IF WE’RE going to discuss the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, cult maverick extraordinaire, we should probably indulge in a little lofty eulogising. Or do we really? This is the man who directed The Holy Mountain, a symbolist maelstrom that ends with its star – Jodorowsky himself – signalling to his production crew and laughing. There’s always a razor-edge balance between the ponderous and the irreverent in his films, a line trod with total flippancy by the man himself at, apparently, all hours.
Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary by Frank Pavich on the director’s proposed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, is a heartwarming paean to thwarted ambition. Much like Brian Wilson’s aborted SMiLE in the music world, Jodorowsky’s film could well have changed the genetic make-up of modern cinema… or it could have collapsed in a chorus of laughter under the impossible weight of its own hubris. This is a film that would have been 14 hours long and given Salvador Dali (and his robot clone), Mick Jagger and Orson Welles a starring role each. Let the insanity of that sentence waft in the air around you.
Nothing less than total spiritual revolution would have sufficed for Jodorowsky, affectionately known as ‘Jodo’ by some of the assembled interviewees. In his own words, he wanted to “create a prophet”. He refused the help of Douglass Trumbull – special effects pioneer on 2001: A Space Odyssey – because he was “not [a] spiritual person”. He lambasted Pink Floyd with the immortal words: “I offer you the most important picture in the history of the humanity! We will change the world! And you are eating Big Macs! How?”
For an 85-year old, Jodorowsky has the livewire energy and passion of a man 40 years his junior. His charisma is boundless; it’s not hard to imagine him persuading his team of “spiritual warriors” to assemble in Paris at his behest. His decrying of the Hollywood studios that refused to finance the film is heartbreaking to watch, just as watching him imitate spacecraft soaring through asteroids is endearing. “I was raping Frank Herbert!” he says at one point, acknowledging the enormous creative liberties he took from a novel he has still never read, “But with love. With love.”
Pavich’s unobtrusive approach allows his subjects (among them H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and Michel Seydoux) ample room to extemporise endlessly upon the world-changing magnitude of the would-be Dune. This relatively stripped-down talking head format could have easily become tiresome – see Morgan Spurlock’s Mansome – but Pavich’s characters are so engaging that it’s difficult not to become absorbed into their lofty dream. Interspersed with the interviews are some lovely animations of the film’s storyboards; long zoom shots of galaxies and asteroids and scuttled spaceships are brought to life by Syd Garon and Paul Griswold, giving us a small idea of how the film might have looked in motion.
Regardless of the unfeasible enormity of the production – Dali getting paid $100,000 for every minute he would be onscreen as one example – the sheer ambition and belief in Jodorowsky’s vision is compelling. Compelling as it is, perhaps it would only ever remain that way in the imagination – what could have been is always a more tantalising prospect than what is. With this many egos vying for competition, helmed by an avant-garde surrealist auteur, it’s hard to imagine, realistically, that the film would have amounted to anything other than a colossal disaster, even with Jodorowsky in the director’s chair.
And yet, even with the benefit of hindsight, 40 years after the production collapsed, the artists and producers involved still believe wholeheartedly that this ur-Dune could have changed everything. Whether they’re blinded by delusions of grandeur or not, it’s a testament to the magnetism and self-belief that courses through Alejandro Jodorowsky’s very being that they still believe, even now.
And why shouldn’t they? Though aborted before actual shooting began, storyboards and concept art were sent around all the major studios; films like Flash Gordon and Alien bear striking resemblance to designs seen in Jodorowsky’s phonebook-sized, comic-esque script. Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger – both of whom worked on ur-Dune – even contributed the script and set design respectively to the latter of these films. Despite the fact it was never made – or even came close – its genes still managed to (sand)worm their way into the films that followed in its insane wake.
Jodorowsky’s Dune offers us not only a wonderful glimpse into ‘The Greatest Film Never Made’; it also allows us to delve into the mind of the warm, passionate and creative genius at its heart. It’s a love letter to the power of imagination and the visionary who was given free rein to let it run rampant. I can’t imagine a more fitting, engrossing tribute.