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The Greatest Story Never Told: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’

“Many prophets have failed, their voices silent. Ghost-shouts in basements nobody heard.” – Allen Ginsberg (“Ode to Failure”)

Greetings and salutations, fellow Fridge Nukers! Bradfield here, reporting from a disabled Spice freighter, somewhere near the edges of the beautiful, scenic center of the galaxy.

The adaptation of Frank Herbert‘s classic science fiction novel, Dune, has been, to say the least, as problematic for filmmakers as the adaptations of it are frustrating for fans of the perennial scifi favorite. To date, there have been two: David Lynch’s 1984 film, which like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, has been pinched, prodded and “special edition-ed” on home video, so that the director’s original intent (in the case of Lynch’s Dune, a five hour plus movie) and vision are preserved; and a 2000 mini-series only seen in this country on SyFy channel (when it was still “SciFi” Channel). Both versions have their moments, yet capturing Dune in a version that completely satisfies its millions of fans remains elusive.

Alejandro Jodorowsky (left) and a friend (center) making the rounds in Hollywood in the mid-70s

Enter Chilean/French comic book writer and filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky is not unfamiliar to fans of both comics and films. As a director, Jodorowsky out Fellinis Fellini as the king supreme of surreal cinema, with cult classics like El Topo and The Holy Mountain under his belt. However, perhaps more relevant to Fridge Nukers in the know, Jodorowsky is the author of such groundbreaking comics as The Incal (which was recently announced as a major motion picture), TechnoPriests, and The Metabarons – with frequent collaborator, conceptual/comics artist, Moebius. All classics of modern European comics.

And in the mid-70s, while Star Wars was just another obscure synopsis in the minds, and on the desks, of myopic studio executives, there was actually an attempt to adapt Dune for the silver screen – helmed by Jodorowsky. This version, for various reasons, eventually fell apart, and at (pretty much) the last minute, five million dollars shy of the necessary launch money. However, had the chips fallen differently, it’s a very real possibility that, if you were a kid in the 70s, your Kenner Luke Skywalker and Han Solo figures would have been occupying your bedroom shelf space along side the House of Atreides.

Separate artists/designers, as well as musical acts, were assigned to specific planets. Here, legendary book cover artist, Chris Foss’ take on the House of Atriedes…

The attempt is chronicled in a new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. The film debuted this year at Cannes, and like Escape From Tomorrow at Sundance, has developed a steady word of mouth campaign from the precious few who got to see it. Its US debut was at the Telluride Film Festival, but in LA, it was part of AFI Fest this week, and thanks to Sony Pictures Classics, will be in limited release early next year. If you’re a fan of the book, this film is, needless to say, essential. If, like me, you haven’t read the book, but have seen the movies and/or have a passing familiarity with the material, don’t worry. You’re in good company, for it appears that very few of the key players involved with this beautiful and glorious “failure” read it as well – including Jodorowsky himself.

I do have one big problem with the film: it is a brilliantly done “making of” for a film that exists only on paper, and in the minds of a handful of people. That is to say, if, for example, you watch a documentary about the making of Star Wars, you can turn around and watch , Star Wars. There IS/WAS a book (rather, a gargantuan tome) for the film compiled by Jodorowsky, the artists, and the producers, to help studio executives see the full scope and grandeur of the project, yet it hasn’t been reproduced for a mass market, and the remaining copies have either been archived, or are auctioned in the same circles in which you can buy the bullet that killed JFK.

…and H.R. Giger’s take on the House of Harkonnen.

However, while this version of Dune, as described in the documentary, was not destined to be, the record of what remains is as visionary as the project itself was ambitious. Through concept art, (sometimes animated) storyboards, archive footage, and interviews, you can get a pretty good idea of how the film was to take shape. Yes, like Jodorowsky’s other films, it was going to be strange, but at the same time, probably his most accessible film. Though he hadn’t read the novel itself, Jodorowsky did have a basic idea of what the story was about, and like a lot of his films, he didn’t see this story as mere entertainment. He wanted to create, as he puts it, “a new prophet,” from a work of fiction.

And truly, one doesn’t even need to be a huge fan of Dune to appreciate this film. For those who are intrigued by a good Hollywood story (though Hollywood, here, is certainly the “bad guy”), Jodorowsky’s Dune offers plenty in the way of anecdotes guaranteed to set many a cinephile’s tongue wagging. For instance, among such inspired casting choices as David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles, Jodorowsky enlisted artist Salvador Dali (no stranger to surrealism himself) to play The Emperor of the Universe (a part, not in the book). Dali’s condition: a million dollars an hour. Not so much for the money, but because he wanted to be the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Needless to say, it was way too steep of a fee to pay to an actor, even by today’s standards. The solution? Dali would have been the highest paid actor in town at the time, at a rate of $100,000 per minute of screen time. However, he would have only been on screen for five minutes, tops.

At the end of the day, it is still a film about a failed artistic endeavor, which at its core, is not usually the stuff of a “feel good” film. However, as with anything with which Alejandro Jodorowsky is involved – “unusual” is par for the course. In its own unique way, the documentary manages to keep things light, even positive – focusing on the influence this “failure” continued to have, the lessons learned, and the natural humor drawn, particularly from the sheer ludicrousness of the eccentric personalities involved, and the almost magical way that the initial phases of the movie came together. Like the script for Night Skies, Jodorowsky’s version of Dune, remains a huge influence in the industry, despite having never been seen, let alone by a mass audience.

For more information on Jodorowsky’s Dune, including the trailer and upcoming screenings, visit the film’s homepage.