One evening in 1974, as Orson Welles dined in his favourite Parisian restaurant, a bottle of cognac arrived at his table courtsey of one Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean film-maker locked in an ill-fated struggle to realise one of the wildest cinematic dreams ever conceived.

Jodorowsky had come to enlist Welles in a $15 million film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, Dune – an undertaking of consciousness-shifting proportions which would, Jodorowsky vowed, represent “the coming of a God.”

Jodorowsky pleaded with Welles to come out of retirement to play Dune‘s obese villain, Baron Harkonnen.  When Welles declined, Jodorowksy offered to hire the restaurant’s head chef to cook for him every evening of the shoot. With a grin, the ballooning gastronome agreed to sign the contract.

Frank Pavich’s documentary – which tells the story of how close Jodorowsky came to achieving his lunatic ambition – is stuffed full of such anecdotes.  Though destined never to reach the screen, the unmade Dune has since taken on a mythic status. Its genesis makes for an absorbing fable, evoking an era when the disruptions of the counter-culture seemed momentarily to blow open the doors of what was possible in film.

In 1974, following the cult success of his ‘acid western’ El Topo (1970) and his surrealistic freakout The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky was renowned as a high priest of bizarre cinema.  When French film producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche for his next film, the director threw himself into Dune with Messianic energy, determined to assemble a dream team of  “spiritual warriors” who could bring his plan to fruition.

With an undimmed gleam in his eye, the still sprightly 84-year-old recounts how, alongside Welles, he also managed to persuade Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, and Warhol muse Udo Kier to join the cast. Jodorowsky even cast his 14-year-old son Brontis in the role of the hero Paul Atreides, subjecting him to a punishing two-year training regime under the tutelage of a martial arts master.

No less impressive was the pre-production team, which included legendary French comic book artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger, and special effects supervisor Dan O’Bannon, who a few years later would pen the script for Ridley Scott’s Alien.  For the music, Jodorowsky recruited Pink Floyd and French prog rock troupe Magma, telling them, “I offer you the most important picture in the history of humanity!”

By 1976, Giraud had produced more than 3,000 storyboards, resulting in the now legendary ‘Dune book’ – a tome the size of a phone directory that meticulously outlined every set, scene and camera shot.

With costs spiralling, Jodorowsky took the book to a number of Hollywood studios, including Disney. Predictably perhaps, with the uncompromising director insisting on a running length of 14 hours, studio bosses got cold feet, refusing to put up the final $5 million needed to make the dream a reality.

Dune stalled until 1982, when Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis resurrected the project with David Lynch at the helm.  The version finally released in 1984 was a critical and commercial flop, with Lynch disowning the film and blaming studio interference for its failure.

Unhappy ending aside, Pavich’s film is a wide-eyed celebration of the joys of unfettered creativity.  Animator Syd Garon brings Moebius’ fabulous storyboards soaring to life, while Kurt Stenzel’s Prog/Krautrock score, reminiscent of Vangelis’ work on Bladerunner, proves an ideal soundtrack.  With the Dune book percolating around Hollywood for years afterwards, Pavich argues persuasively that after-echoes of the doomed film can be found in the DNA of a string of later landmark pictures, from Star Wars to Prometheus.

Had it come off, the documentary further speculates, Dune could have been a watershed moment that mapped out an alternative trajectory for Hollywood. By the end of the decade, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola et al had themselves reinvented the industry, but also inadvertently paved the way for the calculated sterility of the present-day blockbuster.

Jodorowsky, with his roots in absurdist theatre and surrealism, was an altogether different proposition – an outsider artist, part shaman, part holy fool.  His Dune could have been glorious. It could equally have been a debacle, or a soon-forgotten curio, like John Boorman’s Zardoz.  Either way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the finished product could never have lived up to the magnificent spectacle in Jodorowsky’s head.

“A film is a ribbon of dreams,” said Orson Welles in 1958. “Without poets, the vocabulary of film would be far too limited ever to make a true appeal to the public… If the cinema had never been fashioned by poetry, it would have remained no more than a mechanical curiosity.”

Given the moribund conservatism and creative atrophy of much of today’s film industry, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a timely homage to consuming passion, visionary ambition, and the transcendent possibilities of cinema.

 

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