Frank Pavich’s fascinating, forthright documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune doubles as an affectionate homage to an indelible figure from the heyday of cult filmmaking and a poignant reminder that ultimately, whatever cinema’s endlessly debated merits as an honest-to-God art form, the business end of show business will effectively prove as integral as the show. After the usual attention-grabbing overture, a montage of provocative assertions concerning “the greatest movie never made,” Pavich gets the ball rolling with some necessary context: Flush with the international success of midnight-movie staples El Topo and The Holy Mountain, two artefacts of early-’70s psychotronic cinema whose acquaintance with traditional narrative and conventional imagery approaches nil, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was more or less offered carte blanche by producer Michel Seydoux to select his next project.
Jodorowsky elected to embark upon a film version of Frank Herbert’s mammoth sci-fi novel Dune. It was, by his own admission, a book he hadn’t even read. This offhand anecdote, taken as the borderline mythical origin story it’s almost certainly meant to evoke, provides the key to understanding Jodorowsky and his doomed adaptation: illustrating to a T the man’s admittedly infectious blend of considered provocation and childlike naïveté. Jodorowsky unabashedly positions himself as a visionary, a poet transcribing his dream life directly into script pages. Much like the character he plays in The Holy Mountain, an alchemist who advises his acolyte to transmute excreta into shimmering gold (a scene, incidentally, that’s excerpted in Pavich’s doc), Jodorowsky seeks to change the dross of plasticized celluloid strips into dreamlike vistas of pure poetry. Along the way, he even concocts his own rather succinct credo: “You can’t have a masterpiece without madness.”
Jodorowsky assiduously assembled his dream team of countercultural co-conspirators. Tales of their respective conscription compose the most diverting portions of Pavich’s film; they also contribute manifestly to the predominant mood of missed opportunity. Alongside Michel Seydoux, Jodorowsky recruited legendary comics artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud to produce a storyboarded production “bible.” Noted sci-fi book-cover artist Chris Foss drafted funky-looking spacecraft. Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger designed the demented biomechanical domiciles for House Harkonnen. Jodorowsky even finagled a sit-down with Pink Floyd, who were holed up at Abbey Road recording Dark Side of the Moon. Dan O’Bannon, fresh from his jack-of-all-trades work on John Carpenter’s Dark Star, joined the team as special-effects guru after Jodorowsky’s initial meeting with Douglas Trumbull, visual consultant on 2001: A Space Odyssey, left him feeling out of synch with Trumbull’s dismissive attitude and “industry” mentality.
Because we know from the outset that Jodorowsky’s Dune was never made, we’re primed to expect failure to crop up around every corner, and sure enough it eventually does precisely that. Though Jodorowsky had all his preproduction ducks in a row, his Achilles’ heel proved to be those inevitable bugbears of the creative class: money and the corporate mindset. Dutifully making the rounds of the major studios with the massive Giraud “bible” in tow (a gorgeous objet d’art that simply begs for facsimile reproduction), he just couldn’t convince Hollywood suits to wrap their heads around certain changes he’d imposed on the material. And, quite frankly, once the sheer batshit outrageousness of those changes sinks in, it isn’t terribly difficult to understand why lesser minds might balk. Still, in an era when the Marvel Universe is the dominant modus operandi for franchise-building, it’s endlessly fascinating to speculate about what might have been if, just once, the reins had been turned over to someone who might best be described (like William Hurt’s mad scientist in Altered States) as “an unmitigated madman.” Jodorowsky’s Dune gets us as close to that scenario as we’re ever likely to find ourselves.
Sony Pictures’ 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray disc looks and sounds quite good overall, especially granted that this is essentially a dialogue-heavy doc interspersed with animated recreations of Jean Giraud’s mind-altering storyboards. Image clarity and cleanliness are solid, while color saturation (in particular where it counts, i.e. the animation) is dense and well-rendered. The Master Audio surround track conveys the dialogue (which is often subtitled anyhow) with sufficient clarity and delivers the occasional sci-fi sound effects, as well as Kurt Stenzel’s score, with impressive range and dynamics.
The main draw here is over 45 minutes of deleted scenes that flesh out topics like Jodorowsky’s philosophy of filmmaking (which amounts to an amusingly acidic screed against studio moneymen and big-name actors) and the film’s proposed length (imagine a hallucinogenic Star Wars trilogy). The longest sequence shows Jodorowsky and Michel Seydoux’s recent reunion, an occasion that was mentioned briefly at the end of the documentary. Basically an extended walk-and-talk, the twosome ramble around a Parisian neighborhood, on what looks to have been a bitterly cold and overcast afternoon, and swap fond recollections about their working relationship. In another scene, Seydoux ruefully recalls selling the rights to mogul Dino De Laurentiis, then watching him turn around and hand it over to his daughter Raffaella like some ribbon-bedecked gift.
Jodorowsky’s Dune, equal parts late-life encomium for a cinematic visionary and elegy for a failed film project, gets a fair shake from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, with a solid dual-format A/V transfer and a brace of fairly interesting deleted scenes.