*. It’s a weird thing to start off by saying, but let’s pump the brakes. The tag-line for this documentary on the not-making-of an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune by Alejandro Jodorowsky has it that it was “the greatest science fiction movie never made.” Within the documentary itself we see it canonized as a lost classic, with Jodorowsky working so far ahead of his time that we may never catch up.
*. Nonsense. I think the best they might have come up with was a camp hit, and at worst a piece of epic trash. Jodorowsky assembled an impressive stable of talent — his “spiritual warriors” — but how they were all going to work together and their contributions be made to cohere into something that made any sense is more than I can imagine. Nor do I think Jodorowsky was ahead of his time, or his work on Dune all that influential. A number of the people he got together went on to work on Alien, but that was a very different picture. Aside from that . . . Flash Gordon (1980)? Masters of the Universe (1987)?
*. No, I think Jodorowsky was actually looking backward. What he wanted was to make an SF head picture (Dr. J: “I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at the time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating. I did not want LSD to be taken, I wanted to fabricate the drug’s effects”). In other words, if he’d been given a green light he’d have ended up with something like Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). As it turned out, he did follow that route in reverse, taking elements from the art and script he prepared and turning them into a comic book.
*. Also no: the studios weren’t philistines for turning down the whole project. They were asking for $15 million, and everyone must have been sure they’d go over that. And Jodorowsky was not a proven commodity. Nor were the suits and bean-counters “scared” by Jodorowsky’s genius (Nicolas Winding Refn: “they were afraid of his imagination, they were afraid of his mind”). If I’d been offered the cinder-block Dune book that was making the rounds I don’t think I would have bit either. Even Star Wars was a movie the studio didn’t really believe in that much, and it was pure popcorn compared to this.
*. Of course it was never going to be Frank Herbert’s Dune. It (meaning the film, not this doc) was always Jodorowsky’s Dune. He felt free to adapt and revisualize the novel any which way, which I guess was made easier by the fact that he hadn’t read it when he first suggested making it into a movie.
*. An eminently quotable figure, I’ll let Jodorowsky explain in his own words: “It’s different. It was my Dune. When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like you get married, no? You go with the wife, white, the woman is white [he is referring to a bridal dress, nor race here]. You take the woman, if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to rape the bride. And then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert, raping, like this. But with love, with love.”
*. Many of his fellow spiritual warriors were no better equipped to deal with a book that producer Michel Seydoux describes here as “the Bible of science fiction for all big devotees . . . a worldwide publishing success that you could find in every country.” SF artist Chris Foss hadn’t read it. Nor had musician Christian Vander. Salvador Dalí hadn’t even heard of it. These guys were all free to go their own way, and they did.
*. So I don’t see this as a lost treasure or missed opportunity. It is, however, an interesting bit of film history to take a closer look at, and this is a fun movie. Even at the age of 84 Jodorowsky projects the magnetism and charisma that seduced so many of the people he got to sign on to this project. He was filled with an authentic sense of mission and his enthusiasm was clearly contagious.
*. Whatever happened to that sense of the art of film being a higher calling? When Jodorowsky pulls a fat wad of bills out of his pocket and refers to it as filth he might even mean it. You have to respect that. You don’t, however, have to assume that just by rejecting the system and pursuing other goals you’re going to come up with something good, or even have an original failure. As I’ve said, if Jodorowsky had made his Dune I think it would have been a fantastic train wreck, not great art. There still may be something useful in such train wrecks though, and something noble in the attempt . . . as David Lynch would go on to prove.