The Speculative Power of the Non-Existent Movie: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ Dances with Reality

By  · Published on May 27th, 2014

Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky/ABKCO Films

Long gone is the ’70s golden age of midnight movies, psychedelic surrealism, and film industries’ deistic attitudes towards auteurs. Perhaps no filmmaker’s career has suffered more from this change in commercial and cultural sensibilities than Alejandro Jodorowsky, who birthed the successive cult staples El Topo and The Holy Mountain in the 1970s but has only seen the realization of sporadic (if no less brilliant) productions since. All of which makes it all the more amazing that Jodorowsky has experienced something of a quiet career renaissance in 2014 as the subject of Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune and as the director of The Dance of Reality, the filmmaker’s first completed feature in nearly a quarter century.

Yet for the never-not-great-news of new Jodorowsky, these two films hardly feel like a collective appreciation for an underappreciated artist in the twilight of his career, despite the direct relationship they share (Jodorowsky’s Dune reunited the filmmaker with producer Michel Seydoux, which resulted in The Dance of Reality).

Jodorowsky’s Dune and The Dance of Reality present a tale of two Jodorowskys: one an eccentric and hyperbolic personality dictating an uncompromising and supreme vision, the other an octogenarian artist using what might be his final venture behind the camera to reflect on his work’s relationship to his family history and ethnic identity. One film chronicles a work never completed, while the other bears all the burdens and wisdom of a late career entry.

Juxtaposed together, these two Jodorowskys suggest that movie culture is prone to respond more enthusiastically to the myth of the filmmaker than the work itself.

Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is an entertaining piece of documentary what-iffery that works like a magnet for anyone interested in imagining an alternative history of film. Like Lost in La Mancha or any legend of ambitious productions unrealized, the film posits the envelope-pushing and potentially ground-breaking vision of the filmmaker against the limitations of, well, reality.

But unlike that 2002 film about Terry Gilliam losing his Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune isn’t about the inherent limits of grandiose, challenging filmmaking outside the American studio system, nor is the film really about how difficult and complex the production process would be had such a grand and ambitious Dune been realized in the mid-1970s. Instead of stating the obvious (“This film would be very interesting to see had it been completed”), Jodorowsky’s Dune pursues a much more grandiose thesis (“This is the greatest film that has never been made”).

It’s an intoxicating idea, and even playful in its open embrace of contradiction, but it is unavoidably disingenuous and specious, a safe yet empty proclamation about something that can be neither proven nor disproven. A thesis safe from the rigors of testing. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a film whose subject is not the history of a failed film project, but rather its own hype and unexamined hyperbole around a Moebius strip of an argument that Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been The Best Thing had it been made and, even though it wasn’t, still determined decades of sci-fi cinema to come.

Yet the hype that organizes Jodorowsky’s Dune is a product of 21st century movie culture, disconnected from the context within which the project in question was initially pursued.

Where Jodorowsky’s eternal excitement about his unrealized vision is articulated under the terms of a cinematic alchemist whose signature is Buñuel meets LSD – referring to his project as a “sacred” form of filmmaking, recalling a moment in which he yelled at Pink Floyd about his own brilliance in order to convince the band to (partially) score the film, and describing Dune in purely Jodorowskian terms as “a film that was a prophet” – Jodorowsky’s Dune, by contrast, presents its subject as a sober work of historical fantasy, an empirical “document” about what such a film would inevitably had been if we lived in a world free of circumstance. Never does the documentary entertain the possibility that Jodorowsky’s completed Dune could have just as likely been an impenetrable curiosity or a complete disaster as it could a masterpiece.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a perfect funhouse mirror of film history erected by a pseudo-cinephilic portion of movie culture whose prime currency is speculation, not evaluation. The most popular of film blogs (whose chief personalities are featured here as talking heads) are more devoted to news that props up future productions than they are analyses of existing films; Jodorowsky’s Dune takes this formula and retrofits it for the past. I can’t think of a less Jodorowskian way to approach any subject than the speculative pragmatism on display in this film.

In speaking about the difficulty of adapting Dune early in the film, Jodorowsky states, “To bring literature to image is completely difficult. You need to create another world: the optical world. It’s not the literary, auditive world.” The same might be said about documenting legends. In as cumbersome an undertaking as filmmaking, there exists an incredible gap between preparation and concretization. By conflating the two, Jodorowsky’s Dune ignores the interminable distance between fantasy and realization in articulating a vision.

The Dance of Reality represents the reverse. Instead of presenting fantasy as reality, Jodorowsky’s newest work imagines reality as fantasy. A relatively grounded work for Jodorowsky, The Dance of Reality unravels a tale of Alejandro’s childhood in Chile as his brutal father struggles with anti-Semitism and political alliances under the reign of Carlos Ibáñez. The film is replete with Jodorowskyisms including a disabled supporting cast, scatology, and mystical theism – all met with a sincere embrace in place of judgment or reservation. In true Jodorowsky form, the film moves from funny to horrifying to befuddling at breakneck pace and through a masterful control of tone.

Would-be distinctions between truth and fiction in Jodorowsky’s telling of his own life are beside the point, as Dance of Reality’s purpose is openly available in its title: the real is not a linear progression of history, but a dance between imagination and realization. Jodorowsky suggests that we – or, at least, he – reside in the worlds of reality and imagination at once, whether one is a prospective political assassin or a would-be filmmaker. The film, in short, exercises Jodorowsky’s proclamation that “real life itself is weird.” We hardly need to make shit up to experience the surreal. Our many possible destinies are endless, not prescribed.

As with nearly all of his films, Jodorowsky has an onscreen presence in Dance of Reality. But instead of El Topo, a somber, reflective Jodorowsky enters the frame to do something he rarely does: to explain. He describes his emotional life to the viewer in elegiac terms, cutting himself off from his fearless persona depicted onscreen or his brash persona depicted offscreen. Perhaps for the first time in any of his films, we are presented not with Jodorowsky the visionary mystic or Jodorowsky the psychedelic medium of cinematic transcendence, but rather Jodorowsky the human being. Twenty-three years between finished works and well into his eighties, Jodorowsky is still restlessly changing as an artist.

A man with dozens of unrealized projects, Jodorowsky has decided to use his all-too-rare allowance of cinematic capital to unfurl an intimate reflection on family, culture, and the life of the mind. For the 21st century Jodorowsky, worthwhile cinematic revelations now reside not in an epic vision, but on the micro scale.

The Dance of Reality may forever be obscured by his justifiably canonized ’70s classics. It will never be as sexy as those projects that made his name. But The Dance of Reality need not be obscured by a film he never made. I would love to have been able to see Jodorowsky’s Dune as much as anyone who enjoys yelling in a room full of mannequin Jesuses.

However, Jodorowsky’s Dune prefers the Jodorowsky that could have been. The Dance of Reality presents the Jodorowsky that is.