Winner of the audience award at last year’s Night Visions festival in Helsinki was Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (Filth came second and The World’s End placed third – take that, Gravity). This was the film I was most looking forward to seeing at the festival, having heard so much great stuff coming out of Cannes, Telluride, TIFF, Sitges, Fantastic Fest and wherever else. In many ways it doesn’t disappoint, but it’s also not the kind-of transcendent experience I’d hoped it would be. Despite the story’s starting to sound overfamiliar, it’s a fascinating and comprehensive glimpse of the film that might have been, with the engaging presence of Alejandro Jodorowsky himself front and centre. So on its own terms as a celebration of the greatest film that never was, it’s a complete success. But it lacks any sense of balance, any dissenting voices, and any sense that its principal narrator might be at all unreliable. As such it comes across as overly credulous, and some of its claims for the unmade film seem tenuously lofty.
You’ll know the story by now, and if you don’t, Simon Braund wrote it in the October 2009 Empire. Avatar cover – seek it out. In a nutshell, in 1977, Jodorowsky claims the universe told him to make a film of Frank Herbert’s epic space-opera novel Dune, in cahoots with French producer Michel Seydoux. This was before Jod had actually read it. Immediately thereafter, he started putting together a band of “warriors” to bring his extraordinary vision to fruition: HR Giger, Moebius, Dan O’Bannon and Chris Foss among them, plus his son Brontis Jodorowsky, who underwent two years of physical training to prepare him for the role of the messianic Paul Atreides. Salvador Dali would have played Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, with Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen. Pink Floyd were doing the music. Jod trots out the story of meeting them and being incensed that they were eating burgers in his presence. Other writers have established that The Floyd say this is nonsense. The documentary prefers to print the legend.
Whatever: so far, so amazing. The artwork, from Jodorowsky’s huge book of storyboards and production designs, is wonderful; Jod’s vision and enthusiasm is unassailable; his stories are often hilarious; and you feel his pain when, in an angry moment, he starts railing at the powers that took the film away from him. It ended up with Rafaella di Laurentiis and David Lynch… and you know the rest.
Poor David Lynch. Not that he’d care if nobody in the world ever watched his Dune again for the rest of time, but just as, over the last few years, his film has started to undergo a cautious reassessment with people arguing that perhaps it isn’t the road accident it’s reputed to be, here comes this documentary to throw it back under the traffic. And yet here’s the thing: the many worldwide fans of Herbert’s novel would have liked Jod’s version no better. People that have a problem with the rain at the end of Lynch’s film would undoubtedly have hated Jod’s conclusion even worse, climaxing as it does with Paul Atreides dying and transferring his consciousness into the entire population of Arrakis, which then becomes a green and verdant sentient planet. “You can’t respect a novel [when you adapt it for film]”, says Jod. “You have to rape it like a bride on her wedding night.” (That sentence is a product of his broken English, so it’s not intended quite as harshly as it sounds.)
Herbert fans aside, the claims of Nicholas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley and the film’s other talking heads that Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a world-conquering instant sci-fi classic, also ring… optimistic. Its immediate predecessors El Topo and The Holy Mountain are fantastic, mesmerisingly strange films, but they didn’t change the world – or the film industry – and they’re not for everyone. There’s every chance that Dune would have entirely baffled the majority of audiences or, at worst, been laughed off screens, especially given the outlandish costumes and sexualised, “ejaculating” spaceships. It might have been awe-inspiring or it might have been an unintentional Flesh Gordon. Plus, Dan O’Bannon was doing the special effects. Dark Star might have looked okay for a low-budget movie made in 1974, but we have no evidence of whether he would have made significant leaps on Dune three years later, especially since its effects basically sound unachievable. You can point to his decamping subsequently – with Giger and Foss – to Alien, but he didn’t do Alien‘s effects, and it’s questionable how much of the finished film is remotely even his.
So I love Dune, I’d love to see Jodorowsky’s version of it, and I’d love to own that book of design work – surely someone publishing it is a no-brainer (Taschen? Hello?). I thoroughly enjoyed Pavich’s film too, but I don’t buy its thesis for a moment.