Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune - A Better Documentary Than A Movie

Sometimes, some things are better left unmade. It doesn't matter how great the source material is that sparks the idea, nor how brilliant the creative personality behind it allegedly is, nor the mightiness of the forces marshalled to bring it into being. Sometimes, an idea is a lot better tossed excitedly around the table over coffee or a few bottles of wine than it is when you break it down and take a good, long, objective look at it.

I'm going to step out on a limb here and say Alejandro Jodorowsky's idea for Dune is one of those things. [steps back, takes a deep breath, and braces for hordes of filmerati and a few sci-fi fans to start hurling curses and tomatoes]

Jorodowsky's plan back in the 70s to adapt Frank Herbert's classic is a cinematic legend that's spoken of in hushed whispers occasionally in art house movie theatre circles and science fiction chatrooms. It was supposed to be the greatest movie never made. And director Frank Pavich has finally brought together Jodorowsky himself and some of the other players involved in the effort, in a new documentary chronicling its conception, planning, growth of talent and resources, pitch, and eventual stall. Over the years, I'd heard the occasional vague rumour of Jodorowsky's non-existent masterpiece, and lately of Pavich's documentary, so when the doc became available on pay-per-view last week, I had to see this spectacle for myself.

First, as far as the Pavich's doc goes, Jodorowsky's Dune is absorbing and highly detailed. Pavich lets Jodorowsky tell his story of how he brought together all of the elements that would combine to make his movie, revealing much about the man's strong personality and huge ambitions. The doc periodically cuts away to others who were involved in the project at various stages, telling how they became swept up in the irresistible tide of Jodorowsky's passion and vision, what their contributions were, and, occasionally, giving some critical reality checks. For those of us who grew up with the distaste of knowing David Lynch's Dune, or the satisfaction of John Harrison's miniseries Dune (a.k.a Frank Herbert's Dune), Pavich's doc shows us just how radically different a production Jodorowsky was prepared to offer years earlier. It shows what can happen when a lot of talented people get drawn into the excitement of an idea (or the force of a big personality), and what happens when one is blind to the realities of the business end of the creative process. In that respect, it's as much a "how-not-to" guide to movie-making as much as it is a "how-to" example.

The doc also shows the creative legacy of this failed movie: how many of the talented people involved went on to contribute to other hallmarks of modern science fiction, and how some of the plans or concepts were incorporated into other films (such as one of HR Giger's design for the Harkonnen castle eventually being used for the Engineers' facility in Prometheus). In that respect, the end of Jorodowsky's project reminded me of the aftermath of the Avro Arrow shutdown, which saw its engineers and other staff swept up by NASA and other agencies, and the plane's design elements incorporated into the designs used by other governments on other fighters. But I digress (as usual)...

Whether you're a Herbert/Dune super fan who's intrigued by how another iteration of the story would have played out, or a more general fan of science fiction wanting to learn more about what could have been a major moment in the genre's cinematic history, or just a fan of good, meaty documentaries about modern Quixotes tilting at their windmills, Jodorowsky's Dune is worth watching.

That said, after having watched the doc, I'm really glad Jodorowsky didn't get his way, and that his Dune never happened.

Listening to Jodorowsky, I have a huge amount of respect for the man's passion for the project. I also admire his ability to recruit serious talent. Bringing Giger, Moebius, and Dan O'Bannon in on the project was the right move, and it would have been just awesome to see Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

But I didn't like some of the changes Jodorowsky was gushing about (yes, I know, the classic nerd bitch line whenever some director dares to adapt a piece of sf canon for film and, either of necessity or due to personal interpretation, begins to play around with things). Some of the concepts they were experimenting with (such as one costume design portraying Baron Harkonnen dressed like some sort of clown) just didn't seem to work. Other wholesale changes to the plot were unnecessary, like the idea of portraying Duke Leto Atreides as more-or-less gelded and impotent. Some were flat-out wrong to the point of derailing the plot and robbing it of its meaning, such as the plan to kill Paul at the end and have him take over the collective consciousness of humanity, and then have the planet Arrakis shimmy off into deep space to convert everything in the universe into some kind of gestalt entity. That's not Dune. That's so completely not Dune that there would be no point in calling that film Dune.

And that's an important point, because as the doc played out, I got the overwhelming sense that had Jodorowsky succeeded in making his film, it would ultimately have been more about the director's own ego and the need to put on a flashy show (a drug trip without having to take drugs, to paraphrase the man himself) than actually doing a good job of telling the story of Dune. It felt like he would have made some kind of overblown art house pic — inaccessible in its deliberate over-the-top weirdness.

Maybe, for once, we should give credit to the Hollywood studio bosses [gasp!] of the day. Maybe they'd got their hands on some of the spice and were able to peer just far enough into the future to see that Jodorowsky's version of Dune would have been a masterbatory nightmare that would have not only lost the studios profits, but turned generations of moviegoers off of the story of Dune, and maybe science fiction in general. Maybe they saw that better things would come of it, if they just quietly let this thing die, and sent of the intellectual parts of its estate to those who might make better use of them. Or maybe they were just looking at the immediate bottom line of production costs and kyboshed what appeared to be a risky venture. At any rate, the end was the same: Jodorowsky's Dune sank into the desert sands of cinematic non-production, leaving few traces other than whispered legends. And sometimes the desert knows best.

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