The list of potentially great films that remain unmade can sometimes feel as lengthy as the entirety of cinema itself. Ponderable only in theory, viewable only in one’s own imagination, they’re like the ghosts of dreams. The ranks of the undone include Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (although the indefatigable Gilliam is currently mounting another attempt), Stanley Kubrick’s much-rumored Napoleon picture, Otto Preminger’s Genesis 1948 – the announced but unshot prequel to the director’s own Exodus – and enough nonexistent Orson Welles projects to merit another half-dozen phantom hagiographies. One film in particular, however, has always resided at the top of my personal favorite never-was, cinemaniacal list: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. And to my delight, Frank Pavich’s new documentary on the obsessive Chilean surrealist’s projected epic masterwork is very nearly as marvelous as “Jodo”’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel might have been.
Winner of the Audience and Best Feature Documentary awards at Fantastic Fest 2013, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a preposterously fascinating minefield of fact, confabulation, and visual imagery. At the heart of Pavich’s extraordinary doc is the 84-year-old Jodorowsky, every bit the intellectually eccentric showman as he was when he ruled the midnight movie circuit in the early Seventies via headtrips-cum-movies like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Pavich manages to track down Jodorowsky in Paris, befriends him, and proceeds to compile the complete and heretofore untold story of the long dormant but – at least in this documentary – still breathing Dune. “I wanted this film to change the world forever,” Jodorowsky enthuses, and through a combination of interviews with the director’s painstakingly assembled pre-production team and commentary from passionate cineastes, it becomes apparent that Jodorowsky’s take on Dune did just that. No small feat for a movie that was gut-shot by studio brass at the 11th hour.
The revelation of the casting choices alone reads like a compendium of the appropriately bizarre: David Carradine, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Udo Kier were all on board; Salvador Dalí had agreed to appear, as well, for the not inconsiderable sum of $100,000 per minute of screen time. Renowned French graphic novelist Moebius was brought in to draw a mammoth tome full of shot-by-shot storyboards, H.R. Giger (later the creator of Alien’s titular “xenomorph”) was to contribute to production design, and future Star Wars effects wizard Dan O’Bannon was slated to construct and execute the proposed film’s mind-warping visuals.
Pavich interviews anyone and everyone in the core pre-production process who will talk about the project – Mick Jagger is suitably absent – and Pavich makes a cogent argument that any number of now-famous Hollywood films (Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, along with Star Wars for starters) arrived in theatres with recognizable, obvious strains of Jodorowsky’s Dune in their DNA.
As a documentary on the origins and backstory of the unfilmed film, Jodorowsky’s Dune is unsurpassable. More than that, however, it also allows audiences a rare glimpse inside the furiously creative mind of Jodorowsky, who still, at 84, is a wonderfully mad genius of the moving image.