Mar 30, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

This illuminating and entertaining documentary by Frank Pavich centers on the ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune that enfant terrible Alejandro Jodorowsky got close to making but never got off the ground. It is required viewing for anyone who dreams of making a movie, because it is at once tremendously inspiring and heartbreaking. It encompasses the passion, the collaboration, the singular madness, the universal dream that movies are, and the pitfalls of getting them made. In fact, it should be seen by anyone who is working on an artistic project. Jodorowsky has very astute insights on the creative process.
Since we are talking about Jodorowsky and not any run of the mill director, this movie is also about a seemingly insane charismatic leader marshaling forces to create what in his vision was to be the most important movie ever made.
Jodorowsky's deeply idiosyncratic and provocative films became successful in the 70s (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) and he was suddenly in the position to get French financing to make a movie. He chose Dune, which he had not even read yet (a friend told him it was cool). He set out to look for spiritual warriors, as he called them, since he wanted this movie to be a spiritual breakthrough, to give people an LSD trip without the drugs, to open minds. It was to be a movie that would change human consciousness (hey, these were the 70s). 
So he went on his quest to find the perfect team and he assembled a formidable and in some cases, borderline ridiculous group of talents, among them the great artists Moebius and H. R. Giger, who did spectacular designs. For the role of Emperor of the Universe no one but Salvador Dalí would do (makes perfect sense), and for an enormous malevolent character, he thought of Orson Welles, who had ballooned to gigantic proportions. Mick Jagger was to play a part. Some of the music was going to be by Pink Floyd. You don't get the picture.
Jodorowsky, who is more in touch with the symbolic, archetypal, metaphoric, spiritual world than most people, had his own intuitive way of finding good collaborators. By all accounts, he was an impassioned motivator who gave great freedom to his artists. Not a dictator, but a madman with a vision.He storyboarded the entire film with over 3000 frames, mostly by Moebius, and put it all together in a book thicker than the Yellow Pages. Apparently, there are only two copies in the world today. Pavich has animated some of the storyboard sequences and the frames are so dynamic and gorgeous that I would be happy to watch the entire thing this way.
Jodorowsky seems to have been an immensely charming and charismatic cajoler. To get his way, he promised burning giraffes to Dalí (a total diva) and, to a reluctant Welles, the chef of a Parisian five-star restaurant for location catering. But he also had an enormous ego. It is worth pondering the psychological ramifications of casting his own 12 year-old son as a Messiah figure and putting him through a merciless immersion in martial arts training to prepare him for the role. He took enormous liberties with the original story, emphasizing, not surprisingly, a character with an ego so huge, he lives in a palace shaped like himself.
It is folly, but it is organized, crafted and magnificently imagined: transformed into art. Even better, it seems eminently doable. Three fourths of the movie are devoted to Jodorowsky's creative and casting process, and he is a very entertaining raconteur. But at some point one thinks: whence the money?
And here lies the heartbreak. Unfortunately, to make cinematic dreams, you need money, or as Jodorowsky calls it, "this shit". In those days, the only place to go for help was Hollywood. So he and his producer Michel Seydoux pitched it at every major studio. The studios all loved that amazing book; they even thought that the $15 million budget (about $80 million today) was not unreasonable, but none would make it. They wanted it, but without Jodorowsky. They didn't trust him not to go over budget, and as Nicholas Winding Refn intimates in the film, they were afraid of his expanding mind. They knew they could not control him. He was the wrong dog barking at the only tree. Jodorowsky says, "it's my dream and you don't change my dream". And the studios would say, "Well, it's my money, so I can change your dream": History Of The Movies, in a nutshell. You can still feel Jodorowsky's ferocious anger at this epic frustration.
Dune never got made. Well, it got made by David Lynch, or as Jodorowsky generously puts it, by a De Laurentiis producer, into the clumsy movie fit for Mystery Science Theater 3000 that we know today.  One can imagine the producers barking on the phone a la Sam Goldwyn, "get me the American Jodorowsky", and that's how you arrive at David Lynch.
However, there is a coda that took my breath away and which I won't disclose here, but let's say that two of the artists who collaborated on the better Dune went on to create one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time. Which is a surprising and deeply restorative insight into what may come out of devastating creative frustration. It is obvious that Jodorowsky's Dune made the rounds in the studios and it influenced, whether consciously or not, every subsequent Sci-Fi movie ever made, including Star Wars, which is like a really dumbed down version (and a movie I detest).
Jodorowsky's Dune is an admiring film and it lets you feel in the blanks for some unexplored spaces. If the adults were utterly devastated by the demise of the movie, how did Jodorowsky's teenage son deal with it? What were the consequences to their relationship? An end title reads that Jodorowsky and Seydoux parted ways, one imagines in catastrophic bitterness. The movie doesn't elaborate except to cheer us up by mentioning that they are collaborating again 35 years later.
This could easily have been a cynical movie, but it is a celebration of creative ambition. Jodorowsky's Dune is not only about the clash between dreams, the concrete shape they take as movies and the financial constraints that hamper their creation, but it is about how art, images and movies influence us at the deepest subconscious level and they suffuse far more of our lives, as creators or spectators, than we can ever fathom.

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