Cinematic visionlost in the dunes

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday March 25, 2014
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In the new documentary Jodorowosky's Dune, first-time doc-maker Frank Pavich, previously known for co-producing the Charles Busch drag drama Die, Mommie, Die!, provides an exhaustive and exhausting account of a genial mad man's dream to escape the label "Midnight movie maven," and instead to film a visionary sci-fi blockbuster.

In 1975, Alejandro Jodorowosky was a Chilean filmmaker of Jewish-Ukrainian descent whose only claim to fame in the U.S. was the acid-fueled, cheeky Western spoof El Topo, a film whose singular appeal to a young druggie crowd virtually invented the Midnight movie genre, a niche later commandeered by The Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon.

At 84, Jodorowosky is a frizzy-haired, still impish provocateur desperate to be remembered as more than an Encyclopedia of Film footnote. The man insists that he possessed a grand cinematic vision that transcends the outre lifestyles of his young American fan-base.

"I wanted to make something sacred, a film that gives LSD hallucinations without taking LSD, to change young minds all over the world."

In some ways, Jodorowosky was seeking to follow the path of American expatriate director Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey definitively invented the sci-fi epic as blockbuster material, replacing the Western as the ultimate peripatetic genre for depicting the evolving American soul. Where Kubrick had picked science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke as his avatar, Jodorowosky stumbled upon Frank Herbert's massive 1965 classic Dune. That this phone-book-sized cult hit might prove unfilmable seems never to have occurred to the Chilean director, who, in a revealing aside, admits he never actually read it. It's as if to have done so would have spoiled the fun of imposing his peculiar vision on the material.

The strength of Jodorowosky's Dune is how seamlessly Pavich weaves his subject's still-feverish memories with the parallel accounts of his surviving collaborators, backed up by B&W storyboards, the color costume sketches, and most of all, his pop-savvy casting instincts. Imagine Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and David Carradine hamming it up in a 14-hour inter-planetary saga. And here's the catch: after spending two million bucks on pre-production expenses, Jodorowosky needed another 5 to 15 million to mount his dream, and the Hollywood money boys were frankly scared to write that big a check for a filmmaker who hewed too closely to the thin line between mad genius and feckless fool.

Artwork by Chris Foss from Jodorowsky's Dune. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Foss/Sony Pictures Classics

As a film experience, Jodorowosky's Dune feels much longer than its 90-minute running time. At times I longed to stop the relentless talking heads, inside-baseball account of a never-made movie, with even a few scraps of test footage.

This autopsy of a dream makes a good case for how much this dreamer influenced the work of his successors. You can definitely find Jodorowosky's DNA in George Lucas' Star Wars, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and the Aliens franchise, to say nothing of James Cameron's Avatar. But how much you care depends on just how big a fan you are of the sci-fi summer epics for 14-year-old boys that have, since the mid-70s, banished serious films from American summer schedules.

Jodorowosky might have rescued his baby if he had had the marketing savvy to divide his 14-hour mega-film into three bite-sized parts. The doc of his bitter defeat is in some ways like one of those what-if alternative history books. What if a Jodorowosky-produced Dune had preempted or significantly altered David Lynch's whole post-Eraserhead career? Instead, when Jodorowosky's option on Dune expired, it was picked up by Lynch, whose unrated 1984 version runs 177 minutes and was almost universally panned. Leonard Maltin called it "joyless, oppressive, not to mention long."

After his Dune imploded at the box office, Lynch rebounded with one of the greatest films of the 1980s, his masterwork Blue Velvet, transforming Dune's intrepid boy space-warrior Kyle MacLachlan into Blue Velvet's sexually precious Hardy boy detective, Jeffrey Beaumont. As MacLachlan would pen to me atop his autograph on a making-of Blue Velvet book, "David, it's a strange world."


Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco.