Thursday, May 22, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

God Created Arrakis to Train the Faithful
"I Need Permission to Make Art?"

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"
"Maud Muller" by John Greenleaf Whittier

"A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct."
"Dune" by Frank Herbert

For every movie made there are ghosts of movies only conceptualized that have never made it to completion. You can find scripts for orphaned films not having seen the green-light of day at a web-site called "The Black List"—where many a director or producer has found some rare gem of a movie idea.

Other films have started and stopped, whether in pre-production or the middle of shooting, the brakes applied with screaming intensity, the plug pulled because, for all the planning, progress was not being made in line with budget, or a key player becomes injured or dies (although, lately, even death hasn't stopped some films). There are films by Orson Welles that are in pieces scattered throughout the world, abandoned until money could be cobbled together to finish them. Stanley Kubrick only made 13 films in his career, but there were scripts for others, the most prominent of which was his long-researched biography of Napoleon, the script and pre-production notes and samples gathered together in an epic presentation by Taschen Press. 

Two documentaries have been made about aborted films" the fascinating 1966 BBC film The Epic That Never Was, about Josef von Sternberg's attempt in 1937 to bring "I, Claudius" to the screen, and, more recently, Lost in LaMancha, detailing the hardships that Terry Gilliam suffered trying to make his version of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. In a way, these documentaries might be even more fascinating than the films might have been.

One gets that impression watching Jodorwsky's Dune, Frank Pavich's collection of interviews and sources about cult film-maker Alejandro Jodorwsky's attempt to make a film of Frank Herbert's influential and sprawling science fiction epic in 1974. In the film's interviews, Jodorowsky's enthusiasm for the project is infectious and his visions are grandiose ("I wanted to make a prophet" he says of it), but one gets the impression the film might have been visually stunning, but might have been a bit too wild for audiences (although, as one of the interviewees says "imagine if this had been released before Star Wars...."). The script and elaborate storyboards for the film exist in a massive tome, of which only two survive, dense with concepts and pre-production art by three of the most influential artists in the field of sci-fi and fantasy.
Doing the character design and story-boards was the late Jean "Moebius" Giraud, an indefatigable graphics and comics artist, whose work in "Heavy Metal" was uniquely detailed and unique. Special effects were set to be done by Dan O'Bannon. Concepts for the planet Arrakis and ship designs were assigned to illustrator Chris Foss, and for the designs of the bestial Harknonnen family, Jodorowsky hired Swiss fetishist artist H.R. Giger (whose work would be the basis of Alien).
Moebius character designs for Feyd Rautha, Paul Atreides, and Baron Harkonnen
But, Jodorwsky's ideas wre radical in every aspect of the film. To do the music, he hired two groups, Pink Floyd and Magma (David Lynch, when he made his version in 1984, used Toto). His casting ideas were unconventional, as well. For the Emperor of the Universe, he insisted on casting surrealist artist Salvador Dali and for Baron Harkonnen, Orson Welles (secured if his favorite chef was on-set to cook for him every day). David Carradine would play Duke Leto Atreides, Jodorowsky's son would play Paul—the central figure in the story—and Mick Jagger would play Feyd Rautha (Sting played him in Lynch's film—even though the proposed films are worlds apart, conceptually, they still share echoes of a similar nature in ideas and collaborators).
A crippled "spice" pirate ship, painted by Chris Foss
Author Herbert wasn't pleased—Jodorowsky changed, quite considerably, the ending of the story, which might have upset plans for a sequel—but also the extensive pre-production had already consumed 2 million dollars of the budget, and the movie, save for its elaborate "bible" featuring the full script in storyboard form (drawn by Moebius) and the concept art used to shop the project to studios, was shelved.

But Jodorowsky and his passion for the project survived, even past the time when Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights and hired David Lynch to direct, a film that Jodorowsky dismisses as "shit." Opinions differ on that—I'm not a big fan of that Dune, and find the TV version of it—the format where it should probably be created for a sprawling multi-generational epic spanning planets—slightly better. One can only wonder what Jodorowsky's version would have been like, as it only is appearing currently in his own head. But Jodorowsky's Dune gives us a glimpse, a tantalizing peak, at what he might have done—or over-done—with it. And even that makes one ponder just how good it could possibly—actually—be.

H.R. Giger's "sandworm" concept
The ideas are so far-out, and the interpretations so "out there" that one could imagine it easily going over the audience's "tipping-point" for sci-fi concept tolerance. Ask an audience to suspend belief—or have too much belief—and you run the risk of the film turning into a laugh-fest, as Lynch's interpretation tends to do, as the very earnest Kubrick/Spielberg hybrid A.I. (despite some very sophisticated, even scary ideas) tasked audiences. Task an audience too much, and they become derisive.  

Which brings one to the subject of "interpretation." There are many layers of it, not only for the audience, but for the film-maker, too. "Interpretation" is important in the dissemination and the receiving, and when both fail, the resulting disaster can only be described as "epic." In 1989, author Neil Gaiman started publishing a graphic novel (with artist Dave McKean) titled "Signal to Noise" that examined the last days of a film-maker dying of a terminal illness and preparing his last movie, a story of the last days of mankind before the Apocalypse. He dies while the film is still in script-form, never to be made concrete in images. The point is made that the script is the closest to the author's original intent than had it gone through the production process with its inherent compromises, short-cuts, happy accidents, and vexing imperfections in the translation, the "noise" taking away from the purity of "signal."

Perhaps Jodorowsky's Dune is best left like this, in the purity of "wonder."

* From Princeton: "Signal-to-noise ratio (often abbreviated SNR or S/N) is a measure used in science and engineering to quantify how much a signal has been corrupted by noise."

No comments:

Post a Comment