“…If I need to cut my arms in order to make that picture, I will cut my arms. I'm even ready to die doing that.”— Alejandro Jodorowsky
Star Wars. Alien. Blade Runner. Arguably the three most influential science fiction genre movies of the past thirty years, and they all were made possible by a single grand abandonment.
Frank Pavich’s (N.Y.H.C.) documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE chronicles the making of a film that never was, killed in pre-production by a Studio System that did not want to take a chance on Jodorowsky as box office hero, nor could comprehend the visual scope of what he wanted to bring to the screen. The story starts, as most stories of the creative kind do, with inspiration—1974, fresh from his visionary art-house/midnight classics EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, the Chilean mime-occult philosopher-auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, without having yet read the book, announced to his producer than he would next adapt Frank Herbert’s science fiction world-building epic DUNE.
As hard to conceive as it is in our contemporary genre-saturated pop culture, but in the early seventies, science fiction and fantasy were generally dismissed as lower genres, relegated, with a few exceptions, to lo-fi B-movie status, or to ‘serious’ dingy dystopias. Jodorowsky’s approach was to find aural-visuals parallel to Herbert’s detailed literary conception: to develop a cinematic universe of richly-imagined worlds.
To accomplish this, the filmmaker drew from non-film industry sources. His “spiritual warriors” for visual design and music would include the Swiss surrealist painter HR Giger, the rock band Pink Floyd, the French comics artist Jean (Moebius) Giraud, sci-fi illustrator Christopher Foss and the progressive rock band Magma. Even cast curation was anything but conventional; Orson Welles as Vladimir Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as his nephew Feyd-Rautha, and Salvador Dali as The Emperor. In addition, Jodorowsky’s own 12-year-old son, Brontis, would be cast as Paul Atreides and began brutal, extensive mental and physical training to actually become the character of a warrior prince for the film.
Through the use of interviews and animated segments featuring the film’s storyboards and concept art, Pavich gives approximate insights into what this doomed production might have offered. And those keen on the genre might soon begin to piece together, acknowledged or not, where this canon resides in language of the films we see today. Because 3,000 storyboards, artwork depicting the look and feel of the planets and costumes, plus the full script was bound and submitted all over Hollywood: many eyes saw this material, all to a resounding No: No we can’t make a long form space epic. No we can’t have Jodorowsky direct the film. And since there could not be compromise, the light was forever shut on the project, but remained always whispered among those in the know—that such a thing that existed and such a thing had reach. Especially when Alien was spoken of.
Jodorowsky’s DUNE calls to mind the old line about the rock group The Velvet Underground: Not many bought their album or saw them live, but everyone who did formed a band. With DUNE: No one got to see it, and not many knew about it—but everyone who did was influenced by it to in turn make their own influential movie.
The primary link to Hollywood is through the late Dan O’Bannon (represented in this documentary by his widow, Diane). O’Bannon was hired, based on his film-school-originated collaboration with John Carpenter, DARK STAR, to supervise the visual effects of the Jodorowsky DUNE. After the production collapsed, O’Bannon returned to America, where he worked on the spaceship tactical display graphics in STAR WARS—and then wrote and sold the screenplay for ALIEN.
In his struggle to shepherd his script through production, O’Bannon had a great influence on that film’s art direction, fighting the producers to bring on DUNE veterans (and non-Hollywood-affiliated artists) H.R. Giger, Moebius, and Chris Foss. O’Bannon carried Jodorowsky’s viral load and infected Hollywood with it (which he always credited back to the Master himself). O’Bannon himself is like an incarnate version of Jodorowsky’s DUNE: though his directing career was frustratingly stunted, his influence on the past thirty years of genre cinema (besides ALIEN, and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, his comics collaboration with Moebius, “The Long Tomorrow”, marked a decisive influence on the art direction and tone of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER).
(While it is unclear to what extent O’Bannon was the direct link to Jodorowsky’s film’s influence on Lucas’ STAR WARS, DUNE the novel is, according to many sources including Frank Herbert himself, a main source of plunder for STAR WARS’ genre remixing, and it is quite likely Lucas was aware of its attempted film adaptation.)
One aspect that the documentary doesn’t explore with much depth is how forward-thinking the DUNE film was in its sheer narrative sprawl. The estimated fifteen-hour long film threatened by, according to Herbert, the ‘phone-book’ sized screenplay is generally treated as among the more impractical of the movie’s more outlandish eccentricities.
Imaginative epics now thrive onscreen, in theaters, and in the home cinemas undreamt of at the time of DUNE’s development. The technology of film making and the convenient flexibility of distribution are increasingly making the sort of expansive fantastical works Jodorowsky sought not only possible, but also commonplace. The thus-far thirteen-hour STAR WARS movie saga and the idea of films told over sequels and franchises are now about to grow dramatically even further. The Peter Jackson adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works clock in, to date, at just under 18 hours (with at least another three still to come.) Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire novels, is currently at the thirty hour mark, with the next ten about to launch, and seasons beyond promised.
Pavich’s film is both the best argument for and the best argument against its subject ever having been made. Jodorowsky’s DUNE exists perhaps already in its perfect state, poised perfectly between the potential and the actual. Lost masterpieces are the safest kind. Tastes change and generations pass, and the passage of time is not always kind to sacred artifacts. The only paradise is the paradise lost. This unmade dream-Dune lives, in glimpses, in memories, in disputed rumors, in aesthetic philosophies, in the speculative imaginations of all those enraptured in its possibilities—and it lives in the distorted resemblances of its bastard children. It certainly has maintained a greater influence and power over the imagination and art form than either of the completed filmed adaptations of Herbert’s novel, whatever their respective strengths.
Until (or if) the complete storyboard/production art books and the infamous voluminous metastatization of a script are ever, at the very least, published in their entirety in a mass-market edition, Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune will hover for most in the ethers of paradox and dream—in other words, in the realm of the psychomagician Jodorowsky.