There are a number of books and films I’ve classified as “having seen,” because I have. But, upon reflection about these titles, I realize I remember nothing about them, usually because I experienced them decades ago and as a young lad. Neuromancer by William Gibson was a big one. It hit me a few years ago that, although I count the book as one of the most influential in my life, from one of my favorite authors, I didn’t actually remember anything about it other than some space Rastas who didn’t care for the internet. This revelation struck me again in regards to Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book (and series) I read probably around the time David Lynch’s cinematic adaptation (which I adore) was released.
While sitting in the audience recently for a screening of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was inspired to resume my abortive journey through the Dune universe, which I had initially launched only to derail myself because I decided I was going to read everything in the Dune universe, in narrative chronological order, and that meant starting with the “Butlerian Jihad” trilogy by Kevin Anderson and Frank Herbert’s son, Brian. Anyone who has read those books might understand why my little scheme went awry.
Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the story of eccentric (to say the least) filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed quest to adapt Frank Herbert’s sprawling epic — regarded by many as the greatest science novel ever written — into a film during the early 1970s. Jodorowsky was best known for his films El Topo and Holy Mountain, which were bizarre blends of psychedelic insanity, profane philosophy, and epic scale. They are generally regarded as the first of the “midnight movies,” and although exceedingly weird and challenging, they are both masterpieces that found a surprisingly large audience amongst the counter-culture youths, freaks, and weirdos who were starved for more eclectic cinematic fare. Among these fans was Michel Seydoux, the scion of a wealthy French family who dreamed of becoming a movie producer. He sought out Jodorowsky and told the filmmaker he wanted them to make a movie together, and Jodorowsky could do whatever he wanted. “I want to make Dune!” he exclaimed enthusiastically, because there is nothing that Jodorowsky doesn’t do enthusiastically.
Jodorowsky had never read Dune, mind you.
And so begins the story told in director Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune of a film that involved everyone from Orson Welles (Baron Harkonnen) to Mick Jagger (Feyd Rautha) to Salvador Dali (Emperor Shaddam IV), with design work by French comic book artist Moebius (one of the founders of Metal Hurlant magazine), special effects man Dan O’Bannon (whose only credit was effects work on John Carpenter’s low budget Dark Star), science fiction book cover painter Chris Foss, and a creepy young illustrator named H.R. Giger. Together they drew, quite literally, almost every shot of the movie in a massive storyboard that became a bound book for them. Jodorowsky’s vision of the film was vast, an epic on a scale science fiction film had never attempted. A psychedelic mind warp that Jodorowsky himself said he wanted to be like taking LSD without taking LSD. He wanted his film to be nothing short of a cultural uprising, a trumpet for the legions of youth who had risen up against the establishment in the 1960s. He wanted Dune — in story, in philosophy, in daringness, in design — to be a revolution.
Pavich’s documentary tells the story of how this movie never actually got made.
Jodorowsky’s Dune has been frequently compared to Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s calamitous attempt to make an adaptation of Don Quixote. While the two documentaries tell a similar story (and involve Orson Welles!), the effect of each could not be more different. Lost in La Mancha, for me, is infused with bitterness, with regret, with frustration. Jodorowsky’s Dune, by contrast, soars. Where Lost in La Mancha makes me mad, Jodorowsky’s Dune makes me want to cheer for the lunatic director and his eccentric band of “spiritual warriors.” In theory, it is the story of a failure, of millions of dollars and countless hours of effort wasted. It doesn’t feel like the story of a failure, however. The overall impact the documentary had on me wasn’t one of the disappointment of a failed project or the short-sightedness of timid studios; it was one of elation, of re-inspiring my love of and faith in the potential of film, the beauty of storytelling, and the wonder of those who are truly visionary, truly driven to create, and genuinely, gloriously weird.
Jodorowsky himself, through his many interviews for the documentary, emerges as a man of indomitable spirit, and the look at how much his unmade Dune influenced the films that came after it lends a triumphant tone to this story of a story never told. Some of Jodorowsky’s stories seem almost too fantastic to be true — the way in which he wooed Orson Welles to play the Baron Harkonnen, for example, or the contract he drew up with Salvador Dali whilst contemplating the painting behind the counter at the King Cole Bar in New York’s St. Regis Hotel, being particularly good — until you are clued in a little more about the circles in which everyone ran. By the time a sea of people at a posh party parts to reveal Mick Jagger to Jodorowsky for the “I want you/I’m yours” casting of the singer as Feyd, you won’t even question — or care — whether it’s truth or embellishment. The story is just too good.
No less grandiose and impossible is his vision for the film, which was equal parts breathtaking, mind-blowing, and utterly absurd. Certainly there are questions that haunt the production — what if the film had been made? It doubtless would have enraged fans of the book (if you thought Lynch’s film wreaked havoc with the story…). Would it have been glorious, or would it have been an absolute disaster? Could it have been both? What would the landscape of cinema look like if Jodorowsky’s Dune had been science fiction’s first blockbuster epic instead of Star Wars? How much of Jodorowsky’s vision made it into David Lynch’s Dune, the film that was made after Jodorowsky’s version collapsed and the rights to the book were sold to Dino De Laurentiis?
In the end, these questions are no more important than the whodunit of a well-written whodunit. I walked out of the theater in a mood I’d not felt in a long time. Later that night, I dug out my battered old paperback copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune and finished it before the weekend was over, plowing through its moody, melancholy sequel, Dune Messiah, in a similarly short time. The next day, I was filled with an urge to go out and…do something. Take photos. Shoot some super 8 film. Write better articles than I had been. Go to a part of the city to which I’d never been. Jodorowsky’s Dune had filled me with an urge to create, an elation with no real focus but that lifted the spirit and spoke to me in the voice of a crazed film director. For being the story of a massively ambitious film project that totally fell apart in the eleventh hour, Jodorowsky’s Dune sure did make me feel…happy.
Keith Allison is riding atop a shai-hulud