Friday, November 14, 2014

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (or: 'The Joyous Attempted-Rape of Frank Herbert')

(Originally this review was written for another site.  Somehow, it never got there.  Like what this film is about!)

A lunch with Alejandro Jodorowsky would be an interesting prospect.  I picture sitting down with him and him being all smiles and cordial, especially if he is someone who senses just the slightest artistic trace in another person, and will leap off into a million different directions and with fervor, zeal and a kind of charm and charisma that comes with true freaks of the avant-garde. 

And I don’t mean ‘Freak’ in the demeaning sense – unless you’re a mindless Hollywood hack who only sees the middle-ground in the top dollar.  Which, of course, was a bit of a problem when Mr. Jodorowsky presented his proposal for a film from Frank Herbert’s Dune series - in a giant book that basically acted as a cornucopia of unique, odd but nonetheless groundbreaking visuals – to executives at studios in 1975.  Not soon after, sci-fi movies became the biggest thing in the world.

Few men can hold such a cat and not look evil

This documentary traces how this man, who is still one of those cult-film icons that will be here to stay long after his death (his films El Topo and The Holy Mountain play regularly at midnight at the IFC Center here in New York, always to big audiences wanting to re-experience things like a man in black on horseback with his naked (!) son, and a diorama of small lizards reenacting Christian satire in a diorama), came to try and make Dune.  He was approached after his early cult successes – he also had a mind-bending run in the theater in the 60’s – by producer Michael Seydoux to make a “big” project next. 

Jodorowsky picked Dune… because why?  He admits, almost gleefully, to have not read the book but had heard about it from friends as it had become itself a phenomenon.  And he wrote a screenplay that he admits also as if at times laughing about it that in the course of adaptation it was like “having a wife” (paraphrasing best to my ability), and that he, for lack of a better word “raped” his wife, that being the Dune book. 

Indeed fans of the series may see some differences just from what Jodorowsky presents to us, and what director Pavich shows to audiences for the first time as excerpts from the Dune workbook – countless drawings, as supervised by French comics legend Moebius, with such changes as, um, the protagonist Paul Atreides, was conceived by his castrated father Duke getting his finger pricked and that blood impregnating his wife.  Oh, and the all-powerful spice that is a major driving force in the books is a, well, blue substance of some sort.  Ultimately it was all an excuse to, as its director put it, would be the cinematic equivalent of “taking acid”. 

This was JODOROWSKY’s Dune, however, not Frank Herbert, and in this immensely entertaining and absorbing documentary, a lot of humor comes not just from the Chilean director himself (and odd flourishes like in an interview his cat just comes up and he takes it into his hands and pets it while talking!) it’s from how he got this ‘team’, or as he called them his “Warriors”, together for pre-production. 

Yes, warriors!  Like.... this proto-Gimp right here!

After just not getting the right vibe from special effects guru Douglas Trumbull, he moved on to a young film student who somehow scored with a B movie called “Dark Star”, Dan O’Bannon, and he was brought on for visual effects.  Pink Floyd was approached, and initially agreed, to do the music for one of the “planets” in the film.  HR Giger, a semi-obscure European artist who had a radical style, came on board to design the evil Harkonnen planet.  And aside from Moebius, who was already a major figure at the time, artist Chris Foss was brought on to design as well. 

Oh, and did I neglect the cast?  Oh boy.  How does this sound: David Carradine, who agreed to do the part after ingesting a whole lot of Vitamin C in Jodrowsky’s presence; surrealist Salvador Dali, who only agreed to do the part for $100,000 dollars per hour (though Jodorowsky, in an interview segment so funny it made my sides hurt, talked about how he decided to offer him even more money – a hundred grand per minute – but to get him off set within a few minutes and use a robotic Dali for the rest of the film); Orson Welles, who agreed on the basis of having a great chef on hand to cook meals.

I think every artist says this at some point...

So much of Jodorowsky’s Dune has the flavor of ‘too good to be true’, which could be a detriment to the proceedings - 'too much' of anything is such, and the movie's pre-production was a testament to that.  What makes the film almost a bittersweet experience as it comes to its final twenty minutes, when we learn about, naturally, every studio in Hollywood rejecting the film proposal in part due to budget (short $5 million) but also as Jodorowsky planned it to be a six hour epic at a time when science fiction movies were almost always 90 minutes. 

YET Hollywood execs still seemed to like that production book that he and his talented team had put together, which included a detailed storyboard that almost acted like a pre-visualization of the entire film.  Not so soon after we got Star Wars, Alien (written by O’Bannon, designed by Giger and Foss), Blade Runner, The Matrix, even David Lynch’s own Dune (which is another funny part – Jorodowsky cheerfully explains how he was afraid to see it… and loved the experience because it was so terrible a film!) 

When you see the film, you may be mixed about how to feel with this experience that Jodorowsky had, of the Great Project Not Meant to Be.  In a moment where he stops being a kind of happy old man, he holds up a dollar bill and proclaims it to be ALL about this, which lacks art and emotion.  At the same time one could argue Jodorowsky, high off of his previous cult successes, didn’t compromise for a moment and saw the production crumble before it could truly begin.  On the other hand, many of his good ideas ended up being filtered back into Hollywood and used by the liked of Lucas and Scott.  The film poises a good question worth exploring: how far can original, innovative ideas go, and at what point do they become part of the marketplace.

 Though there are still silver linings, even for its beleaguered creator (who until this past year at Cannes with The Dance of Reality had only made three films since The Holy Mountain in 1973); he ended up using several visuals and ideas from his Dune project for comic books illustrated by Moebius; an animated series take-off on his Dune script and workbook would be interesting; and by doing this documentary, he reconnected with producer Seydoux, leading to the production of ‘Reality’.  At the age of 84 it could be his last film... and yet, once again on the other hand, to look at a man so vibrant, weird and fantastical making up such radical visions, who ever knows? 

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