MIFF 2014: Jodorowsky's Dune

How do you will a dream into existence? How do you induce an LSD trip through cinema alone? How can you not bring yourself to at least try? Jodorowsky's Dune documents a film so absurd it could never have been made, but so supposedly visionary it might have changed the course of cinema anyway. It might be the most crowd-pleasing documentary ever made about a maddeningly uncompromising director.

Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 novel Dune encompasses, in a sense, everything - the definition of humanity, mythology, the hero's journey, planetary geology, economics, even the nature of stories themselves. From what we can gather, Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed mid-70s adaptation might have been about nothing at all, except its own drugged-out, gonzo vision of transcendence. The rational mind and the intuitive subconscious: Herbert and Jodorowsky might have been perfect for each other. How else could you adapt an allegedly unfilmable book, except by creating manuscript and storyboards enough for a 14-hour film? Jodorowsky's Dune is never more wondrous than when it drops the documentary format altogether, and brings those storyboards to life over Tangerine Dream-like synth-prog. It's a dazzling statement about imagination, turning pen-and-paper outlines into analog visual effects. It's the very definition of so close, yet so far.

Much of Jodorowsky's Dune takes on a classic getting-the-gang-together format, but the documentary is far more interesting than any behind-the-scenes dramatisation. Jodorowsky is Jesus, or rather Dune's Paul Atreides, gathering an army of what he calls "spiritual warriors". He rejects Hollywood's best visual effects designers for being pure technicians; he casts his twelve-year-old son Brontis as the film's Paul, putting him through years of gruelling physical training. He tells increasingly tall tales of courting Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí for roles, always through chance encounters, as if by fate. Even at 85, Jodorowsky feels more alive than anyone else in the film. You suspect that only death contains Dalí, and his even more absurd prankster ego.

As Jodorowsky descends further into method madness, the film attains a nearly mythic grandeur. Improbably, everything's in place: there's a screenplay, every shot's been storyboarded, the visual effects methods are realised; there's even a reasonable budget. The studios are impressed, but not one will fund Jodorowsky to make the film himself. Simple as that, it can go no further. Perhaps Dune was too beautiful to exist, victim to a capitalist system incapable of funding pure art. Less favourably, though the film never says it outright, perhaps it was his own hubris. When Jodorowsky finally sees David Lynch's notorious, befuddled 1984 Dune, it's a clearly a failure born of compromise. Still, driven by schadenfreude, he can't but laugh. After all, he's only human.

And so, like Paul at the end of his Dune, Jodorowsky is martyred prematurely. His disciples go on to make, among other things, Alien; elements of Dune's DNA are scattered throughout Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, countless others. Would Alien have existed without Jodorowsky's influence? Maybe. Would the course of film history be immeasurably different? The documentary's "evidence" isn't entirely convincing. But it's less about what never was, and more a tribute to Jodorowsky's spirit - the idea that through some mysterious fate, his grand attempt at transcendence manifested itself anyway. Through physical death, Jodorowsky's Dune achieves enlightenment. Instead of being seen by millions, for it to have opened the minds of the right few was enough.

Like much great science fiction, Jodorowsky's Dune is a tale of all-too-human ambition and failure. In some ways, it serves as a warning, but the 40 years-in-the-making message is nothing if not optimistic. Even unmade, Jodorowsky's sense of wonder is infectious. “Movies are art. I wanted to do something like that. Why not?”

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