Thursday, May 29, 2014

Film: Doomed Messiah

Jodorowsky's Dune, Directed by Frank Pavich, 2014

The unsung song always seems the sweetest. The unrung bell is always the clearest. The unfinished symphony the finest, the lost manuscript the masterwork. The what-ifs and might-have-beens fire the imagination, great works made all the greater for the fact that we have nothing to use them to compare them to their brethren.

So, the mid-seventies Alejandro Jodorowsky version of Frank Herbert's Dune. I liked the film about this film that never was, but I doubt that I would have liked the film this film was about.

So, here's the short form on this documentary [Spoilers, of course]. Alejandro Jodorowsky was a successful avant garde European filmmaker, who despite his lack of formal training, spun out some brain-bending films like El Topo. Given the chance for a larger film, he seized on Frank Herbert's Dune as a his next platform. He sketched out the entire movie as a storyboard, compiled in a foot-thick volume. He put together an all-star cast that typified the era - Art by Moebius, Foss, and Giger. Special Effects by Dan O'Bannon. Music by Pink Floyd. Orson Welles plays Baron Harkonnen. Mick Jagger plays Feyd Ratha. Salvadore Dali as the Emperor. It looks like it will become a magical film.

And then it fails. They go to Hollywood, scare a lot of people in the movie industry who won't give Jodorowsky the funding to pull this off, and, in this pre-Kickstarter age, that's that. The project is abandoned, though parts of it survive - O'Bannon, Foss and Giger become involved in Alien, which Moebius did art as well. Jodorowsky doesn't do another movie, instead drifting off to other media. But as a result of the documentary, he once more decides to team up with his producer again and create new films. Happy ending after all.

As a film, Jodorowsky's Dune is revealing. The bulk of the story involves him putting the band together - Welles is recruited by getting his favorite chef assigned to cook for the shoot. Dali was brought aboard by an accounting trick that would make him the most highly paid actor ever. Jagger was almost a mystical experience of lovers locking eyes across a crowded room. It was the jet-set of the era going sci-fi This is like in the caper film where the lead gets together the diverse members of his crew for the big heist. It is a great build-up, but in the end the entire robbery fails to work because no one thought to bring a key for that first door.

I think I like Jodorowsky's Dune more than I would like Jodorowsky's Dune. One important person missing from the film is Frank Herbert, the original author, Yes, he's dead, but his son is still around, but the writer of the text is missing, even to the point of being quoted. It feels like Herbert, like Tolkien, sold the movie rights, comfortable that no one would ever be able to film the book, but that's just a guess, and the movie does not go into the issue, nor if Herbert had any input in the film. More than a few of the participants in the film confess that they never read the book in the first place (one of the exceptions was Salvador Dali's protege/companion,Amanda Lear, who was to play the Princess Irulan). Everyone treated the original text as a rough, found object, a piece of nature to be shaped as they so desired.

Then, there are the liberties taken in that shaping. The later David Lynch movie version of the book was hauled over the hot coals for diverging from the text, but Jodorowsky takes greater divergence at both start and end. Jodorowsky's Duke Leto has been castrated, but Lady Jessica still conceives using blood, not semen (in the book, she defies her Order to produce the son Leto wished for). Jodorowsky's Paul dies at the end of the picture, but his consciousness enters all beings, as opposed to becoming the eventual god-emperor. Interesting stuff, and used in the Jodorowsky's later comics, but not part of the Dune universe.  And that frustrates because the original text works on so many levels that it doesn't need a lot of extra levels to make it work.

Finally, the documentary creates the illusion that the work was so wonderful that it was buried deep and forgotten about it, locked in the Vault of Movies Too Good to be Made. I remember the Gieger Dune drawings showing up several times, in Omni and elsewhere. The various pieces and contributors survive to show up elsewhere.  Jodorowsky's Dune traces the influence the unmade picture had on later works - which varies from direct (Alien and its supporting universe) to indirect (Palace scene in Flash Gordon, which has similarities to the palace scene Dune). Jodorwsky's original plot found other outlets in The Incal  (art by Moebius) and Metabarons comics. Ideas and concepts do not evaporate, but merely sublimate, transforming into other things over time.

As a documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune is worth seeing. The non-movie that it was based one would likely have set the popular sci-fi media back a few years, and end up haunting film festivals as a "lost classic" which cost a bunch, did not do well at the box office, found a solid fanbase in college-level movie classes, and was help up for years afterwards as a reason why "sci-fi doesn't sell."

More later,