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Jodorowsky’s Dune and the power of the unmade

September 18, 2014

Jodorowskys-Dune-PosterI saw Jodorowsky’s Dune recently, and in many ways it feels like a film I was predisposed to love – it’s about unmade things, the elusive travel of ideas, and it tells a story that, eventually, leads to David Lynch.

Jodorowsky’s Dune, if you don’t know, is a documentary made about an elaborate but abortive attempt to film Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel in the 1970s, led by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The project falls into that tradition of post-studio system international filmmaking where, slipped from the leash of Hollywood authority, characters of great charisma and uncertain reliability gathered momentum for grand follies-in-the-making (Terry Gilliam seems drawn – or forced – into this space frequently, and there’s something about the ambition and the financial fragility of these projects that shouts “fiasco!”)

The simplest story the documentary tells a about a passionate storyteller enrolling a supergroup of artists, actors and collaborators, convinced that he has the chance to make a film that can change the world (or at least to convince us that he’s convinced, because Jodorowsky is roguish and it’s difficult to tell). But to me the film is more importantly about the perfection of things not made or finished, and also the idea that “made” is a more fluid term than we might normally recognise.

This is evidenced by the existence of the documentary itself, a tribute to the never-realised (and so never tested, but crucially never dispelled) possibilities of Jodorowsky’s film. This is the hook of the unmade, the seductiveness of what might have been – there is a power to the unfinished text because of its perfect potential. Although it’s also impossible to watch the documentary without realising that in a way – in several ways – Jodorowsky’s Dune has been made. The director put together a comprehensive and meticulous storyboard with the illustrator Jean Giraud (Jodorowsky offhandedly describes the creation of the book as “shooting”, and Nicolas Winding Refn describes having it performed to him by Jodorowsky) while the documentary itself breathes a basic life into some of these sequences, which are animated using the original drawings.

Most compellingly, though, the creative energy gathered and prepared by Jodorowsky was, after the collapse of his Dune, released into the industry and dispersed among various projects. His unmade film was hugely influential – not just, as the documentary comes close to suggesting, because his storyboards did the rounds of the Hollywood studios, but, I prefer to think, because of the way ideas and creativity crackle and leap, the way relationships are formed and the unbound potential of projects manifests itself as things finished and appreciable.

There’s no coincidence in how tightly the offshoots of Jodorowsky’s project remained entwined. The key figures – Giraud, as well as effects designer Dan O’Bannon and artists HR Giger and Chris Foss – worked on Ridley Scott’s Alien shortly afterwards. And the documentary doesn’t mention that following Alien Scott then dallied with Dune himself, working with Giger in pre-production before leaving to make Blade Runner, where he wanted to work with Giraud (who declined) and did work with Douglas Trumbull (who had turned Jodorowsky down a few years earlier), a beautiful symmetry of near-misses and connections.

(Actually, proving both that the internal workings of my mind are very obvious and yet often remain hidden from me, I wrote similarly about the perseverance of ideas in this recent post about Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is particularly relevant because Chris Foss designed some of the ships for that, too. An irresistible aside: in Simon Parkin’s piece for the New Yorker – which simply calls Guardians “a new Marvel film” – Foss says “To be truthful, I didn’t bother asking which film I was there for. I just drew spaceships, which is all most people seem to want from me.”)

Eventually Dune did get made, with Scott replaced by David Lynch (there’s a wonderful moment when Jodorowsky remembers seeing Lynch’s film, and his ecstasy as he realises it’s a disaster). In a fairly direct way this leaves Blade Runner, released in 1982, and Dune, released in 1984, as the final, manifested product of Jodorowsky’s project. Except, of course, neither film has a definitive ‘final’ form – they’ve both been famously subject to repeated re-edits amid studio interference and audience speculation about lost cuts and what might have been. This is the same wisftul force that surrounds Jodorowsky’s Dune. Even when things are made, they are subject to the power and potential of the unmade.

What I get from all this, and why I value the documentary, is that it makes it possible to see all production, and all creativity, as a constant, unending process, one that is shaped occasionally into finite forms by the intervention of industry and circumstance. And sometimes the pressure of these interventions, and the fragility of the things being created, results in a formal instability – Dune’s TV edit, the five versions of Blade Runner included on the blu-ray release and, I probably shouldn’t add because this post is longer than I wanted but I will anyway, the three versions of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which was made at the same time as Dune but released a year later following a running battle with Universal).

Watch it for all these reasons. And watch it because Jodorowsky himself is a consummate storyteller – he seems almost compelled to tell stories – who remains passionate, sly and wonderful even his 80s  (another Gilliam link is that it’s hard to watch Jodorowsky rage at the shortsightedness of the industry without calling to mind Don Quixote). Watch it.

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