Movie Review #1: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Director: Frank Pavich

Within the first few minutes of this documentary on the subject of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unsuccessful attempt to direct an adaptation of the sci-fi novel Dune,  Nicholas Winding Refn offers a typically affected description of his experience of “watching” the film. By “watching” he, of course, means that Jodorowsky once showed him a book that had been compiled of the original storyboards for the doomed project and described to him his vision for how it would have looked. While that type of phoney bullshit is really annoying, the movie is, in some ways, rather like what Refn describes. And it’s much the better film for it.

Jodorowsky himself narrates the film in a series of to-camera interviews and monologues and he does indeed present his artistic vision for the piece. However the film avoids straying into grandiose nonsense by getting the director to recount the pre-production work he undertook, including the process of assembling his cast and crew, the storyboarding and set design and the recruitment of Pink Floyd and Magma to compose the soundtrack. Jodorowsky’s narration is accompanied by contributions from those involved with the project who are still alive and images from the storyboards of Moebius and the set designs of Giger and Chris Foss.

One of the best things about the movie is that, for the most part, the contributors are of some relevance and aren’t just firing off lazy platitudes. Most of the contributors were either involved with the production in some way or, at least, related to someone who was (the late Dan O’Bannon’s wife, Diane, for example). Those with no connection to the project provide either some critical and cultural insight into how a countercultural icon like Jodorowsky found himself at the head of a multi-million dollar sci-fi movie or, in the case of Richard Stanley, can relate their experience of being in a similar position. Fortunately the film avoids the usual crap that one finds in these types of films – you know, trotting out celebrities (usually Johnny Depp) to tell the audience what a misunderstood genius Hunter S. Thompson/Joe Strummer/Mick Hucknell or whoever the hell subject of the movie is. No, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a much more interesting and informative piece than that.

That’s not to say that the film does not tread into a, while not hagiographic portrait of Jodorowsky as a director, certainly an overly optimistic view of how the finished film would have looked. Writing about Jodorowsky’s international breakthrough picture, El Topo (1970), back in 1983 in their study of cult cinema, Midnight Movies, J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum found the picture to be, even then, very much of its time. El Topo was, ostensibly, a sort of psychedelic Spaghetti Western. In truth, it employed little more than the iconography of the Western, with its bizarre plot (not enough time to go into it here) and its grotesque and surreal imagery, as it presented an idea of some sort of almost quaint, Eastern inflected ideology that we would now very much associate with late 1960’s counterculture. Midnight Movies was first published in 1983 (pre-home video) and examined cult cinema as very much a communal experience. Given that, even then, the film was seen as somewhat dated, it holds even less relevance now where enjoyment is mainly derived on a camp level. The film’s shock tactics and antiquated sexual politics are its main sources of appeal to a contemporary audience. On a purely ironic level, of course.  Similarly, the fact his movie Tusk was widely considered to be an unreleasable mess is never mentioned. So I’m slightly unconvinced that Dune, as directed by Jodorowsky, would necessarily have been the innovative, original masterpiece with the capacity to change film history that the contributors appear to almost uniformly suggest. To be fair, however, there is a brilliant, subtle allusion to the potential for Dune to be a disaster in the segment that explains the decision to reject Douglas Trumbull for the role of Special Effects Photographer on the basis of an initial personality clash between him and Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky wound up going with the much less heralded Dan O’Bannon instead and the film very amusingly contrasts the epic exterior spaceship shots from Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey with some comparatively amateurish spaceship scenes from John Carpenter’s Dark Star, on which O’Bannon was employed as special effects supervisor.

All that said, Jodorowsky’s version of Dune does sound like it would have been awesome. The cast alone (Amanda Lear, David Carradine, Salvador Dali) is enough to whet the appetite of most cult movie enthusiasts but it is to the credit of Jodorowsky’s Dune that it manages to go even further, by using the original sketches and storyboards to give us an inkling of how great it could have been. Although it does attempt to draw parallels between Dune’s ultimately doomed fate as a production and the plot of the unmade movie itself, rather like how Lost in La Mancha drew parallels between Terry Gilliam and Don Quixote, its real success lies in convincing us how great a movie this could have been.  Another classic, lost to audiences forever, to add to the pantheon alongside Kubrick’s Napoleon, Leone’s Stalingrad and Coscarelli’s Bubba Nosferatu.

Nevertheless, to cite Mark Kermode, he once described Troma movies as “more fun to talk about than to watch“, inasmuch as their camp, high-concept premises/titles (Surf Nazis Must Die, Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell etc.), allied with their laughably unconvincing special effects, made the idea of them much more enjoyable than actually enduring the full 90 minutes of one. And, to be honest, I’d be inclined to feel the same way about Jodorowsky’s version of Dune.

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