Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jodorowsky's Unrealized Dune: A Critical View

After recently seeing the 2013 documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky's plans for a film version of Dune back in the 1970s, I decided to check out the commentary online.

As it happened, the consensus view (corresponding to those interviewed within the documentary) seemed to be a wish that it had been made and they could have seen it--and that it would have been a triumph which would have put science fiction filmmaking on a different course.

Granted, particular ideas were dazzling. (The opening long take Jodorowsky described would have been epic.) However, given the degree to which it deviated from the letter and spirit of the original novel (indeed, Jodorowsky's predictable disinterest and even inversion of its themes), it would not have been a definitive version of Herbert's books--or even a really satisfactory one.

More importantly, the chances of its having been a successful film, even on an artistic level, strike me as having been vanishingly small. I will admit that my attitude toward the Modernist/postmodernist aesthetic, and still more, its underlying assumptions grow increasingly dim.1 (Increasingly I feel as if a very large part of our artistic and cultural life has been in a cul-de-sac for a hundred years.) But all the same, I will say that even dazzling bits do not make a successful whole. And taken altogether the movie could easily have been unwatchable. Consider how David Lynch's 1984 version has been received, despite its dose of weirdness being far, far milder than Jodorowsky's not just much longer, but astronomically more surreal, gruesome, garish conception. (The idea of a freakishly made-up Orson Welles overseeing and completing the graphic dismembering and beheading of David Carradine just about says it all in this regard.)

Perhaps the best and worst that could have been hoped for it would have been its becoming a cult film, a curiosity--which is a very different thing from its replacing Star Wars as the defining science fiction film success of the period. Indeed, it may have wound up more influential in not getting made--in that bits and pieces were taken from it and utilized in other, more plausible work (most famously, the H.R. Giger drawings that became the foundation for the Alien franchise).

1. Shameless plug time: because much of the history of science fiction makes little sense unless one gets all this (and frankly, even the professional critics tend not to), I discuss these matters at some length in Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry. Why not go and check it out?


Terence Blake said...

DUNE is a strange book, and is more postmodern than it first appears. The inner monologues prevent it from being just a direct action-story. David Lynch's film is often awkward, but at least he keeps this double dimension, and so it is far superior to the TV series, which transforms the story into its action elements, and so weakens it. So in these two versions we have a good example of the difference between sticking to the dream and sticking with the plot. STAR WARS drew on many sources of inspiration, but DUNE was certainly one of them. Yet it is far more naive about the myth of the hero. DUNE is a critique of this myth, as the hero in his turn becomes a tyrant. However, a large part of the appeal of both stories is their visionary dimension, that Jodorowsky captures quite well in his eulogy/epitaph to his un-made film.

Nader said...

I certainly agree that Dune is a critique of the hero (especially when one looks at the trilogy, rather than just the first book--Herbert's own remarks confirming this in unambiguous ways), one that makes a marked contrast with Star Wars (for all its influence on it).
The point is also taken about the dream-like strangeness of the story, and this being important to its appeal (and the retention of this a strength of the Lynch version, the reduction of it a weakness of the miniseries version). Still, I've tended to think of that "second" dimension as essentially intuitive in ways that reminded me of German philosophers I've read, rather than a surrealist exercise (even if some of its elements have the power of dream images). And the whole struck me as cohering, as it had to do in order to imbue the drama and the critique with the force it enjoys.

Terence Blake said...

Yes, Norman Spinrad makes the case that the heir of American transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman), after the Beat Generation writers (Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs) is science fiction as a genre: As the Transcendentalists inherit from German Idealism, this ties in with your impressions.

Nader said...

Thanks for noting the essay. He does mention Dune specifically (a book I'd read some of his other comments on before) in the piece--and it often surprises me that the connection isn't talked about more often.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon