Review by Ken Burke Jodorowsky's Dune
A documentary about the intended making of a film version of Dune back in 1975 that never was funded (David Lynch made his Dune instead); fascinating for true believers.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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I’ve just returned from a short trip to Phoenix to see a couple of games of the Oakland Athletics closing out their Arizona Cactus League Spring Training, where they beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-4 but lost to the (worst name in baseball) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 6-2 (full disclosure [if you’re not aware of it already]—I didn’t shoot this photo; it came from the A’s opener on February 26, 2014 against our cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants, when right fielder Josh Reddick robbed Michael Morse of 2 home runs that day with his stunning acrobatic catches, possibly the greatest plays you’ll see all season in the A’s 10-5 victory that day—they've also had 2 more wins in 3 other games against San Francisco in preparation for the annual end-of-Spring-Training Bay Bridge series on March 27-29, 2014, beginning last night with a 4-0 A's victory! [Reddick hit his own "no-doubt-about-it"-homers in the Reds and first Bay Bridge games, preventing other outfielders from copying his spectacular catches]) so I haven’t been able to get to a movie theater lately to stay up to speed on new releases, potentially giving me little to post about for this week.
Of course, if this were just a social media site I could fill the space with a shot of me and my lovely and talented wife, Nina, at the Lo Cascio Italian Restaurant bar in Tempe where we partook of some libation indulgence each day of our trip (as usual, no kickback involved here for me; it's just a generous Happy Hour location—11am-6pm, then again 10pm-midnight M-F—that we enjoyed at a place connected to a marvelous dinner option as well—we highly recommend the Chicken Fantasia) and showed off our ballpark souvenirs: Nina with her Josh Reddick LEGO guy and me with signatures from 1972-'73-'74 A’s World Series champs Bert “Campy” Campaneris, John “Blue Moon” Odom, and Rollie “Mustache” (not an official nickname for him, but certainly appropriate) Fingers (one of the first Oakland A’s to go into the Hall of Fame). However, because I’m supposed to be doing movie reviews I’d better switch to another sport for a minute and punt.
Fortunately, before I left I attended a critics’ screening of Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), one of the most fascinating films never made which is chronicled in this documentary exploration of what was intended to be many years ago, with lots of commentary from a good number of folks but especially famed Chilean (with Ukrainian Jewish heritage) director Alejandro Jodorowsky (best known after moving to Mexico, although he now works mostly from France), likely most famous for his amazingly-odd, now-cult-masterpiece El Topo (1970—which you can get a sense of from the original trailer [at 4 min. it’s even unique in its trailer structure]). During my writing of this review I had also located a YouTube site that allowed you to see that entire film—in Spanish only, no English subtitles—but it disappeared a couple of days later due to a copyright claim from the ABKCO company, which manages the music rights for a lot of rock acts (primarily the Rolling Stones but also a lot of 1960s pop groups) as well as the distribution rights for El Topo and its 1973 follow-up, The Holy Mountain (there was formerly a link where you could watch that entire film also, now equally disappeared because of ABKCO, although the jaw-dropping-trailer for that one is still available)—I have to assume that ABKCO is aware of the current release of Jodorowsky’s Dune, possibly assuming it may ignite further interest in these earlier films (with their surrealistic imagery that would likely have left even Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini unable to keep up with what this visionary Chilean had concocted)—although it may just be a continuation of the hassles Jodorowsky had with ABKCO’s previous incarnation, Allen Klein & Co., whose founder famously refused to distribute Jodorowsky’s increasingly-famous early films because the director wouldn’t make a version of The Story of O as demanded by Klein (a legendary hustler who at one time managed both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles—or at least the other 3 Liverpool Lads besides McCartney, a contribution to the group’s breakup—and may have felt that Jodorowsky owed him something in return for contributing $1 million to The Holy Mountain’s budget [as did John Lennon, based on his fascination with El Topo, but there are no reported conflicts with Lennon]). In this new documentary Jodorowsky goes into great detail about what he intended to do with his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famous science-fiction novel (which I read decades ago and enjoyed but couldn’t tell you much about it now except for those giant worm creatures that were harnessed to help bring victory to the inhabitants of a far-away, distant-future planet, or something like that—however, lengthy plot summaries are available that demonstrate Herbert not only had a vast imagination regarding sci-fi environments but also a wicked sense of satire regarding treachery in the political realm along with a prescient understanding of the wider-embracing-attitudes toward spiritual fascinations and options about to blossom during the ‘60s social revolution). Had this project come to fruition it would have likely set the standard for big-budget, high-tech sci-fi movies that have evolved over the last 30 years or so instead of George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars (which faced its own funding problems when the director’s vision exceeded 20th Century Fox’s financing intentions, but everything seems to have worked out well for billionaire George since then, unlike much-less-financially-independent Alejandro whose cult fame for his visionary-but-oddball-works has never left him with such material security). But, faithful readers, please note that this is one of those cases where I’m getting the review posted in conjunction with the opening of the film (at least in my San Francisco—or should I say Oakland [Go A’s!]—area), so you might seriously consider my Spoiler Alert in case you want to see this marvelous past-come-to-life-experience with totally fresh eyes; however, there’s not much to reveal here anyway, as it’s common knowledge that Jodorowsky’s version of Dune was never finished, plus there’s no “plot” as such, but regard that as you may as I continue to wander through this almost-lost-landscape of visionary dreams, revived nicely by both Jodorowsky and Pavich.
The primary questions for you to consider in making a decision about seeing Pavich’s account of this grand-ambition-put-to-rest are: (1) Whether you know anything about the book that was such a cultural touchstone of the 1960-‘70s, reputed to be the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time—certainly it was hugely popular into the late 20th century but whether that rabid fascination has continued to the present isn’t yet clear to me, although the sheer volume of Dune-related media that continues to be produced implies that this “spacey” narrative still finds great resonance with a variety of audiences today, as you can explore in more detail at the official Dune website (the original novel was written in 1965 in conjunction with the emergence of the storied anti-Establishment counterculture and its psychedelic influences—which I lived right through the middle of, finishing high school in 1966, then on to college for the rest of the decade); (2) How much interest you have in this genre of fiction (which often bleeds into elements of fantasy when you start getting into quasi-metaphysical elements such as The Force in the Star Wars galaxy), played for traditional appeals of the narrative type here where setting, species, and technology may be located in an exotic future locale but the connotations of parallels to our contemporary world make for the most enduring forms of these stories (a strong suit for Dune, especially at a time of worldwide social upheaval when the book first came onto the market); and (3) How much you can appreciate the passionate approach of dedicated director Jodorowsky who may be able to convey as well in verbal description what other artists only hope to share with their images, dialogue, and movements; to verify his devotion to this project just consider this statement from him: “In that time, I say, if I need to cut my arms in order to make that picture, I will cut my arms. I was even ready to die doing that."
Sadly, all that tangibly remains of this majestic vision are the continued sense of ownership that Jodorowsky has of his intentions (speaking of the “film” as if it could be shown to us, as if it somehow transcended the intense, detailed pre-production stage to be manifest in a projectable form—although we do get a taste of that in Pavich’s vision of the earlier concepts as a bit of limited animation can be derived from the many sketched drawings made for the massive storyboard), the precious storyboard book itself that once had several copies distributed to the major studios during the proposed-financing-stage of preparation but now seems to be reduced to only 2 in existence, and the memories from the various collaborators back in the day who were excited to be part of this concept, enthralled by Jodorowsky’s vision even after all these elapsed years since this Dune was buried beneath the sands of unfunded hopes. Jodorowsky tells us that his goal with Dune was to create a cinematic LSD experience without the need for the drug, with visualizations provided by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger (a famous sci-fi-imagist in his own right, with a long history of paintings and album covers but, most famously, connections to all 5 of the Alien films so far: the original, directed by Ridley Scott [1979; Giger was on the team that won the Visual Effects Oscar that year for this movie; however, he gets the most famous credit for designing the titular-double-jawed-creature], Aliens [James Cameron, 1986], Alien3 [David Fincher, 1992], Alien Resurrection [Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997], and Prometheus [Scott, 2012]) and Jean “Moebius” Giraud (famous for sci-fi and fantasy comics, who also contributed visual ideas for the original Alien and produced the Dune storyboard book noted above; he also illustrated The Long Tomorrow, written by Dan O’Bannon [who would have overseen the special effects for Jodorowsky’s Dune]) in 1975, a short comic that inspired visual aspects of The Empire Strikes Back [Irvin Kershner, 1980] and Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982]). While that vision never came to pass, the storied pre-production work has been the stuff of legend for quite some time, finally gaining at least a half-life in Pavich’s documentary because of this director’s admiration for another director’s passion for engaging cinema: “The tale of Jodorowsky and his DUNE is a fascinating trip through creativity and imagination, a story about the relentless pursuit of a dream, and the necessity of art. This is not the story of a failure. In fact, it’s just the opposite—it is the story of an artist who turns a potential negative into a grand success and moves forward with an unending evolution of ideas and drive, well into his 80s. This is a film about a unique ambition: the ambition to change the world through art.” Or as Jodorowosky himself says, “The purpose of life is to create a soul,” a purpose when realized properly yields inspirations that help create other souls as well.
“What is to give light must endure burning” is a quote cited at the very beginning of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a statement by Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl (survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, author of Man’s Search for Meaning ); in retrospect, I can see how Pavich wants to link this idea to his subject’s quest for authenticity in cinema, how Jodorowsky hoped that his vision of Dune would be “something sacred, free, with new perspective. Open the mind!” although as much as I feel a connection to art and other artists (with the great ones far surpassing my creations on canvas and in various other visual and textual forms) I feel a bit queasy with Pavich's linking of this man’s desire to bring a new level of aesthetic consciousness to the masses with Frankl’s heritage in surviving the Nazi “final solution,” but be that as it may I still agree with the overall critical praise that has emerged for Jodorowsky’s passions over the years, even if some might see them as being likewise linked to other dedicated-but-less-than-substantial-artists (celebrated cult figures yes, significant artists, no; let the ritual stoning of my web site begin, but I stand by my premise) such as Ed Wood (yes, I know how "unique" his work is), Russ Meyer (yes, I know that Roger Ebert co-wrote the script for his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls  but that doesn’t change a word of what I just said), and Roger Corman (yes, I also know he got an Honorary Oscar for his body of word to go with the rest of the 2010 awards, but I still consider him more of an embodiment of cinematic desire rather than a true cinema artist, for whatever my opinion may be worth—see, I can be just as absolutist as this crazy Chilean ... but I have to admit it does sound a lot better coming from him), despite Jodorowsky’s artistic visions being revolutionary (some might say insane) enough to prevent him from getting anything but a few other works out into movie houses—although he’s also kept busy over the years writing plays, graphic novels, and other forms of literature, all of which he seems as dedicated to as his cinematic ideas.
Had this cinematic adaptation of Dune come into existence it would have had some other very famous artists incorporated into its structure, including painter Salvador Dalí, filmmaker Orson Welles, musicians Mick Jagger and Pink Floyd. Dalí would have had the role of the evil Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, to be rewarded with the outrageous sum (at Dali’s demand, to be the highest-paid actor in the world) of $100,000 per hour of filming (although Jodorowosky intended to shoot his scenes in just 1 hour and cut them to 3 minutes in the final film in order to keep total costs down); Welles would have been Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a henchman of the Emperor intended to overthrow the Atreides family for control of planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), the only source of the precious spice, melange, necessary for both advanced interplanetary travel and releasing psychic powers in the Bene Gesserit sisterhood—see, those Internet plot summaries are useful in trying to remember/comprehend this extensively-complex-narrative (the Citizen Kane auteur would have had his perks as well, the services of his favorite gourmet chef throughout the production process); Pink Floyd (already world-famous for their 1973 The Dark Side of the Moon album) would have provided the soundtrack; and—in truth, once again—I can’t remember Jagger’s intended role so I’ll leave that to a more-informed Dune fan to fill me in. Until such time, though, I’ll just encourage all of us to take a listen to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=u8GU3st5gEM (from The Dark Side of the Moon), which in this version is coupled with some cosmic NASA-type imagery that Jodorowosky would likely appreciate or at least agree has some relevance to Pavich’s documentary about his unfinished version of Dune (which did finally come to the screen in a different form in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation [in which he attempted to pack all of the novel’s plot as best he could into 3 hours of intended running time, trimmed to 2 for studio release], after the rights had been acquired by mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis, a version that Jodorowosky feels justifies him because it bombed at the box-office, received generally negative reviews, and falls so short of the novel’s potential—although, truth-time again, Alejandro admits that he didn’t read the source material—with Lynch complaining that he’s not satisfied with his Dune either because he didn’t have director’s cut authority, although he did get a bit into the Jagger-mode by casting Sting as Feyd-Rautha, Baron Harkonnen’s nephew and intended next ruler of Arrakis [maybe that was Mick’s intended role as well; someone who sees Pavich’s doc please help me fill in my sagging memory]—but a more productive Lynch casting was Kyle MacLachlan as the protagonist/enlightened-savior Paul Atreides [intended in the Jodorowsky version to be played by his barely-teenage-son, Brontis], with MacLachlan later starring in famous Lynch vehicles Blue Velvet  and TV’s Twin Peaks [1990-1991]) because of the universal appreciation for the ethereal qualities of the song and its lyrical content about unnecessary conflicts that simply lead to tragedy for all concerned. My next posting will continue the tragedy theme based on another universally-known-story—also from a famous literary source—the Biblical flood, when I explore Noah (Darren Aronofsky) so until then try to stay dry (easy if you live in California where the rains have abandoned us) or get high (in a metaphorical manner, of course) with a viewing of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a grand visual delight even if you know nothing yet about this narrative of a galaxy long from now but still far away (if that strategy worked for Alejandro it can work for you—apparently Lynch hadn’t read it either: Where were these guys in the ‘60s?) with great insights into the passionate visions of an uncompromising (although, consequently, financially-limited) artist.
If you want to know more about Jodorowsky’s Dune here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuvd5e6e2EY (a 10:50 film by Julian Myers from the late 1970s about the intended making of Dune; it’s comprised of photographs of Jodorowosky and others associated with the film project, along with many of the same images that resurface in the current documentary, all in conjunction with narration and testimony about the frustrated attempts to bring this marvelous vision to life, so essentially it’s a very short, low-budget version of the Pavich film)
http://www.metacritic.com/movie/jodorowskys-dune (as of my post time 78% based on 19 reviews, yet 17 were positive and 2 were mixed, but with assigned scores for each one this average implies only mildly not strongly positive, something we need to remember in understanding how Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are different in their calculations; in RT the reviews are simply tallied as positive or negative to determine the film’s overall percentage whereas in Metacritic each review is somehow assigned a number from 1-100 [although you won't find such scores attached to the original reviews], then those numbers are averaged for the final percentage so that their % determinations are usually numerically lower—sometimes noticeably so—than those in RT, even if most of the Metacritic reviews are of a positive nature)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.