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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

In 1973, Arthur P. Jacobs, a film producer best known for his work on the Planet of the Apes series, purchased the rights to adapt a film from Frank Herbert's mid-1960's science fiction novel Dune, a beloved novel about interstellar feudal society, a young man's whose family controls the most important substance in the universe, and a healthy dose of religion and philosophy. Jacobs died before the film could be developed and the rights were picked up two years later by French producer Michel Seydoux to develop as a passion project for director Alejandro Jodorowsky, a performance artist turned avant garde filmmaker, whose behind-the-camera style was tailored more to the midnight cult-crowd than blockbuster filmmaking.

Due to somewhat reckless ambition, this project fell apart and was later picked up by Dino DeLaurentis for David Lynch to direct his eventual fairly reviled adaptation. But in the process of this collapse, a myth of "what could have been" formed around the Jodorowsky version of the film, akin to Kubrick's Napoleon and Gilliam's Don Quixote. In some circles, there were many that believed Jodorowsky's Dune might have been the film to begat a different direction for the "blockbuster" than where Jaws and Star Wars eventually took Hollywood. Frank Pavich's documentary Jodorowsky's Dune details the background on the ambitious director, the genesis of the Dune project, and the LA sized speed-bump that caused it to all come crashing down. It's an entertaining piece that is unfortunately a bit limited by its own idolatry and the all too prevalent problem of the "unreliable narrator".

The documentary is told through the perspective of Jodorowsky himself, with his mesmerizing story-telling skills and "off the cuff" humor, recounting the tale of his recruitment of his "spiritual warriors" that would be by his side in the pre-production process of Dune; including such artistic luminaries as Moebius, HR Giger, and Chris Foss. Jodorowsky, with his vision of "altering the minds of young people across the planet," dragged this team to France and encouraged them to create something as transcendent as possible. This team was aiming for science fiction in the vein of 2001 and Solaris, and whether or not anyone involved had actually read Herbert's book was beside the point.

The documentary is littered with interviews from this team, beyond just Jodorowsky, from Giger to Seydoux, even posthumous recordings of intended special effects supervisor Dan O'Bannon. Fellow directors like Nicolas Winding Refn (of Drive fame), Richard Stanley (who lensed the forgettable Hardware) and critics like Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeney are also on hand to express their admiration for Jodorowsky's vision of Herbert's universe and the impact of what the film basically posits as "the greatest film never made", even to the point that Refn states that "Hollywood was scared of what this film might do". 

There's certainly a lot of ambition on display, and the Pavich's narrative works best when it shares the storyboards and animates the rather psychedelic landscapes of Jodorowsky's vision. Pavich does a pretty stellar job of forming Jodorowsky (or more affectionately, "Jodo")  and Seydoux's journey recruiting their team and relays rather humorous anecdotes about some of the actors they attempted to enlist. Of particular note is the director's back and forth relationship with Salvador Dali, who he was warned would unconsciously attempt to sabotage the project.

In truth Jodorowsky had some stellar ideas throughout (such as sculpting the film's score through the choice of different prog rock groups like Pink Floyd and Magma to represent each planet), and a fantastic eye for talent. There's a reason that O'Bannon, Giger, and Moebius all later teamed up on Alien, and the beginnings of that partnership lay in their recruitment by Jodorowsky. A fascinating line is drawn by Faraci at one point in that Jodo's Dune led to Alien, which made Blade Runner possible, which then in turn inspired The Matrix and a litany of other science fiction films. 

This presumption of the director's vision as an antecedent to an era of Sci-Fi film-making is arguably true, but Pavich and his contributors also oversell the case a bit. At no point is there ever any actual criticism of Jodorowsky's decision making process, particularly the level of stunt casting that he was aiming for (Dali as the Emperor, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, his own son as the hero of the story) and when the film comes to the point that Hollywood begins to reject the team's concept for Dune with Jodo at the helm, there is little to be said from anyone other than "oh well, these were just money men and accountants that have no idea about artistic vision". 

That point may be true, but there is also a counter argument that could easily be formed about how difficult Jodo had been to work with, as evidenced in his earlier rejection of Douglas Trumbull (the special effects guru behind 2001) and that he refused to make the film less than 12 hours long. Pavich also struggles a bit with ensuring the audience actually senses the behind the camera talent of Jodo vs. playing his eccentricities for laughs. Yes, Jodorowsky absolutely had a visionary take on the Dune mythos, but a sharp creative mind isn't the only tool needed for a director, and I couldn't escape the question (based on what little I saw of his previous efforts, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, in the film): did Jodorowsky's ambition eclipse his own talent? It's difficult to say, given the unfinished form of the final product, but I would have appreciated a little more perspective and perhaps some form of outright criticism rather than the sense of fanboyism that pervades those contributors from outside the project.

Nevertheless, Jodorowsky's Dune is a tight, well orchestrated piece of documentary filmmaking about the creative process and the process of movie-making based on artistic vision rather than consumer demands, which often feels lost in today's summer tent-pole landscape. Perhaps one day we'll see someone pick up the torch on the giant book of ideas that Jodorowsky and his team left behind, but until then this is an intriguing, albeit one-sided look, at a path not taken.

I give it a B+

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