Thursday, May 8, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune - Because Frank Herbert's Version Didn't Take ENOUGH LSD

If there's one thing I've noticed the more I get into study of film and review (and I suspect this is a fairly common occurrence) it's that I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with the behind the scenes tales of films. Commentaries, memoirs, production diaries, just the various stories of how these projects turn out the way they do provide interesting new perspectives on titles, for good and ill (the amount of money that got spent on The Room, for example, makes the film THAT much funnier/more depressing.)

Strangely enough, some of the best stories are actually the ones about the films that never get made. We see so many films, we almost take for granted that it got made at all, seeing as the figurative graveyard for the number of films that don't see completion would make up a small country at this point. Some of these stories are pretty well known for various reasons; Many for the weapons-grade amounts of Murphy's Law that sabotage them, some to the point of being the stuff of legend just through failure.

This is part of what makes the story behind Jodorowsky's Dune a fascinating one - it's a movie that's ultimately not that focused on the failure, but the attempt.

and also this...
Especially this.

Let's wind the clocks back and set the scene for the moment - it's the mid-1970s. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has gone from being a relative unknown to American moviegoers to conquering the midnight movie circuit with the one-two punch of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The heavy spiritual meditations combined with his engrossing visual style were like nothing many viewers had seen to that point and are said to have helped completely cement the midnight movie movement of the 70s. Inspired by the two movies, French producer Jean-Michel Seydoux contacted Jodorowsky about making a movie with him, any sort of project Jodorowsky wanted. Without even stopping to think it over, he picked Frank Herbert's science fiction classic Dune- a book he humorously later admitted he hadn't read at the time. What followed was one of the most ambitious projects to never make it to screen. Jodorowsky and Seydoux put together a team that, for the industry at the time, was unheard of: artists like Moebius, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and an at-the-time fresh-faced effects guru Dan O'Bannon, music by bands like Pink Floyd and Magma, and a cast including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali (whose demands for agreeing to be in the film lead to some of the funniest stories recalled,) David Carradine, and Mick Jagger.

Considering the outcome, this movie is pretty much the textbook definition of too good to be true.

Yes, even factoring in the fact Moebius intended for Welles to wear the outfit on the left.
That would take a LOT of wine to get him to go along with it.

As I said above, what makes Jodorowsky's Dune stand out for me as a documentary about a film that didn't make it is how little it actually focuses on what went wrong. In fact, the only reason it fell through is pretty benign. No studio wanted to back it, despite many execs being utterly blown away by what was being offered. The film does touch on this, but the bulk of its 88 minutes is more about showing us the offerings rather than exploring why they were turned down.

And said offering, despite never making it past the stage of concept art and storyboards, is still one of the most fascinating things I've seen on the big screen in a while.

Jodorowsky's Dune is a weird case as a documentary goes. In terms of just how it's produced, it's pretty standard in a lot of regards. What really escalates it to being as memorable as it is is their choice in subject. For a film that never happened, it's a genuinely fascinating project. The filmmakers do their best to help give us tastes of it, in particular in a few sequences where they do some colorization and animation on a couple of Moebius's storyboards (most notably in a long take Jodorowsky wanted to open the film with,) and that's certainly one of their own nice touches on it. For the most part though, they're aware this film is ultimately about another team's movie, and so they let them have the floor. Alongside the peeks into the storyboards and concept art, the interviews with all the members of the production team are a good balance of interesting and enjoyable. Of the full team, sadly the only one there are no comments from is the late Moebius, who had died before this entered production (O'Bannon, while also dead, relates some stories via archival interview, including one appropriately funny and bizarre story of his first meeting with Jodorowsky.) Everyone else, meanwhile, relays their own various thoughts at the time they worked on the project as well as their sentiments after the fact - for a film that didn't happen, it's one everyone involved seems to have had a lot of love for.

No one feeling that love any more than Jodorowsky himself, who is probably one of the most interesting people to appear in this film. Besides this ultimately being his brainchild, there's something very infectious in the man's enthusiasm for what he does. Given the nature of his films and how few he's made, it would be easy to almost picture him as a very reserved or withdrawn artist. When he's on camera, however, Jodorowsky is animated and enthusiastic about just about everything. He's a man who genuinely loves what he does and it really helps give this movie a lot of its energy. Even when he's discussing the nature of art, a topic that could easily sound pretentious, he comes across not as being full of himself, but rather just very passionate about making sure he's happy with it. It feels odd to try to sell the man in text here, but really, he's someone where reading statements from one thing, hearing and seeing them from his own mouth is another. The whole team is interesting, but at the center of it all is this man's dedication and energy that pulled everyone together.

As further evidenced by the fact this was the portfolio he put together to send studios.
I will state here for the record - and again in the review - I would love to see this get general publication.

One of the things I find oddest to say walking out of this after is the fact that I genuinely would have loved to see this movie. I will also be the first to acknowledge this would NOT have been a particularly faithful adaptation. We only see samples of the full story - Jodorowsky had all of the film's concept art, script, and storyboards compiled into a book to send to studios (see above) - but those samples show some pretty big deviations. Things like the death of Duke Leto Atreides - a scene that as Jodorowsky and Moebius envisioned it, feels like a sort of futuristic bit of grand guignol or their envisioned finale, in which protagonist Paul Atreides undergoes physical death only to live on in an enlightened form among his followers, are very much products of Jodorowsky and Moebius rather than Herbert's original work. Jodorowsky is pretty open to admit this, and even argues it's something of a necessity in the art of adaptation - albeit care of an analogy that REALLY should have been reconsidered (I know the word 'rape' gets thrown around a lot in discussion of adapting another person's work, but Jodorowsky picks the wrong way to address that here.) I mean, I find the man's openness and frank honesty rather refreshing, but that talking point was one very awkward scene in an otherwise really enjoyable set of interviews. Poor word choice aside, it speaks to the creative efforts on this film that, despite its apparently breaking from Herbert's novel on several levels (which I would still like to see a good adaptation of some day) it's a film I would have genuinely loved to see happen. Even at its very worst, it would at least be a memorable mess.

and, true to Jodorowsky's style, the finest quality eye-porn.
Also, based on what this film's shown me of Foss's art, I have to look into more of it.

I think part of the reason it doesn't phase me much is, as I was watching the movie, I became less and less concerned with the film as an adaptation and instead became more intrigued by the movie in its own right. It's not unlike Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining in that regard, in that it comes across as a film that, independent of its source novel, would still be a legitimately strong story in its own right. At this point, I'd even welcome the possibility of Jodorowsky approving publication of the production bible they put together. Especially since, as this documentary tells it (particularly in an account by Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn) it's a film that they so thoroughly plotted out before filming that, by just looking through their notes, it's almost like watching the film for yourself. The discussion at the start of the movie really speaks volumes about why this project is so fascinating to people even nowadays, it's a project that, even before getting greenlit, inspired such passion that they had all but made it on their own. It was a film they had all but made out, shot for shot, in their heads, and needed only the funding to then play out for the rest of us. That level of dedication right out of the gate is astonishingly rare in film, and I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't love to see more of just how far they had taken it, even if only on paper.

Of course, even though it never did see film, the documentary does also point out that it actually went on to influence a lot of other projects. Jodorowsky and Moebius went on to reuse many of their concepts from the film in several comics, most notably The Incal (which is a pretty wild read if you can ever track down a copy of it). O'Bannon later contacted Moebius and Giger to work with him on Alien, and, as this film points out, a lot of the visual style of this movie would later influence many other science fiction films to come – including such works as Star Wars and the 1980s version of Flash Gordon. It's another way where, even in the field of movies that never happened, Jodorowsky's would-be epic is a particularly special case, and one of those rare titles where one can say it may have just been too ahead of its time and mean it.

After seeing this art for years with no site explaining specifically what it was, learning Giger essentially made a giant techno-mansion based on Welles's image just makes this picture even better.

I realize I've kind of been a bit roundabout on discussing the movie itself, but like I said before: this is a movie that ultimately has its greatest strength in its choice of subject. It's one of the most unusual and intriguing passion projects to become the stuff of cinema legend, and, for a film that got cut down in its prime, its influence echoed on long after it. I can certainly see why; leaving the theater, some of that enthusiasm had rubbed off on me. This is one of those films that winds up stoking the creative itch, in a weird sort of way (not bad for being about an unfinished project.)

I'm not sure if this will be making anyone's top ten lists when the year wraps up, but as of now, I can honestly say it's certainly one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences I've had in a good long while.

...okay, with that, I'll finally get the Captain America review up soon. But humor me, I'd been waiting to see this movie for a while now.

Till next time.
...and this may officially be the strangest image I've ended an article with in a good long while.

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