After the cult success of El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), surrealist Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky embarked upon one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful attempts in the history of cinema: an adaptation of Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi epic Dune. Jodorowsky, who says he "asks of films what North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs," assembled a team of "spiritual warriors" who relocated to Paris to reify his vision. Jodorowsky's Dune, a sort of documentary tribute to what might have been, opens this Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Part of the initial exuberance of the film is Alejandro Jodorowsky himself. Unlike the auteur's early films — which are violent, graphic, inaccessible, esoteric, often alienatingly bizarre — the man himself is a chatty senior citizen who loves talking about movies and art. He describes his work with such passion and sincerity that it makes you want to give his wackier stuff another try.
The documentary follows the frenetic, sometimes druggy pre-production process and interviews many of the principal players. Film critics and industry people chime in as well, a chorus of realists who seem to say that the film's greatest, and maybe only, flaw was that it was way too far ahead of its time.
Jodorowsky's Dune project was obviously never made. Studio execs were dazzled by the "phonebook sized" storyboard, but were frightened by its master. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that Jodorowsky would confine himself to the material presented. As pitched, Dune would have been 14 hours long! (It's exhilarating to imagine its potential as a gargantuan HBO miniseries today.)
One of the documentary's great successes is placing Dune in its proper film-historical context. Star Wars copied the choreography and look of many of Dune's fight scenes; Alien was designed by two Dune alums, visual effects director Dan O'Bannon and Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger; Raiders of the Lost Ark borrowed scenes almost wholesale from Jodorowsky's storyboard. Dune continues to be an invisible grandparent.
A universally despised 1980s version of Dune was excreted by Hollywood at the hands of postmodernist sensei David Lynch — a director whom Jodorowsky admires — and it represents the big-budget, soulless trash that the industry's really good at peddling. Jodorowsky stands as the opposite. He is the fearless dreamer and artiste who hopscotched the globe hunting down collaborators. His cast included David Carradine, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. He'd enlisted the sci-fi artist Moebius to transcribe his thoughts as drawings. He'd convinced Pink Floyd and the metal group Magma to create soundtracks for the film. It was a massive and unconventional undertaking, and Jodorowsky's Dune is its final bittersweet debut.