By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist January 27, 2014 at 5:00PM
"How the hell did this not happen?" is the question that trembled in our brain after we watched Frank Pavich's riotous yet loving and meticulous documentary about one of cinema's greatest what-if stories: the white whale that is Alejandro Jodorowsky's version of Frank Herbert's sine qua non sci-fi classic "Dune." It's pretty much the converse of the question we were asking on the way in to our Goteborg Film Festival screening: "Who in hell ever thought this movie had a chance?" After all, the gonzo director behind such uncategorizable psychedelic mindfucks as "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" tackling a canonical, beloved bestseller that is not only immensely story-driven but a sprawling, intricate narrative epic at that, seems at best a perilous fit. But this was the '70s and they did things differently back then. And based on the evidence of the interview snippets of Jodorowsky himself...well, let's just say this irrepressibly, infectiously impish character could sell sand to Saharans, ice to Eskimos and braggadocio to bloggers.
We ourselves have a history with this film. Our Kevin Jagernauth caught it all the way back at Cannes 2013 (check out his 5 Things about the film), and while he loved what he saw he felt it would be unfair to review off of what turned about to be a half-subtitled screening (Jodorowsky mostly speaks accented English but occasionally slides into Spanish, and some of his collaborators speak French or German). And we're glad we waited, because while we can certainly bear out Kevin's good impressions, the film is so chock full of anecdote, and zips by so fast (a trim 90 minutes), that practically every word is valuable. This is especially true in Jodorowsky's own case, but first a note or two about his collaborators, or as he liked to called them, his "spiritual warriors."
For anyone with even a glancing interest in sci-fi filmmaking, Jodorowosky assembled basically an all-star superhero team to bring his vision of Herbert's novel to the screen, and hearing him talking about how he essentially seduced each one of them aboard makes for utterly joyous entertainment. Each new name he drops, you gasp further, until it becomes so insane you have to believe it: of course, having secured Moebius to draw the storyboards, convinced H. R. Giger and jacket cover artist Chris Foss ("now sell everything you own and come to Paris”) to join up, chosen Dan O'Bannon for the special effects (over Douglas Trumbull whose arrogant attitude Jodo did not dig), well of course he gets Pink Floyd to sign on for the music; of course Salvador Dali eventually capitulates and deigns to play the emperor (via one of the film's most brilliant stories that we can barely contain ourselves from spoiling here); of course David Carradine necks all his vitamin E and signs on for Duke Leto; of course Mick Jagger agrees immediately to play Feyd and of course Orson Welles, on the promise of fine cuisine, says he'll take the part of the floating fatman, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Of course.
Pavich's approach is roughly chronological and simple enough to let the stories and reminiscences really sing, amid context from his producer Michel Seydoux (Lea's great uncle, francophiles), film critics, and filmmaker fans (notably directors Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn) before, every so often, taking us into a well-rendered animated storyboard sequence that comes close to suggesting what the film might have been, yet still reminds us of its permanently unfinished form. But he's also well aware of just what a firecracker interviewee he has in Jodorowsky himself; he mostly trains the camera on him and gets the hell out of the way. Which is exactly the right decision because every moment with Jodo is gold, whether he's extolling the virtues of ambition, telling some uproarious tale about his schoolboyish chutzpah, showing a brief and truly heartbreaking flash of atypical bitterness as he recalls the project's dissolution, or indulging an equally atypical moment of humility when he confesses his fear that David Lynch, whom he admired, having been given his dream project, would "do it better than me.” In fact, we have to say that our main (only) real issue with the film was that we wanted more: Jodorowsky's presence is like a gently hallucinogenic and instantly addicting drug, and 90 minutes of it just isn't enough. Perhaps it's just sour grapes: what we really want is Refn's experience of sitting with Jodorowosky till 2 AM as he takes us through that glorious, minutely imagined storyboard and narrates the film as he saw it. Stupid Refn gets stupid everything.
While in no way reinventing the documentary wheel, Pavich’s debut, even with a relatively staid talking head format, proves giddily inspirational for a story about a failure. And while a deep knowledge of Jodorowsky's work is not necessary to enjoy it, we're fairly sure that being au fait with the character names and a little of the general Frank Herbert universe enhanced our experience (even if it's just to note the sections where Jodo is, as he rather unfortunately puts it, "raping Frank Herbert...but with love"). Whatever the case, if you don't end up falling, hook, line and sinker for this bright-eyed 84-year-old, seemingly the result of a cold fusion experiment between Michael Haneke and the Mad Hatter, you're made of sterner stuff than we are. In fact, by the end of the film, the mystery of Jodorowsky's project to us wasn't how he managed to get so many people to tumble into the tornado with him. It was how anyone, even the most stone-hearted of Hollywood execs, was able to sit in a room with this guy for twenty minutes and not just give him everything he asked for.
Maybe it's better that they didn't though. There's no way on earth the film could possibly have lived up to its imagined awesomeness, and seeing clips from the movies that Jodo's team members went on to do, even when they're good films (and they often are not), you are reminded of how things would have aged. How we might now be looking back on a huge folly (huger even than Lynch's, which, full disclosure, this writer has long regarded as "the worst film I love"). And the suggestion, from Jodorowsky’s son and would-be star Brontis, that the film instead belongs, like the atomised postmortem spirit of Jodo's version of the Messianic Paul Atreides, to everyone, is a beguiling notion. But also, if we'd had Jodorowsky's "Dune" there'd've been no "Jodorowsky's Dune" and that would itself have been a great pleasure lost. Director Pavich, his first time at bat, has crafted an unalloyed pleasure of a documentary, especially for those of us who care about "Dune," about sci-fi, and about the value and power of creative passion. In fact, he could not have done a better job if he actually had the secret agenda of finding more potential warriors for Jodorowsky's spiritual army; he can consider us recruited. [A-]