Looking Back – Jodorowsky’s Dune

Originally posted 25th Dec 2013 – Updated 17th May 2014

It being the time of year where everyone is looking back and compiling lists, I’m struggling to do the same.  This year has been an odd one to say the least.  The opening seven months being the happiest I can remember.  Not wanting to descend into hyperbole, it was an amazing time and while the seeds for its end were being sowed, I can say without doubt that I never thought I’d find that joy in my life.  However, it’s course ran, and while I wish I could have acted on a few things differently, August bought a sea change and, frankly, a measure of time to fill and wait for it to pass.  The Good Doctor famously said in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”

Well the ticket for this ride has certainly been expensive and surprisingly heavy, but the light at the end of the tunnel, or at least the train coming the other way, certainly is closer.  The other side scares me, if I’m honest.  This “forced conscious expansion” or “temporary enforced sabbatical”, depending on your point of view, holds an unknown, a few in fact, and that worries me more than the pains of the present.  Tune in… Freak out..  Get beaten?  Well, I think the beaten part has happened…

LLF tickets keeping a Remy Martin Sidecar cool at Opium Chinatown

It was with this mindset that I went to see a film at the London Film Festival.  Arriving early, I swung by Opium Chinatown for Dim Sum and the final day of London Cocktail Week.  Opium was hosting a night with Remy Martin Cognac and it would have been rude not to pop in for a Sidecar or two.  Fully fuelled, I headed off to my date with Alejandro Jodorowsky.  My first film at this year’s LFF was Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune .  This is the tale of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the screen in the ’70s.  Alejandro Jodorowsky is a Chilean filmmaker who is mostly remembered for two films he made in the early 1970’s, El Topo and The Holy Mountain.  The later film I’ve never seen, but El Topo  I have.  Is it any good?  I have no idea…  Is it an experience?  Yes, at least four of them.  It is a very tripy western staring Jodorowsky himself and, well, just see it, its rather hard to explain.  The story of Jodorowsky’s Dune is one of the famous “what-if” movies in film history.  People mostly talk about Kubrick’s Napoleon, Welles’ Heart of Darkness or Kurosawa’s Masque of the Red Death (we got Kagemusha in exchange for that, so not such a great loss) as the great films that never were, but Jodorowsky’s Dune was an epic attempt at adaptation, and not a frame was shot.  It only exists as a bound collection of storyboards in Jodorowsky’s house.  The film opens with Nicolas Winding Refn telling the tale of going to Jodorowsky’s house for dinner and after the meal being shown Dune.  He was sat down and over a few bottles of wine, Jodorowsky took Refn, shot-by-shot, through his Dune.  Lets face facts here, if you’ve seen Bronson or Drive, you already hate Refn a little bit, the man is supremely talented.  By the end of Jodorowsky’s Dune you hate him just a little bit more for the experience of being the only person who has seen Dune.  Why am I saying this?  Firstly, the production team Jodorowsky assembled is incredible.  Dan O’Bannon for the special effects, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud (better known to most as Moebius) and H.R. Geiger where brought in to design the world.

Chris Foss' Artwork for Dune - "Pirate Spaceship, spilling spice."

Chris Foss’ Artwork for Dune – “Pirate Spaceship, spilling spice.”

For the cast, Jodorowsky cast his son, Brontis, as Paul Atreides.  Nepotism aside, Brontis ended an amazing training program of martial arts to be ready.  The rest of the cast?  Salvdor Dali as the Emperor and Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen.  Impressive and mental?  Wait for the rest.  David Carradine and Mick Jagger where all lined up too.  Oh, and Pink Floyd where going to provide some of the music too.  All of that is impressive, but hardly a mark on the man leading the charge, Jodorowsky’s passion, even with 40 years between the telling and the attempt, permeates the film and, by extension, you.

I’m not going to explain much more, other than to say that Jodorowsky’s Dune is the best film I’ve seen all year.  But not because I’m a geek or Dune fan.  I sat there and was astonished by the joy Alejandro Jodorowsky had for film and his project that never happened.  By the end of the film, I could see why he assembled such a team that still spoke in reverential terms of the time they spent together.  Hell, I felt like I would do anything for him!  Frank Pavich has crafted a beautiful film that captures a moment and the passion of his subject that left me touched and humbled.  Dune seems to be the whale to Jodorowsky’s Ahab, but unlike Ahab, he seems to carry that disappointment with pride and a determination to continue his art.  His latest filmThe Dance of Reality premièred at Cannes alongside Jodorowsky’s Dune.  

The documentary ends with shots of what happened next with the team from Dune.  O’Bannon went on to write Alien, that Geiger famously designed.  But there is a montage of shots from Dune’s storyboards to places we have seen on the big screen, in many films, right down to Prometheus.  In a round about way, maybe we have seen Jodorowsky’s Dune after all. 

It has been a long time since I was truly touched by a film.  I’ve watched quite a few since August…  Sometimes a moment needs to be just right to get something.  I had a moment with this touching film, seeing everything that an artist worked for fall apart, then rebuild and return to yet another standing ovation, as Jodorowsky received at Cannes.  I’ve bought my ticket and I have no idea where it is going to take me.  The destination I thought I’d eventually arrive at, is no long where I’m going and I am scared about where I’ll end up.  But, there is scared and there is scared, I think I’m the later type.

H.R. Giger's concept art for House Harkonnen's dome in Jodorowky's Dune.  The concept was reused 40 years later in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

H.R. Giger’s concept art for House Harkonnen’s dome in Jodorowky’s Dune.  The concept was reused 40 years later in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

UPDATE:  On the 12th of May came the news that H.R. Giger had died following complications from a fall in Zürich.  Having grown up with his creations haunting my dreams and nightmares it is odd to think of him no longer with us.  But his incredible body of work will be with us forever, as will his “perfect organism” coiling down from the rafters of the Nostromo to terrify and delight many more generations of film geeks and aficionados alike.

The Telegraph’s H. R. Giger Obituary  

The Guardian’s Flim Blog retrospective on H. R. Giger

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