Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

What if? What if instead of Star Wars, an amazing, mind-bending Dune had appeared in the mid-'70s? That's the teaser for Jodorowsky's Dune, but it's not really what the movie's about—I mean, really, what're they gonna do, make an alt-history of the '80s and '90s where...uh...one movie was a bigger box office hit than the other?

No, obviously what we have is a movie about how this amazing this movie never got made was, er, would've been. I quipped after seeing it that it was such a great and amazing story, I'd hate to ruin it by actually seeing one of Jodorowsky's movies.

Jodorowsky is an artist (still living) who was...well, I'm not sure, exactly. A performance artist, perhaps? He put on plays, I think, and had some success. And then he got into movies. And he had some success there. And then he got it into his head to make a Big Movie.

I don't mean a big budget movie, though it certainly would've been that. He wanted to make a film that was a religious experience.

From the clips they showed of the movies he had done prior to this, there were strong religious overtones, mixed with a '70s pop-art sensibility that, while quite de rigeur back then, I think we can all agree was really, really ugly, not to mention pretentious and usually shallow and nihilistic.

I found myself cringing at the (very short) clips and even now I cringe at the ambition of creating a sci-fi film as a religious experience—although it suddenly strikes me that Star Wars, Star Trek and the ilk are religious experiences for many, they weren't intended that way—but a funny thing happened while listening to Jodorowsky: He didn't seem to be a man of pretentions.

He seemed positively down-to-earth. He had (has, even) tremendous ambitions which he expressed in very interesting and winning ways. Typically, the ugly, pretentious art of the '60s and '70s came from a malignant place: A rejection of bourgeois values like beauty, craft and talent.

Jodorowsky showed none of that. It was all vision, all uplift, all positivity. In fact, the common theme of the film is him enlisting acolytes in this happy cult, and then letting them go wild with their own ideas.

This film documents, oral history style, how he gathered around all these amazing and bizarre talents and created a book of shot-for-shot storyboards of Dune, which I'm actually not sure he ever read. He hadn't read it before deciding to do the movie, and some of the creative people attached never did read it.

Who did he bring on? Well, Dan O'Bannon and H.R. Giger—and if you know your movie sci-fi those two names together rings a very big bell—illustrator Chris Foss, Orson Welles, not to mention Salvador Dali and his muse. The documentary is just a wealth of great stories: Brilliant young people getting together and dreaming a movie into existence.

Well, almost.

In the end, the studios demurred. They loved the concept and the book, but didn't trust Jodorowsky to direct it. Not that that didn't stop sci-fi movies borrowing images and concepts from that book for the next two decades. (The sort of borrowing that, in some cases, should've probably led to some lawsuits.) Most notably, O'Bannon and Giger went on to give us Alien, launching Ridley Scott's star and influencing sci-fi ever after.

Even if the film had been greenlit, it's almost inconceivable to me that it would have actually been made: The budget they wanted was about $15M. Well, say what you want about George Lucas, but he's a genius at getting results on a low budget, and it took him $17M to make Star Wars. And he wasn't working with Welles and Dali.

And, frankly, the vision of Star Wars was in trying to make SFX that didn't suck, not in trying to make a mind-bending philosophical film. (Quite the contrary, Lucas was hearkening back to old serials.)

Yet, it's sort of hard not to feel a little sad that it never was to be. I think it would've been great, whether a great disaster or a great success, it would've made a mark.

So, using the three-point documentary weighing scale:

1) Topic matter: Great fun if you enjoy the creative process and/or remember the '70s.

2) Presentation: Just so. No padding I recall, which is nice. Lots of stories, told by the people involved and on the periphery. The late Dan O'Bannon only appears as a pre-recorded interview, sadly.

3) Spin: Little to none apparent. I've heard people say this smacks of "mockumentary", but I don't think so. No one is made to look bad or awkward: it's just an audacious story. You can't tell it without the golden poop.

The Boy, who isn't actually big into the moviemaking process, and who probably recognized only Dali and Welles, well, and maybe Giger, found it to be very entertaining.

A breezy sub-90 minutes. Check it out!

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