Jodorowsky’s Dune


Space...the way-out frontier...

Space…the way-out frontier…

(2013) Documentary (Sony Classics) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear, Dan O’Bannon (archival audio). Directed by Frank Pavich

Getting a film made in Hollywood is a treacherous, heartbreaking process. For every movie that makes it to your multiplex, dozens more fall by the wayside, victims of escalating budgets, script issues or studio indifference – or any of a thousand different reasons. Some movies that might have been great just never get beyond the dreams of a filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker, became famous in the early 70s for El Topo and Holy Mountain, a pair of surrealist epics that essentially created the midnight movie market. Both were successes in the United States which, given the modern more pedestrian tastes in movies, seems almost impossible. We did a lot of drugs back then though.

His success was such that French producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche to do whatever project he wished and when asked what he wanted to do, he famously blurted out Dune even though he’d never read the Frank Herbert classic science fiction novel. One of the biggest-selling sci-fi novels of all time, Dune was everything that would seem to guarantee box office success; a rabid following, epic scope, sex, violence, monsters and intelligence. Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t guarantee box office success quite so much.

Jodorowsky set out to assemble a crew of geniuses both in front of the camera and behind it. To set his landscapes and draw up the overall look of the film, he enlisted Jean Giraud, better known as Mobius of the underground science fiction comic magazine Heavy Metal. To design his creatures, he called upon then relatively unknown Swiss artist H.R. Giger who would go on to design the title creatures in Alien. The spaceships would be designed by well-known book cover painter Chris Foss. One of his designs graces this review, above.

For the script he picked up Dan O’Bannon, who at the time had finished Dark Star and would later be known for writing Alien among others. He also added Douglas Turnbull for special effects. Jodorowsky wanted a frame by frame storyboard which he collected in a huge book which eventually became legendary throughout Hollywood.

Jodorowsky was no less eclectic for his choices in front of the screen. For the pivotal role of Duke Leto, he cast David Carradine, then at the height of his fame for Kung Fu. The Machiavellian emperor Shaddam IV would be played by painter Salvador Dali, who wanted to be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the privilege, demanding the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 an hour. That was a lot more than the budget that Seydoux had envisioned could tolerate, but he figured out a way around it by asking Jodorowsky how much onscreen time the emperor would get. When Jodorowsky told him three minutes, Seydoux went back to Dali and said “we’ll pay you $100,000 for every minute of time your character is onscreen!” which satisfied Dali.

He also enlisted the great Orson Welles as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonen, promising him that they would secure the services of his favorite French chef to be his personal chef during the shoot. He got Mick Jagger to take the part of Feyd Ruatha after running into him at a party. He cast his son Brontis as Paul Atreides, the Messianic hero of the tale put him through extensive martial arts and sword training – six hours a day for two years. That his son still talks to Jodorowsky today is something of a minor miracle.

The movie was at last ready to shoot. When it came time to get a studio to finance and distribute the movie however, every single one balked. They were concerned with the psychedelic nature of the movie and worried that it wouldn’t recoup its high for its time budget ($15 million). The movie wasn’t just stillborn, it died in the womb.

At 84, Jodorowsky remains lively, engaging and intelligent. He still speaks passionately about the project even though it must have disappointed him terribly that it was never made. Watching him speak about the project and about the events surrounding it is worth the price of admission alone but on top of that we get to see the amazing production art that was created for the film by Mobius, Foss and Giger. Some of the images would go on to influence other films in the genre from Alien to The Terminator to Blade Runner to Prometheus to the David Lynch version of Dune that followed (and that Jodorowsky proclaimed to be “terrible,” with some relief).

If the documentary has some drawbacks, there are at least two. First, the electronic score by Kurt Stenzel is annoying. Yes it sounds like the electronic film music of the 70s and is somewhat appropriate given the subject matter but I found it overly loud and unpleasant, which also signifies that I’m turning into my dad.

Secondly, there is a tendency for artists to be a little bit egotistical which is understandable given the nature of what they do but when you throw in condescending into the mix it becomes like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is art with a capital A to some people and they speak of art as essentially license to do and say as they please because, well, it’s Art. I get that this might well have been an amazing film had it been made but it might just as well have been virtually unwatchable. One of the talking heads (I think it was Faraci, an internet movie critic) mused that the movie business might have been changed forever had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made before Star Wars, believing that movie blockbusters would have wound up being more intelligent and more adult in general than they became because of the impact of George Lucas.

It is a bit arrogant to presume anything. It’s possible that this version of Dune could have become as influential and as game-changing as Star Wars  became but let’s be frank here: it’s likely that Star Wars would have been made anyway and even more likely that it would have been as big a hit. The era of the ’70s was already on its way out by the time “A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away” first crawled across movie screens. The temperature of the nation was changing too. One movie wasn’t going to make a difference in that regard. The movies don’t change America; the movies reflect America. Anyone who believes differently is delusional.

These gripes aside, this is a fascinating look at a movie that never got made. It doesn’t really give us any sort of insight into the film business – this was being made far outside of Hollywood both literally and figuratively. It does give us insight into a madman slash dreamer who had the audacity and the will to chase his vision even though it never made it into the kind of fruition he wanted it to be. Some things are not meant to be but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue them as far as we can take them. You never know what unexpected tangents may come of the pursuit and that is always worthwhile to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Jodorowsky is a fascinating interview. Production art is stunning. Definitely has some “what if” moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally gets a bit condescending to its audience.  Annoying soundtrack.

FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of swearing, some drug references and some violent and/or sexual images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming the movie, Seydoux and Jodorowsky reunited and decided to make another movie together. That film, La Danza de la Realidad, was Jodorowsky’s first in 23 years and made its debut at Cannes in the same year as this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 21

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail


It's only a flesh wound.

It’s only a flesh wound.

(1975) Comedy (Rainbow Releasing) Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Connie Booth, Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, Bee Duffell, John Young, Rita Davies, Avril Stewart, Sally Kinghorn, Mark Zycon, Elspeth Cameron, Mitsuko Forstater, Sandy Johnson, Sandy Rose, Romily Squire, Joni Flynn. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

As a film critic, one of the questions I’m most often asked is what is my all-time favorite movie. Although the answer can vary according to my mood, the film that I find myself giving as that answer is this one.

In the dark ages, King Arthur (Chapman) has been given a quest by God to find the Holy Grail. He gathers around him worthy knights, such as the valiant Sir Lancelot (Cleese), the chaste Sir Galahad (Palin), the bookish Sir Bedevere (Jones) and the not very valiant Sir Robin (Idle).

On their quest to find the Grail, they will face fearsome foes like the Knights Who Until RECENTLY said Ni (Big points if you can remember AND pronounce what they say now), the temptresses of Castle Anthrax, the Black Beast of Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh and most fearsome of all, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (vanquished only with the aid of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch). With his faithful servant Patsy (Gilliam) at his side, King Arthur will yield to no valiant knight to reach his goal. No foe too deadly, no quest too dangerous, no shrubbery so lush that he won’t find that darn Grail.

Later fashioned into the successful Broadway musical Spamalot, the movie remains one of the most influential when it comes to modern comedy movies. Repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and sending most comedy conventions sailing out into the air (only to land on a hapless page), the madmen of Monty Python appear to stumble through the movie but as we watch it unfold we realize that we are watching either the most cleverly plotted and mapped out movies or pure improvisational genius. It scarcely matters which one.

The late Graham Chapman as King Arthur provides the film’s straight man (although he has his share of zingers) and grounds the movie for the most part until at the end of the movie it goes whizzing over the cliff and shatters on the rocks below. The movie doesn’t so much conclude as end, which does frustrate a few non-fans but considering all the anarchy that preceded, is kind of fitting.

Listing all the amazing sketches and bits in the movie is nearly impossible but there is nary a false step in any of them. Terry Gilliam’s animations enhancing the movie and acting as bridges between sometimes wildly varying parts. Neil Innes contributes music and songs including the hilarious Ballad of Sir Robin with such memorable lines as “When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled” which might well sum up certain political figures I will not name here.

I will say that Monty Python doesn’t appeal to every comedy taste. They are far too manic for some, too anarchic for others and too dry for others still. I am proud to say that I’m a Python addict and have been since an early age, thanks largely to this film and their TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus which in my boyhood aired on our local PBS station in Los Angeles long after the series had been canceled by the BBC; I urge you to catch some of those episodes which are readily available if you can.

We are not likely to see the like of Monty Python again. They were a group of men whose sum was greater than their parts and each member fit perfectly into the role he was given. With Chapman’s untimely passing in 1989, Monty Python is no more – not really. Although the Pythons have gathered again (often with an urn supposedly containing his remains), they aren’t quite the same. Still they continue individual and as a group to shock, push the envelope of comedy and poke and prod the staid and stodgy cultural monoliths of Britain with a sharply pointed stick, and that is a good thing because frankly I’m too lazy to do it myself.

Not all of you will agree with my assessment of the movie but I don’t care. It is the only film I’ve seen in a theater more than twice, the movie I’ve watched more often than any other and yet it still never fails to make me laugh. I will admit that nostalgia plays a part in that but still, comedies for the most part have a limited shelf life – you can only laugh at the same jokes so much. This movie has kept me laughing for almost 40 years (not non-stop) which is an accomplishment. If you haven’t seen it, see it and form your own opinion. If you have seen it, see it again because the Pythons can use the cash. If your local art house screens a revival showing of it, by all means see it on the big screen – there’s nothing quite so awe-inspiring as seeing the Big Head of Light Entertainment in all its divine glory on as big a screen as possible. The IMAX people should take note. Either way, you may love it, you may hate it but you WILL form an opinion of it and it might just change your life. It certainly changed mine. Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.

WHY RENT THIS: The funniest movie ever made. Period.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t get their humor, you won’t like the film. If you do, you’ll watch it again and again and again. Some find the ending too abrupt.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a surfeit of foul language, crude humor, violence, sexuality, nudity and taunting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was partially financed by sales from Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. The band was huge fans of the troupe and would frequently halt recording of the album to watch their television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition has a sing-a-long track for the film’s songs, the screenplay in text, two scenes dubbed in Japanese with the fractured English subtitles below, a performance of the film with Lego, a bit on which Palin as a representative of the Ministry of Foods explains the many uses of coconuts – including how to make clip-cloppy horse sound and a “Follow the Killer Rabbit” feature in which when the rabbit graphic appears on-screen you can select it to take you to corresponding documents and drawings.. Finally, there’s a pretty nifty featurette in which Palin and Jones take us on a tour of the various locations used for the film. The Extraordinarily Deluxe edition contains all of this, a CD of the film’s soundtrack (which contains a lot of audio excerpts from the film as well as some album-specific stuff), a quiz, and subtitles for people who don’t like the movie (taken from Henry IV, Part II). The Blu-Ray contains most of this, but also has a nifty iPad app that syncs up with the film and includes interviews with the surviving Pythons about the specific day of shooting for that scene. The app is $5 and only works on the iPad however.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $365,274 production budget; even given adjustments for inflation this was a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 44/10

NEXT: 2 Guns