Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jodorowski's Dune

2013, d. Frank Pavich -- in theatre

I've long been fascinated by tales of films and comics and TV shows that didn't quite make it, the greatest stories never told, if you will.  Ultimately, for a tale of a failed venture to itself become a tale all its own it has to be interesting, and the people involved in both telling the tale and relaying the tale must still have passion for the doomed venture.  One of the best such stories in recent memory is the great Man of La Mancha, exploring Terry Gilliam's doomed making of Don Quixote with Johnny Depp (Gilliam could play host to a whole series of these types of retrospectives on his own).  I like these kinds of thins so much I even sponsored a Kickstarter for a documentary on the making and demise of Superman Lives, the blockbuster from Tim Burton and starring Nic Cage as the Man of Steel that had spent many millions in preproduction before getting kaiboshed.   Science Fiction Land (another Kickstarted feature) tells of the film adaptation-come-theme park based off a Roger Zelazny novel that was repurposed into "Argo" (the film within a film of the Canadian Caper).

These failed endeavours often become notorious, legend, and they build and build in the fertile minds of fans who take snippets of promise and expand them into glorious triumphs that were unceremoniously squashed.  Alejandro Jodorowski's Dune is one such project, if not the grandaddy of such projects.  Jodorowski, coming off some art house/midnight cinema success with El Topo and the Holy Mountain had requested Dune for his next project having, as he claims, next to no familiarity with the Frank Herbert novel.  His plans for the film were to make it into a psychedelic
story of a prophet, but, with a few exceptions, hew largely to the basic beats of the source.  He read the book in a rented castle over a weekend and had his vision laid out before him. 

Next was to seek out the individuals who could bring his vision to life.  The first such person was French comic book artist Moebius, with whom he sat down and created the film's storyboards and script.  Following the creation of the film's bible, he wrangled his acting and artistic team.   The latter consisted of sci-fi cover artist Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, with Dan O'Bannon (having come off his student project, the sci-fi spoof Dark Star with John Carpenter) as visual effects artists (Jodorowsky turned away from Douglas Trumbull because he was not a passionate man, he said). 

The cast he sought out (and confirmed, according to him) is perhaps the most eclectic group that would have ever been put to screen.  Paul Atreides was to be played by Jodorowski's son, while the senior Atreides had David Carradine in the role.  Beyond that, parts were accepted (reluctantly) by Salvador Dali and his (possibly transsexual) companion, Orson Wells and Mick Jagger.  Jodorowsky was also lining up different rock bands to be the "house" sound for each family in the film, including, apparently, Pink Floyd.

The designs of the project were phenomenal, and some of the ideas, like the opening tracking shot spanning a galaxy, are incredibly advanced, but the dirty secret of this film, one that's never actually acknowledged, is that it would have been an unmitigated disaster.  It would have been a righteously terrible film, with the cabal of non-actors being the least of its problems.  The scope of Jodorowski's vision were well beyond the technical capabilities of the 1970's, and certainly that of an inexperienced effects artist like O'Bannon. 

The documentary is still a fun exploration of what the writer/director had in mind, and he's a genuinely appealing and loveable madman, full of ferocity and life and passion even in his 80's.  It's inspiring to see many of Foss and Giger and Moebius' designs (though the few practical applications of those designs captured were, tellingly, gnarly) and to hear those who were interviewed still retain the passion for the picture.  But the explicit hyperbolic pompousness used in this film from Jodorowski, the talking heads of the nerd site film reviewers and cult filmmakers (Nicolas Winding Refn particularly) borders on insulting.  It's quite clear that they have affection for the project, but the exaltation of the film as a lost masterpiece rather than the trainwreck curiosity it was shaping up to be feels like stabby needles in the logic center. 

Jodorowsky throws down the challenge for someone to take his impressive bible of storyboards and concept art and make a direct animated adaptation of it.  That probably would have been the best route to go in 1975 with it too.   But as the documentary points out, Jodorowski's Dune has been dispersed into dozens of little pieces with his graphic novel series The Incal and Metabarons, the films that his production team went on to do after, like Alien (which also included O'Bannon, Foss and Giger), and scenes cribbed rather closely to Moebius' storyboards appearing in other features... so a direct adaptation would likely be less inspiring today.