‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ is a done deal at last

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Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is a sprawling masterpiece of science fiction. It inspired generations of fans, megafans, enduring cultural memes, and remains a quasireligious touchstone of truth and the hero’s journey for readers all over the world. If you haven’t read it, imagine that “The Matrix” had taken place on a desert planet far away from earth, where people ride enormous sandworms and fight over a magical eye-bluing spice.

“Dune” is no minor flight of fancy. In 1975, Alejandro Jodorowsky, a lesser-known but brilliant Chilean director of avant-garde art films, decided that he would make this most ambitious of books into a film. His plans for the film were grand beyond all previous expectations of spectacle. The talent he attracted to the project is nothing short of astonishing: Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, Orson Welles, H.R. Giger and David Carradine all agreed to be part of the film. Despite the overwhelming genius burning on all sides of this script, the film was never made. The crushing failure of this project is now the subject of Frank Pavich’s documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”

The documentary spends much of its time looking squarely into the eyes of Jodorowsky himself. The director’s florid speech lurches in and out of Spanish and into English as he sees fit. He declares his passion for his lost project with such vehemence that it seems impossible that this failure took place over forty years ago.

Jodorowsky is still able to inhabit the frightening intensity of his former self when it comes to “Dune.” He says, “For me, ‘Dune’ will be the coming of a god. I wanted to make something sacred, free, with a new perspective. Open the mind!” This opening of the mind is key; Jodorowsky says he wanted the film to supply a hallucinatory experience to people who had not used drugs. The old man’s eyes are wildly intense, fiercely intelligent. His hands claw at the air as if he could wring his fate from the hands of destiny.

The documentary includes drawings from Giger and graphic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Jodorowsky narrates his vision over shots of tiger-striped spaceships that look like predatory fish or desert fortresses shaped like self-satisfied fat tyrants. Producer Michel Seydoux reminisces about what Salvador Dali asked to be paid — $100,000 per hour — and the way it was decided that the surrealist would in fact be paid $100,000 per minute. The documentary pieces together the history of a house in Paris where the entire production was conceptualized in an agonizing pall of failure; the audience knows this endeavor must fail. Yet the overwhelming feeling of the film is regret. By the end, everyone wishes Jodorowsky’s “Dune” had been made.

The documentary details the refusal of every single production house in Hollywood to back the project. The disappointment is plain on every face before the camera. Jodorowsky clutches a fistful of cash, gesturing to it, nearly inarticulate with rage that this spiritless paper is what ultimately stood between himself and the realization of a dream. The director recalls how wounded he was when David Lynch was tapped to direct “Dune” in 1984. Jodorowsky was dragged to the theater by his grown sons to see the Lynch film, and he hangs his arms like an unstrung puppet to illustrate his reluctance in those days. Lynch’s “Dune,” however, was a catastrophic flop, hated by critics, audiences and “Dune” fans. Jodorowsky fairly glows with schadenfreude as he screeches out his own review: “It was terrible! And I felt so much better!”

The documentary closes on a hopeful note: The treatment for “Jodorowsky’s Dune” still exists. The window has closed on the possibility for Welles or Dali to take part, but much of the “Dune” artistic team went on to make waves in science fiction film by taking part in the creation of the “Alien” franchise. The abandoned project seems ripe for the picking by an ambitious crew of animators, and Jodorowsky still clearly wants the greatest film never made to happen — in some form.

“Jodorowsky’s Dune” is playing at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.  

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].