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Of mountains and ashes: Why Jodorowsky's Dune is kind of a big deal

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Jodorowsky's Dune

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"Did you really like Wolf of Wall Street?"

"Yes."

"Would you have liked it as much if it weren't Scorsese?"

There's a halo effect that precedes a celebrated artist's work in most arts. Did Picasso ever paint a dud? Did Beethoven ever compose a bad symphony? How about Shakespeare - did he ever write a laughably bad piece of literature? Yet, when it comes to film, the cinema is full of faux pas made by brilliant directors. It's almost a given that at some point a director will lose sight of her vision and make something that resembles less than a work of art. It's an understandable presumption, considering that film is such a shared effort dynamically fluctuating from production to production and too mainstream to be liked by everyone all of the time.

Take for example David Lynch's third feature after the groundbreaking Eraserhead and the breathtaking The Elephant Man and just right before what's arguably his masterpiece, Blue Velvet: 1984's Dune, a film that today needs some serious reevaluation; but a film so fraught with problems during its production, publicly ignored and critically panned upon its initial release that even to this day Lynch refuses to talk about it, supposedly walking out of interviews when it comes up.

But what if Lynch hadn't directed Dune and another critically acclaimed, visionary and just plain insane director had made it instead? Would it have worked?

Before going any further, in the spirit of full disclosure I'll admit that I'm a huge Alejandro Jodorowsky fan. If I had to provide a list of my favorite top ten films ever made, Santa Sangre would be snuggled in there somewhere between Escape from New York and Last Year at Marienbad, with his The Holy Mountain and El Topo somewhere in my top fifty. So I love Jodorowsky, but I'm not exactly convinced that he would have made a fantastic film out of what's arguably science fiction author Frank Herbert's unfilmable and certainly unwieldy influential novel.

Such somber and realistic thoughts couldn't help but come up during the viewing of the highly engrossing and utterly entertaining documentary aptly and to the point titled Jodorowsky's Dune, a recounting of Jodorowsky and company's compelling but unsurprisingly failed attempt at filming Herbert's Dune.

What would right off the bat be a herculean effort in simply adapting such a massive story is further hindered by the psychedelic idiosyncrasies of the famed Chilean-French director: a prog-rock soundtrack by both Pink Floyd (that's right, Pink Floyd) and the ultra-obscure French band, Magma; an eclectic cast that includes Orson Welles (the kiss of death on any project, really), Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Jodorowsky's own son, Brontis, Salvador Dali and Dali's (allegedly) transgender muse, Amanda Lear; costumes so ahead of their time that in retrospect they look straight out of '80s Japanese anime; dreamscape (or nightmarish?) set designs that are still being cannibalized by such movies as Prometheus; and, most predictable, the director's penchant for surrealistic detours, symbolic overtones and wildly absurd visuals in a polymorphous narrative that would have undoubtedly overtaken the source material, which (SPOILER ALERT!)...

...Jodorowsky hilariously admits he never even read - a friend told him what the novel was all about! (END SPOILER)

"For me, [making Dune] was something deeper. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective, open the mind because I feel in that time myself inside a prison. My ego, my intellect - I want to open! And I start the fight to make Dune."

Uh-huh.

Yet, despite all his avant-garde antics, Jodorowsky is at heart a masterful, old-fashioned storyteller. Well, much like the Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and The Bible are old-fashion storytellers. Ergo, Jodorowsky's Dune's director, Frank Pavich, is smart enough to not stray too far away from the old master, who, at 84, is like a poltergeist possessing a screen: mesmerizing even when he's being mischievously politically incorrect, densely philosophical or just trippy (do you need more quotes?). His joie de vivre is infectious, and one could sit for hours just hearing him talk; or better yet, hearing him describe his version of Dune, from beginning to end, preferably with the aid of storyboards in a tome he had made that looks thicker than the deforesting Yellow Pages. At least that's what current visionary auteur and Jodorowsky's "spiritual son" (as in Jodorowsky has actually baptized him as his spiritual son) Nicolas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives, Drive) recounts during his brief screen time at the beginning of the documentary.

As much as a coup as it is to have hotter than hotcakes Winding Refn in your doc, he doesn't compare to some of the other luminaries with rabid cult followings that show up - in one case, even posthumously - to chime in on how the whole production of Dune went down.

What should be a reason to rejoice for both aging cyberpunks and burgeoning steampunks everywhere is the recruitment of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, to whom Jodorowsky refers to as one of his "spiritual warriors" on the project. These also include British paperback illustrator Chris Foss, French illustrator Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, and American special effects guru Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner), all of whom Jodorowsky approaches for help with the storyboarding, set, vehicle and costume design and visual effects of his would-be movie. And in a twist of pure madness, er,... genius!, before Trumbull even has a chance to say hell no, the Hollywood A-lister gets replaced by another American, an up-and-coming nobody. The late Dan O'Bannon, whose only work up to that point had been supervising the special effects of a low-budget space oddity called Dark Star - John Carpenter's antithesis to 2001's sterile futurism - gets to really broaden his horizons as he follows the production to Paris only for it to topple like a house of (tarot) cards, leaving O'Bannon stranded, broke, homeless and hungry for success.

And this is where things get really interesting...

Part of the joy of hearing about and seeing Jodorowsky's Dune - the movie that never was - is not just what could have been, but also what rose out of the ashes once the dust had settled: a heap of ideas that would fire up the future of Hollywood science fiction for the next several decades and counting.

For the sake of the future of science fiction cinema, Jodorowsky may not have gotten to make his science fiction masterpiece. Or the world may have been spared something less than a work of art, in which case, I, for one, am happy that we got this documentary instead.

Jodorowsky's Dune opens this Friday, March 21, at The Landmark theater in West L.A.

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