Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

“Many stories are told of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s journey to the Frogstar. Ten percent of them are ninety-five percent true, fourteen percent of them are sixty-five percent true, thirty-five percent of them are only five percent true, and all the rest of them are… told by Zaphod Beeblebrox”

Somehow or other, listening to  Alejandro Jodorowsky talk about his attempt to film Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel, Dune, leaves me thinking about this quote from Douglas Adams’ Hitchicker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show.  There are some absolutely incredible stories here, particularly when he tells us about how he convinced celebrities like Salvador Dali or Orson Welles to join his cast, or the very Zen moment when he met Mick Jagger.  Maybe they’re true, I don’t know, but the only person telling them is Zaphod…I mean, Alejandro.

But it doesn’t matter.  After all, he is a marvelous story teller, and his excitement and enthusiasm for a project that ended in failure almost forty years ago is contagious.

For years, I’ve heard bits and pieces of the story and it is undoubtedly one of most interesting failed movie projects in cinematic history.  Jodorowsky, a young man who had made two strange and surreal cult films, ended up as the director of a huge science fiction film, based on a novel he had never read.  He pulled together a team of “warriors” (as he called them) many of whom have since gone on to greater fame, including SF artist Chris Foss, the Swiss painter, H.R. Giger, the legendary French cartoonist, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.

But it was also a freakishly weird version of an already strange story, where the spice is somehow alive, the Emperor rules from an upside-down throne room, and the castrated Duke Leto impregnates Jessica with a drop of his blood.

The documentary tells a fascinating story, built up from interviews with Alejandro and his crew.  The most exciting part, though, are the glimpses we get of the vast quantities of artwork produced for the film, and even animatic versions of Moebius’ storyboards.  The animatic of the opening sequence, a pan shot that carries the viewer across the galaxy is perhaps the most impressive moment in the whole documentary:  it is radical and memorable, even if one wonders how they might have filmed it!

I have to confess that I would dearly love to have a copy of that monstrous book they show in the film, that Jodorowsky and  his producer gave away to film executives in their bid to find the funding they needed.  It’s thicker than a cement block, and included the complete storyboards and loads of  concept art.  I know they could probably make a fortune selling copies to the fans today (even considering how expensive such an all-color volume would be) but considering the number of people involved, I suspect that it would be next to impossible to negotiate the clearances you’d need.

And that’s a horrible shame.

This is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Not merely entertaining, Jodorowsky’s Dune offers us a complex story, full of suspense and unexpected turns — and what is even better, a story that has a clear story arc, a beginning middle and end, something far too many documentaries lack.

Now, I’ll admit that the final section, when they try to establish the links between this failed movie and virtually every science fiction film made since then, leaves me very, very skeptical.  While I’m sure their efforts did have an effect — if nothing else, giving his crew a much needed set of credits and art for their portfolios — I find it very hard to believe all the claims — even the ones Alejandro isn’t making.

It is a heroic story, and yet there are hints throughout that his film would never have found its way onto the screen:  perhaps these are best summed up by Jodorowsky’s response to those who complained that the film would have been at least ten hours long, which was basically “So what?”

Now, I’m a touch skeptical of that ten hour figure myself:  I know the standard estimate is that film scripts run a minute per page, but that opening sequence probably took pages to describe yet may only have run for a minute or less.  If that were true of some of the other sequences, his film might have been a lot shorter than estimated.

But what is clearly true is that his response was probably the worst he could have made under the circumstances.  Hollywood execs like to be reassured.  Even if they know you aren’t being particularly honest with them..

This is a film which achieves its goal:  it is probably impossible to watch it and not come out of it wishing that you could watch this insane movie the crazy Chilean director tried to make.  Or that you could at least see that book which he claims is the movie he wanted to make.  After all, Jodorowsky’s larger-than-life persona and his incredible enthusiasm for his project were so strong that he pulled his team out of their normal lives and left them tagging along after him for years.

So it shouldn’t be a great surprise that he can do the same thing to us for an hour and a half.

But I’m still not sure which parts of his story are true — and which are told by Zaphod Beeblebrox.

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