The Colonel: “Who are you to judge me?”
El Topo: “I am God!”
— Alejandro Jodorowsky: producer, director, writer, lead actor and imperial “god-king” of El Topo
Alejandro Jodorowsky is considered many things: raving lunatic, mad genius, eccentric visionary, etc. But one thing is undeniable after watching Frank Pavich‘s latest documentary, Jodorowksy’s Dune — the man is a character. What’s more, he’s great on film! Jodorowksy’s Dune follows the story of the greatest science fiction epic never made. The documentary touches on everything from Jodorowsky’s beginnings as a provocative performance artist, to his decision to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, to his project total rejection from every major Hollywood studio and his initial renouncement of filmmaking as a vessel for his esoteric, shamanistic cinematic art.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born to Jewish-Ukrainian parents in Chile. He immersed himself in books and poetry, but felt alienated as a child. He eventually dropped out of college to work as a mime before founding his own theater troupe. He went back and forth from Paris to Mexico City working on avant-garde performance art before finally turning to cinema. His first feature film, the surrealist Fando y Lis (1968), based on a film adaptation of a Fernando Arrabal play by same name, caused a huge scandal in Mexico and was subsequently banned.
His next film, El Topo (1970), would make him “father” or “god” to an entirely new film genre: the acid western. The film featured surrealist imagery, as Jodorowsky’s characteristic artistic signature, was embroiled with numerous metaphysical and philosophical themes. The success of El Topo on the midnight movie circuit in the United States was huge. Today, El Topo is widely recognized by film scholars and critics alike as the first truly cult midnight movie.
Because of the sweeping underground success of El Topo, Jodorowsky received $1 million from former Beatles member John Lennon to finance his next film. The result was The Holy Mountain (1973), a sumptuous psychedelic exploration of Western mysticism and symbolic spiritual traditions. The scope of the picture cemented Jodorowsky’s status as imaginative and innovative as it was controversial. However, due to a disagreement with the film’s distributor Allen Klein, The Holy Mountain was unable to achieve widespread commercial success.
For three years, Pavich interviewed Jodorowsky as to what happened next. After falling in love with Dune’s premise, Jodorowsky sought out such famous names as David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Udo Kier, Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, and bands Pink Floyd, Magma, and Peter Gabriel for the music. His anecdotes are outright hilarious and paint a fascinating portrait of how strangely approachable and fluid the New York underground film scene was during that time.
Pavich compiles a myriad of interviews from such sci-fi Hollywood legends as screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, concept artist Chris Foss (Alien), surrealist painter and sculptor H.R. Giger, (Alien), conceptual artist and designer Moebius, (Willow, Tron, and The Fifth Element), producer Gary Kurtz (Star Wars), and director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive and Only God Forgives) to name a few. Their work is displayed at various points in the film through a “mood book” that Jodorowsky keeps in his personal library. The mood book presents the complete script, storyboard, conceptual designs of the costumes and worlds, and much, much more.
Pavich includes animated portions of the storyboards to better convey the sense of Jodorowsky’s descriptions, done masterfully by Emmy Award nominated Syd Garon. Coupled with personal conversations with Jodorowsky himself, the audience learns of his grandiose vision and his personal struggles throughout the process. We also learn of the tragic irony that the crack team of artists Jodorowsky assembled for his project would become some of the biggest names in sci-fi Hollywood history. Yet in the face of an unrealized dream, Pavich captures the spirit of a man whose enthusiasm and charm could not be crushed just because Hollywood did not trust him.
Jodorowksy’s Dune is a catharsis for Jodorowsky that Pavich hoped would, “…impart to the audience a taste of what Jodorowsky’s version of Dune might have been like.” But what makes Pavich’s documentary so great is that it’s about more than just “Jodorowksy’s Dune”. It tells the story of a man who truly dreamed of creating a cinematic world that could fundamentally change ours for the better. Jodorowsky reveals that for him, Dune was more than just a science fiction film. He wanted to raise the consciousness of humanity: “I wanted to do a movie that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with the drug, but without hallucinating. I did not want LSD to be taken, I wanted to fabricate the drug’s effects. I wanted to create a prophet to change the young minds of the world. Dune would be the coming of an artistic, cinematical god.”
Jodorowksy’s Dune is a must not just for fans of Jodorowsky, but also for anyone who appreciates Hollywood filmmaking, as Jodorowsky’s Dune, as Pavich explores, has fingerprints all over many of the biggest films in the past twenty-five years. Films such as Alien, Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars, as Pavich explores, maintain traces of the greatest film “never” made. In this way, Jodorowky’s Dune was perhaps more cinematically prophetic than he could realize.
Jodorowksy’s Dune has already won both the Audience Award and the award for Best Documentary at Fantastic Fest 2013, and was featured in the official selection at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and Cannes – Director’s Fortnight 2013. It opens on March 7th, 2014. For more information on Jodorowsky’s Dune, please visit https://jodorowskysdune.com/.