Jodorowsky's Dune, as it turns out, is my favorite kind of Alejandro Jodorowsky movie: one not made by Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the abstract — described by a fan, or paid tribute by Kanye — the Chilean director's films sound like the coolest thing ever: assaultive aggregations of blood-soaked mysticism, Grand Guignol, spaghetti Westerns and comic-book mythology, rendered in lavishly designed, ritualistic imagery. What's not to love? Until I actually watched El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre — and found mostly heavy-handed symbolism and sideshow-huckster gawkery, held together by the sensibility I'd expect from a bogus guru putting the make on starry-eyed acolytes.
But if talking a Jodorowsky movie is a lot more fun than watching one, let it be said that nobody talks a better one than Jodorowsky himself. The then-84-year-old director is a galvanizing presence in Frank Pavich's documentary, which belongs to an irresistible subgenre (like Lost in La Mancha, Inferno and It's All True) that tells the stories behind movies that were never made or completed. Among such projects, few have built more of a legend over the years than Jodorowsky's planned 1975 adaptation of the Frank Herbert science-fiction classic Dune.
Then a hot commodity from the cult cachet of El Topo and its follow-up The Holy Mountain (whose adherents included John Lennon and Mick Jagger), the writer-director, backed by his indulgent producer Michel Seydoux, began assembling a pre-production team of conceptual heavyweights: artists Jean "Moebius" Girard, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, special-effects supervisor Dan O'Bannon. Those interviewed describe being swept along by the filmmaker's passion and grandiose vision, and it's easy to see why: The Jodorowsky who describes the project for Pavich's camera is a funny, lively, snake-charming seducer, not the scowling messiah of his starring roles.
He's also a terrific raconteur, with a portfolio of great anecdotes about, say, his battle of wits and outrageous demands with active saboteur Salvador Dali, or trying to woo a dismissive Orson Welles to the project. And the minutely detailed drawings, conceptual designs and storyboards (augmented with animation that suggests the vastness of Jodorowsky's vision) are never less than tantalizing, especially for students of Heavy Metal-era '70s retro-futurism. But do they convince you that the world lost a masterpiece? Well, no. The more you see and hear of the project, the more unwieldy it seems — although Pavich convincingly draws connections between the images in the enormous bound volume Jodorowsky sent to studios and elements of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Alien (which is unimaginable without O'Bannon and Giger).
Interestingly, one movie they don't seem to have influenced is David Lynch's Dune, which The Belcourt has cleverly programmed as a midnight movie Friday and Saturday for comparison's sake. Reviled back in 1984 (with no small amount of schadenfreude from Jodorowsky) and poorly served by one of the most staggeringly inept hack jobs in the history of edited-for-TV maulings, it's largely bewildering. But as a feast of textures, hallucinatory visions and obsessive directorial whims — man alive. Steampunk avant la lettre, architecturally fascinating in the discrete designs of the different planets, it's a vividly imagined work on a ginormous scale by a huge and idiosyncratic talent. It's even marked by zestily bizarre character turns: Kenneth McMillan's pustulated gasbag of a villain, Brad Dourif, Sting (!), Dean Stockwell displaying damage long before his run-in with the candy-colored clown. Sounds great, huh?
If you were only hearing about it, it would. But Lynch's Dune is a laughingstock to a lot of people. And yet the main difference between Lynch's and Jodorowsky's — that Lynch's got made — is the reason Lynch's malingers as a punchline, while Jodorowsky's will continue to swell and expand in legend. It can't compete with the version in your head, and hence it's perfect. His unmade Dune will never be sullied by tacky special-effects limitations, or clashes with moneymen, or imperfect casting decisions, or all the other elements that corrupt a beautiful unrealized ideal as soon as a director tries to commit it to film. In the process of pinning the butterfly, you kill the butterfly. See Jodorowsky's Dune and Lynch's Dune back to back this weekend, and you may come away thinking Jodorowsky comes out the winner — precisely because he lost.