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Jodorowskys Dune Documentary Review Essay

A making-of special about a film that was never made, “Jodorowsky’s Dune” details the mid-1970s efforts of the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky to translate Frank Herbert’s extravagant science fiction novel “Dune” to the big screen.

“Big” being the operative word. “For me, ‘Dune’ will be the coming of a god,” recalls Mr. Jodorowsky, the very picture of a man who doesn’t easily adopt the mantle of failed midwife. Capitalizing on his subject’s mobile face, authoritative voice and glorious ego, Frank Pavich directs by ceding the stage to their owner, a handsome devil of 85 who remains convinced of the would-have-been magnificence of his forcibly abandoned project.

Yet one of this film’s many delights is its surprising lack of bitterness. (Perhaps because Mr. Jodorowsky, when he finally got around to seeing David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation, was relieved to pronounce it “awful.”) Widely credited with creating the original midnight movie in the bizarre “El Topo” (1971), he’s a natural raconteur who may liken himself to a prophet but is no slouch at identifying offbeat talent.

Seeing no need to read Mr. Herbert’s novel before assembling his dream team, he tempted the writer Dan O’Bannon (who died in 2009) with “special marijuana” and seduced Salvador Dalí into accepting a role by promising one to the artist’s muse, Amanda Lear (still fit and fabulous and of indeterminate age).

“You can’t have a masterpiece without madness,” the producer Michel Seydoux — one among many like-minded interviewees — declares, an opinion supported by a surreal tour of Mr. Jodorowsky’s backcatalog. There’s nothing loony, however, about recognizing the box office wisdom of roping in Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Pink Floyd, especially if one of your stated goals is to produce the cinematic equivalent of a hit of LSD.

Trippy sensibility or no, Mr. Jodorowsky was an early convert to the genius of the Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger and the French graphic artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, whose extensive designs and storyboards — some gently animated here by Syd Garon — are a revelation. And when we see the DNA of those illustrations metastasize (like their creators) to blockbusters like the “Alien” franchise and “The Fifth Element,” the sequence evokes a surprising degree of what-might-have-been nostalgia.

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The documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is one of those great lost-masterpiece movies, a worthy addition to a cinematic canon that includes Terry Gilliam’s “Lost in La Mancha,” about his failed attempt to make “Don Quixote,” and “It’s All True,” about Orson Welles’s misbegotten South America project of the same name.

With “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” filmmaker Frank Pavich makes an impassioned and relatively convincing case that the film in question — an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel by the avant garde Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky — might be the greatest movie never made.

In 1975, having created controversy with his films “Fando y Lis” and “El Topo,” Jodorowsky threw himself headlong into making “Dune,” fired by messianic passion, unbridled energy and a vision for cinema that, along with the psychedelics being ingested at the time, he hoped would change mass consciousness forever. He set about assembling a team of “spiritual warriors”: artists and special-effect experts who could not only bring his hallucinatory visions to life, but also comprehend his larger, more transcendental purpose. “I wanted to make something sacred, free, with new perspective,” Jodorowsky recalls in the film.

Unlike its subject, “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is surprisingly conventional as a documentary; it resorts to a wearying number of talking heads to relate a story that turns out to be as cautionary as it is compelling. None of the film’s narrators is as captivating as Jodorowsky himself, who at 85 still exudes youthful, contagious exuberance and undaunted belief. Part of his appeal is his clear ability, at least in retrospect, to create his own luck: No sooner would he decide on someone perfect for a role than that figure would appear in his own life — whether it was Mick Jagger making a beeline for the director from across a crowded room, Salvador Dali leading him on a bizarre goose chase involving an escalating series of eccentric demands, or the great man Welles himself dining at a fine Paris restaurant.

These almost-making-of yarns are exceedingly entertaining, and “Jodorowsky’s Dune” comes even more vividly to life when Pavich animates the filmmaker’s enormous, elaborate storyboard for the film, drawn by the legendary French cartoonist Jean Giraud, known as Moe­bius. Their extraordinary, almost telepathic collaboration is one of the most touching elements of “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” as is the figure of effects technician Dan O’Bannon, whose contribution to the project rippled throughout the sci-fi genre.

Jodorowsky’s “Dune,” of course, never got made — a piece of movie history treated here as the travesty of a misunderstood artist ill-treated by Hollywood. Seen through another lens, however, the director and his producer, Michel Seydoux, could just as easily be accused of fatally misunderstanding a place where cinema is not just an art form, but also an industrial practice. (As Jack Nicholson said in the 2012 documentary “Corman’s World”: “If you don’t understand money in the movie business, it’s like an artist who doesn’t understand paint.”)

Still, “Jodorowsky’s Dune” is a deeply moving testament to single-minded, indefatigable commitment of creative vision and to an almost spiritual ability to let that vision go, thereby allowing it to exist in the world in an entirely unexpected form.

In the case of Jodorowsky, elements of his “Dune” can be found in any number of movies — from “Star Wars” to “Alien,” which O’Bannon wrote — that changed movie grammar forever. As Jodorowsky himself reflects philosophically, “Things come, you say yes. Things go away, you say yes.” As “Jodorowsky’s Dune” makes clear, when some things come back, you say yes then, too.

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some violent and sexual images and drug references. In English, Spanish and French with subtitles. 90 minutes.