As I’ve said in previous reviews, I love watching artists be passionate about their art. True artists create not because they want to, but because they have to. As one of the interviewees says in Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, “You can’t make a masterpiece without madness.” The work of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is certainly mad, but the documentary is welcomely sane as the acclaimed director takes us on a journey that guides us through the imagination and inspiration of he and his collaborators to build what ended up being called “the greatest film never made.” But as we look at the storyboards, the concept art, the exacting detail and, most of all, Jodorowsky’s passion, we can’t help but ask, “Can you make a film without the film?”
Walking in to Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was worried I would be out of my depth. Of his filmography, I had only seen El Topo, and it didn’t work for me. I didn’t think it was a bad movie; it just didn’t connect with me, and I had no impulse to seek out his other work. Furthermore, I hadn’t read Frank Herbert’s Dune. Thankfully, neither is an impediment. Within the first ten minutes, the movie adeptly provides Jodorowsky’s background, the tone of his pictures, and a brief synopsis of Dune. From there, it’s all about the director’s drive to realize his vision and create something that could have possibly changed the course of cinema.
Just as Jodorowsky’s Dune is staggering in his vision—film critic Devin Faraci points out that it may have been impossible to make due to limits of technology in 1975—the director gleefully recounts seeking out the people to help him realize that vision. Pavich keeps upping the stakes when it comes to how Jodorowsky tracked down these fellow artists. Jodorowsky may be the “visionary” but his excitement is tempered with humility as he sings the praises of artists Moebius, Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss, and H.R Giger. But that motley crew is only the tip of the iceberg as Jodorowsky mentions casting Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and even Salvador Dali. The guiding and encouraging principle of Jodorowsky’s pre-production is “Why not?” And if someone like special effects guru Douglas Trumbull doesn’t want to play, good riddance! Someone else will get to join in the fun!
Jodorowsky’s energy is infectious, and that’s why it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen his previous movies or read Dune (even Jodorowsky admits that when he first decided to make the film he hadn’t read the book). Jodorowsky could have been adapting Yurtle the Turtle, and you sense that he would still bring the same passion and drive. It’s just that Dune provided a canvas like no other. We get the sense that Jodorowsky feels like this is the movie he was born to make.
As we see more of the storyboards, concept art, and explanations of what Jodorowsky wanted, Pavich raises the question: what does it mean for Jodorowsky’s Dune to exist? If we can see all the pieces and the full proposal, then hasn’t a large part of the work been done? Pavich and Jodorowsky tell us the vision, so how essential are the finished visuals? Personally, I believe that Jodorowsky’s Dune is unmade, and even if a studio had funded the picture, the clash of egos on set would have been staggering. What Pavich shows us is a film in its ideal form except for the film part. If Dune had ever gotten in front of cameras, even with all the positive collaboration and meticulous planning, there’s no accounting for the unexpected.
But Jodorowsky’s big movie isn’t the larger picture. The larger picture is the emphasis on the dream rather than its reality. The dream feels real when we’re in it, and while I’m not a big enough fan of Jodorowsky or the book to lament the project’s demise, everyone can understand the frustration of pouring your heart and soul into a work and hearing that your heart and soul do not fit into preconceived notions of what a movie could be. Jodorowsky isn’t just stunned that a studio wouldn’t want to make his movie; he’s stunned that a film couldn’t be “12 hours! Or 20 hours!” This statement makes us realize that Jodorowsky isn’t just playing on an entirely different level visually, but he’s questioning the arbitrary conventional boundaries of the medium. In this way, Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fitting exploration of finding a new approach to an untold story. His documentary lets us walk into an artist’s mind and not find reckless insanity, but an exciting lunacy that provides inspiration and feeds imagination.