Thursday, August 27, 2015

"Jodorowsky's Dune": review

This will probably be the last movie review I ever write in Goyang City.

This past Tuesday night, I watched "Jodorowsky's Dune," a documentary by Frank Pavich that features visionary and psychedelic director/artist/thinker Alejandro Jodorowsky at its center. Eighty-four years old at the time of the making of this documentary, Jodorowsky (whose Eastern European-sounding surname no one pronounces the same way), still feisty, cheerfully and passionately narrates the long and complicated story of a magnificent failure: his brave but doomed attempt, back when he was in his forties, to make the film "Dune," based on the cult-classic sci-fi novel Dune by Frank Herbert.

The cast of characters surrounding the Chilean Jodorowsky includes his son Brontis, French film producer Michel Seydoux, British sci-fi artist Chris Foss, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, French artist/singer Amanda Lear (a close friend of Salvador Dalí), South African writer-director Richard Stanley, and the late Swiss sci-fi concept artist HR Giger. Mentioned throughout the documentary are other luminaries who were supposed to be attached, in some way, to Jodorowsky's massive production: David Carradine, Orson Wells, and Salvador Dalí among them, not to mention music groups like Pink Floyd and Magma.

The documentary moves us from an introduction of Jodorowsky the man, to his attempts to assemble a group of "spiritual warriors" to produce a film that he saw as depicting nothing less than the arrival of a god (i.e., the messianic Paul Atreides from Frank Herbert's novel), to the difficulties Jodorowsky encountered along the way, to the film's eventual failure to materialize while—at the same time—becoming a major artistic inspiration for many of the sci-fi films that did appear, starting in the 1970s and moving forward.

Jodorowsky himself comes across as driven, as something of a guru or a cult figure. He starred in many of his early works—weird, spiritual, transgressive works that were sometimes banned in the countries in which they were shown. His personality, at times easygoing, at times fiery and teetering on the edge of sanity, is what, in my opinion, propels the film forward. He's philosophical about the failure of his movie, but at the same time resentful of how the film's demise occurred primarily because of a combination of risk-aversion and greed. At several points throughout the documentary, the idea is repeated that some studios might have been willing to greenlight the film except for the fact that Jodorowsky was helming it.

The interviews for the documentary were conducted mostly in English, French, and German. Jodorowsky himself switched randomly between heavily accented English and mellifluous Spanish that was sprinkled with the occasional French "n'est-ce pas?" from his years of living in France. HR Giger's high-voiced German was positively creepy to hear: he was near the end of his life when the film was being made, and his voice had a strange, saliva-laden, throat-bubbly quality to it, as if he were trying to speak while gargling. The other interviewees were memorable, too, each providing an interesting perspective on Jodorowsky—the persuasive man, the hypnotic myth.

Jodorowsky eventually puts together a massive book that is, essentially, his version of "Dune." The book is filled with concept art, storyboards, scripts, technical notes on camera angles and other moviemaking factors—all the ingredients that a person would need to realize Jodorowsky's grandiose vision. This, then, is the man's true legacy. According to the documentary, copies of this book are sent to all the major American studios, but the thoroughness with which the film is described in the book is somehow insufficient for any studio head to accept as a plausibly realizable vision. Chalk it up to a lack of cojones.

I found the documentary fascinating, but there were elements of it that didn't quite convince me, especially when it came time to talk about Jodorowsky's influence on subsequent sci-fi films. True, some of the concept art for Jodorowsky's "Dune" did seem uncannily similar to stills from films we've come to know, like "Alien," but there were other tropes that struck me as so archetypal that it would be silly to attribute them to Jodorowsky—for example, the column of flame that marks the conclusion of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The documentary attempts to link that moment in "Raiders" to the concept art and storyboards for the end of Jodorowsky's "Dune," but the notion of a pillar of fire is quite ancient: more likely, Steven Spielberg was taking his cue from biblical passages, not from this South American visionary. This isn't to diminish the power or the scope of Jodorowsky's innovation; my point is merely that the documentary went a little overboard, every now and then, in its claims.

I wonder whether Jodorowsky's "Dune" could be made today. Were I the director given this immense challenge, I would update the costumes to reflect a more modern sensibility (knowing, all the while, that we're all trapped in our particular moment in history; Jodorowsky might be a visionary, but his vision, seen through 2015-era eyes, looks pretty Seventies these days). I'd include the innovative camera techniques that have become commonplace nowadays, but I'd also strive to create some new tricks that were consistent with the boundary-pushing spirit of what Jodorowsky was striving for. I doubt I'd base my casting decisions on Jodorowsky's weird notions of a person's inherent spiritual power, but I'd certainly want to find people who deeply understood and resonated with the spiritual thrust of the story. Would I alter the ending as much as Jodorowsky had? I'm not sure.

This leads me to a rather uncomfortable topic. Jodorowsky, in describing the liberties he had chosen to take with Frank Herbert's original story, employed the analogy of a bride. You can't have children with your bride if all you do is honor her [from a distance], he contended. And then he released his salvo: at some point, if you're going to have children, you have to tear off her clothes and rape her. "I was raping Frank Herbert!" Jodorowsky laughed. Was this an expression of Latin passion from a man who hasn't mastered English? Was this the out-of-touch expostulation of an 84-year-old with little understanding for, or care about, modern notions of politesse? The rape metaphor struck me as harsh and brutal, although I have to admit that, through this violent and extremely uncomfortable image, Jodorowsky drove his point home with me: when adapting a work from one medium to another, any thought of honoring it by preserving its original purity necessarily goes out the window.

For most of the movie, I sat there wondering when someone was finally going to mention the ponderous elephant in the room: David Lynch's version of "Dune." The moment, when it comes, is worth the wait, as Jodorowsky describes how, after the De Laurentiis family made off with the rights to make the film, he was too depressed to see Lynch's version. His son persuades him to see it, anyway: "We're warriors," Brontis says. Miserably, Jodorowsky attends a screening... and little by little, as he's watching the film, he comes to realize that Lynch, despite being a great filmmaker whom Jodorowsky esteems, has birthed a steaming pile of garbage. I confess that I laughed as I watched Jodorowsky relive his delight, his Schadenfreude, as he bore witness to Lynch's spectacular failure.

The movie ends on an interesting note: after learning how Jodorowsky's "Dune" had Paul Atreides, the messiah, die and pour himself out into all surrounding living beings,* we then hear Brontis, Jodorowsky's son, talk about how Jodorowsky's unmade film was itself like that filmic Paul: Jodorowsky's "Dune" had died, but by influencing so many subsequent films, it had poured itself out into them, propagating itself into the future.

I wrote earlier that Jodorowsky was philosophical about his failure to make "Dune." He impressed me with his ability to say "Yes!" to both success and failure, and to move on from there. Producer Michel Seydoux, one of Jodorowsky's good friends, eventually reunited with Jodorowsky, and the two ended up making another film, recently—one starring Brontis.

"Jodorowsky's Dune" is the story of a vision, of an obsession, and of the magnetic, driven personality that tried to make this grand project happen. Much was learned along the way; much great art was produced, and many minds were set afire. Jodorowsky himself is satisfied that his vision still exists in book form as a ready template for someone, perhaps after he is dead and gone, who will be brave enough to attempt to incarnate his wild, far-reaching vision.

As documentaries go, "Jodorowsky's Dune" is definitely worth a trip.



*In the metaphysics of Frank Herbert's Dune, the messiah-figure, called the Kwisatz Haderach, stands at the nexus of all possibilities, seeing all worldlines—all facts and counterfactuals. Jodorowsky had Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach, die at the end of his version of "Dune," but Paul's spirit was to pass into the bodies of all the living beings around him. This would have made for an interesting reversal: instead of being the Kwisatz Haderach into whom all of the universe pours, Paul would have become, as Jodorowsky put it, a "plural being" who himself pours outward into all things in a manner reminiscent of the Christian notion of kenosis, or divine self-emptying—an idea associated with incarnational theology.

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