Three films are competing for screen time in Jodorowsky’s Dune: a love letter to the greatest film never made, a Herzogian tale of a mad genius doomed to failure, and (drumroll) Jodorowsky’s Dune, the film itself.
Having not seen any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work, I may be at a bit of a disadvantage in suggesting ways in which this particular documentary does or does not take his oeuvre into account. Alejandro Jodorowsky himself is a transfixing raconteur; (apparently) a consummate artist, nothing he says is delivered at a rhetorical pitch below eleven. By his own account, his plan for Dune was that the film itself, like Paul Atreides, would become a prophet, leading humankind into a new age of enlightened consciousness. By the account of everyone else who worked on the project, Jodorowsky was perfectly sincere in his ambition. The film’s narrative trajectory traces Jodorowsky’s quest to assemble a fellowship of “spiritual warriors”—likeminded artists who, regardless of their film experience or credentials, had the soul needed to bring his project to fruition. Many of these people had never heard of Jodorowsky before he sought them out for this project; they, too, knew nothing of his oeuvre. What compelled them to drop everything and move to his headquarters in Paris was much the same as what this documentary expects will compel its own viewers, many of whom may not be familiar with Jodorowsky’s work: the charisma and prophetic vision of the man himself. Of a film that might have been, and which might have revolutionized human consciousness.
“Might,” you might say, makes right, at least in the subjunctive realm of Jodorowsky’s Dune. Besides Jodorowsky himself (not apart or separate from) is the massive amount of material generated by his spiritual warriors as part of the pre-production process. We not only witness Jodorowsky flipping through his Dune bible, showing off the breathtaking and outlandish artwork, but we see some of it infused with life by animations. These animations comprise some of the most compelling segments of the film: storyboards sketched out by Moebius early on in the process give us a palpable sense of what the film might have been like, had it been filmed. Perhaps the most amazing is the long tracking shot Jodorowsky envisioned for the film’s opening, inspired by Touch of Evil, but zooming all the way through the galaxy to focus on a single space battle. As one of the interviewees admits, the technical capacity to pull of a shot of that magnitude might well have been impossible at the time, but vision is certainly compelling. Its vertiginous scope is simultaneously reminiscent of the Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void and the credit sequence of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Frank Pavich invested serious time and money into animating this and other sequences for a few very understandable reasons. Perhaps most of all, it’s next to impossible to listen to Jodorowsky describe his vision without yearning, somehow, to see what he sees. Because wanting to see what he sees is, in this context, almost exactly like wanting to see how he sees. The voice of the prophet calls to us from beyond the screen. There is also the fact of appreciation, the zeal of a convert trying to make his master’s voice a reality. Pavich, in animating the original storyboards for Dune, comes closer than Jodorowsky to actually making the film. The film that never was becomes, in these sequences, rematerialized from the grave, momentary transitions from subjunctive to demonstrative, from signified to sign.
These sequences, entrancing as they are, serve more as compelling reminders that Dune was not made, and these are mere storyboards, not the vision itself, any more than Jodorowsky’s magnetic palaver is cinema. The nature of the story Pavich tries to tell makes itself an inherently frustrating exercise. One cannot watch a movie about a movie that never was without wishing one could see what that movie may have been like. But to devote time to the making of a subjunctive film, as indivisible as it is from the figure of the man who failed to make it, is to take time away from that man and from his failure. By making the film partially present, though not fully realized, it offers itself up for judgment. The greatest film never made becomes the fragments of a film somewhat made—more materially a failure and less an immaterial prophetic vision. What’s more, some of the animated sequences, such as one illustrating the torture of Duke Leto, does not overlap with Jodorowsky’s narration, nor is it clear from the immediate context what purpose animating this sequence serves. The death of the film that never was? A little morsel for Frank Herbert’s fans who are curious to see how far Jodorowsky was willing to diverge from the source material?
This, too, is the occasion for one of the film’s most bizarre moments. Much as I endorse the necessity of filmmakers diverging as wildly as necessary in order to make a great film from a source in another medium, the glorious, prophetic vision of Jodorowsky’s Dune is layered with some hinky stuff. Not only did he subject his son to a grueling martial arts training regimen in order to train him by immersion in the character of Paul Atreides, but when he describes the adaptation processes, he imagines Herbert’s book as a bride that must be forcefully ravished by a groom. In so many words, and cackling like a mad monk, Jodorowsky gleefully declares that he raped Frank Herbert’s Dune. One reflects that as happy as Jodorowsky may have been that David Lynch’s Dune was a failure, we may also breathe a sigh of relief that his own vision was realized only on paper and in the memories of his now-dispersed spiritual warriors.
I wonder if it’s possible for a prophetic vision such as Jodorowsky’s to escape the gravity well of this kind of thing—what some might call madness and other might just call a terrible idea? This is the sort of judgment Pavich is not interested in making, nor is he apparently interested in broaching the question on any explicit level. The overwhelming sense of Jodorowsky’s Dune is that it is a paean to the eccentric genius of a man ahead of his time, and as such, it is deeply uncritical of the vision it heralds. Even as Pavich lays claim to having made at least some scraps of Jodorowsky’s Dune (which is more than the man himself can claim), he places an incredible amount of faith in this vision of what might have been, of what (now) partially is. Part of this documentary’s allure is that it is basically a testimony on the part of its maker (and many of those interviewed) of faith. This is a profound kind of power, and what has resonated with me in contemplating it is that there is still room in the world for prophetic vision. But it is a vision tainted with profound egoistic ambition, something manifest in Jodorowsky’s own persona, but also in Pavich’s attempts to (re)create, in some way, a sense of his prophet-cinema.
Not only does Jodorowsky’s Dune uncritically bow to this imagined prophet, but it repeats its message and libidinal urgency without reflection. In times past, we called this zealotry; in modern parlance, ideology. So what ideology is at the core of Jodorowsky’s Dune? Love? Sacrifice? Ambition? Given how many of Jodorowsky’s own spiritual warriors claim that even they did not fully understand what Dune was to be, and given how much emphasis is placed on the unconventionality and uniqueness of his vision, what seems to be most apparent in the film is the amount of implicit faith placed in radicalism itself. Only a mad genius may possess enough charisma to persuade particular individuals of his vision’s power, but what sustains Jodorowsky’s Dune is the sheer awe with which the auteur’s distance from the mainstream is regarded, and the degree to which his radicalism is, in itself, a measure of the unmade film’s probable greatness. What I think separates this documentary from something approaching a religious experience is that while religion proper structures its weirdness and radicalness in the world in rituals and affirmations of doctrinal distinction, there is nothing holding faith in Jodorowsky’s Dune together except a generalized faith in its radicalism. Without the film, though, without even access to its pre-production bible, most of its acolytes, including Pavich, can contemplate the object of their faith from positions of relative comfort. They never have to contend with either its actual being or any sort of ritualized structure. Those animated storyboards are the closest thing believers now have, but they pose no threat precisely because they are not-fully-realized. Their fragmentary nature, scattered throughout the structure of this film, affirm Dune as unrealized, something that is so radical, it defies realization. The conspiratorial cast of the interview subjects when they are asked why it never came to fruition confirms this: people were simply too afraid of Jodorowsky’s vision. They feared something that was never even clear to the people who were physically putting the film together. Thus is is that the faithful get to affirm their commitment to radicalism without having to articulate what, exactly, was so radical about what it was that Jodorowsky was trying to do. There is no material core for this faith outside of the pre-production bible and Jodorowsky himself. Ironically, it is probably better for Jodorowsky’s Dune never to have existed, for how else could it remain pristinely radical for forty years, unless it never had to contend with the vagaries of actual existence?