Sunday, May 11, 2014


On the surface, Jodorowsky's Dune is a whimsical documentary covering the pre-production and ultimate failure of a wildly imaginative, 14-hour film adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel Dune. But if you happen to be, as I am, demographically prone to being seduced by the "far out" and fantastic; and you contract the contagious fervor of Alejandro Jodorowsky as he glowingly recounts this period of his life in a thick Chilean accent, waving his hands about with eyes gleaming wide and the grin of a Jungian trickster; if you allow yourself to see Jodorowsky as he sees himself--the mystical shaman, the mad man from the mountains--then Frank Pavich's documentary spirals out into an immense intergalactic tale in its own right. From Jodorowsky's angle, this is the story of humanity's near miss with  collective spiritual enlightenment, with Dune as his holy sacrament. "I want to create a prophet," Jodo' exclaims. “For me, Dune will become the coming of a God”.

Jodorowsky in The Holy Mountain
Early in his career, the now 85 year old Chilean-French filmmaker had conquered the global art house film circuit of the late 60's and early 70's. His cult classics, like the violent and absurd psychedelic western El Topo, and the drug induced opus The Holy Mountain (funded in part by John Lennon), had granted Jodorowsky the power and prestige to produce whatever film he desired next. He chose Dune.

Pre-production for his Dune peaked around 1975, a year widely agreed to be the end of the "Psychedelic" era. Western civilization had endured a decade long attack, an outright chemical war in the form of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD. This potent new man-made psychoactive chemical was polluting young minds, opening them up to the hedonistic demons of eastern spirituality, and expanding their ideals beyond the range of nationalistic pride, sexual boundaries, and ego based identity. And if the dose was large enough, LSD blasted them out beyond the stratus of earth itself, further into the realm of the collective unconscious and the universal imagination than any decent God-fearing mind had ever been.

By the mid 70’s, the Beatles had broken up, the war in Vietnam was over, and man had landed on the moon. An effective antidote to the hippie counter-culture was promptly concocted and unleashed: A potent combination of cocaine, disco, and a healthy middle class. Psychedelic drugs receded back from whence they came, to the shadowy world of philosophers, intellectuals, and artists, and left behind a trail of timeless and “out of this world” works of visual art, music, films, and literature.

One of the great works to emerge out of the fog and fever of the late 60's came Frank Herbert's novel Dune, published in 1966. Dune quickly became one of the highest regarded science fiction works of all time and was considered to be widely influenced by psychedelic substances and their effects on society. 

In the "Duneiverse" (not sure if that's actually a term, but I like it) the drug "Spice Melange" has become the most valuable interstellar commodity. “Spice” grants its users extended life times, increased vitality, hyper-awareness and, in some individuals, produces a trance-like state in which past and future events are envisioned allowing for safe interstellar travel. Heavy use of “Spice” causes extreme dependency and evolutionary mutations. For a man like Jodorowsky, it is easy to see the allure of Dune, even though he claims he never read it: "I didn’t read Dune," he says in the documentary, "But I have a friend who say me it was fantastic."

Not unlike the users of “Spice”, Jodo intended for his film to trigger a mutation in its viewers “To change the young minds of all the world”, to bring about Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the future Superman. Users of psychedelics like LSD often describe feeling almost "super human" or "alien" in their heightened abilities to perceive reality. They describe seeing fuller spectrums of colour and sound, visions of vast complex geometric fields, and feeling a heightened sense of oneness, empathy, and spiritual understanding. It's also fairly common for "trippers" to return convinced that psychedelics hold the power to save the planet if only everyone would just take them but a few times. They hold the key to transforming our society into a more peace loving, harmonious utopia, and usher in the mythical age of Aquarius. Jodorowsky, infusing his work with the visual and conceptual hallmarks of psychedelia, hoped his Dune would have the same effect. "I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD, hallucinations, but not LSD to be taken. The film was going to change public’s perceptions."

Amongst "the squares" and "the norms" of the day, a genuine fear emerged. To them the Age of Aquarius signified an apocalyptic nightmare realm, Satan's kingdom on earth. The "hippies" were going to poison the water supply with LSD (and probably patchouli oil), and ruin America, an act of terror which would bring about the end of the western world, plunging it into an orgiastic hell pit of distorted guitars and free love. This fear was played out in the ultra kitsch mainstream Hollywood film Wild in the Streets (1968), where hippie youth dose all of America with LSD, take over the White House, install LSD concentration camps, and enforce a maximum age limit for American citizens.

Giger's Alien-like concept art
While watching this documentary, it is obvious that Jodorowsky had a complete belief in himself and in his ability to enlighten the world. He managed to gather together some of the greatest artists and musicians of the time to take part in his quest, some even selling their belongings and relocating to his rented castle in France. Not only was he able to convince his fellow "spiritual warriors" to join him in his battle, enlisting the likes of H.R. Giger, Salvador Dali, and Pink Floyd to name a few, but it also seemed that the will of the earth herself was on Jodorowsky side, conspiring along with him, helping to see the film to completion. Coincidence after coincidence, "Everything became perfect, when we were doing this picture"

Sadly, when it came to time to pitch his 14 hour epic for production, even Jodo's dream team and the will of the universe were no match for the astronomically diabolical Hollywood studios. While they were interested in the project itself, none wanted Jodorowsky to be involved in the production whatsoever, likely based on his reputation as an absurdest, provocateur, wild man, and an icon of the drug counter-culture. Instead, Star Wars happened. And we all know how that went.

This documentary plays like a work of "alternate history”, a genre offshoot of science fiction like Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, which depicts a world in which the Nazis and Japan have won WW2 and have divided America between them. Similarly, Jodorowsky's Dune asks you to imagine a world where mad men, mystics, and the feverishly creative are given the freedom and access to production budgets generally reserved for the sane and safe (like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg); a world where the vale between the Jungian collective unconscious and the material world is paper thin, and creative transmigration between the two realms is not just welcomed, but coaxed out by an arts culture and community that is its harmonic equivalent. This possible-future's-past was a near miss once, but like a commit orbiting the earth, perhaps it will come back around again, and hit us dead on.

Colin Harrington is a Guelph-based multimedia artist, audio/visual technician, and aspiring filmmaker. He is currently in pre-production for his first feature length film. His band is Adverteyes:

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