Sunday, May 04, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

The 1970’s saw the end of the old studio system and the emergence of a class of directors whose work of the period is today remembered as a “Golden Age”. The years when Scorsese, Altman, Cassavetes, etc. were doing their most celebrated work should have been a fertile time for Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose attempt to film Frank Herbert’s novel Dune is the subject of an engaging new documentary. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a footnote to 1970’s movie mania and a story of how the some of the most beloved science fiction films of recent decades might never have been made.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is in his 80s but still lively and voluble, and he isn’t shy about making claims for what his adaptation of Dune could have been. (“A prophet”) In 1975 Jodorowsky was enjoying the midnight movie success of his El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and in French producer Michel Seydoux he found a creative ally who seemed able to make the director’s vision of Dune a reality. Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of preproduction on a film that was never made. Director Frank Pavich draws from a lavish illustrated book that Jodorowsky produced as a calling card to studios. Storyboards by Moebius along with paintings by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss laid out a detailed plan for Dune, and Jodorowsky brought a young effects artist named Dan O’Bannon onto the team after being unimpressed by the celebrated Douglas Trumbull of 2001 fame. Pink Floyd agreed to contribute music. Casting the central roles seems almost to have come too easily, with several actors turning up exactly when Jodorowsky needed to talk to them. I don’t know exactly how long Pavich worked on this film, but could we not have heard from Mick Jagger on his agreement (as Jodorowsky tells it) to appear in Dune? A 12-year old Brontis Jodorowsky was to have taken on the central role of Paul Atreides, but Jagger is the only other member of a lead cast that would have included David Carradine, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali.

Despite the preparation and the involvement of a big-name cast, no studio wanted to make Jodorowsky’s Dune. O’Bannon, Giger, and Foss all went on to important roles in making Alien, which they might not have been able to do if Dune had gone forward. (If no Alien probably no Blade Runner, etc.) Pavich doesn’t directly accuse anyone of plagiarism, but the storyboards in Jodorowsky’s Dune resemble shots in Star Wars and a host of other films. It’s impossible to know whether 1970’s audiences would have responded to a dark, spiritual science fiction film (based on a book Jodorowsky hadn’t read), but the fact Dune wasn’t made opened up the next 35 years of sci-fi movie history. I respect Jodorowsky for being honest enough to admit, despite his admiration for David Lynch, that he was happy to see the Dune that Lynch eventually filmed flop at the box office. Alejandro Jodorowsky went on to channel his Dune ideas into successful comics and recently directed his first film in over 20 years, but the film he didn’t make might be his greatest contribution to the cinema we have today.

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