Lost in space

A new doc reveals 'the greatest film never made' -- Jodorowsky's 'Dune'

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H.R. Giger poses with "Dune" concept art

FILM It's so seldom a film of major scale and budget is made without at least some standard commercial aspirations — however misguided — that the rare exceptions seem as curious, improbable, and wonderful as unicorns. (And about as useless, any bottom-line-oriented producer might say.) We're not talking Heaven's Gate (1980), Ishtar (1987), or Battlefield Earth

It's rare enough for an artist to complete one such project. Alejandro Jodorowsky stands nearly alone in having made at least two. A Chilean émigré to Paris, he had avant-garde interests that led him from theater and comic book art to film, making his feature debut with 1968's Fando y Lis — a low-budget, little-seen harbinger of things to come, based on a play by likeminded Spanish stage and screen surrealist Fernando Arrabal. Undaunted by its poor reception, he created El Topo (1970), a blood-soaked mix of spaghetti western, mysticism, and Buñuellian parabolic grotesquerie with the director playing a messianic lone gunman whose spiritual path requires violent cleanup of a corrupt society. It gradually became the very first "midnight movie" sensation, playing for years to audiences of stoned hippies — no doubt causing some bad trips en route.

After that success, he was given nearly a million dollars to "do what he wanted" with 1973's The Holy Mountain. It was, essentially, El Topo redux, albeit without the western motifs and with a staggering Pop-Op-surreal pictorialism to its less-Leone-more-Hesse vision quest. He played the Alchemist, a seer-trickster who leads nine representatives of the modern world on a journey to their own souls. It ended with the camera turning on itself and cast turning toward the audience, "breaking the illusion" because "real life awaits us."

This extraordinary, singular, pretentious, crazy epic was a big hit in Europe. (Rather strangely, it utterly flopped in the US, and its revival was tied up in legal woes for years; before one announced SF screening at the old York Theater, a private collector's print was seized and impounded.) French producer Michel Seydoux asked Jodorowsky what he'd like to do next. Dune, he said — though as he confesses in Frank Pavich's fascinating new documentary, he hadn't actually read Frank Herbert's cult science-fiction novel yet, though a friend "told [him] it was fantastic."

In many ways it seemed a perfect match of director and material. Yet Dune would be an enormous undertaking in terms of scale, expense, and technical challenges. What moneymen in their right mind would entrust this flamboyant genius/nut job with it?

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