Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Blogorium Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

 If you haven't heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky, it's not going to surprise me one bit, and that's okay. Jodorowsky is best known for making El Topo and The Holy Mountain, two exercises in cinematic surrealism that aren't necessarily known for their accessibility. El Topo is considered by many to be the original "Midnight Movie," and includes extreme violence, bizarre imagery, Jodorowsky's son, Bristol, naked for much of the movie, and sporadic cruelty toward animals. It's a western. The Holy Mountain is... stranger than that, but arguably easier to stomach. I'm not saying that they aren't worth seeing, but it takes a particular type of adventurousness to want to watch them. If I had my druthers, I'd give The Holy Mountain the edge, but you might want to read a little bit about Jodorowsky before you dive in blindly.

 So this might explain why some of your friends went nuts with excitement when they heard Frank Pavich (N.Y.H.C.) was making a documentary called Jodorowsky's Dune. At least you maybe recognized the second word, even if the significance of the first didn't resonate. For fans of science fiction on the big screen, Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Dune is the great "what if?" of the genre. It's mentioned in The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (although it didn't make it into my review of the book, for some reason) and exists in a certain realm of "Hollywood Urban Legend": the great unmade epic that influenced every science fiction film made for the next four decades. And finally, we have it on film. The story is every bit as mad as Jodorowsky himself, and every bit as compelling as it sounded when you first heard about it. I have no idea if his conception of Dune could even be made, but I'd love to see it.

 Jodorowsky states that he wanted his Dune to feel like "being on LSD without actually taking LSD," and thanks to the exhaustive book he and producer Michel Seydoux prepared for every studio in Hollywood, it's clear from the concept art and storyboards that he meant it.  In 1974, after El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Seydoux offered Jodorowsky the opportunity to make "whatever he wanted," and the director decided he wanted to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune. He'd never read Dune, but friends of his had, and the idea excited him. Jodorowsky set about concocting a grand plan for the film, to push the boundaries of what was possible in cinema, and assembled his team of "warriors": artists, actors, and musicians he could find to make his dream a reality.

 Many, including the Cap'n, have wondered why it took so long for someone to make this film, but I suppose it's not worth complaining about too much. Even at 84, Jodorowsky remains energetic and sprightly, but many of the most tantalizing pieces of his puzzle have long since passed. Three major contributors to Jodorowsky's vision died not long before the documentary and the other very recently (thankfully, he's in the film and one of the others is featured in archival audio).  Jodorowsky sought out a team of artists to help him conceptualize the worlds of the book: Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Lifeforce), Jean "Moebius" Giraud (Tron, The Fifth Element), and science fiction cover designer Chris Foss traveled to Paris to create Arrakis, Giedi Prime, and the various spacecraft used in the film. Moebius also drew the storyboards that make up much of Jodorowsky's massive concept book in order to give a clear idea of how the director planned to make the impossible imagery a reality.

 With his ideas in place, Jodorowsky excitedly moves on to how he planned fill in the other pieces of the film in order to sell it to studios. For Duke Leto Atreides, he brought on board David Carradine, and for the Duke's son, Paul Atreides, Jodorowsky again turned to his son Bristol. For the corpulent Baron Harkonnen, Jodorowsky tracked down Orson Welles and convinced him to agree to the picture by promising to hire his favorite chef to serve him food (this is not a joke or some crack at Welles' weight - Jodorowsky tells the story himself). For Feyd-Rautha, he sought out and found Mick Jagger (in one of the story's many coincidental meetings, the only parts of the tale I found hard to believe) - in the actual Dune that David Lynch completed (more on that later), Sting plays the role, for those curious.

 Jodorowsky's great coup was convincing Salvador Dali to play the "Emperor of the Galaxy", a feat that required many "tests" by the great artists and a series of demands that seem like they would (and should) have crippled the film. Dali demanded his own helicopter, for a giraffe to appear onscreen with him, an elephant, and most troubling to Seydoux, to be "the greatest paid actor in Hollwood." Dali told Jodorowsky he wanted "$100,000 per minute," which the director assured Seydoux would be feasible if they only paid him for the amount of time on screen - about three minutes. To further assure Dali's cooperation, Jodorowsky cast the artist's muse, Amanda Lear, in the film, despite her warnings that Dali would "destroy the project."

 Whether he would have wrecked Dune or not, Dali did bring one major piece to the design of the film by introducing Jodorowsky to the art of H.R. Giger. Giger joined the film to design the world of the Harkonnens, and some of the concept work might look quite familiar to viewers of the film Prometheus (in particular, the pyramid). Among many of the shifts in adaptation, Jodorowsky mentions his ending for the film departs radically from the ending of the book (to give you some idea, the title of one of Herbert's sequels, Dune Messiah, is treated almost literally).

 With much of his dream cast in place, Jodorowsky and composer Christian Vander set about wooing bands to craft music for each of the planets featured in Dune. The only two mentioned in the documentary are Pink Floyd and Magma, and only the members of Magma appear on camera, but it seems like both were excited to make albums exclusively devoted to Arrakis and Giedi Prime (respectively). With a budget of 15 million and his pieces in place, Jodorowsky and Seydoux set off from Paris to Los Angeles to pitch the film. The end result, as many of you have guessed, is not a happy one for Alejandro Jodorowsky.

 The interesting thing that I found from Jodorowsky's Dune is that the studios were receptive to the books presented to them. They liked the concept, the execution, and found that the seemingly impossible requirements of visual effects had logical workarounds. The only sticking point was that they didn't want the man who put it all together: Alejandro Jodorowsky. There are a number of suggestions bandied about as to why they simply refused to make the picture with him as a director, but the end result is that his vision of Dune was never made because the studio system didn't trust the man who put all of this together to be able to make it a reality. The sense of heartbreak in Jodorowsky's voice, late in the film (he speaks in a combination of broken English and Spanish) is the hardest part. His frustration that they wouldn't even let him try to make Dune, and would instead let the rights lapse is palpable.

 Jodorowsky's Dune does touch on the aftermath, when the De Laurentiis Company bought the rights and David Lynch took over as the vision behind the film. Jodorowsky admits that he had no desire to see the film, and worse still, because he "admired David Lynch," he feared it might be even better than his vision. His sons convinced him to see Dune, ten years after he began work on his aborted project, and to his great relief, "it was awful!" Jodorowsky admits that this is "a human response, one that I am not proud of, but it was my response." He doesn't blame Lynch for the failure of the film, but rather the producers.

 The books remained with the studios, and the influence of his unrealized vision filtered into almost every science fiction film made after 1974. Many of the participants in the film not involved Dune's production - among them Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive), Richard Stanley (Hardware), producer Gary Kurtz (Star Wars), and online writers Drew McWeeny and Devin Faraci - point out direct influences on Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Masters of the Universe, and Contact. These are accompanied by storyboards and art which are hard to argue didn't come directly from the book, particularly Contact, in which Robert Zemeckis executes a reverse of Jodorowsky's planned opening: an unbroken, continuous shot through space which ends on Arrakis.

  More noticeable, particularly if you move past Star Wars, is the indispensable role Jodorowsky played (in absentia) in the creation of Alien. Following the collapse of Dune, O'Bannon returned to Los Angeles, dejected, and eventually wrote the screenplay for what became Alien with Ronald Shusett. When he met with Ridley Scott about the film, who did O'Bannon recommend to design the film? Chris Foss, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and H.R. Giger, his fellow artists from Dune. It's also interesting, in a roundabout way, that Ridley Scott considered taking over the DeLaurentiis Dune after finishing Alien, but decided instead to adapt Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, leaving David Lynch - who had turned down Return of the Jedi - to step in. Jodorowsky's often unspoken influence on a generation of science fiction films finally gets its due, up on screens and not just in blogs and books.

 While it's clear that he can't bear the thought of trying again, Jodorowsky does express relief that most of the conceptual art found its way into the world through his collaboration with Moebius in graphic novels. Moreover, he hopes that after his death someone will take the book and create an animated film of his Dune. If the semi-animated versions of Foss' paintings (kind of like The Kid Stays in the Picture) are any indication, it would be a welcome substitute to look forward to.

 It is still hard to imagine that Alejandro Jodorowsky's mad plan could have translated to film, although I'd love to have seen his try. He only made three films after Dune's collapse - Tusk, Santa Sangre, and The Rainbow Thief (I've only seen Santa Sangre) - but being involved in Pavich's documentary led Jodorowsky and Seydoux to reconnect, and together they made The Dance of Reality last year. I hadn't heard of it until Jodorowsky's Dune, but it's described as a "metaphorical, poetical" autobiography, so I plan to seek it out in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend Jodorowsky's Dune, both to people who have been aware of the story and to people wondering what we were all so excited about. This review only really scratches the surface of what's covered in the film - I left out almost all of Jodorowsky's best stories - so don't worry that you'll already know everything going in. Just sit back and enjoy what might have been.

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