Monday, July 28, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune is a movie about another movie that doesn't actually exist, at least not on film. It certainly exists in the hearts and imaginations of the people who spent years of their lives developing it, and, at least according to the thesis set forth by documentarian, just the storyboards and story concepts went on to influence and change the film industry. Anyway, it's a pretty good documentary.

I'm not really a fan of weird movies by avant-garde directors, so while I had heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his notoriously weird films like El Topo, I had never seen any of them, and to be sure the clips of those films shown in this documentary left me feeling no regrets about that decision, although they did look fascinatingly bizarre. I have read Frank Herbert's Dune, however, about a couple dozen times, as well as all the sequels and all of the various film and TV adaptations. Dune is probably my favorite novel, and it stands alongside the Lord of the Rings as the work of literature I've reread most frequently, probably at least once a year for the past decade. I love Dune so much I've even read a bunch of those awful Dune novels by his son Brian. Even bad Dune novels are fun to read.

Bad Dune movies, however, are borderline unwatchable, and I offer the David Lynch adaptation as proof of this claim Jodorowsky's Dune adaptation probably would have been awful as well, but at least it would have been awful in a truly fascinating way. Although it tried its best, this documentary didn't really sell me on the idea that Jodorowsky losing his funding and thus being unable to finish his film was a tragedy on bar with the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but it certainly looked like it would have been something special.

I mean, what is there to say about a film that envisioned a scene where a castrati and a sorceress fall in love, but since they are unable to mate she takes a drop of his blood, transforms it into semen, and then inserts it into her vagina, as the camera follows it through her body as it fertilizes one of her eggs. Well, I can think of one to say about it: Huh?!

Oh, and it was also going to be 12 hours long, end with the death of Paul Atreides, whose soul is then transferred into the planet itself, causing it to become self-aware as it travels through the galaxy unfettered by gravitational fields or other such scientific nonsense. And in case you're wondering, no... none of that happens in the books. So it's easy to understand why no major studio wanted to throw millions of dollars into this film's production.

It's a wonderful documentary, however, and definitely worth watching if you are at all interested in Dune, existentialist art, or just film production in general. Unfortunately this film never got past the pre-production stage, so no footage was ever actually filmed, but there are thousands of pages of incredibly gorgeous storyboards by legendary French comic book artist Moebius, which this film actually animates to simulate how some of the sequences would have appeared in the finished film. It's really well done, and the long-tracking shot that travels through the entire galaxy is stunning, even though it's just a bunch of black and white sketches done in pencil. We also get to see the character and production designs created by Moebius, as well as those by H.R. Giger, and Chris Foss.

Jodorowsky himself seems like a really charming, passionate filmmaker. Most artists tend to come across as pretentious jerks -- such as the footage and anecdotes about Salvador Dali, who was slated to play the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV -- but Jadorowsky is articulate, funny, and lucid. I liked him, and really enjoyed and appreciated everything he had to say about his Dune project and about film -- and life -- in general, and I'm interested in checking out his other films, even though I know I'll hate them. There's one particularly great bit where he talks about how heart-broken he was when a studio actually produced the David Lynch adaptation, but then was overjoyed when he watched it and saw how awful it was.

The film ends with a montage of sequences from the never-filmed storyboards alongside nearly identical sequences from such films as Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and others. The storyboards were given to every major studio in Hollywood back when they were looking for funding in the mid 70s, and this documentary makes a pretty strong case that many of its ideas were either stolen or merely served as the inspiration for countless films that went on to be popular hits.

The film isn't perfect, however, since it has a couple glaringly missed opportunities. We learn all about the designs for Duke Leto and the Harkonnens, but there is no mention of the Fremen, arguably the most important culture in the entire series. There is also no real mention or look at the sandworms, other than a brief shot of a single storyboard panel. And while I know this was a film about Jodorowsky's Dune and not so much the source material, but the film could have at least mentioned Frank Herbert's thoughts on this adaptation. I'm sure some interviews or letters exist. Did Jodorowsky even meet him? We hear more about potential stars Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (!!) in this documentary than we do the guy who wrote the actual novel. At the very least they could have interviewed Frank Herbert's son Brian.

But, anyway, those mild complaints aside, this was a really fun, enthralling look at a film that was never meant to be. Jodorowsky at one point says that after he dies he hopes somebody takes the script and storyboards and turns it into an animated film. I think that sounds brilliant and it's probably the only way to really film that sequences where a woman transforms the Duke's blood into semen and then inserts it into her vagina. Perfect for Pixar.

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