Jodorowsky’s Dune

May 3, 2014

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It’s fitting that Frank Pavich’s documentary, Jodoworksy’s Dune, opens with a series of panning close-ups of drawings, models, books, and other esoterica from the titular director’s office, for that is what this film is almost entirely composed of outside of its talking heads.  The film recounts, through interviews and access to original artwork, the two plus years of work Alejandro Jodoworsky and his team of “warriors” put into a cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune that would ultimately be halted before production began when the studios didn’t feel confident enough to pony up the $15 million budget.  What is left is a large, hardcover book of the entire film storyboarded as well as concept art and character design and notations, initially printed and presented to the studios to assure them they knew how to achieve the strange and extravagant vision Jodoworsky was intent on creating.  By the end of the documentary, it seems clear that the book should be reprinted for collectors – I, for once, would jump on the chance to own a copy to thumb through – but it also seems clear that the documentary itself should be included as a bonus for said book rather than a standalone feature.

Centered around interviews with Jodoworsky himself, as well as his son (who was to play Paul Atreides), producer Michel Seydoux, and artist Chris Foss, among others, Jodoworsky’s Dune unwinds as a series of amusing bromides about the succession of strange and frequently inspired ideas the surrealist filmmaker and artist had for the project, which he decided to do on a whim after the surprise success of Holy Mountain.  These ideas range from the brilliant (different artists and musicians, including H.R. Giger and Pink Floyd, would work on individual Houses in the film) to the downright silly (Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen seemingly for the reason that he was fat).  The process of getting everything together, from the storyboarding with artist Moebius to tracking down Dan O’Bannon to work on the special effects after a dismal meeting with Douglas Trumbull, is interesting enough without being particularly illuminating about the process of creation.  Rather than explore the industry demands in any detail, or the agony and ecstasy of creation, we get an (admittedly amusing) story about the protracted series of meetings with Salvador Dali to convince him to play the Galactic Emperor.  Jodorowsky wants Mick Jagger in the movie, he sees Mick Jagger at the party, and Jagger agrees.  O’Bannon meets Jodorowsky, they get high, and he moves to Paris.  The overwhelming sense that Jodorowsky has a unifying vision that corrals all his ‘warriors’ is nice, but it doesn’t lead to much in the way of exploring the problems of adapting such a difficult and sprawling novel.  Indeed, the film goes into specifics on designing the early sequences, but the bulk of the story should be set on Arrakis, and rather than dealing with an approach on how to film the Sandworm sequences or how the “Weirding Way” would be interpreted and why, we get a glimpse of the Ornithopter design and a description of the radically altered ending.  This might be nit-picking, but the film doesn’t seem interested in any of the conflicts of the creative process, and if that’s to be ignored, there’s a wealth of material that would probably be far more interesting than the Mick Jagger aside or meeting with David Carradine.  The film, on more than one occasion, seems mostly interested in talking about an iconoclastic artist meeting famous people in the 1970s than the potentially more revealing aspects of its development.

There’s brief attention paid to the loss of all of the work and effort when the studios decide they can’t trust Jodorowsky with the money (I, frankly, don’t blame them), and there are hints of deeper issues dotted throughout (in particular the grueling two year training process he put his son through to get in shape for the demanding lead role).  Rather than deal with any of these things, Palvich contents himself with presenting the weird and wonderful art that the team created and visionary genius of Jodorowsky guiding the process until it suddenly stopped.  It doesn’t help that the film as presented seemed intriguing and even dazzling while also not appearing to be very good.  From what is presented, it seems that the dense politics and economics of the novel were cast aside completely in favour of the more spirtual/philosophical aspects, and even then filtered through a kind of new age hokum that would probably refute the constant talking heads reiteration that this film was “ahead of its time”…indeed, a lot of the ideas make it seem as though this film would have been peculiarly of its time.

Despite all that, the stories are enjoyable enough and the design work, especially by Foss and Giger, are spectacular.  The storyboards for a brutal torture of Leto sequence are also effective in communicating the dark places Jodoworsky was prepared to go before he made it to his ridiculous, cornball “we are the world” ending.  Also, Jodorowsky’s reaction to the eventual adaptation by David Lynch is priceless. The final stretch of the documentary grasps at the enduring influence of the project by comparing its storyboards and artwork to films that came after, to varying degrees of credibility.  It’s an attempt at a justification for the film’s existence in the first place, which in the end comes off as a glorified DVD extra in search of a main feature.  Slot it into a sleeve in the back of reprinted storyboard and concept art book, and it would be incredible.  As it stands, it’s little more than a shallow diversion that reiterates over and over it’s core thesis: “wouldn’t this have been awesome?”

-M

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