Thursday, July 17, 2014

Lost in the Desert

I'm no particular fan of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune, but even among those who are, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone with much praise for David Lynch's 1984 film adaptation. But that was not the first attempt to bring the story to the big screen. The tale of one previous failure has now become the basis of a documentary film, Jodorowsky's Dune. And that story is far more interesting than the Dune movie we did get.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made a splash as the writer-director of some highly stylized avant-garde films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I'd never heard of him or the films, but from the clips you see in this documentary, they were towering monuments to guerrilla filmmaking, style over substance, and surrealism. They attracted the attention of a French producer, Jean-Paul Gibon, who wanted to make something -- anything -- with Jodorowsky. When he approached the director, Jodorowsky declared he wanted to make Dune.

The film's account of what happened next feels like the story of how a cult (almost) forms. With incredible charisma and powers of persuasion, Jodorowsky assembled a multinational pool of talent to bring his highly bizarre vision of Dune to the screen. He tapped Dan O'Bannon for his visual effects. He approached artist H.R. Giger to work in film for the first time, creating the look of the Harkonnen family. He convinced Orson Welles to play the Baron Harkonnen himself. He persuaded Salvador Dali to act as the Emperor... once he agreed to pay Dali more than any actor had ever been paid. (This was accomplished by agreeing to pay Dali $100,000 for every one of the three to five minute of screen time he would have in the finished film.)

Unmindful of what could realistically be achieved by visual effects in the 1970s, Jodorowsky imagined his opening as a long single shot panning over the entire galaxy. Unburdened by considerations of what theaters might be willing to show, he didn't care if the running time of his finished product might be 18 hours or more. Uncaring of how it might warp his own son, he cast the teenager as Paul Atreides and forced him into martial arts training, 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 years.

Finally, armed with a shot for shot storyboard of his entire movie, bound in copies of a massive book, he shopped the project around to every studio in Hollywood. None were able to wrap their heads around this fever dream from a strange surrealist. Despite the exhaustive planning, despite commitments from a number of actors, no one bought the film. And maybe it's just as well. This documentary leaves one with the distinct feeling that the result would have made Un Chien Andalou (the notoriously non-sensical film from Salvador Dali himself) look perfectly sane by comparison.

But the documentary makes the case the even the unmade Dune cast a long shadow over Hollywood. Most of the team Jodorowsky assembled, chiefly O'Bannon and Giger, went on to make the absolute classic Alien. The Dune storyboards, apparently circulated throughout Hollywood, seemed to influence visuals in at least a half dozen films that appeared over the next decade. And even some of the inexplicable choices in David Lynch's Dune gain context when you learn of Jodorowsky's prior plans. Why cast Sting, a rock musician, as Feyd-Rautha? Does it help to know that Jodorowsky had secured Mick Jagger's agreement to play that role? Why enlist a rock band like Toto to do the music? Does it help to know that Jodorowsky had a commitment from Pink Floyd for his version?

Jodorowsky's Dune tells a tight and engaging story that seems too crazy to be true. And it tells it just before the moment it might be too late to do so; Dan O'Bannon has already passed away, as has H.R. Giger just in the time since he was interviewed for this documentary. The film paints an amazing picture of an alternate universe of cinema where this movie, not Star Wars or Alien or Blade Runner, defined science fiction and blockbusters for the medium. If you're a film enthusiast, you won't want to miss it. I give the documentary an A-.

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