Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

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I’d discuss my admiration for Alejandro Jodorowsky here, but is there anything really left to say? It seems that there may not be a bigger lover of all things related to Jodorowsky than me. From his energetic passion to his surreal films to his absolutely mesmerizing graphic novels. I have expressed my adoration for him on so many occasions, most recently with my review for his 2013 masterpiece, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad), where I noted how influential he has been in my life as a cinephile. The Dance of Reality was a masterpiece, but in 2013, there was another film that featured Jodorowsky, but not exactly as a director, but rather as a subject. The resulting film was Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fascinating and complex documentary of perhaps the greatest film never made.

Some background – in 1975, after two very successfully acclaimed surrealist masterpieces – El Topo and The Holy Mountain – Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted to direct something that would surpass any other film ever made. To be perfectly honest, Alejandro Jodorowsky is an absolute madman – he isn’t really a human, rather a concoction of raw passion, visionary talent and a ton of drugs (I don’t condone drug use at all, but for some reason, it took Jodorowsky’s vision to the level where it seemed to become essential to his filmmaking abilities). It was his ambition – rather his absolute goal – to adapt Frank Herbert’s masterpiece of a science fiction novel and to turn it into the greatest film to have ever been made. He envisioned a gargantuan fourteen-hour long mammoth of a film that would defy every convention in cinema history. Dune, under Jodorowsky’s direction, would have been either the most magnificent film in history that would change cinema forever, or it would have been the most spectacular failure in the history of cinema. However, there is very little reason to believe that those two ideas are mutually exclusive, and this documentary showed that Dune, as made by Alejandro Jodorowsky, would have been one of the most notable films ever made, and one that would effect cinema forever.

Jodorowsky constantly speaks of assembling a group of “warriors” – people in various facets of the art industry that would serve a role in his rag-tag group of cinematic misfits that would work together on his version of Dune. Among them are Dan O’Bannon, an iconic presence in science fiction, Jean Giraud, the comic book artist better known as Mœbius, and Chris Foss, the iconic painter that has influenced science fiction for years, along with iconic artist H.R. Giger. If these four names seem familiar, it is because they all become absolute icons in science fiction, and had their start with a small, obscure science fiction horror film called Alien just a few years after production on Dune fell apart. Jodorowsky’s Dune gives each of these four men the praise and legend status they deserve, and what director Frank Pavich does show is that while Jodorowsky is must definitely an absolute genius, it was also the efforts of these four men that served to make Dune potentially the greatest film ever made, and their vision was just as potent and notable as Jodorowsky, and the fact that these men have all gone on to become icons of science fiction is testament to their own talents, and while Jodorowsky was an absolute visionary who had the guts to actually attempt something like this, Dune would not really be possible without these four men as well, and perhaps the project wouldn’t even have gotten as far as it did if they had not contributed vast amounts to the film.

Next in line after creating the visual appearance and deciding on where this adaptation will take the story is something I found the most interesting part about this documentary – the casting. Jodorowsky is nothing if not a filmmaker who takes a chance or two, and with the casting of Dune, he took a vast amount of risks in acquiring a cast that he believed would be fitting for the vision of the film he had in his mind. Now imagine the most extreme case of stunt-casting. I can guarantee you that Mr. Jodorowsky had far bigger ambitions than that. One such example of Jodorowsky’s efforts in creating the most bizarre cast is his attempts to cast Salvador Dali as the insane, flamboyant emperor of the galaxy (has there ever been a more fitting casting decision in cinematic history? I think not!), and Pavich does his best to ensure that this amusing anecdote is translated into one of the most fascinating parts of the film, as Jodorowsky and producer Michel Seydoux recount how Dali agreed to be in the film, with one condition – he is paid $100 000 for each minute of acting he did, to allow him to proclaim himself as the highest paid actor of all time. Another wonderfully amusing piece of casting in this film comes when Jodorowsky describes his attempts to recruit cinematic icon Orson Welles to play the evil Baron Harkonnen, and how their negotiations took place in a Parisian restaurant, where Welles had drank six bottles of wine and indulged in a feast, and refused to be in Jodorowsky’s film, even for a large sum of money. Instead, Jodorowsky’s insistance that if Welles did his film, he would hire the chef of that particular restaurant to cook for Welles each day on set, swayed Welles to accept the role wholeheartedly. Discussions about how Mick Jagger signed on without even talking with Jodorowsky, and how his son, Brontis Jodorowsky, was cast as the lead character and had to undergo intense physical training for two years, are also interesting and prove that Jodorowsky was off his rocker completely, but had such an outrageous vision for this film, it would have been wrong for him to pursue anyone less than the very best.

I will end this review here, because Jodorowsky’s Dune is a wonderfully quaint documentary that needs to be seen to feel its full effect. It is wonderfully funny, insightful and is actually very sad – it feels like an enormous tragedy that a man with such intense passion had his passion project removed from existence, and other than the spectacular storyboard book that seemingly has been almost entirely erased from existence, not much of this film remains. Now we have more than we could’ve ever hoped for – something absolutely dazzling and an honest, passionate testimony about the making of the greatest film that was never made. When documentaries about the film industry essentially tell the self-satisfying story about the challenges of making a film, Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the passionate story about the joys of almost making a film. This film may not be for everyone, and maybe I just loved it because of how much I love nearly everyone involved. It is a fantastic film, and definitely one of the most honest, dedicated documentaries I’ve seen in a long while. Fantastic work.

A final word on Dune, as envisioned by Jodorowsky and his fellow “spiritual warriors” – and a point made wonderfully at the end of this film – it may not have been made in the end, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t become the most influential piece of science fiction filmmaking. Giger, Giraud, O’Bannon and Foss all went on to create Alien, which in turn influenced mainstream, creative science fiction, and without Jodorowsky’s idea to make this bombastic, insane version of Dune, there would quite simply not be Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix (or any of the wonderful science fiction films in the ending montage) – if that seems like a sweeping statement that can’t possibly be true, then I dare you to watch the film and have your opinion instantly changed. Pavich makes an absolutely compelling case for why Dune would have been the most influential piece of science fiction cinema if it had been made, but even though it wasn’t made in the end, its influence has existed for cinema. I don’t know where science fiction cinema would be, technologically or creatively, if Dune had actually been made. One thing we can all agree on is that it certainly wouldn’t be in the state it is – for better, or worse. No one knows. One thing I do know is that Alejandro Jodorowsky is a genius, and this documentary is one of the best of recent years.

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