Mark Reviews Movies

Jodorowsky's Dune


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Frank Pavich

MPAA Rating:  (for some violent content and sexual images and drug references)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 3/21/14 (limited); 3/28/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 27, 2014

We all know the question about a dream deferred. Jodorowsky's Dune, a thorough examination of one of the countless unfulfilled productions in the history of cinema, has something of an answer, although it all depends on the perspective of who is being asked the question.

As the prospective result of a specific moment in time, it has dried up in the proverbial sun. For the man who saw it as his masterpiece, it most definitely festers. For the producer who thought it was a surefire financial hit, it stinks of the cowardice of a system that refuses to take chances. For those who know about its existence and long for it to be real, it has crusted over—an unobtainable sweet.

One might ask: Why is this failed movie one to consider? It was to be an adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, one of the most popular pieces of science-fiction literature ever written. It had a team of talented artists involved who had proven themselves in the past and would, for the most part, continue to excel in their respective fields in the future. It was to be a popular special-effects spectacular before such a thing really existed.

Everything, it seemed, lined up in just the right way. The budget was relatively modest. The cast was assembled. The creative team was onboard. The soundtrack was planned. The entire movie was plotted out in a massive book of storyboards and detailed designs of the sets and costumes. Basically, everything was right except for one important thing: the timing.

If it had been one year later, perhaps the cultural shift would have been in the movie's favor. That other science-fiction movie would have been a monumental success, and maybe some studio would want a potential science-fiction blockbuster to call its own.

Just like the question of a dream deferred lingers on one's mind, so too does that exercise in rhetorical inquiry: What if?

It feels as if director Frank Pavich desperately wants to know that answer. It's a fool's errand, but so was director Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to bring Dune to the screen. "Fool's errand" is not intended as an insult. If we don't ask the big questions or dream the big dreams, then we're doomed to be trapped in the realm of the small and petty. Jodorowsky dreamed big with his planned adaptation of Dune, and Pavich respects him and his vision enough to ask the big questions.

We dub people fools when they fail because of hindsight, but what if they had not? Now we're back to the world of the unknowable and the foolhardy. By the end of the film, Pavich doesn't have the answers, but neither should he or anyone else be expected to have them. Someone had to ask.

He starts with the basics: Who is Jodorowsky? He was a theatrical director in Mexico during the late 1960s who went on to make a trio of surrealist films: Fando and Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. They were cult movies—the first midnight movies, one of the critics Pavich enlists to help put the subject in the proper context explains. They're not what anyone would dub "mainstream," and if there's the first hint that perhaps the man's expectations—of maintaining his artistic integrity while helming a movie others wouldn't deem a financial risk—were a bit unfounded in 1975, when he found Dune and decided to make it into a movie.

Here's the remarkable thing: We actually believe him as he starts to explain his master plan. Jodorowsky is such a charismatic and personable figure here that we don't question his explanations, his logic, or his ambition. When he says he hadn't read the book when he decided to make the movie (Apparently, he still hasn't read it), it's just another obstacle to get past (Who reads the book anyway?). When he describes scenes of castration and systematic dismemberment, we don't bat an eye; the man knows what he's doing. This year, Jodorowsky is 85, and a person a quarter of his age would be envious of the level of energy and enthusiasm he possesses.

His producing partner was to be Michel Seydoux, who helped to get Jodorowsky's previous films distributed in France. The director went to France to start a lengthy pre-production, and there, he handpicked people to help with the designs and the anticipated special effects.

It wasn't just talent he was seeking. He rejected Douglas Trumbull, who, after 2001: A Space Odyssey, was considered the most obvious choice for the effects Jodorowsky was envisioning, because he did not have the kind of spiritual connection to the work that Jodorowsky expected his team to have. He didn't want to make a movie; he wanted to create a "prophet." Instead, he went with the less recognized Dan O'Brien, who would later do Star Wars, and a practically unknown H.R. Giger, whose name would become famous after Alien. When he met with the members of Pink Floyd to discuss the band contributing to the soundtrack, Jodorowsky came close to ending the meeting when he noticed they were eating hamburgers.

The one exception seems to be in the casting, particularly Orson Welles as the leader of the story's villains. To get him to agree, Jodorowsky explains how he essentially extorted the actor's participation by agreeing to have the chef of his favorite restaurant on set to prepare his lunch every day.

The film is a wealth of anecdotes like these (Jodorowsky's explanation of the buildup and reaction to seeing David Lynch's Dune is so honest that we want to pity him—until he gets to the punch line), told by people who are still enthusiastic about the project and still in disbelief that it failed to come to fruition. Watching the storyboards by comic artist Jean Giraud (aka, Mœbius) brought to life by Pavich's own team of animators, we can understand their enduring bitterness. The movie's opening shot was to be a dolly that started on one edge of the story's galaxy and push in the first scene.

If that sounds familiar, it's because it has been done since then, and so have many ideas from this uncompleted production. For all the difficulties Jodorowsky's Dune documents, the most lasting impression is how influential a dream deferred can be. Now we see how it explodes.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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