Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Jodorowsky's Dune – Movie Review

During the weekend, while taking a break from writing the latest instalment of Short Story Sunday, I watched Jodorowsky’s Dune, a movie about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed attempted at adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune to the silver screen. As always, I started this movie with some personal baggage, something that is also known as expectations. I was apprehensive, to say the least. I was worried the movie would be the celebration of an incomplete film project, filled with commentators who would enthusiastically call it a masterpiece even though no footage of it exists. People who would tell you that by not sharing their opinions of this unmade movie your life has somehow been poorer than it otherwise would have been. I was expecting an audio visual check list with a narrator marking off each instance where the legacy and influence of this lost Dune could be seen in other science fiction movies that followed. In essence, I was expecting a lot of back patting and celebration for something that, by my understanding, simply doesn’t exist. Something that was nothing more than a dream. I was worried that I was about to watch a documentary of overzealous film enthusiasts verbally masturbating over their lost holy grail. I cannot express my excitement and relief that Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t that movie.

To be honest, there is a little bit of what I’ve described in this movie but it’s presented through a filter of pure creativity and exhilaration that it’s hard to not give in an accept it for what it is. You can’t avoid making this kind of documentary and simply ignoring all of the adoration some people will have for the subject matter. The movie has some moments where fans of Jodorowsky lament the loss of what could have been one of the most culturally significant and worthwhile science fiction movies of all time. It’s also inevitable that people will talk about the lasting legacy that this movie had on parts of the film industry. That’s great and it’s worth mentioning, but playing “spot the influence” simply isn’t for me. Most of the movie, to my surprise and great enjoyment, is about something else.

Jodorowsky’s Dune, directed by Frank Pavich, is about Jodorowsky and his philosophy on creativity and art. Sure, it sounds a little highbrow and stuffy when I say it like that, but no. This is a really cool, accepting, inviting, and inspiring documentary. The key to its success is putting Jodo (as his friends call him) in the centre of the movie and including everything else as supporting matter for the start of the show. Putting Jodo in front of the camera and giving him the opportunity to talk about his Dune has to be the only way to make this kind of movie successful.

The documentary begins with the obligatory introduction to Jodorowsky and his career up to that point in time, the early 1970s. Then, the movie pulls back and let’s Jodo take over for the duration of the running time. The documentary allows for other commentators but it’s limited to the people who worked on the movie and about four or so more individuals who weren’t directly involved with the production of Dune.

After the success of his two previous movies, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a French producer approached Jodorowsky and offered him the chance to do any movie he wanted. “Dune!” he enthusiastically said. The bulk of this movie is about the creation of Dune. In the telling, Jodorowsky proves himself to be a man who recognizes other creative people and their talents, and is very skilled as associating himself with these people. He’s also very good at feeding and nurturing the creativity of others. There are numerous examples of how he charmed and intrigued members of his creative team into working with him on Dune. It’s because of Jodo’s personality, charm, and enthusiasm for creativity that he was able to amass his Warriors, his creative team, a literal who’s who of the 1970s.

The team included Chris Foss for conceptual designs, H. R. Giger for designs specifically related to the Harkonnen house, and Jean “Moebius” Giraud who did conceptual designs and illustrated the entire film’s storyboard with direction from Jodorowsky. Dan O’Bannon was approached to work on the special effects. Pink Floyd and Magma were approached for the movie’s soundtrack. Several actors were approached and they included David Carradine, Salvador Dali, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, Amanda Lear, and Orson Welles. That paragraph alone should intrigue a large amount of people that have an interest in film simply because of the names of the people involved, some of which already had a successful career at the time and others who later became prominent creators in their own fields. Jodorowsky’s role on the movie was to meet and recruit these talents as well as inspire and promote their creativity and shaping it all into an increasingly complex and layered, yet unified, vision. Many people involved, especially the artists, were excited at the opportunity to challenge themselves and take advantage of a work environment seemingly without limits. I say seemingly because the limit turned out to be a financial limit, imposed by the lack of support from Hollywood studios.

Art by Chris Foss. Click to enlarge.

At this point the movie turns its focus towards the consequences of the film’s failure to be produced. What I found particularly compelling is the outside reaction to this and how it compared to Jodorowsky’s personally reaction. I love seeing expressive people talk passionately about their experiences and their lives. Jodorowsky does this in this movie. When he talks about Dune not going into production it's a moving scene. You feel and see what this defeat meant for him and how it's remained a part of who he is. The initial reaction he has transports the future into the past. We see the pain and frustration it caused him. After a fade to black, the movie comes back to Jodorowsky and he continues to tell us about how the movie’s failed production has affected him. His posture, his tone, and his attitude are all different. It’s as if we’re witnessing once again the wise and shamanesque persona he’s developed through the years. This is a man who’s internalized his life’s biggest creative project and has gained strength from it as well as a powerful new perspective on creativity and ambition. Dune might not have been completed as he planned, but something was done. Something was created. In the minds and hearts of the people who worked on Dune, it was a reality. It existed then and it exists now! This movie provides the proof and it’s there to be seen by any doubters that exist.

The fate of Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t a secret. It was never made. It seems kind of ridiculous to think that the movie would be structure so that the news that not a single studio wanted to fund its production would follow an hour’s worth of build-up. Yet, that’s exactly how the movie is structure. The revelation that Dune never got its funding wasn’t a shock, but Jodo’s reaction to it was. He doesn’t simply acknowledge his failure, he affirms it! He’s found a way to accept that his most ambitious film of his lifetime was never finished and that’s an acceptable outcome. All of his efforts didn’t amount to nothing. It was a huge loss for him and his collaborators, certainly, but the older Jodorowsky (he’s now in his 80s) appreciates the ambition that he and his creative team had. Dune wasn’t his failure, it was the failure of those who didn’t financially support the shared vision of Jodo and his Warrior. He raises the questions of what is “doing”?  What is “trying”? What level of existence does something have to reach in order to truly exist or to be truly completed?

For any potential viewers who haven't seen this movie because of theirs doubts or expectations, ignore them. Make the time to watch this movie. It is not, as I was expecting it to be, science fiction film anecdotes to amuse existing fans of Jodorowsky and his work. It is not exclusively intended for diehard fans of Jodorowsky or Dune or any other skilled creator involved with the film. It's not about Jodorowsky's ego or his misunderstood genius. It's also not an attack on modern Hollywood blockbusters.

The movie is a celebration of a man who dared dream big and the consequences, good and bad, of acting on his dream. The movie is filled with mention and discussion of that dream. The cost? Discovery of what Jodorowsky and his Warriors could has achieved. The films concluding message, dare to dream, dare to do it, and be wise and appreciative enough to be able to assess and marvel at the results or consequences of what your actions have produced. When your ambition yields results, the nature of those results will be worth the effort even if you might not have anything tangible to show for it and even if you didn’t succeed as you originally intended. In Jodorowsky's case, there is the Dune storyboard and conceptual design book that exist and there is also this movie. Those are only the obvious examples 

Before watching this documentary if you had ask me if Jodorowsky’s Dune exists I would have told you no, of course it doesn’t. Now? A resounding yes. Yes! It does exist. How else could it have been so influential? How else could Jodo, Chris Foss, Dan O’Bannon, H. R. Giger and so many others talk about it like it’s a real thing? Dune really existed, for a time it was a massive success, but it was too quickly swept aside and hidden away. This movie is a great success for two reasons, uncovering and sharing the creation myth of this lost movie and giving Jodorowsky a platform on which to send out his massage of limitless creativity and unrestrained ambition. 

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