So begins Frank Pavich’s brilliant documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, the story of Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s magnificent failed attempt to transform Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic into his own eccentric cinematic vision. Pavich invokes Frankl’s summons of hope and the guiding principles he regards as necessary to imbue an individual life with meaning: vital work, love, and courage in adversity.
When we first meet him, Jodorowsky issues an ultimatum: “What is the point of the life? It is to create yourself a soul!” As the film progresses, Jodorowsky will continue to make proclamations, to beseech us with questions about what it means to exist in the world – and what art means for that existence. At the end he will exhort, "Why will you not have ambition? Why? Have the greatest ambition possible. Do it! We need to try!"
“For me movies are an art, not an industry. Like art and poetry. Movies are that for me.” Jodorowsky’s creative mission is grandly ambitious: “I want to create a prophet to change the minds of the whole world. …. I want to make a god. .... My ego, my intellect. I want to open.”
It would seem all this bombast would make Jodorowsky appear wildly egotistical, a pompous jackass. Yet, in the ensuing hour and a half, we will come to know a man of ferocious intelligence, boundless energy, unbridled creativity, infinite optimism, who shows magnanimous admiration for his artistic collaborators, irresistible generosity, and an uncontainable love of life. Indeed, as his friend, the French film producer Michel Seydoux, notes, “You can’t have a masterpiece without madness.”
Let’s travel back before the film’s biography takes up his story. After two years spent studying psychology and philosophy, Jodorowsky, with a keen interest in theater and mime, left college to work as a circus clown before founding the Teatro Mimico troupe in 1947 in Santiago, Chile. In 1952, he moved to Paris, eventually joining Marcel Marceau’s troupe.
His first film, shot between 1953 and 1957, is a mime adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India. The 1940 novella explores the conflict between the spiritual and the corporeal. In Mann's novella, an intellectual merchant and an earthy young man behead themselves. The heads magically reattach but to the wrong bodies. The merchant’s wife, unable to decide which is her husband, loves both men. Les têtes interverties featured an introduction by Jean Cocteau and starred Raymond Devos, the Parisian comic known for his sophisticated punning and surreal sense of humor.
In 1960, Jodorowsky fell in love with Mexico while on tour there with Marceau’s troupe. He moved to Mexico City, where he founded the Vanguard Theater, which staged a hundred productions over the course of ten years, adapting pieces by Swedish writer August Strindberg; Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and French playwright Eugène Ionesco, both associated with Theater of the Absurd; Spanish poet and playwright Fernando Arrabal; French writer and musician Jean Tardieu; French Symbolist Alfred Jarry; British-born Mexican artist and novelist Leonora Carrington; Russian writer Nikolai Gogol; Polish novelist Franz Kafka; Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich; German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; among others.
Jodorowsky often travelled back to Paris, where his interest in Surrealism led to a meeting with André Breton, whose 1924 Surrealist Manifesto described Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
In the wake of the Surrealist Manifesto, between 1931 and 1936, Antonin Artaud, whom the doctrinaire Breton had banished from the Surrealist circle, formulated his theory – or anti-theory – of the Theater of Cruelty, intended as the catalyst that would shatter the repressive constraints of performance so that theater, like the phoenix, might be reborn in primal authenticity. The theory did not advocate violent theater, but a commitment to lay bare to audiences truths they did not want to confront.
By the time Jodorowsky met Breton, it had been 40 years since the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto, and the fire of Breton’s youthful passion had dimmed. The young Jodorowsky found Breton disappointingly conventional and Surrealism diluted by the mainstream.
In 1962, fueled by his own youthful fervor, Jodorowsky, along with Arrabel and French artist, writer, and actor Roland Torpor, founded the Panic Movement, so named for the god Pan, who, Jodorowsky said, “manifests through three basic elements: Terror, Humour and simultaneity.” The Panic Movement performed productions intended to exorcise destructive energy through overtly violent performances heavy with nudity, religious iconography, and sexual simulations.
In 1967, Jodorowsky would translate his outré performance art to the screen with Fando y Lis adapted from Arrabal’s play. This is where Jodorowsky’s Dune picks up Jodorowsky’s story. In an essay on Fando y Lis for Electric Sheep in 2007, Virginie Sélavy describes the film.
On a quest to find the mythical paradisiacal city of Tar, the splenetic Fando pushes his paralysed lover Lis on a four-wheel cart through a hellish world of derelict towns and barren mountains peopled by decomposing corpses, mad priests and drag queens. Bodies writhe in mud before standing up, as if emerging from the primal matter, staring at Fando and Lis like dead-eyed zombies. Jarring sounds add to the disquieting images: buzzing flies convey the stench of the rotting corpses, percussive instruments beat as loud as a panicked heart. Going round and round in the wasteland, the lovers are unable to find a way out of their nightmares, mere puppets whose strings are pulled by a cruel god-like puppeteer not unlike the one played by Jodorowsky himself in a scene from Lis’ past.A riot erupted at its 1968 premiere in Acapulco, and the film was subsequently banned in Mexico.
Though the term would not be coined until Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1996 review of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, the hallucinogenic quality of Jodorowsky’s 1970 El Topo (The Mole), overlaid with religious allegory, would retroactively have it mid the Acid Western genre, into which some critics place Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Monte Hellman’s 1966 films The Shooting and Ride the Wind are considered the first Acid Westerns.
I don’t know enough about Jodorowsky to know if he was influenced by Hellman’s films, but Jodorowsky strikes me as an artist who did not need to be exposed to anyone in particular in order to realize his own idiosyncratic vision. El Topo follows a Mexican bandit and El Topo, a gunslinger played by Jodorowsky, in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. When El Topo is murdered – or crucified – he is resurrected to live among a community trapped within a mountain cave.
El Topo’s success – it’s often cited as the first midnight cult movie – provided the means for Jodorowsky to finance his next project, released in 1973. The Holy Mountain, an esoteric gnostic meditation on mysticism and the occult, may be based on René Daumal’s surrealist novel, Mont Analouel. The film revolves around The Thief – another Christ-figure – an alchemist played by Jodorowsky, and seven business people representing seven planets. Again, the story involves a quest: the summit of the holy mountain holds the secret of spiritual rebirth.
“I did what I wanted,” Jodorowsky says, “and it was successful in Europe. So my ambition grew.” People had noticed, one of whom was Michel Seydoux, who, when he met Jodorowsky in 1974 said, “I want to make a picture with you. Do whatever you want.” The word that leapt from Jodorowsky’s tongue was “Dune.”
He had never read Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction saga, but even with only a vague idea of the narrative, he knew it was an exacting challenge. “To bring image to literature is great difficult,” he says. “I need to find the warriors to do it. Every person who will work on this picture will be a spiritual warrior.”
This is pre- Internet; one had to seek people out. “I wanted a draughtsman of comic strips who has the genius and the speed, who can be used as me as a camera and who gives at the same time a visual style…. I was by chance with my second warrior.” That would be the French comic book artist Mœbius/Gir (Jean Giraud), whose style has been compared to Nouveau réalisme.
Founded in 1960 by art critic Pierre Restany and painter Yves Klein, the Nouveaux réalistes, who acknowledged Marcel Duchamp’s readymades as an influence, saw reality as image. They reconfigured detail from reality and the existing detritus of the modern world into collage and assemblage. The appropriation and reclamation of the quotidian, they believed, brought art into closer alignment with life.
Working in the bandes dessinées tradition of Hergé (the pseudonym of Georges Prosper Remi, famous for The Adventures of Tintin series), Mœbius brought his wide range and adaptability to Jodorwosky’s project. Mœbius had not only an uncanny ability to translate whatever Jodorowsky described to paper, but he worked with incredible momentum. The storyboard of 3,000 drawings that Mœbius prepared for Dune transmutes camera movement to the page, and conveys his signature comic characters’ distinctive point of view.
A great admirer of Orson Welles, Jodorowsky wants to open Dune with a long shot, like Welles’s A Touch of Evil, but his intention is for it to be superior to Welles’s and longer. Again, keep in mind that this is 1975; CGI does not exist. The Dune Jodorowsky is creating for the screen will have to be done the old fashioned way – sets designed and built, actors costumed, cameras tracking live action.
Jodorowsky settles on Douglas Trumball, THE special effects man in the industry. Trumball is synonymous with 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, and will later win accolades for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the original Star Trek, Blade Runner. Jodorowsky and Seydoux fly to Hollywood, but the meeting never gets off the ground. Trumball takes dozens of phone calls, miffing Jodorowsky who tells Seydoux they’re leaving, much to Seydoux’s chagrin. “He gives himself so big importance,” Jodorowsky remembers. “He was big technician, but he was not for me a spiritual person. I say, ‘I cannot work with you!’ He is not my spiritual warrior.”
But wait! Before leaving Hollywood, Jodorowsky catches Dark Star at a little neighborhood theater, and Boom! He wants Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon was a writer. Dark Star was the only film for which he had done visual effects at that point, but Jodorowsky sees the potential. “The art was before. Later was the technique.”
Jodorowsky admires science fiction cover art and seeks out the British artist and sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss. Foss explains that every drawing he created for the Dune sets was architecturally sound, engineered from inception to be realized in three-dimensional form. Foss recalls that the majority of the people involved in other projects he had been hired for had no interest in what his designs were like, but “…here was a man who was passionate.”
An admirer of Dark Side of the Moon, Jodorowsky has Pink Floyd in mind for music, but when he goes to London, almost dismisses them when they seem more interested in wolfing down hamburgers than talking with him. “I offer to you the most important picture in the history of humanity – and you – eating Big Macs.” When they finally perk up, the interest is mutual.
When he hears the French rock band Magma on a trip to Berlin, Jodorowsky says he knows they are the musicians “who could realize the Harkonnen warrior rhythms, which would be capable of crystallizing the beauty of the sand planet….” Magma’s drummer, the classically trained Christian Vander, and Jodorowsky would seem the perfect pairing, Vander’s inspiration for Magma being, he has said, “…a vision of humanity’s spiritual and ecological future.”
The first actor Jodorowsky recruits, to play Prince Leto, is David Carradine, whom he knows nothing of except that he had seen an episode of Kung Fu. This in turn leads to the question of who will play Leto’s son, Paul, a character born not of physical but spiritual love. Why, of course, “My son.” Maniac that he is, Jodorowsky decides his son, Brontus, must “prepare as a warrior,” and to that end, hires martial arts specialist Jean-Pierre Vigneau to train the boy to fight “with knife, hands, sword” six hours a day, seven days a week for two years. Jodorowsky tells us people around him object. “ 'Why are you trying to change the mind of a child and make him into a superior person?' No! I awaken his creativity!”
He wants Mick Jagger and, attending a party in Paris, their eyes meet across a crowded room. Having seen Zardoz he wants Charlotte Rampling for Leto’s wife, Jessica; she seems to be the only actor who refused him. He wants Orson Welles for the Baron Harkonnen, and sets out to discover Welles’s favorite Parisian restaurant so he can waylay the sybarite there. He wants Dalí for the Emperor of the Universe and happens to run into him by chance at the St. Regis Hotel bar in New York. Dalí’s girlfriend, Amanda Lear, whom Jodorowsky also casts, has to explain to Dalí, who is completely unfamiliar with Dune, that it is more than science fiction. “It is a philosophy,” she says. In the midst of their international negotiations, Jodorowsky visits Dalí in Barcelona, and Dalí shows him a catalog of work by the Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger. The moment Jodorowsky sees Giger’s dark vision he knows he must have Giger design the environs for the evil Harkonnen.
Before heading to Hollywood, Seydoux had tomes prepared for each studio head. They include all 3,000 of Mœbius’s sequenced storyboard illustrations and all of his costume drawings; details of O’Bannon’s special effects; and Foss’s and Giger’s elaborate set designs. Pink Floyd and Magma had been signed up for the soundtrack. The entire film had been cast.
No project has ever gone this far, in this much detail, before a contract negotiation. Jodorowsky had lucked out again and again. Everything he wanted and more practically fell into his lap. He had his spiritual warriors; he just needed a studio. Unfortunately, people who run film studios are not spiritual warriors. To their credit, they admitted that they liked everything about the film. Everything was great – except the director. Jodorowsky, a stranger to compromise, insisted among other grandiose demands, that the film would have to be 12 – no 20! hours long! The studio execs sent the madman packing.
The director Nicolas Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) found himself at Jodorowsky’s dinner table one evening. After the meal, Jodorowsky led him, into the wee hours, through Dune’s 3,000 illustrations, giving precise cinematographic directions while narrating the story in detail. There are only two of the massive storyboard books extant: Jodorowsky has one, Seydoux the other. “In a way,” Refn says, “I am the only spectator who has seen the movie. And let me tell you something. It is fantastic!”
The film rights to Dune lapsed until 1982, when they were purchased by Italian filmmaker Dino DeLaurentiis, who released the 1984 version, directed by David Lynch. “When I knew David Lynch will do Dune,” Jodorowsky moans, “I was ill for a year!” Brontus insists they see it, and reminds his father, “We are warriors.” “Then my children bring me to theater, and I start to see film.” He remembers that watching, “…step by step by step… I become happy because the picture is awful. Fantastic! Dune is horrible picture! If picture was good, I think I die of jealousy.” He looks sheepish for a moment, then shrugs, “It is a human reaction,” and being a generous man, places the blame for failure, not with David Lynch, whom he admires, but with the producer.
Pavich begins his denouement with a montage of Dune’s undeniable legacy, moving from Mœbius’s scrupulous graphic realizations of Jodorowsky’s vision to specific scenes in the science-fiction movie pantheon since. The extent of replication – if not plagiarism, since Giger, Mœbius, and Foss subsequently became something of a Hollywood sci-fi dream team – is mind boggling. Scenes, costumes, sets are in most instances identical to Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Jodorowsky understands that “Someone can come along and do it in animation. Is possible now.” Yes, but we can’t help but wonder what magnificent behemoth Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been. Pavich’s film is as close as we will come to a realization of Jodorowsky’s glorious, colossal project.
Dune was to have ended with scenes nowhere to be found in Herbert's novel. Indeed, Herbert's novel served as little more than inspiration for Jodorowsky's vision. In Jodorowsky's telling, Dune is ultimately the Messiah of the planets and shares its consciousness with Leto's son, Paul, who has been killed but does not die. The people of Dune call out as a Greek chorus, one after another, "I am Paul," "I am Paul," and then gradually, "I am Dune," "I am Dune." Star Wars, The Terminator, Flash Gordon, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Masters of the Universe, Contact, Prometheus… As Jodorowsky says of his influence, "You see, again and again: 'I am Dune!' 'I am Dune!' 'I am Dune!' "
Mœbius's storyboard drawings
David Carradine with Jodorowsky
Chris Foss design
H. R. Giger
Chris Foss design