Jodorowsky's Dune: Art or Insanity?

Directed by Frank Pavich
Sony Classics, 90 minutes, PG-13
* * * *

The poet Arthur Rimbaud is credited with the line "There is a thin line between insanity and genius. I have erased this line." Frank Herbert's 1975 novel Dune is one of the most beloved science-fiction works of the 20th-century. Long before "Star Wars," Herbert created intergalactic cultures and conflicts that involved fictive leaps of imagination that veered beyond normal ways of seeing and thinking. The planet Dune was a waterless terrain inhabited by giant sand worms. Humanoid life depended upon still suits to recycle bodily fluids and sustain life. Herbert's sprawling book was not the easiest read, but it was certainly a fascinating one. It hit the market just as just as the psychedelic 60s had crested. In many ways, reading Herbert was like an LSD trip in words. Filmmaker, artist, playwright, and musician Alejandro Jodorowsky certainly thought so.

Jodorowsky was born in Chile in 1929 and was never what anyone would call a normal child.  From an early age, Jodorowsy demonstrated a penchant for mysticism, spiritualism, and surrealism. In fact, he was among the last generation of Surrealists. It was hardly surprising that Jodorowsky, by then in his 40s, was attracted to the offbeat, swirling, tie-dyed weirdness of the 60s. He made several films that made Andy Warhol seem pedestrian. The closest thing to him today would be Terry Gilliam, but Gilliam seems a Boy Scout by comparison. Also not surprising, not many movie viewers had the slightest idea what was going on in Jodorowsky's films. Who better to tackle Frank Herbert's Dune?

Your first response might be: just about anyone else! As Frank Pavich's fascinating documentary suggests, however, maybe Jodorowsky was exactly the man for the task. Or maybe not. His Dune never got made, though it had everything except rolling cameras. We are taken inside Jodorowsky's exceedingly weird and wildly creative mind. His ideas were so adventurous that they often bore little resemblance to reality. Who would listen to such an offbeat character? For starters, some of the finest film set and storyboard designers of the day: Dan O'Bannon, Moebius, H. R. Giger, Chris Foss…  And it got better. Pink Floyd was interested in doing the soundtrack, Orson Welles had agreed to be in the film, and none other than Salvador Dali had agreed to appear as the Master of the Universe. The collaboration between unorthodox minds yielded a gorgeous artifact: a massive perfect-bound tome of all of the storyboards, dialogue, and narrative arc necessary to bring Dune to life. It was sent out to myriad producers and potential backers. Just one problem: convincing Hollywood players that Jodorowsky was the man to make this film. They thought he was nuts. You know the rest–in 1984, David Lynch directed Dune. It was one of the worst bombs in Hollywood history.

Pavich raises the question of what would have happened if Jodorowsky had made Dune. Would it have been a Terry Gilliamesque train wreck, or art for the ages? Of course, it would not have been hard to make a better film than Lynch's, but the documentary is appropriately ambiguous as to whether Jodorowsky's vision was simply ahead of its time, or one unlikely to exist in any time. The documentary is infinitely more interesting than Lynch's movie––including interviews with those were still around to comment upon Jodorowsky's filmic vision, including Jodorowsky himself who is just as odd now as he was 30 years ago. It probably would not surprise you that others render a split decision between insanity and genius.

The question of whether not such vision can find any niche is actually answered. At age 85, Jodorowsky has found an outlet for intergalactic musings and other out-of-this-world thinking–he produces graphic novels. You should watch this documentary even if you have never read Frank Herbert's novel. From time to time I see bumper stickers with the probing question "Why be normal?" Alejandro Jodorowsky has spent his life erasing the line between sanity and genius. Watching this film may give you permission to do the same.—Rob Weir

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