‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’: the one that got away

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dune2Movie history is littered with tantalizing unrealized projects by visionary directors.

Stanley Kubrick never got around to making the Napoleon epic he worked on for years. Fred Zinnemann had the plug pulled on his planned version of Andre Malraux’s “A Man’s Fate.” David Lean never got the go-ahead for his take on “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

Etc. etc.

Several documentaries have been devoted to these unfulfilled dreams, but none of them compares with “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” the Frank Pavich-directed movie that arrives on video Tuesday via Sony Pictures Classics.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is the mad genius behind “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” — two of the key cult films of the 1970s. The movies were so popular, and so captured the zeitgeist of their time, that French producer Michel Seydoux thought Jodorowsky would be perfect for an adaptation of the science-fiction novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert.

The book had a cult of its own, similar to the one surrounding Jodorowsky, which relished the trippy space story in which drugs played a key role (much of the audience was high at the midnight screenings of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” that ran for years in some theaters).dune1

The Seydoux-Jodorowsky production of “Dune” was eventually stalled because of a $5 million shortfall in production funds, but the filmmakers had cast most of the picture (with Orson Welles and Mick Jagger in key roles) and produced a frame by frame storyboard/book that showed off amazing costume and set designs.

Jodorowsky brought in the Swiss artist/designer H.R. Giger for what would have been his first film. Some of Giger’s dark and scary approach to sci-fi would see the light of day a few years later when Ridley Scott hired him for “Alien.”

The French-Chilean Jodorowsky is 85 now, but his screen presence and storytelling skills in the interview segments belie his age. The man’s continuing zest for life, and his love of filmmaking, powers much of “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”

Critics assembled by Pavich speculate that if “Dune” had been produced in 1975-76, as originally planned, it might have shifted the subsequent course of the sci-fi genre, which was about to head in the direction of kiddie entertainment with the opening of “Star Wars” in 1977.

Jodorowsky’s “Dune” would have brought the hallucinatory qualities of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” into mainstream cinema and who knows what impact that might have had on the movies that followed it? (Of course, it could have been a monumental flop like David Lynch’s eventual film of “Dune” in 1984.)

Seydoux talks about how impressed studio executives were by the “Dune” book of storyboards that was submitted instead of a traditional script — these objects are now highly prized collector’s items — but that they were afraid Jodorowsky would be impossible to work with on a big commercial production.

The filmmaker lends credence to the studio executives fears when he talks — amusingly — about making a “Dune” that might have run 10 or 12 hours. He bolsters his case with a mention of our current passion for spending huge chunks of time binge-watching “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” but, of course, we do that at home and not in a movie theater.

The real thrill of “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is that we don’t just come away from it mourning a lost movie — for a few hours, we get to share the director’s passion and we can see his “Dune” in our mind’s eye.

Joe Meyers

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