Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014
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One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970’s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.

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