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AFI Fest 2013: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ - Film Review

Director Frank Pavich’s magnificent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune played at AFI Fest in the Special Screening series and is the most exciting, energized documentary I have seen in a long time. It’s all about the making of a science fiction movie.  To call this movie about the making and eventual non-making of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune stunning, phenomenal, and a truly cinematic experience is not an understatement.  For those who may not know, as I didn’t, Alejandro Jodorowsky is the enigmatic writer and director of the highly unconventional cult films El Topo, which became the first true "midnight movie," and The Holy Mountain.  Both films are a creation of their times, the early seventies, and both delve deeply into the bizarre, the surreal, and the abstract, defying traditional film conventions and standards.  If you are completely unfamiliar with these movies, a quick internet search will give you an idea of Jodorowsky’s very unique and mind-bending sensibilities.

After the success of these two films, Jodorowsky turned his attention to Frank Herbert’s science fiction opus Dune and preceded to blend his own revolutionary and counter-cultural ideas into the story of spice and political intrigue to create something wholly unique and as yet unseen by audiences.  Through this film, Jodorowsky wanted to open up the consciousness of the filmgoer and to change the way they viewed the world, and as many in the film remark, it is quite possible the film would have, if it had ever been made.  The documentary unfolds as a riveting narrative, complete with listing the cast in the opening credits and titles for when the action switches to specific locations.  In addition to this, the element that cements this as a truly cinematic experience is Kurt Stenzel’s incredible score.  The music in Jodorowsky’s Dune sounds like it was made for a science fiction film from the seventies, and it drives the action, easily the most dynamic and enjoyable music I have heard in a documentary. Ever.  While this is a story of collaboration (Jodorowsky dubbed the members of his production team "spiritual warriors."), Jodorowsky is the most driven and passionate of them all, and it is his singular vision and creative expression that is at the heart of the film.

The team of "spiritual warriors" that Jodorowsky assembled must be mentioned, though.  French comic auteur and phenom Moebius created marvelous and remarkably detailed storyboards and costume designs. Chris Foss, who was painting covers for science fiction novels, was responsible for the spaceship designs, realizing them as gorgeous paintings. H.R. Giger crafted the grand structural designs, and Dan O’Bannon was brought on to handle the visual effects.  O’Bannon was the first person Jodorowsky brought on board the project after producer Michael Seydoux and probably had the least to show for it, because they never got to filming, though he did help realize how to make the visual effects possible, which I believe made it into the Dune production book.  The Dune production book is incredible, a massive tome containing all of the concept art by Giger and Foss, as well as the entire screenplay in storyboard form. Though it went out to all of the studios back in the mid-seventies, Jodorowsky’s is possibly only one of two or three that still exist in the world.

The "filmed" storyboards are amazing, and, in theory, you could make the whole movie that way. It would exciting and engaging, though it may prove to be too much in the end, as Jodorowsky put no limit on the length of his movie.  To talk about his cast and the issues the project encountered that led to its defeat would be to spoil too much of the magic of the documentary.  Though it eventually failed, the project did work as an inspiration; Foss, Giger, and O’Bannon all went on to work on Alien, O’Bannon creating the story with Ronald Shusett and writing the screenplay.  Jodorowsky used a lot of his ideas – amazing, bizarre, complex, and thought-provoking ideas – in graphic novels he later made, the first of which was with Moebius.  And, since many of the more phenomenal, unconventional, surreal ideas were from Jodorowsky’s own mind and not from Frank Herbert’s novel, they were his ideas to use.

This is a documentary for any film, science fiction, and comic book fan, for filmmakers, writers, artists, and visionaries.  Honestly, it is for anyone who has worked and tried and succeeded and failed at bringing something unique and creative into this world, in any medium.  Jodorowsky’s Dune shows how creativity and ideas can transcend the content or the device used to create it, but also that that transcendence may result in art that is never brought to complete life, and yet still exists as it does without ever having been compromised. Maybe that is better.  Jodorowsky wanted to move beyond the realm of mere film, and, in a way, this documentary proves that he did accomplish that, even without making the movie.  Dune was his dream, and he refused to let it be fettered or tainted by outside forces.  Someone in the film says there must be a touch of madness in creativity, and Jodorowsky had that madness; it manifested in a spectacular vision and unquenchable passion, which he still talks about passionately and eloquently to this day.  His vision and passion were unsurpassed, as was his love for the project, and yet his being able to move beyond it is fantastic and even inspiring.  A few people thought that the failure would destroy him, because the project was so completely a part of him and his worldview. He had poured his all, his very essence, into the film. 

Some may think I use the word passion too many times, but Jodorowsky is the embodiment of passion, and he is so alive and intense and emotional that this film could be summed up in one word: PASSION. Near the end of the film, Jodorowsky talks about following your passion and always trying, and if you fail, you at least tried.  He says to go for your greatest ambition and to always strive for that ambition.  There is still a fire in Alejandro Jodorowsky for Dune, one that will probably never be truly excised but will continue to inspire and motivate him, as his ideas and beliefs about the necessity and power of creativity will continue to inspire and motivate us.