Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)


Perchance to Dream

— Young documentarian Frank Pavich makes a tragic mistake in his new film, Jodorowsky’s Dune, a loving portrait of cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who worked for two years in the mid-1970s to adapt Frank Herbert’s overrated science-fiction novel, Dune into a 14-hour film. Pavich swallows hook, line and sinker the Romantic myth of the great artist ruined by an evil materialist culture, in this case Hollywood. The Romantic blinders lead Pavich to foolish extremes: either one is a callow moneygrubber like everyone in Hollywood, or one is a disaffected artist toiling in Europe, doing art for art’s sake. Alas, reality lies in the muddled middle, where real people struggle between the desires of self-expression and the necessary contsraints of the social order, which indeed, like it or not, represents the desires of those other than ourselves.

This is not to say that Jodorowsky’s Dune is a bad film. As a cultural history of contemporary science-fiction, the film is quite compelling. When Jodorowsky explains his grandiose vision for the opening of the film, a cosmic zoom that takes us across the entire universe to finally settle upon a space battle involving pirates stealing the mind-altering spice mined on Arrakis, the desert planet for which the project is named, one cannot help but see in these 1970s storyboards, an exact description of the opening of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997), where the camera follows the history of the Earth’s broadcasting out into deep space, finally returning inside the eye of a little girl, the film’s space travelling protagonist.

However, much of Pavich’s Romantic argument is based on either poor logic or critical thinking. For example, as Jodorowsky explains how he altered the ending of Herbert’s novel for his planned film, he talks arrogantly as if his solution is unique. Jodorowsky was to have allowed Feyd, the Harkonnen villain, to kill Paul, the savior of the desert planet. This then allows Paul’s soul to inhabit the remainder of the heroic revolutionaries. Each person, for example, Paul’s sister Alia, stands up and tells the evil emperor that they will have to kill all of them. “I am Paul,” each says. Anyone even remotely familiar with the history of cinema will recognize this collectivist turn from the ending of Spartacus (1960), the film that allegorized the breaking of the anti-communist blacklist. In Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel, the Romans tell the remaining soldiers of the slave revolt that their lives will be spared if they only point out to them their leader. One by one, each captured slave stands up and says, “I am Spartacus.” Contrary to what Jodorowsky’s Dune would have us believe, collectivism and spiritual human cooperation was and is alive in the United States, and is not just the domain of European Surrealists.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is elegant in its bittersweet portrayal of Jodorowsky’s failure. Indeed, a film that celebrates that our lives are mostly failures, and that our success is measured by how we recover from devastating setbacks, offers an important message. However, the problem is that Pavich so uncritically accepts his interviewees’ hagiography of Jodorowsky’s genius, that much of this lesson gets muted. Jodorowsky hired Orson Welles to play the obese Baron Harkonnen. Indeed, as the film shows us in intricate detail, Jodorowsky’s idea for the opening camera movement came from the famous long take which begins Welles’ film noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil (1958). However, Jodorowsky gloats in telling the story of how he signed Welles. In the 1970s, Welles was reduced to a joke, using his obese body to sell cheap Californian wines. What we needed Welles to be doing was making great movies. The Romantic myth that poor Orson Welles was ruined by a callous commercial Hollywood simply does not stand up to close scrutiny. Indeed, Hollywood is a nasty commercial cesspool. But what successful people do is subsume their egos and learn to do their best work under less than ideal circumstances.

Those who refuse to compromise simply do not work. After Citizen Kane, Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons was taken from him by RKO and brutally re-edited. Welles so believed the Romantic mythology he created around himself that he refused to ever recover from this abuse. Welles struggled for the rest of his life to find lesser funding, mostly in Europe to make really good films that very few people saw. That is a tragedy, and yet to see it solely as the result of an evil social order is to completely misunderstand the way the world works. By definition, anyone doing great work will be ill treated by the world; that’s what makes the work great in the first place. The responsibility of a great filmmaker is to get his or her vision onto film, no matter what. The beautiful massive Dune book that Jodorowsky keeps showing us is a crime scene, but not the one that Pavich believes it is. The crime is one of hubris, believing that the world should serve us, rather than we serving the world. This is the tragedy of both Welles and Jodorowsky.

For this reason, what most irks me about Pavich’s film is the way the actual film version of Dune, released in 1984, gets treated. After Jodorowsky’s project collapsed, because no investors would take the risk on a $15M investment that Jodorowsky patently refused to cut to 90 minutes, the standard film length, mega-producers Dino DeLaurentiis and his daughter Raffaella bought the rights to the novel and hired David Lynch, the American avant-garde filmmaker to direct the project. Lynch is the American Surrealist equivalent of the Chilean-French Jodorowsky. Indeed, many of the ideas from Jodorowsky’s project find their way into the DeLaurentiis film. For example, Jodorowsky signed rock mega-star Mick Jagger to play the part of Feyd Harkonnen. In Lynch’s film, that part went to the then lesser rock star, Sting.

I am not making the claim that the film adaptation of Dune is a great masterpiece. Indeed, the craven commerce of the DeLaurentiis clan caused Lynch to have his name removed as director. However, the assumption that crass Hollywood leads only to artistic disaster would mean that The Wizard of Oz and Jaws could not be great films. Jodorowsky’s Dune would likely be a wonderful experience to watch in a movie theatre. But so too is Lynch’s Dune. While Sting was obviously a pale imitation of Jagger at the time, it is now clear that Sting’s talent allowed him to become just as prominent a musician, and indeed a far better actor, appearing beforehand in Brimstone and Treacle (1982), and afterward in The Bride (1985) and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).

Self-interested, Jodorowsky, while reiterating that Lynch is a great film artist, gloats that the film was “awful” and “not beautiful.” Isn’t it ironic that the documentary would suddenly invoke box office disaster as a marker of the film’s failure, when such logic is being critiqued for what damage it has done to Jodorowsky’s career? I saw Dune the night it opened with my dad, and it had exactly the spiritual effect Jodorowsky describes as his goal. Dune has a bad reputation because it is campy, the acting overblown, and the ideas grandiose and obtuse. This is exactly the description one would give of Jodorowsky’s cult films, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), neither one anything other than wonderful underground films with no commercial appeal whatsoever. Contrary to the film critics Pavich interviews for the film, Jodorowsky did not invent the underground film: that honor at least belongs to Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and indeed perhaps much earlier to Kenneth Anger or Jean Cocteau. It is almost a certainty that had Jodorowsky been able to make his 1970s Dune film, it would have enjoyed a similarly disastrous release. Pavich’s documentary represents poor critical thinking because it never once pauses its self-aggrandizing reverie to consider this possibility.

Furthermore, David Lynch’s film version of Dune is much better than its reputation indicates. As one example, Lynch as a filmmaker is obsessed with the linkage between sound and image. The industrial soundtrack of his experimental masterpiece, Eraserhead (1978), completed while Jodorowsky fiddled around with Dune, increases by orders of magnitude the intensity of the psychological experience of the film. In Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch’s masterpiece, a villain played by Dean Stockwell (part of Lynch’s company of actors who also appear in Dune) sings into a lamp fixture. As French theorist Michel Chion argues, Lynch the surrealist posits that the apparatus of sound and image are confusedly interchangeable; both camera and microphone record the world, but more importantly distort it horribly. Lynch implements his theory of film sound in Dune just as effectively as in his other films. The House of Attreides is defeated by the Harkonnens when their “weirding modules” (weapons which are controlled and enhanced by shouting) are destroyed. At the end of the film, Paul discovers that his spiritual power is such that he can harness the energy of the universe even without the module, and indeed that his name has become a significant source of military power, both literally and figuratively.

Is any of this better, or as good, as that which Jodorowsky could have produced? I do not know. What I do know is that Lynch, by going through the hell of working in Hollywood, was able to put something onto film that I can analyze. Jodorowsky did not. Jodorowsky’s Dune reminds me of Chicago Cubs fans who are always talking about what could have happened. That interests me very little, given that there is plenty in the world that people struggled to produce that is worthy of my attention. The Romantic dream of the artist is best reserved for teenagers who think they know more than they actually do.

– Walter Metz