Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune Didn’t Get Made for a Reason… and We Should All Be Grateful For That

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about Very Important Men making Very Important Art, and as such, it has very little to do with Frank Herbert’s novel at all. In fact, you could go so far as to say that it has nothing to do with Dune, either philosophically or artistically.

And that’s for the best, really.

[Content warning: discussions of rape]

The art of the documentary is all about framing, and director Frank Pavich certainly had some dream material cut out for him with this glimpse into what many film critics cite among the “greatest films never made.” Alejandro Jodorowsky is the perfect interview subject, full of excitement and anecdotes, host to a sort of prophetic mania. He describes most events in his life as though they were destined to happen by divine spiritual intervention. Indeed, he starts by explaining that the point of making Dune was to create a film that was both religious experience and an LSD trip printed onto celluloid—in fact, he seems to believe that those desires are essentially one and the same thing.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Moebius

The story begins by highlighting Jodorowsky’s path up until the Dune project. It talks briefly of his career in theatre and then his move to films, covering Fando y Lis, El Topo (propped up here as “the original midnight movie” by Hardware director Richard Stanley), and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky goes on at length about how he broke all the rules to make his pictures, writing and starring in his own material, refusing to run Lis by the Mexican director’s guild for permission to make it; Fando y Lis later caused a riot due to its graphic content and was banned from the country entirely. He explains that he knew nothing of filmmaking’s technical aspects, learning everything as he went for the sake of art, that lofty goal of the spiritually enlightened. Those who are not familiar with Jodorowsky’s milieu are treated to a selection of imagery that gives the viewer a sense of what they’re in for—it’s all surrealism with a distinct erotic bent, mostly-naked figures and women sporting whips and repurposed religious iconography set against stark color-contrasted backdrops. It’s the sort of shocking fare that the 1960s and 70s produced in abundance provided that you were in the right arthouse circles.

No women are available to talk about Jodorowsky’s work—no film producers nor directors nor critics. The only two women interviewed in the entire documentary are there to talk about other men involved in the project who have passed on and cannot speak for themselves: special effects guru Dan O’Bannon’s widow, Diane, and Amanda Lear, who was Salvador Dali’s muse at the time that Jodorowsky approached him about the film. (Apparently, he was going to give Lear the part of Princess Irulan, though she doesn’t look at all convinced in retrospect.) Everyone else involved in the documentary is a man, from producers Jean-Paul Gibon and Michel Seydoux and Gary Kurtz, to directors Richard Stanley and Nicholas Winding Refn, to film critics Drew McWeeny and Devin Faraci. All of the artists on Jodorowsky’s Dune team are men. This cannot be viewed as incidental; there is an implicit suggestion that only men are capable of being Jodorowsky’s “warriors” (his word, by the way, to describe those he would ask to come on his quest), and as is true of any number of religious pantheons full of prophets and apostles, the perspectives of women are rarely entertained as gospel.

Jodorowsky's Dune
The documentary proceeds to follow a trail of breadcrumbs as Jodorowsky assembles his team of warriors for the project. All of this is framed as though some greater power is manipulating fate to give him the perfect players for his magnum opus; he happens across Salvador Dali and hands him a tarot card of The Hanged Man to interest him in playing the Emperor; after deciding that he requires Moebius (that’s the SF moniker for French artist Jean Giraud) to create the world of Dune, they just bump into one another when Jodorowsky is visiting his publicity agent; Orson Welles agrees to be the Baron Harkonnen after Jodorowsky offers to get the chef of his favorite restaurant to cook for him every day; he wants Mick Jagger for Feyd-Rautha and stumbles across the man at a fancy party in Paris; Pink Floyd is too busy eating lunch during their break from a studio session, but Jodorowsky yells at them about how important his movie is going to be until they drop their burgers and agree to write music for him. Great man, great purpose, great art—an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.

Illustrator Chris Foss, who served as a concept artist for the film, admits that Jodorowsky excelled at motivating the team and getting them invested in the gargantuan process. Moebius, an artistic legend in his own right, agreed to storyboard the entire film, shot for shot, and H.R. Giger and Foss were asked to craft different aspects of the universe, with Foss focusing on the spaceships and architecture and Giger there to conceptualize Harkonnen grotesqueness. The idea of using different artists for different pieces of the film is certainly a clever one, and would have given each aspect of the tale a distinct flavor that could be easily distinguished from one another. We hear repeatedly about how far Jodorowsky was willing to go for the sake of this movie—including offering his own son up to play the role of Paul Atreides. Twelve-year-old Brontis Jodorowsky proceeded to train in a multitude of fighting techniques six hours a day, every day, for two whole years. No one treats this as inhumane or unreasonable: it is the selfless pursuit of reality as an artistic discipline. You can’t play Paul Atreides without becoming him. The film was set to be anywhere up to fourteen hours long—anything to make certain that its artistic integrity was preserved, that no limits were placed on anyone’s imagination.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Moebius’s storyboards

Despite all of this, as we know, the plans fell apart and the movie never saw the light of day. A massive tome of art, storyboards, and intricate plans were assembled to convince Hollywood execs to pony up fifteen million dollars—an extremely hefty sum in 1974—for Dune to come to fruition. While everyone was impressed with the scope and vision that went into this biblical guide for the production, no major studio was prepared to take a risk on Jodorowsky himself. In the documentary, it is painted as the might of corporatism stomping its great gilded boot all over an artist’s dream, his uncompromising vision. It is even suggested that if this version of Dune had been made, the face of blockbuster cinema would have been forever altered, wiping away our current landscape of superhero carbon copies and Star Wars merchandising. The world would be better and brighter if Jodorowsky’s Dune had only been allowed to escape its genie’s bottle.

The documentary weaves a spell around Jodowosky’s work, building the man into the sort of legend who could create the great religious film experience of all time. The end of the story is chock full of examples showcasing popular films that seem to have cribbed from the big conceptual book that they passed along to studio executives—places where Contact and Star Wars and Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark may have wittingly or unwittingly lifted from their work. If you buy that conceit, there’s a sense of theft, of lesser beings diluting the message of a greater work, that reads as truly painful… but what of the work that Jodorowsky himself was stealing from? What of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a book that he barely seems to have considered in the making? Every time he brings up the novel, he only seems to talk of what he intended to change about it.

Jodorowsky's Dune

H.R. Giger

To that end, the finale of Dune was meant to show us the death of Paul Atreides—but he is resurrected in the consciousness of everyone who knew him. Everyone becomes Paul, and the world of Arrakis morphs into a garden planet of life that hurls itself throughout the cosmos to spread enlightenment. Which, very much like David Lynch’s interpretation, is the exact opposite of the message that Frank Herbert intended to impart. But Jodorowsky isn’t bothered, because according to him, he had no obligation to consider Herbert’s text in the pursuit of his own artistic vision. Here is what he says toward the end of the documentary:

“It’s different. It was my Dune. When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like you get married, no? You go with the wife, white, the woman is white. You take the woman, if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to… to rape the bride. And then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert, raping, like this! But with love, with love.”

…And just like that, it all falls to pieces.

Just in case anyone ever remotely considering defending this word choice, calling it old-fashioned or a metaphor (and even if that were the case, it would be a terrible metaphor), permit me to direct you to Son of the 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen by Richard Crouse, which contains a sample from an interview Jodorowsky gave about Fando y Lis in 1970, where he admits that he actually insisted on being beaten by his costar and then raping her for the purpose of the film:

“After she had hit me long enough and hard enough to tire her, I said, ‘Now it’s my turn. Roll the cameras.’ And I really… I really… I really raped her. And she screamed. Then she told me that she had been raped before. You see, for me the character is frigid until El Topo rapes her. And she has an orgasm. That’s why I show a stone phallus in that scene… which spouts water. She has an orgasm. She accepts male sex. And that’s what happened to Mara in reality. She really had that problem. Fantastic scene. A very, very strong scene.”

It’s not a metaphor. We are dealing with an artist who condones rape as a means to an end for the purpose of creating art. A man who seems to believe that rape is something that women “need” if they can’t accept male sexual power on their own. Suddenly, ignoring Frank Herbert’s intended theme about the misguided deification of mortal men seems like the most mild thing Alejandro Jodorowsky could possibly do—though it does appear to be a theme that he could sorely use a primer on.

But, more to the point… is it really possible to come up with a better showcase for male privilege in the artistic world than this very film? Jodorowsky lectures on about how “the system” is nothing but money with no soul, with no integrity, and that movies contain truth and the stuff of dreams. He rails against the evils of rich Hollywood suits who couldn’t understand the beauty of what he planned to show them because he believes that he deserved their instant support. And when he didn’t get it, the world still conspired to make a documentary about his beautiful failure, because genius should be admired even when that genius belongs to a rapist who thought that sexual violence needed to be explored for art’s sake, by a man who was enacting that violence upon someone else in order to communicate his “truth” to the world. He’s responsible for the original midnight movie; you had better show him your unflinching respect. He makes real art, and real art is glorious and unknowable but also ugly and obscene, and too bad about that. Art doesn’t require trust or respect or basic human decency because genius tells us so.

Jodorowsky's Dune
Oh, look—I think I figured out why no women wanted to be interviewed about Jodorowsky and his plans for Dune. Or why they were never given the chance in the first place. I guess we can leave that to guys like Devin Faraci, and to directors who are excited to be christened Jodorowsky’s “spiritual son” after being expelled for throwing tables into walls back in art school. How illuminating.

It’s no great tragedy that Jodorowsky’s Dune never got made. Everyone involved went on with their highly successful careers anyhow, and we arguably got a better film out of it—because Dan O’Bannon, Moebius, Chris Foss, and H.R. Giger all went on to create Alien. But if there’s one thing the world definitely doesn’t need, it’s more praise for the murky genius of men who compare Frank Herbert’s writing to Proust. (Jodorowsky did this. I can’t think of a writer who Herbert is less comparable to than Proust, except maybe Sylvia Plath or D. H. Lawrence.) Art doesn’t have to be a Sisyphean feat in order to mean something, and while it’s always intriguing to mull over what might have been, a better version of our timeline is not automatically waiting at the other end.

In this case, it’s just as well that we have some gorgeous artwork to mull over… and little else.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Chris Foss

Emily Asher-Perrin would accept a coffee table book of the artwork, but sort of wishes she hadn’t seen this documentary at all. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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