Filmmakers reflecting on failed dream projects invariably seem like echoes of Don Quixote, and Jodorowsky's Dune belongs in the company of Lost in La Mancha, another documentary about a now-legendary uncompleted movie. Such stories offer fascinating glimpses of the clash between starry-eyed ideals and harsh realities. So many movies are never finished compared to the ones that see release that there's a whole culture of frustrated creativity that audiences are never privy to.
Lost in La Mancha offered a dark comedy of frustration as Terry Gilliam struggled to complete the photography of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote before the production collapsed. Jodorowsky's Dune never got to the filming stage, so Frank Pavich's documentary chronicles the dreaming and blue-skying behind the director's never-funded adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel.
While the documentary features talking-head interviews from famous artists, producers and young film experts, Jodorowsky is unquestionably its star, and despite being in his early 80s has an arresting charisma and passion undiminished by this thickly-accented English. It's easy to imagine other people becoming swept up in his vision. The early 1970s found the former theater director riding high with El Topo, his surreal Western that became the first "midnight movie" after its release in 1970. He approached Dune with towering ambitions to simulate the effects of LSD in the viewer, take on complex spiritual themes and eventually change the world.
Most of the film finds Jodorowsky recount how assembled his creative dream team, which includes special effects expert Dan O'Bannon, actor David Carradine, comic book creator Jean "Moebius" Girard, Swiss artist H.R. Giger and Pink Floyd. He describes his wish to cast book's hero, Paul Atriedes, with his 12 year-old son, who subsequently goes through two years of martial arts training. The heart of the film is the phonebook-sized "pitch-book" that Jodorowsky and his producers shopped around and includes storyboards, costume designs and wildly imaginative artwork for space ships and alien planets. The book takes on a status akin to a holy relic.
An innately compelling storyteller, Jodorowsky describes the stunning coincidences and bits of outlandish behavior that accompanied his meetings with some of the 1970s most esteemed artists. But when he describes offering an on-set chef to Orson Welles to play a corpulent bad guy, or how he goes to even more outlandish lengths to cast Salvador Dali as the galactic emperor, he sounds like he's either over-promising, or embellishing his own story. It's easy to believe that his Dune was more likely to have been a train wreck like Zardoz than a critical and cultural phenomenon like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The project fell apart from lack of funding, David Lynch made a notoriously ill-received Dune in the 1980s and Jodorowsky spent decades before he made another film.
The documentary's commentators - including Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn and on-line film critics Drew McWeeney and Devin Faraci - make persuasively argue for Dune's lasting creative influence. The film compares the early Dune's designs and storyboards to scenes in Star Wars, Contact, Prometheus and more. Giger won an Oscar for his iconic imagery in Alien.
From the perspective of modern Hollywood's hunger for blockbuster franchises, Jodorowsky's dense, trippy effort seems quixotic and doomed from the start. But after watching the documentary, you can't help but wonder what might have been: Is there an alternate universe where Jodorowsky made his Dune and eclipsed Star Wars? Where fans argue on-line about matters of symbolism and philosophy, as opposed to the best action figures or whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first? Jodorowsky's Dune leaves you believing that, at the very least, we should demand more from our movies. And they should demand more from us.
Jodorowsky's Dune. 3 stars. Directed by Frank Pavich. Stars Alejandro Jodorowsky. Opens April 11. At Regal UA Tara.
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