Sunday, December 21, 2014

Catching Up: "Jodorowsky's Dune"

 4 / 5 

Jodorowsky's Dune (available on demand) is a terrific documentary for film lovers that saves its best, most impressive observations for the final few minutes -- observations that reveal why it's Chilean filmmaker's Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated adaptation of the Frank Herbert's novel Dune, not Star Wars, that may be the most influential sci-fi movie of the past 40 years.

Like many of those who worked on Jodorowsky's movie, I've never read Dune.  Though I saw David Lynch's maligned 1984 film version, that was no help -- I still know virtually nothing about the novel's plot, though it's impossible not to be aware of the ways in which Dune inspired a generation of readers.

According to Jodorowsky's Dune, the plot wasn't the point anyway.  The vision was the thing, and in that, Dune was a perfect match for the surrealist, anarchic filmmaker.

Beginning with his early films, little seen but widely admired among film cognoscenti, Jodorowsky's rise from obscurity paralleled the global auteur movement.  Well-represented here by numerous clips, his movies were the kind that make mainstream movie buffs itch: heavily symbolic, saturated with colors and clunky visual effects, they eschewed standard narratives and experimented with the nature of cinema in ways that Hollywood never dared.  The IMDB description of his 1970 film El Topo reads: "El Topo (the mole) claims to be God, while dressed as a gunfighter in black, riding a horse through a spiritual, mystical landscape strewn with old Western movie, and ancient Eastern religious symbols."

I'd like to be the kind of person who appreciates those films; maybe you just had to be there.

Yet, those films attracted ardent fans and propelled Jodorowsky to turn his attention to Dune. Flamboyant, truculent, free-thinking and filled with the sort of self-importance that is simultaneously infuriating and wildly endearing, Jodorowsky's Dune largely lets the filmmaker tell his own story, abetted by interviews with other artists he sucked into his orbit.

Chief among these are artist Chris Foss, designer H.R. Giger, late visual effects pioneer and writer Dan O'Bannon, and Jean ("Moebius") Giruad.

For those who grew up watching sci-fi movies in the 1970s, those names are legend, and if it weren't for Jodorowsky, many of them might never have crossed over into the Hollywood mainstream.

The film itself was a bloated, delusional, extraordinary mess -- a movie so simultaneously brilliantly and poorly conceived that it was doomed to failure.  Jodorowsky's vision was impossible to realize on film (among other problems: the movie would have been about 20 hours long), but got so far into development that a massive "look book" containing a galaxy of visual ideas and completed storyboards was widely circulated around Hollywood studios.

Jodorowsky's Dune uses many of these images to pull together a rudimentary sort of test reel of imagery, from the astonishingly complex shot that would have opened Dune to many of its key action sequences.

Whether or not you know Dune as a novel (or as that ill-fated David Lynch film), it's fascinating stuff for film lovers, and these newly constructed snippets of Jodorowsky's never-made film would be enough to recommend the documentary.

But director Frank Pavich goes a notable step further. Who knows exactly who saw those original Dune look books?  Certainly enough people, Pavich argues, that Jodorowsky's Dune became one of the most widely imitated, visually influential films of the 1970s.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 to Prometheus just a couple of years ago, the work that Giger, Foss, Giraud and others did on Dune seeped into the visual vocabulary of film, and in its final few minutes, Jodorowsky's Dune is revelatory in its side-by-side comparisons of the production designs for Dune and many of the films that went on to define science-fiction.

In that regard, Jodorosky's Dune is a can't-miss film for anyone who loves the movies.  It begins as a routine examination of a lesser-known filmmaker, and ends up making the compelling case that he may be the most imitated and most influential director whose movie never saw the light of a projector.

Viewed Dec. 20, 2014 -- On-Demand

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