Cinema is littered with famously unfinished projects; ideas with varying degrees of entailing preparation that often violently suggest the question of “what if?”. It’s one of the few types of media that allow such situations, being one that relies on a certain level of monetary profit guaranteed in order to be made in the first place. Orson Welles nigh on made a career of trying to create the illusion of this balancing act but one film marks itself out as the definitive “greatest film never made”: that of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Such is the gargantuan effort and prep that went into the work, the film finally sees some ray of light at the end of the financially crumbling tunnel in the form of Frank Pavich’s documentary, simply titled Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).
The film is a joy and a positive necessity for the film industry for a number of reasons, one of which this article will finish on, but very rarely has a documentary captured the sheer ludicrousness of the popular film industry and its lack of favour towards projects with artistic merriment at their centre. Jodorowsky had already made a name for himself with three films before attempting the massive endeavour of brining Herbert’s world to the big screen. Fando y Lis (1968) outraged with its explicit avant-garde-isms while El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) had nigh on invented the midnight movie and exemplified the idea of cult cinema. Watching the latter film in particular, it’s hard to imagine how exactly Jodorowsky would improve on the medium, especially in relation to the sheer visual absurdity he had already uniquely achieved.
It’s clear from Jodorowsky’s Dune that the project would have easily excelled above these projects and become a visual cornerstone of cinema and the documentary is largely built around the assemblage of the director’s “warriors” to help make his film. From this description alone, Jodorowsky belies, perhaps accidently, the obvious difficulty he knew he would face in trying to sell the film to the money men. It therefore documents this process with reference to the famous Dune book; a gargantuan tome mixing graphic novel, writing, storyboard, character and design, put together to show even the most lacklustre of uncreative producers the exciting narrative and visual potential of the film.
Even without the film being made, the sheer breadth and scale of the people that Jodorowsky managed to get on board to simply put together the mega-book is astounding. Pavich’s film delights in these, frankly wondrous, anecdotes of bumping into the likes of H.R. Giger, Moebius, Mick Jagger, Dali, Pink Floyd, and Orson Welles. They’re the sort of related story that seem so improbable and unlikely but when Jodorowsky’s eyes light up in his relating of them, the viewer can’t help but be swept along in the sheer bravado that 1970s cinema clearly was. If Dali wanted to be the most highly paid actor of all-time, what was Jodorowsky’s solution? Perhaps to shelve the idea of his role? No, it was to have him only in the part for three whole minutes at $100,000 per minute.
It may seem excessive but the whole project screams of a monumental shifting, or at least a desire to shift a medium so far out of its comfort zone that it would change the entire fabric of cinema. It may be a romanticised vision of a medium that is at once at odds with its very nature (that of a commercial product insistent on making its money back)but it’s also refreshing to hear these thoughts of change in an age where the only change seems to be in the cheapening of making and viewing cinema through technology. So determined is Jodorowsky at making his film as opposed to a film that it’s simply awe-inspiring and the directors who are interviewed here (Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn) share that same sense of awe; that someone actually had guts enough to stand up to the likes of Star Wars effects man, Douglas Trumball, after he was unimpressed simply by his attitude; instead opting for relative newcomer Dan O’Bannon, having just finished work on John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974).
Out of this documentary should not simply come an unrequited desire to see the film but an understanding of cinematic ambition and the potential hurdles that filmmakers of all types will sadly come up against as they strive to make something creative. Whilst Jodorowsky ultimately failed in the making of his genre changing film, the documentary shows the true influence of his work; a testament to his creativity considering the picture was never made. From Star Wars (1977-1983) to Alien (1979), Flash Gordon (1980) to Prometheus (2012), Dune has seemingly influenced the visual tapestry of big-screen science fiction without actually having a single frame to refer to; surely an acknowledgement that puts the potential of the project way above those safer, more traditional forms that supposedly redefined the big-screen, especially Star Wars. It’s even more fitting that his opinion of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is cheery and enjoyably chastising, especially so considering how much of his very being and soul went into the preparation of a cinematic adaptation.
The final point to finish on is the ultimate necessity of this documentary. Not only does it provide a brief glimpse into the potential of an ambitious world, it has fired up Jodorowsky again to make cinema. Perhaps the reliving of the chaotic creativity of the 1970s fired up the sparks needed to make another picture (as well as building bridges with former producer Michel Seydoux). 2014 sees Jodorowsky’s first full film project since 1990 in the form of the Seydoux produced The Dance of Reality which showed at Cannes last year. Dune may be a ghost still haunting the world of cinema but, by looking deeply at its creative rise and fall, its creator has clearly been unlocked from the shackles of his personal demons in an aptly similar way to Dune‘s main protagonist as he finally fulfils his prophecy; rain is falling once again on Arrakis and long may it pour.