The history of cinema is awash with legends of the films that never got made. We sit and dream over what Orson Welles’ ‘Heart of Darkness’ would have been like, pour over the sketches and screenplay of Kubrick’s abandoned ‘Napoleon’, and pray that one day, Terry Gilliam will finally get to make his Don Quixote film. But most intriguing of all the abandoned "what-ifs" is the attempt in the early 70s by cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt Frank Herbert’s legendary sci-fi epic ‘Dune’ into an enormous mind-altering visual spectacular. This abandoned dream project is the subject of Frank Pavich’s ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’, a documentary that collects the key players to tell the story of what happened, how it changed cinema without ever being made, and what the film could have been.
It’s no mean feat, condensing the short but thrilling history of the Dune project, especially with the enigmatic Jodorosky at the centre of it. It’s not entirely accurate to call the man a filmmaker; he seems something akin to a cinematic shaman, a spiritual figure attempting to use the medium to find a more complex truth about humanity. Anyone who has seen his cult classics ‘El Topo’ (1970) and ‘The Holy Mountain’ (1973) know that his style is almost impossible to define, occupying that liminal space between a dream and a nightmare, and the idea of such an artist tackling a narrative of the scope of ‘Dune’ is an intriguing one. Using interviews, archival material from the extensive pre-production period of the project and animated versions of Jodorowsky’s storyboards, Pavich has crafted both a giddy celebration of imagination and daring, and a sensitive requiem to the film that never came about, all with seamless skill and detail.
The filmmaking here resembles the exciting documentary language used last year in ‘The Impostor’ and ‘We Steal Secrets’, but rather than rushing through the vast material, Pavich takes a considered pace so we can take in as much of the content presented to us as possible. It’s also helpful in that Jodoroswky, who is the central figure in the film both in terms of narrative and the primary interviewee, speaks with bubbling mania and passion, slipping easily between English, Spanish and French mid-sentence. If the project itself weren’t so intriguing, the film would be worth it just to get an insight into this fascinating artist. At times, especially when discussing the sudden collapse of the film, Jodorowsky becomes unexpectedly open and you can see the pain in his eyes at being denied the opportunity to create something he believes would have been important.
And what a film we’re teased with! Combining some of the most exciting visual artists of the time, including Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger who went on to create ‘Alien’ (1979), Jodorowsky crafted a film unlike anything ever seen, even now. As well as amassing mountains of hypnotic concept art, they also created a complete storyboard of the film, collected in an enormous tome that was sent out to all the Hollywood studios in an effort to get the film financed. That book is the central object of ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’, from which Pavich pulls Jodorowsky’s vision and executes them in beautifully rendered animated storyboards. It’s a tantalising tease of what the film could have been, but considering no studio in their right minds would consider attempting a film so unconventional and enormous, this is probably the best we’re going to get. What comes as a surprise is a discussion of how much the project has influenced filmmaking since, even though it never got made. With this magnificent book circulating around Hollywood, it was inevitable that others would be inspired by the work, echoes of ‘Dune’ popping up in the most unusual places.
Pavich has crafted both a giddy celebration of imagination and daring, and a sensitive requiem to the film that never came about.
What lifts ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ from being simply a film buff’s dream into an intriguing and thrilling documentary is its playfulness. The creation and destruction of ‘Dune’ is a cracking story full of colourful characters, many the last you would expect to see, and Pavich grabs it with both hands gleefully. In only 90 minutes, we get a story as epic and complex as Herbert’s book, bubbling with excitement, comedy and tragedy, held together by a dream that cinema could be something more, something important to our development as a species. When the film comes to an end, you can’t help but mourn for Jodorowsky and his film, but we’re blessed to have Pavich’s film in its place. ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ is easily one of the best documentaries about cinema ever made.