Jodorowsky is a film director who made his breakthrough in 1970 with El Topo, and then made The Holy Mountain in 1973. I've only seen flashes of both films, but I know that they were very highly respected in certain underground film circles. From what I can gather, El Topo is a pseudo-western about a man who guns down hardened killers so that he can be the greatest gunslinger in the land (metaphorically, the protagonist is seeking enlightenment and the other pistol-wielding champions represent different religions). The Holy Mountain, meanwhile, is about a thief with a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ who gains the ability to quite literally shit gold bricks through the power of alchemy. Oh, and Jodorowsky himself plays starring roles in both of his films.
Basically, Jodorowsky gained a reputation as an extremely ambitious and impossibly surreal artiste with a penchant for high-minded concepts shrouded in trippy visuals and religious/mystic imagery. In other words, he’s complete anathema to the very concept of “mainstream.” It’s hard to imagine a filmmaking era in which Jodorowsky could possibly have had any chance at commercial success. Though that hasn't stopped him from trying.
After his last two films brought him serious credibility as an artist and a filmmaker, Jodorowsky and producer Michel Seydoux figured that they could write their own ticket. So Jodorowsky decided that he wanted to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s magnum opus, Dune. Jodorowsky hadn’t read the book yet, mind you, he had simply heard about it from a friend and decided that it was a film he wanted to make.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about this failed adaptation, which has come to be widely regarded as the greatest film never made. After Jodorowsky finished writing the script, he set about acquiring the greatest talent he could find. Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, and Jean “Moebius” Giraud all agreed to relocate to Paris so they could make magic with Jodorowsky. The director also secured musical assistance from legendary prog-rock bands like Magma and Pink motherfucking Floyd. Then Jodorowsky went and cast such actors as David Carradine, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali. And for the crowning touch, Jodorowsky had his own son trained to be an honest-to-goddamn ninja for the central role of Paul.
Clearly, you can begin to see why this movie would have been awesome. And you can also understand why it fell apart.
The documentary animates storyboards and script excerpts to show the mind-boggling sequences that were planned. As an example, the film was supposed to open with a long shot spanning the entire freaking universe. This documentary showed ideas that would be way too ambitious for the special effects technology of today, much less 1975. Hell, Star Wars: A New Hope could only dream of accomplishing something on such a massive scale, and this was two years before that movie revolutionized special effects.
Factor in the effects, the high-profile cast, and the various costs of producing a ten-hour movie (no, really, some estimates say it would have been closer to fourteen hours), and Jodorowsky’s team was asking for a $15 million budget. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just over $64 million. Yeah, pull the other one — it’s got bells on it.
I have a hard time getting too angry with the Hollywood studios for refusing to bankroll this picture. Even if audiences wanted to see a film (or even a film series) in excess of ten hours long, there’s no way this budget wouldn't have shot sky-high. Given the scale of the project and the egos of the talent involved, there’s just no way. That said, consider this: If this movie had been made, it would have changed the whole world. Whether it succeeded or failed, this movie would have made history.
Can you put a price on something that huge? If you could sell everything you have to bankroll the next Wizard of Oz or the next Casablanca, inspiring minds and changing lives far into the future, would you do it? If you could go bankrupt funding the next cure for cancer or a faster-than-light spaceship, would you do it?
Go back and read that last sentence. I just compared a movie to a cure for cancer and an FTL drive. Think that’s an exaggeration? I don’t blame you, but that’s not the point. The point is that Jodorowsky honestly did believe his movie was important enough to warrant the comparison. Therein lies his genius, and also his madness.
Jodorowsky set out to make a film overflowing with metaphysical imagery and spiritual themes. He wanted to present a universe as wide, dynamic, and colorful as the human mind itself. He genuinely believed that he could make audiences walk out of the theater as better, more enlightened people, and he convinced some of the greatest visionaries alive at the time that he could do it. In short, he was building the most important movie in history. And those aren't my words, that’s seriously how Jodorowsky describes his own intended film.
On the one hand, you have to admire his ambition and creativity. On the other hand, there are only two possible outcomes when you have the hubris to fly that close to the sun. You either create something fantastic, or you crash and burn spectacularly. There really isn't a middle ground.
Part of the problem is that Jodorowsky refused to compromise his vision. No, scratch that — he wouldn't collaborate with studio execs, but he worked extraordinarily well with other artists. Throughout the documentary, we see that Jodorowsky only hired artists and talents whom he respected implicitly, and he carried that respect from first to last. He pulled out all the stops to create a safe place where talented visionaries could lend their voices and ideas toward a common goal, the way a good director should. Even so, there were limits to what Jodorowsky would tolerate.
We learn, for example, that the director got a meeting with Douglas Trumbull, the legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey special effects guru who would later work his magic for Close Encounters of the Third KindBlade Runner, and The Tree of Life. Yet Jodorowsky felt that for all of Trumbull’s talents, he was too caught up in the technical aspects of filmmaking to invest any kind of heart in his work. And so Trumbull was turned down in favor of Dan O’Bannon. From this, we can infer that Jodorowsky only respected people with their own artistic vision and talent. People who shared his drive to bring something new and thought-provoking into the world. And studio execs certainly do not fall into that category.
It’s a sad flaw of the system that most studio executives are incapable of making a damned thing except money. They’re not artists, visionaries, or even technicians. They’re glorified bankers and nothing more. Then again, we've already seen what happens when movies are funded by fellow filmmakers — that little experiment was called “United Artists,” which culminated in the bloated and self-indulgent Heaven’s Gate disaster.
Based on what I’ve seen of the movie from this documentary, Jodorowsky’s film would have been a similar case. The storyboard for this movie was printed into a single book, and the resulting physical copy was roughly the size of two shoe boxes stacked on top of each other. What’s more, a lot of those images are comprised of ideas that had absolutely no place in Herbert’s text. Jodorowsky came up with so much religious and mystical stuff that’s indescribably awesome, even though it had no place in the original story and was probably redundant to the plot.
So Jodorowsky took a novel that was already so long and dense as to be unfilmable, and then he made it even longer and more dense, twisting the plot beyond the point of recognition in the process. I understand that taking liberties with the text is a given thing in the process of adaptation, but there’s a scene in the documentary when Jodorowsky gleefully — and repeatedly — states that he was “raping” Frank Herbert’s work. That’s the exact word he used — “raping.” I suspect that something was lost in translation there — Jodorowsky’s English is terribly broken — but the point was made that he had no intention of adapting the book faithfully. This was never going to be Frank Herbert’s Dune, it was going to be Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Which begs the question: Between a piss-poor adaptation so incredible that it goes on to shape pop culture for decades (The Wizard of Oz, for example) and a faithful adaptation that inevitably fails to live up to the source text (see: Watchmen), which would be the bigger disappointment?
Speaking of which, Jodorowsky did indeed see the David Lynch adaptation. It seems that Jodorowsky was actually a little bit happy Lynch got the job, since he’s another very talented artist that Jodorowsky has so much respect for. And paradoxically, Jodorowsky was even happier to see that Lynch’s more faithful attempt utterly sucked. However, Jodorowsky places the blame for that entirely on the producers and studio executives, and I suspect that David “Alan Smithee” Lynch would be the first one to agree.
Getting back to the storyboard tome that was probably twice as big as the book it was based on, copies of that were sent to every major studio in Hollywood. And even if none of them made the film, it’s easy to see that they adopted the images and innovations made by Jodorowsky and his team. The documentary shows us a wide variety of sequences from Star Wars to Prometheus, all of which bear strong similarities to the storyboards and concept art of Jodorowsky’s Dune.
It’s also worth noting that H.R. Giger had never worked on a movie before he started drawing concept art for the Harkonnen. If he had never worked on this film, he never would have met Dan O’Bannon or Chris Foss, all three of whom would later go on to make a little film called Alien. Think about that. Try and imagine a universe in which Jodorowsky never tried to adapt Dune, or maybe tried and succeeded. In either case, we may never have gotten Alien. Without Alien, we’d have lost so many great films inspired by it, such as Blade Runner. And if we lost Blade Runner, well, there goes William Gibson’s literature, and there goes The Matrix… it goes on and on like that.
Ultimately, the message of the documentary is to dream big. Jodorowsky’s Dune is proof that anyone can change the world by dreaming big and shooting for the stars, even if the effort fails. Yet I took another important lesson from the documentary, and it’s one that no one in the film ever addresses: The medium is half the story. The most ambitious vision in the world will never get made unless it’s done in the proper form. As a movie, Jodorowsky’s movie would have required millions of dollars, and that meant collaborating with people whose only concern is the bottom line. In comic-book form, however, Jodorowsky would have been free to express his ideas and visions on a much smaller budget and with far less interference. Also, he wouldn't have had to deal with such massive egos as Orson Welles and Salvador Dali.
Incidentally, Jodorowsky and Moebius would later create “The Incals” and “The Metabarons,” two comic series built on repurposed concept work from their Dune adaptation. These comics, by the way, would later go on to help inspire The Fifth Element. So, all’s well that ends well.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a captivating story about a failed project so magnificent that it continues to quietly affect cinema in far-reaching ways forty years later. It’s also a fascinating portrait of a man who’s undoubtedly a genius, even if he is clinically insane. Of course, the animations and the music help provide a wonderful glimpse of the film that might have been.
In such a quality-starved weekend as this one, I sincerely hope you have a chance to check this film out. Though I understand it’s not playing in very many places right now. Good luck.

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