Ever wanted to be pencil dust? The flakes that fall from charcoal as it glides over parchment, on its way to creating…something? Ever wanted to drown in pigment, fathoms of color so deep they quiet everything but the part of you that remembers we are all oceans inside? Then watch Jodorowsky’s Dune. Frank Pavich’s marvel of a documentary mythologizes one of the greatest films never made – at least not by Jodorowsky. But what it is really about is about is the Orgasm of Try – the compulsion to create, how we navigate reality and the sacred importance of going for it, no matter the outcome.

The Jodorowsky of Pavich’s film is Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-French artist whose career spans six surrealist decades. The Dune is that Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 mythic masterpiece about a consciousness-expanding spice and the inter-galactic power struggles it inspires. Must have been something about the sixties. It was in that decade and into the Me Generation of the seventies that Jodorowsky created surrealist plays and films that were so controversial, they caused riots. And that was just the beginning.

Scenes from Jodorowsky’s early films (left to right): Fando Y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973).

Jodorowsky’s controversial images and ideas achieved cult status and sparked international success, leading French producer Michele Seydoux to fund anything the director wanted for his next film. “Jodo” didn’t hesitate: “I say, ‘Dune!’”[1] Jodorowsky had never read Herbert’s novel but no matter. Much like Kubrick’s translation of King’s The Shining, Jodorowsky’s Dune is not Frank Herbert’s Dune. An artist and alchemist, Jodo’s vision was unbound even by its own epic source material:

There is an artist, only one in the medium of a million other artists, which only once in his life, by a species of divine grace, receives an immortal topic, a MYTH… I say “receives” and not “creates” because the works of art its received in a state of mediumnity directly of the unconscious collective. Work exceeds the artist… by receiving the impact of the Myth…I felt an enthusiastic admiration towards Herbert and at the same time in conflict…I had received a version of Dune and I wanted to transmit it: the Myth was to give up the literary form and to become Image…”[2]

This is the very nature of the creative process, or what Jodorowsky has called receptivity.

“I Need to Find the Warriors”

Jodorowsky is more than a filmmaker and I have no qualms calling him a prophet. He has created films, graphic novels, a reimagining of the Tarot, new approaches to psychotherapy and massage and, until fairly recently, was still giving free Sunday lectures and readings at Paris’s great Café Le Téméraire. He is a creatively indestructible man who, at the age of 90, is still spreading his gospel of liberation on social media as he documents his daily recovery from hip replacement surgery.

But the early 1970s saw a very different Jodorowsky: “My ego at that time was in a prison.” Despite the freedom his surrealist film-making vision would imply, Jodo wanted to do more: “I wanted to create a prophet, to change all the young minds of the world.” That which we want for others we often need for ourselves. “[T]he goal of the life..It’s to create yourself a soul.” Jodorowsky set about creating and saving his through Dune, a film adaptation that would require “spiritual warriors”– actors, musicians, visual artists and technicians as invested in the vision as he was, or at the very least intrigued enough to come along for the ride. Jodo found them all, many through chance encounters one can only call synchronicity. Some warriors were instinctively drawn to Jodorowsky, as if by magnetic field. This included Mick Jagger – who locked eyes with the director across a crowded bar and without a moment’s hesitation answered Yes when Jodo asked him to be in his film.

Dune’s other warriors – Salvador Dali and Orson Welles – needed personal seduction. Dali subjected Jodorowsky to a multi-continent initiation until Jodo met the painter’s final demand: to make him the highest-paid actor of all time. It worked.[3] Jodo wooed Welles with food, meals prepared for him each day by the chef of Welles’ favorite French restaurant. Dali and Welles proved that some of Jodorowsky’s spiritual warriors were very much human. Jodo’s warriors would also include his 12-year-old son Brontis in the role of Dune’s boy-prophet Paul. To play Paul, Brontis became Paul, undergoing years of daily physical and mental training during the film’s development cycle. Anything to create the prophet.

Dune’s Spiritual Warriors (top to bottom): Mick Jaggar as Feyd Rautha, Salvador Dali as the Mad Emperor of the Galaxy and Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen

Then there were the primary artists: Dan O’ Bannon, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss. O’Bannon was to create the special effects, Geiger the dark world of Dune’s Harkonnen, and Foss the film’s “living” spaceships. That trio might sound familiar. They would eventually work together on Ridley Scott’s Alien, the delayed culmination of the work they had developed for Jodorowsky. Revolution is always better late (and Oscar-winning) than never.

The final piece of the puzzle was acclaimed French illustrator Jean Giraud a/k/a Moebius. For Jodorowsky, Moebius created at his famed lightning speed more than 3,000 individual drawings for Dune. As Jodo unfolded his vision, Moebius DREW the entire movie – frame by frame, shot by shot – the final product an epic, hard-bound storyboard that was used the shop the film to Hollywood.

Moebius’s drawings, and the paintings of Geiger and Foss, ignite the singularity of Frank Pavich’s documentary about the fight to make Dune. Animators Syd Garon and Paul Griswold bring the Dune storyboard to life – layering images to create dimensionality, movement, life and offering a glimpse of how wondrous the film would have been. The extraterrestrial glow flashing from the ink and paper of Foss’s brilliantly colored ships. The darkened depths of Geiger’s Harkonnen world. The penciled worlds of Giraud. All of it will stop you dead in your tracks, reminding you to look for wonder and know that it is everywhere.

Feeling saved? Get ready to die. Because Dune as Jodorowsky imagined it collapsed just a few million short of the finish line because Hollywood didn’t like him. They loved the daring and unique project, but not the daring, unique man who was its heart. Jodo’s understandable unwillingness to chop the film to 90 minutes may have had something to do with it, preferring instead a cinematic experience with no limits: “I will make a picture of 12 hours! Or 20 hours!” And so, like that (!), in the words of Director Nicholas Winding Refn, the project “evaporated into a billion small black pieces of space.”

“The Radiant Abyss”

And so, there are two theatrical release versions of the movie Dune: the one David Lynch made and the one Alejandro Jodorowsky made. The first you can see, the other you really can only imagine. Jodorowsky’s Dune exists in a virtual reality. In fact, the moving images Pavich uses to tell the story of its making even replicate the Virtual Reality (VR) experience – a close-as-it-gets liberation from the physical plane that activates simultaneously the sensing and thinking parts of your brain. VR is a unique opportunity to experience fragmentation as serenity, the kind that doesn’t rend you to bits. The best description I can give of both VR and watching Jodorowsky’s Dune is one of weightlessness. Pavich’s presentation moves you through layers of creative expression in a way that might make you remember what it was like to be formed: cells moving toward one another; compelled by dreams of tissue, organ and bone; like joining like while separate systems adhere and maintain their identities.

I first experienced VR at Nashville’s Frist Art Center at an interpretive station within the museum’s Chaos and Awe exhibit. It was a perfect pairing. The exhibit – designed to show painting’s continued relevance in a data-driven digitized world – whispers to us that information is not knowledge and most certainly isn’t “knowing.” That realization is not only inevitable, but preferable. In the companion book to the exhibit, Frist Chief Curator Mark W. Scala writes of the need to “navigate this sea of fear and possibility”[4] by seeing “…instability and chaos as opportunities to expand our perceptions of knowledge, intuition, and spirituality.”[5]

Scala references numerous artists on this phenomena, including Wislawa Symborska and Matthew Ritchie, and their work on the “psychic value of unknowability”[6] and the “radiant abyss”[7] of the universe. Scala further quotes Philip Shaw who writes of “the moment when the ability to apprehend, to know, and to express a thought or sensation is defeated. Yet through this very defeat, the mind gets a feeling for that which lies beyond thought and language.’”[8]

In other words, sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Things don’t always turn out, no matter how hard we try. We have to find a way to be okay with that. To make and sell Dune, Jodo articulated its entire creative expanse. Moebius created thousands of drawings paired with an entire film’s worth of dialogue. And it “failed.” Sometimes, even in articulation, we do not have our end.

Apart/Together?: Scenes of the unknowable from Chaos and Awe (top to bottom): Corrine Wasmuht, Biblioteque/CDG-BSL (2011); Barbara Takenaga, Black Triptych, 2016

The Orgasm of Try

It must have been excruciating, the end of Dune. Like delivering a still-born child. But Jodo’s child was reborn in another form. Many years after Dune collapsed Jodo with his trusty Moebius created the graphic novel series L’Incal, as well as The Metabarons with Spanish artist Juan Gimenez. And their images still whisper, in the words of Jodo’s son Brontis, I am Dune.

In the decades since Dune, Jodorowsky has created dozens of graphic works, novels, nonfiction explorations of spirituality and psychomagic and yes, more movies. Today, you can find him on social media, a self-described “crazy old man” who is still creating and wondering at it all:

“The Dune project changed our life. When it was over, [Dan] O’Bannon entered a psychiatric hospital. Afterwards, he returned to the fight with rage and wrote twelve scripts which were refused. The thirteenth one was Alien…Like him, all those who took part in the rise and fall of the Dune project learned how to fall one and one thousand times with savage obstinacy until learning how to stand. I remember my old father who, while dying happy, said to me: “My son, in my life, I triumphed because I learned how to fail”.[9]

Not every climax produces a child. The Orgasm of Try does produce, however, something luminous. Failure, as a construct, just doesn’t hold up. Jodorowsky couldn’t agree more:

“Why you not have ambition? Why? Have the greatest ambition possible. You want to be immortal? Fight to be immortal! Do it! You want to make the most fantastic art of movie? Try! If you fail, it’s not important. You need to try.”

What’s your Dune? I hope there has been at least one and that there will be many more. Maybe you think you’re not creative, that that’s for other people. If you’ve lived this long without going mad or staying that way, you are a creator – a virtual reality warrior, ready to move through life’s layers whether they’re meshed, fragmented, or a little bit of both. I used to think that was not possible but that is a lie. In the end, try is how life expresses itself. Even if you don’t work in charcoal, pigment or celluloid, you handle the flame. There is beauty in that.

[1] Unless otherwise cited, all quotes are from: Jodorowsky’s Dune. Dir. Frank Pavich. Sony Pictures Classics, 2013.

[2] Jodorowsky, Alejandro. “The Dune You Will Never See.” Dune Behind the Scenes. www.duneinfo.com/unseen/jodorowsky. Accessed 2/3/20.

[3] Jodo ultimately offered Dali $100,000 a minute, a financing feat he and producer Seydoux would pull off by limiting the painter’s screen time and using a look-alike animatronic head to act in most of his scenes.

[4] Scala, Mark W. “Introduction.” Chaos and Awe: Painting in the 21st Century, edited by Mark W. Scala, The MIT Press, 2018.

[5] Scala, Mark W. Book Flap. Ibid.

[6] Scala, Mark W. “Introduction.” Ibid.

[7] Ritchie, Matthew. “A Gate, A Key, An Ocean.” Ibid.

[8] Shaw, Philip. The Sublime. Routledge, 2006, p. 3. Quoted in Chaos & Awe: Painting in the 21st Century.

[9] Jodorowsky, Alejandro. “The Dune You Will Never See.” Dune Behind the Scenes. www.duneinfo.com/unseen/jodorowsky. Accessed 2/3/20.