JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (2014, Frank Pavich)
I’ve never seen a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky. I knew of his work from the glowing reviews of EL TOPO and SANTA SANGRE by Roger Ebert, but I’ve never taken the opportunity to watch one. But why let a little something like complete ignorance about an artist stop me from appreciating a documentary like this? Pavich’s crackerjack exploration of the Jewish-Ukrainian filmmaker (born in Chile, living in France) and his failed attempt to mount an epic 2001/STAR WARS-esque adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel tells us everything we need to know about Jodorowsky the director, if not about how his visions translate when fused with the commerce necessary to distribute them.
You can look at this film as a recipe for the ingredients necessary for cinematic art: first, you need unwavering passion. (Jodo’s dedication to and fervent admiration of the Herbert book ignites his quest to make the movie). Second, you need unchecked ambition — let’s assemble the greatest collaboration of artists possible to create this masterpiece: “Get me Jean Moebius Giraud! Get me Douglas Trumbull! Wait, fuck him, he sucks, get me Dan O’Bannon! Get me Salvador Dali! Get me H.R. Giger! Get me Orson Welles!” Hearing Jodo enthusiastically regale Pavich’s camera with stories of how he seduced people like Dali and Welles to work with him is a treat in and of itself, but wondering how their contributions would appear on screen feeds our imaginations forever. Thirdly, and unfortunately most importantly, you need realistic expectations regarding the commercial necessities of the industry — tailor your talents to the needs of the marketplace and allow for concession. Jodo doesn’t grasp this, but the film also asks: should he? Maybe that quality would have helped get DUNE produced, but if it had, would it have been as “awful!” (in the words of Jodo’s gleeful expression of schadenfreude) as Lynch’s disaster? We’ll never know, but Pavich seems to be arguing that perhaps it’s the industry to blame, not Jodo’s failure to play Hollywood’s game. At the very least, Nicolas Winding Refn sure thinks it is.
This is a film not just about the specifics of Jodorowsky’s ambitious but doomed project, but also one about megalomania in general, lifelong refusal to equivocate, and the limits (or lack thereof) of artistic vision. In the stories we hear, the passion inside Jodorowsky is similar to that of his idols like Dali and Welles, which probably helps him cajole them into joining his quest. But if there’s a happy ending here, it’s the bittersweet acknowledgement that even an unrealized dream could have inspired sci-fi cinema of the last 40 years. It’s this coda that didn’t really convince me — I find it hard to believe that without Jodorowsky and Michel Seydoux (granduncle to Léa, FYI), there wouldn’t be Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, or BLADE RUNNER, or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or THE MATRIX. But it’s nice to think about the possibility that unfulfilled passions could still inspire successful art. And that in turn raises questions about intellectual property, but that’s a subject for another documentary — one I’d love to see Pavich make with the same skill and joy with which he tackled this peculiar wonder.