Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Recent Watches: Jodorowsky's Dune (2014)

Of all the most tantalizing films that were never made, I think Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of “Dune” might be the most exciting. For years, I’ve heard about the mysterious, unrealized project. About how it was going to be fourteen hours long and based more on a dream Jodorowsky had once then Frank Herbert’s book. How Jodorowsky was going to lend his psychedelic style to a huge science fiction. Had it been released, a few years before “Star Wars” changed Hollywood forever, it might have started a mass spiritual awakening. This was Jodorowsky’s goal anyway. Of course, the movie wasn’t made, falling apart before active production even started, and “Dune” ascended into cult movie heaven. There were so many legends and speculation about the project that it was a natural topic for a documentary.

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” explores the conception, attempted execution, and eventual collapse of the film. Apparently, “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” were huge hits in Europe, prompting French producer Michel Seydoux to contact Jodorowsky. Seydoux promised to finance whatever insane thing the director wanted to do. And what Jodorowsky wanted to do was “Dune,” even though he had never read Frank Herbert’s book and had no intention of staying true to the source material. The film documents the extraordinary collection of talent and names Jodorowsky assembled, his “spirit warriors,” and how the visionary film came very close to being made.

The most vital thing about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is it gives the audience the closest look we’ve ever had at the film that was not to be. The documentary shows some of the extensive story boards Moebius created for the film. We see the amazing space ships and buildings painted by Chris Foss and H.R. Giger. We hear about the psychic encounter Dan O’Bannon had with Jodorowsky. We hear the famous names well known to be attached to the film and the stories around them. How Salvador Dali was meant to play the insane Emperor of the Galaxy, even though Dali demanded 100,000 dollars per minute of screen-time. How Orson Welles, as the decadent Baron Harkonnen, only agreed to be in the film after Jodorowsky promised Welles’ favorite chef would prepare meals for him every day. Yet we also hear about the lesser known names attached. About how David Carradine was meant to play the hero’s father, how he chugged Jodorowsky’s bottle of Vitamin E. About how Jodorowsky’s son was cast as Paul Atreides, after a year long training regiment with France’s number one martial artist. We learn about the director’s plan to have each planet feature music from a different band, like Pink Floyd or French prog-rock band Magma. The film discusses the mysterious visit Jodorowsky had with Mick Jagger, also meant to be in the film, or a random appearance by Udo Kier.

The best thing about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is that it roughly assembles what the film’s plot would be. The documentary gives us a clear look at how Jodorowsky would fuse his mystical style with a more traditional science fiction story. The film would begin with a long shot, zooming through the entire galaxy, before coming to the planet of Dune and the wrecked pirate ships in its orbit. Jodorowsky talks about how the hero would be conceived from his castrated father, how his wife would transform a drop of blood into a drop of semen. How the camera would follow the droplet of blood through her uterus. Or the details concerning the Harkonnen mansion designed by Giger, with its pathway of giant cutting knives. Jodorowsky even spoils the ending of the proposed film, which would feature the enlightened hero dying at the villains’ hands but his consciousness spreading to every person on Dune and even to the planet itself. “Jodorowsky’s Dune” illustrates that the film would have been just as far-out, visionary, and impressive as you’d expect a space epic from Jodorowsky to be.

This is all the more impressive considering “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is not much more then what we’d call a talking heads documentary. Luckily, the heads that are talking are fascinating, intelligent, captivating people. At the center of this is Jodorowsky himself. The director is a fantastic interview subject. He’s always energetic, even at 85 years old. He’s an excellent storyteller, delivering the tales about the film’s pre-production with vigor. Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is such that he switches between English and Spanish randomly. Jodorowsky is such a captivating figure that I can’t believe he hasn’t been interviewed for more films before. There are interviews with other people involved with “Dune.” The late H.R. Giger, who has since passed, and Dan O’Bannon, who passed some time before the doc’s release, were both interviewed which is great. The movie also throws in interviews with Jodorowsky admirers like Nicholas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley. Mostly though, the director himself is the film’s central figure, as eccentric and fascinating to watch as you’d expect him to be. Most amusingly, the film allows Jodorowsky to ramble off-topic, even pausing the interview so he can pick up one of his cats.

Director Frank Pavich was smart enough to mix up his approach. The interviews are cut with animatics of Moebius’ extensive storyboards, which are a treat in of themselves. Throughout the film, we get an intimate peek into Jodorowsky’s script-book for his “Dune,” a phone book sized collection of art, storyboards, script pages, and production drawings. These shots frequently come to life, being animated on-film. There’s even some fun abstractions, Dan O’Bannon’s text dancing around the photographs of Jodorowsky. While “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is frequently a talking heads doc, the director brings the subject alive in some interesting ways.

It wouldn’t be a discussion about “Jodorowsky’s Dune” without mentioning the influence the unmade project had many films made afterwards. “Dune” brought together Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger, giving us “Alien.” Jodorowsky’s massive bible went around every Hollywood studio, during the director’s failed attempt to raise funds. The film presents a good case that “Dune” was harvested for ideas by other films. The sweeping desert vistas were probably an influence on “Star Wars,” along with the presence of laser-swords and intelligent robots. The point-of-view of a robot, showing an on-screen HUB, showed up in “The Terminator.” We see clips from films as divergent in quality as “Flash Gordon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Blade Runner,” “Masters of the Universe,” “Contact,” “The Matrix,” and “Prometheus,” all of which were possibly influenced by Jodorowsky’s unmade epic. The director even admits to stealing from himself, reusing many of the ideas conceived for “Dune” for his various comic book series. Most of these are coincidences, probably, but it’s a fun to present Jodorowsky’s “Dune” as a cinematic Zelig, influencing some of the major films of the next decade from behind the scenes.

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” is a fantastically entertaining documentary, mostly because it picked such a fantastically entertaining person as its subject. Even though “Dune” didn’t get made, this movie remains inspiring. The director’s philosophy, that failure opens the door for more opportunity, is presented as pretty powerful stuff. I’m happy that “Jodorowsky’s Dune” reignited interest in the filmmaker and directly led Jodorowsky to directing again. By discussing his greatest film never made, it looks like the elusive cult filmmaker might get a few more chances at making great films. [9/10]

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