Jodorowsky’s Dune:

Where Trying Matters

Francis Coppola once said (while making Apocalypse Now) that to reach for greatness and not get there is the greatest artistic sin. A film that aims for the top and doesn’t get there is “shit!” he exclaims, deep in the jungle with his film crew just “quasi” under his control. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a filmmaker with some similar artistic instincts to Coppola, emphatically disagrees in the new documentary, directed by Frank Pavich, titled Jodorowsky’s Dune. For “Jodo” (as his friends call him), the effort is all. “Try!” he emphatically appeals to other artists near the end of the film. For him, it is the “trying” that is the artistic act itself, and as a self-styled spiritual guru, he is fully aware that this is in line with several long-established forms of Hinduism and some other spiritual paths. Jodo is one of those “wise old men” now (at age 84 when the film was made), but he’s the anti-Yoda. Trying, for him, is the same as doing.

That is the key theme and the key message of Jodorowsky’s Dune, but you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s about a great unmade film of the 1970s. Certainly that’s the superficial subject, the “MacGuffin” of this film, but it got me in the door, as it will no doubt get many others. The legendary Dune project left its mark all over the great science fiction and fantasy cinematic wave of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The special effects, costume design and even musical choices were very forward-thinking, and it’s a testament to the artistic legacy of the film that we see resonances not only in Star Wars and Alien but in later films like Contact, The Matrix and even TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica. But, as presented in this poetic and engaging documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune film would have been much closer in spirit and cinematic language to his two previous films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. What later filmmakers took from the “failed” project were quite possibly some of its least interesting elements. In other words, we might look at Jodo’s Dune today as the logical third film from Jodorowsky, not the fountainhead of Lucas, Scott and Spielberg.

Born in Chile, Jodorowsky is a bit of an international polyglot, with roots in Europe as well as Latin America. In this film, the old man holds forth from his Paris apartment, his language constantly shifting from English to French to Spanish and back as the wheels in his incredibly active mind turn. By the late 1960s, Jodorowsky was already in his mid-40s with a long track record of singular (some would, and do, say “crazy”) stage productions in Mexico. Often starring as well as writing and directing, his plays, and his early films, were steeped in visual imagery and iconography of spiritualism and religion, but with a carnivalesque freedom of organic celebration (i.e. lots of blood, nudity and disturbing quasi-sexual imagery). Freely acknowledging the influence of psychedelics, Jodorowsky nevertheless was after a deeper spiritual vision, dreaming of creating a film that would give the “effects of LSD without the LSD”.

After the success, mostly in Europe, of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky, in 1973, was given his pick of projects to take on next. Despite never having read the book, he immediately said, “Dune!”. Frank Herbert’s representatives sold the rights for very little money to Jodorowsky and his French producing partner Michel Seydoux and the project was off and running. When he finally sat down to read the book, Jodorowsky recalls, he was amazed at the boldness of the writing. “The first 100 pages are completely confusing,” he remembers, an assessment with which I have to agree. Without substantial “priming” as to what the political situation in Herbert’s world was, all the factions and cults and “Houses” and magical mysticism can be a nightmare for the first-time reader. But like others, Jodorowsky kept going and distilled all the politics and power plays and intrigue down to the story’s essential theme: the rise of a prophet who changes the world.

It’s telling that Jodorowsky, through all his incarnations of this project, never really refers to Paul Atredies, the afore-mentioned “prophet”, as “Muad’Dib” or “Madhi” , his “Fremen” honorific name in the book. (For those who haven’t read the book, fear not: it’s really not important that you get any of those references or understand those words.) Jodorwosky simply calls his hero “Paul”, a direct reference to Saul of Tarsus, or St. Paul. This is typical of his approach to adaptation and it’s an instructive one: universalize the themes, simplify the story but keep all the metaphors. He specifically refers to the process of adaptation as “rape”, a harsh word but a fair analogy to what an effective adaptational artist does. Orson Welles, one of Jodorowsky’s artistic heroes and himself a master of adaptation, would no doubt agree. (Welles, by the way, crops up himself later in the story.)

Jodorowsky then set about finding his creative team, and it’s here that he created this unmade film’s most lasting legacy. For design, he reached out to Chris Foss, based on his famous science fiction book covers and Foss holds forth with drink and memories here, very warmly recalling how creative Jodorowsky encouraged the whole team to be. For special effects, he first turned to Douglas Trumbull, master technician already famous from 2001 and had by then directed his own cerebral science fiction film, Silent Running.  This was an ill-fated match from the start, as Trumbull’s ultra-technical, scientific and businesslike manner was not really compatible with Jodorowsky’s free-wheeling artistry. Depressed, he recalls walking out of his meeting with Trumbull and walking into a nearby movie theatre that was showing John Carpenter’s famous student film, Dark Star. Jodorowsky was impressed and, reading the credits carefully, hired Carpenter’s friend and classmate, the late Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon, a laconic and brilliant southerner, steeped in old-school literature and storytelling, was the perfect choice to realize Jodorowsky’s metaphorical and ironic take on science fiction and became one of his closest collaborators on Dune. (And, as he recalls in an old interview, he was also impressed by Jodorowsky’s “excellent marijuana”.)

For costume design and storyboard art he turned to Jean Giraud, or Moebius as we know him in the world of comics. The future comics collaborations between Jodorowsky and Moebius are well known, and deservedly so, from The Incal to Metabarons, but here is where it all started. Yet another important legacy of Dune. More design came from the brilliant Swiss artist H.R. Geiger, recommended to Jodorowsky by no less than Salvador Dali, and whose partnership with Dan O’Bannon, started on this film, would lead directly to 1979’s Alien. Finally, for music, Jodorowsky called upon Pink Floyd, who he met chowing down on hamburgers while mixing Dark Side of the Moon. The polite, soft spoken members of the English band were just on the cusp of international stardom but still expressed interest in the project. (And Nick Mason’s memoir, Inside Out, confirms the band’s love of a good burger, to the point where they even took a burger chef on tour with them.) By any measure, it was a 1970s “dream team” of creative talent.

The cast was no less luminary but unlike the creative team, they never really got the chance to engage with the material in their element. So, while Jodorowsky may have dreamed of having Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali in his cast, they were never actually in the same room at the same time, working on the script. All we have of the casting is really Jodorowsky’s memories of recruiting the actors, which range from direct contact and certainly artistic simpatico (Carradine downing an entire bottle of Vitamin E that was sitting on Jodorowsky’s desk) or fleeting to the point of being almost a dream (meeting Jagger’s eyes from across the room at a party). The key example is Orson Welles, who Jodorwosky swears he had recruited to play Baron Harkonnen. Meeting Welles in an expensive French restaurant, he claims that what finally sealed the deal was the promise that Welles could eat, as in this restaurant, every day on set because he would hire the chef. Welles burbled his agreement and in Jodo’s mind, he had his Baron. As someone who has studied Welles extensively for many years, reading just about everything ever written about the man’s life and work, I have my doubts. Welles made a lot of promises to a lot of different people at this point in his career. At this point he would have been finishing the editing on what would be his last released film, the experimental documentary F for Fake, and in the process of moving back to America. I’m sure he gave Jodorowsky the impression that he was willing and able to do the part, but in reality this is as much wishful thinking on Jodo’s part as anything else. This is ultimately directly on-theme for the film, because it’s about what Jodorowsky finished in his imagination rather than in reality. It’s typical of Jodorowsky’s attitude that, in his mind and memory, Welles really did play the role rather than vaguely agreeing to participate. Recruiting Welles, and all the other cast, was “the work” as far as he was concerned. After that it was a simple matter of execution. Like everything else, to Jorowosky it’s the trying that matters.

And try they did as the project wore on. What survives after all the promises and dreams of Jodorowsky’s Dune is a package of conceptual art, script material and complete storyboards that rivals a New York phonebook for sheer heft. Jodorowsky has one in his impressive library that he freely shares with the filmmakers, and there were at one point several other copies. The documentarians hypothesize that at least one of these Dune “phone books” must have made its way through the corridors of creativity in Hollywood and directly influenced any number of other artists. In this documentary, we see these storyboards (some of which are only sketches) animated and presented cinematically to great effect. The first shot, an unbroken effects tour-de-force, would have taken the viewers through the entire Universe, passing in the process by ships laden with the precious “spice melange” being attacked by pirates. Like the opening shot of Star Wars, this would have been impressive both as special effects and storytelling. Without a word of dialogue, Jodorowsky would get across that a) this spice is valuable and b) people were willing to fight and die for it. Chris Foss’s drawings and paintings are rendered out to get a sense of what the ship may have looked like (very organic, unlike most of the cinematic space ships of the time) and how the whole experience would have been put together. Just going by that first shot, this would no doubt have been a challenging and engrossing film.

Other effective scenes are re-created, such as the torture of Duke Leto Atredies by the Baron Harkonnen, a horrific scene of systematic dismemberment capped off by violent decapitation. There would be no business about a poisoned tooth or airborne poisons, etc, because that wasn’t part of the story Jodorowsky was telling. (It’s called adaptation, folks.) This is no more evident than in his proposed final scene, where Paul Atredies is murdered mid-sentence, but we would hear his voice coming out of the mouths of every other character in the scene, as they recite “I am Paul,” a phrase loaded with religious overtones for our western civilization.

But it’s as Jodorowsky’s Dune winds down that we finally get to the heart of what the old man is trying to tell us, right now, in 2014. The main message isn’t “wouldn’t this have been a great movie?”, even though it would have been, or “why can’t filmmakers achieve their creative vision all the time?”, although they should be able to. In fact, the disintegration of the project, brought about by the inevitable reaction of any hard-core Hollywood producer to this film, is not hard to predict. A major studio would never have allowed some of the things that were in this film to hit the screen in 1975 under their banner, nor would Jodorowsky have been able to “bend” and be open to collaboration with people he saw as beneath his artistic dignity. The film fades quickly, leaving Jodorowsky and his energy, his vitality and his creative inspiration. He doesn’t seem bitter or disappointed at all with the fact that his Dune never made it to the screen. (O’Bannon, who had sold everything he owned and moved to France to work on the film, was considerably more put-out.) The message is that artistic visions are worth chasing and worth spending energy on. Jodorowsky used his relationship with Moebius, for example, to create some great comics using many of the designs and thematic elements from the unmade film. He doesn’t seem to have viewed the film as a goal in and of itself. To judge the film a “failure” is to presume that Jodo was aiming for a very small target: a movie that played in movie theatres and no other kind of artistic manifestation. That’s not how he saw it, nor should it be how we see it.

The message I got from Jodorowsky’s Dune is to always go “all-in” on your artistic goals and, as he fairly exclaims at the end of the film, his eyes still burning with life and fire at age 84, to always “TRY!”

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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