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Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.
Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.
Though much money was spent on development, it’s not always one hundred percent clear how many of the wild tales about the potential production that the eighty-something Jodorowsky spins are accurate, but the other talking heads on screen are usually quick to back them up. Modesty never seems to enter Jodorowsky’s showboating. Was he a deranged cult leader or a true genius? His Dune looks much closer in style to to the pretentious Zardoz than Star Wars, which a few years later was about to change all the rules for big budget sci-fi extravaganzas. There is something so refreshing about Jodorowsky’s lack of interest in commercial sensibilities and hopefully inspiring to the generations of young filmmakers that will undoubtedly be viewing Jodorowsky’s Dune as a source of inspiration for years to come. Of course, director David Lynch did finally adapt Dune into an over-bloated mess; it’s now generally considered a legendary bomb or at least another missed opportunity which Jodorowsky takes much pleasure from. And though O’Bannon and Giger would go on to work on Ridley Scott’s Alien, which incorporated many of their Dune designs, director Frank Pavich overplays his hand, claiming that the unmade Dune had a direct impact on future classics Star Wars, Blade Runner and Raiders of the Lost Ark (as well as Flash Gordon and Masters of the Universe), even implying that those films actually stole from Jodorowsky. Instead of looking at what Jodorowsky might have made with his Dune and considering it an important Holy Grail of cinema (questionable), it is more relevant as a fun geek cinema footnote. What might-have-been is always easy to speculate about, but like the star who dies young (we never saw James Dean grow old and end up in an Irwin Allen disaster flick cast of old-timers), the actual product often doesn’t have as much luster as it does in our dreams. Better yet, at least Jodorowsky’s failure has given us a documentary which surely will take its place among the most enjoyable cinema docs ever. How’s that for a cool legacy?