“I’ve seen Jodorowsky’s Dune,” director Nicholas Winding Refn announces early on in the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, “and it is awesome.” Of course, neither Refn nor anyone else has actually seen the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famed science-fiction novel that Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to make, because funding fell apart and the film never got made. But Refn has seen Jodorowsky’s Dune book: the collection of script pages, storyboards, and concept drawings that the famed Spanish surrealist assembled to pitch his film to Hollywood studios. Thanks to director Frank Pavich, we can examine these materials just as Refn did, and learn that Refn is right.
Thanks to the cult success of his bizarre, deeply philosophical films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky found a pair of French producers who wanted him to do anything that he liked. Jodorowsky announced that he wanted to adapt Dune, despite never having read the book (it’s a running joke in this film: apparently, no one working on Jodo-Dune ever read Herbert). Before the plug was pulled, Jodorowsky got as far as casting Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Orson Welles, and his 12-year-old son in the film; simply trying to imagine such an eclectic cast on the same set should give one an idea of how funny a film Jodorowsky’s Dune is.
Herbert’s novel had a reputation in Hollywood as being unfilmable, but that word is never uttered here. Instead, Pavich’s narrative is dominated by Jodorowsky’s unsinkable passion to get the movie made, despite the fact that special-effects technology was not up to the task and science fiction had a poor reputation in Hollywood (Star Wars was still 3 years in the future). Jodorowsky’s eyes bug out as he describes the process, and he switches liberally between English and Spanish as he relates the stories, as though neither language has the words to describe the imagination bomb that he was trying to drop upon the film world.
It must be said that Jodorowsky’s Dune is not close to being as visually creative as its subjects. Pavich’s documentary style of “talking-head interview / animated sequence / next talking-head interview” was old hat when Michael Moore did it 10 years ago. But oh, those animated sequences: they assemble storyboards from the legendary comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, concept art from veteran sci-fi artist Chris Foss, and designs by the great surrealist H.R. Giger in an attempt to display Jodorowsky’s ideas exactly as they had meant to be filmed. While it is somewhat unfortunate that a film about Jodorowsky would be so straightforward, Pavich at least understands how to show an audience that Jodorowsky’s ideas were so wildly ahead of their time that they would have made 2001: A Space Odyssey look like a Buck Rogers flick from the 1950s.
And yet, for all of its love of Jodorowsky’s ambition and creativity, Jodorowsky’s Dune is anything but worshipful. At the times when the intensity of the Spaniard’s passion for filmmaking might be crossing the thin line toward insanity, Pavich leaves the camera running. A lengthy recorded interview with the late Dan O’Bannon (who was to create Jodorowsky’s special effects) suggests that there was an equally thin line between Jodorowsky’s vision and a drug-fueled hallcination. It’s easy to watch Jodorowsky’s lengthy soliloquy about how marriage is similar to rape, and understand why Hollywood did not want to risk millions of dollars on a man who claims he was “raping Frank Herbert’s novel… but with love.”
In the end, Pavich hits a surprisingly moving note by showing the immense influence that this story eventually had on Hollywood, even without being made. O’Bannon, Giger, and Foss all went on to repurpose their ideas in Alien, while Jodorowsky and Moebius created a number of successful graphic novels. Films as disparate as Flash Gordon and Contact have visuals that Jodorowsky originally conceived, and it’s clear that this is a small source of pleasure for him amidst a sizable career failure. As he says, even dreams can change the world, and Pavich has a wonderful touch for showing how vivid those dreams were and how they could carry world-changing power. I’ve seen Jodorowsky’s Dune, and it is awesome.