The new documentary Jodorowsky's Dune chronicles the famously failed attempt by an eccentric Chilean filmmaker to adapt the classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert into a surrealist epic nearly a decade prior to the David Lynch version. As a film about film, it is a fascinating look at what might have been, and like many documentaries about something as subjective as art, it manages to succeed in spite of its skewed perspective. I do not refer to the obviously skewed mind of its star the director himself, though he is certainly a lovably odd personality. Rather, I refer to the entire premise of the movie, which proves even more insightful than it thinks it is by either not realizing or deliberately ignoring the fact that everyone in the movie is bat shit crazy and wrong.
The point of view of the doc is quite evident throughout and obviously propelled by the personal biases of its interview subjects, many of whom directly worked on the original project and naturally assume it would have been nothing short of a masterpiece if only it had been fully realized. That the first person to express this assumption is Jodorowsky fan Nicholas Winding Refn should be your first sign that maybe you should question it. If the director of the unbearable soul raping that is Only God Forgives thinks an idea is great, that’s a pretty blaring warning sign right off the bat. Not that you’d need it, as a majority of the film is devoted to showing us just how much we dodged a bullet by not having this movie debut when it was intended to.
This might sound odd considering all the things the proposed film had going for it on paper, which the doc details extensively. A committed cast including Mick Jagger, Orson Wells, and Salvador Dali, a soundtrack by Pink Floyd in their prime, and conceptual design work from luminaries like Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger, where could it go wrong? Well, for the answer to that you have to go back to the ringleader of the whole thing Jodorowsky himself, a surrealist director most well known for the films El Topo and Holy Mountain, who notes that at least prior to pursuing the project he had not even bothered to read the book, and gives no indication throughout his interview that he ever did so after the fact. The production basically gave us the people who would later bring us Alien, and a montage towards the end shows all the elements from his treatment that have been used in other films, but these examples only prove to make it more conspicuous that the only part of this failed film that didn’t go on to greater success was the man himself.
Beyond the explicit descriptions of what the film would have been, there are two moments in the doc that perfectly encapsulate how misguided this whole enterprise was. The first is one of the artists working on ship designs, who talks about his introduction to Jodorowsky’s work as being the movie Holy Mountain. He watches a scene where Jesus Christ shits out a turd made of solid gold and says “I need to work with that guy,” clearly not seeing the obvious unintended metaphor. Later on in the doc, Jodorowsky himself talks about how he strayed from the source material in his script, comparing it to how one should treat a bride on their wedding night. Specifically, he says that one must rape the original story just like one must rape their new wife, as respecting them too much will ruin the fun of it. You might be thinking that his tenuous grasp of English is to blame for this, but trust me, he goes on this track way too long to excuse it as a mistranslation.
It should be no surprise then that everything fans hate about the Dune film we actually got would have only been magnified in Jodorowsky’s version. Its easy and convenient to imagine the failed project as automatically better and infuse it with all the things you might want the perfect Dune movie to be, but there’s no reason to think it would have actually been better, and we now have documented evidence that it would have been so much worse. You don’t like the whole magic rain thing at the end? How about that plus Paul dying and his soul possessing every Fremen worshiper, who then magically compel the entire now verdant planet Arrakas to travel throughout space spreading the messiah’s message of peace throughout the galaxy? Kinda makes the whole Weirding Module and voice over thing seem kind of picayune by comparison.
One of the director’s fan’s ominously suggests that by debuting before George Lucas’ Star Wars series, that Jodorowsky’s Dune might have irrevocably altered the direction of science fiction away from mainstream Speilbergian entertainment and towards a more arty, intellectual paradigm. I very much doubt this, but the possibility is chilling. Sure, maybe we’d get less Michael Bays, but just imagine if every science fiction film were as heady, slow moving, and impenetrable as 2001. Like it or not (and I don’t), mainstream appeal is what keeps high concept genre fiction in business. A geek culture so high brow and esoteric that it completely refuses to let the outsider in is one that doesn’t get the acclaim and the resulting budgets for a Marvel Cinematic Universe or an annual slate of summer movies catering to our weird taste. Its a double edged sword, but I’m thankful to be cut on the shallow, flashy end of it.
Jodorowsky’s Dune misses the forest for the trees in its knee jerk acceptance of the premise that this batshit director’s vision was inherently superior to Lynch’s, but because the lie is so self-evident, it still serves a purpose of disabusing anyone of the notion that any of this was a good idea. Its sort of like America: Imagine A World Without Her in that sense, just for pretentious movie nerds with their heads too far up their asses instead of right wing conservatives with their heads too far up their asses. They’ll nod along no matter how much pressure it puts on their colons, but those of us in the real world, outside of the hipstery bubble, will understand just how flimsy the arguments are. Thankfully, this is much more well made and entertaining to watch than America, and if only as a rare glimpse into the mind of madness and an interesting examination of how one charismatic loon can amass so much talent around him for such a faulty purpose, I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in film.