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Jodorowsky’s Dune: The Expanding Universe of the Collective Unconscious

in Ark Review/Essays by

Despite the wealth of adaptations that have made it to the screen throughout the history of cinema, and indeed the enthused popularity and high esteem surrounding prolific cinematic interpretations of respected texts, from Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) to Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) and Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), the tendency to both explicitly, and perhaps even subconsciously, dismiss the filmic adaptation of a novel as inevitably ‘culturally inferior’ to its source material continues to pervade popular opinion.

There is an undeniable, systematic suspicion of the adapted film that we exercise by demanding that it show its source material such things as “loyalty”, “faithfulness” and “respect”. An imagined hierarchal ideology dictates that we should place an adapted film in submission to its source text – the question is, why? In her book on ‘Theorising Adaptation’, Linda Hutcheon discusses the contempt that audiences and academic writing alike often harbour for adaptations, simply for their inherent ‘recycled’ nature. Hutcheon proposes a variety of explanations for this embedded disdain, the most poignant of which she articulates as the “romantic valuing of the original creation and of the originating creative genius”, a “late addition to Western culture’s long and happy history of borrowing and stealing or, more accurately, sharing stories”. This form of unquestioned reverence for the original creation reduces our understanding of creativity and storytelling to a hierarchal, linear and ultimately, narrow comprehension of inspiration and art whereby a creation is restrictively chained to an individual ego.

A novel that enjoys the reverence of an almost literal sacredness is Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel ‘Dune’, a work widely considered the ‘Bible’ of science-fiction. This works holiness, though, did not stop artist and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain), from attempting a cinematic adaptation of the book in the late 1970’s. Despite Jodorowsky’s grand ambitions and impassioned effort to bring his version of ‘Dune’ to the screen, however, the adaptation was put to a halt before filming even began due to a lack of funding, and in 2013 a documentary was made about the un-made film. The documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune by Frank Pavich, tells the story of Jodorowsky’s great un-made film through a series of interviews with all those involved in the (non-)film’s production, and by animating the intricate storyboards drawn by Moebius for the (non-)film.

In Jodorowsky’s creative universe, that which he names the ‘myth’ does not belong to the artist and indeed cannot belong to any one individual if it is to transmit, translate and transcend.

What struck me about this documentary was its radical subversion of the traditional creative universe, the one in which the original object and the original creative genius sit at the nucleic centre and any adaptations are forced by an imaginary gravitational pull to submit to mere orbit. Instead, the film offers an alternative universe, unbound by strict artistic hierarchy and instead celebratory of the “age of postmodern cultural recycling” (Hutcheon). It returns to the fundamental universal law of (creative) energy and (creative) matter: neither one can be created nor destroyed. As Hutcheon asserts in defence of the adaptation, “all stories are born from other stories, and all art derives from other art.” Jodorowsky’s Dune occupies a strange rhetorical space in being a film about a non-film: and it is through this logic of existence that it builds a dense layering of ideas surrounding the spirituality of creativity, the cyclical eternity of the creative cosmos, and, ultimately, the subversion of the romanticised ‘original creation’.

Still from Frank Pavich's documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune
Still from Frank Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune

The story of Jodorowsky’s Dune begins with the intervention of the marvellous: “the Divinity agreed to say to me in a lucid dream: Your next film must be Dune. I had not read the novel” (as described in Jodorowsky’s eulogy of the un-made film, ‘The Film You Will Never See’). He recounts that he bought the novel the next day, finished reading it by midnight, and called his producer Michael Seydoux by one minute past midnight to suggest a filmic adaptation; Seydoux agrees to the project without reading the novel. (Chris Foss – whom designed the spaceships for the un-made film – admits in the documentary that he never got around to reading the novel at all.) There is, from the very beginning, an immediate dismissal of the sacredness of the original text – Herbert’s novel is immediately replaced by Jodorowsky’s own idea of it. In the aforementioned eulogy, Jodorowsky explains the movement of what he believes to be a creativity of higher consciousness, beyond such concepts as the sacredness of an original object, and the ego of the individual artist:

“For me Dune did not belong to Herbert as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes, nor Edipo with Esquilo. There is an artist, only one in the medium of a million other artists, which only once in his life, by a species of divine grace, receives an immortal topic, a MYTH… I say “receives” and not “creates” because the works of art is received in a state of mediumnity directly of the unconscious collective. Work exceeds the artist and to some extent, it kills it because humanity, by receiving the impact of the Myth, has a major need to erase the individual who received it and transmitted: its individual personality obstructs, stains the purity of the message which, of its base, requires to be anonymous” (‘The Film You Will Never See’).

In Jodorowsky’s creative universe, that which he names the ‘myth’ does not belong to the artist and indeed cannot belong to any one individual if it is to transmit, translate and transcend. In Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky implores that in adapting ‘Dune’, he wanted to “create a prophet”, “the coming of a God”, he “wanted to make something sacred”. He democratises the mysticism of the original object by claiming sacredness for his own recreation, and by arguing for the validity of all infinite interpretations of a given text:

“Christ belongs not to Mark, neither to Luke, neither to Matthew, nor to John… There are many other Gospels known as apocryphal books and there is as many lives of Christ as there are believers. Each one of us has their own version of Dune, its Jessica, their Paul… I felt an enthusiastic admiration towards Herbert and at the same time in conflict with him (I think that the same thing occurred to him) … He obstructed me… I did not want him as a technical adviser … I did everything to move him away from the project… I had received a version of Dune and I wanted to transmit it: The Myth was to give up the literary form and to become Image…” (‘The Film You Will Never See’).

Still from Frank Pavich's documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune
Still from Frank Pavich’s documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky unshackles sacredness from the ‘original’ by diluting and dispersing creative ego into the infinite multitude of artistic and personal interpretations of the myth. When Dune appeared to Jodorowsky, the myth had already transcended Herbert and his intentions; born from it, and yet severed at the umbilical cord. In the documentary, Jodorowsky explains that to adapt a novel, “you need to create another world, the optical world”. To construct this new world, to freely transmit his mythical dream and to allow Dune full re-incarnation, re-birth in the optical form, it needs to be free of any limitations that a submission to its previous form might enforce. Later in the film, Jodorowsky uses a vivid, if somewhat uncomfortable analogy: you take home your bride, dressed in white, after the wedding, but “if you respect her, you cannot have a child… you need to open her costume and rape her – then you will have your picture! That’s what I was doing, I was raping Herbert! But with love. With love.”

If one imagines the adaptive process as the melting of a solid object into a malleable clay state, before it re-solidifies in a new form, one envisages Jodorowsky’s Dune spilling out into the universe, a perpetual liquid form, destined to water the creative concepts of other artistic work.

Towards the middle of Jodorowsky’s Dune, Pavich introduces the notion that the un-made film did not simply evaporate after it failed to be realised. The creative spirit of Jodorowsky’s myth did not implode like a dying star, into a vacuous black hole, but exploded, and filtered out into the universe. The documentary demonstrates this ‘explosion’ by generously bequeathing its audience a montage sequence of clips containing overt evidence of non-Dune’s influence on the films that followed it. The examples include science-fiction cinema ranging from the critically acclaimed to classic cult: The Fifth Element (1997), Star Wars (1977), The Terminator (1984), Flash Gordon (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Masters of the Universe (1987), Contact (1997), and Prometheus (2012). Moreover, the documentary reveals that the team of ‘spiritual warriors’ that Jodorowsky assembled for his production – Dan O’Bannon, H. R. Giger, and Moebius – all went on to make one of the (if not the) most highly revered science fiction films of all time: Alien (1979). Film critic Devin Faraci subsequently observes that since without Jodorowsky’s (non)-Dune, you have no Alien, you would, in turn, have no Blade Runner, which then would mean no Matrix trilogy – and so on. If one imagines the adaptive process as the melting of a solid object into a malleable clay state, before it re-solidifies in a new form, one envisages Jodorowsky’s Dune spilling out into the universe, a perpetual liquid form, destined to water the creative concepts of other artistic work.

concept art by Chriss Foss for Jodorowsky's un-made adaptation of Dune
concept art by Chriss Foss for Jodorowsky’s un-made adaptation of Dune

Pavich, however, does not stop here. The documentary constructs a new layer of meta-complexity when it draws a direct parallel between the collective unconscious that Jodorowsky expressed in his (non)Dune, to the collective unconscious manifestations of Dune that followed its eventual death. Jodorowsky explains that he changed the ending of Herbert’s ‘Dune’ for his version of the story, by finishing with the brutal death of the hero, Paul Atreides. But, as Paul falls dead to the ground, his people rise in collective resistance: Paul is not dead. He lives in each of them. They rise, one by one, and finally all together, each declaring “I am Paul!”, “I am Paul!”, “I am Paul!” The planet Dune transforms from a sandy desert into a luscious and fertile paradise as it realises into a world of collective consciousness, the individual ego being finally absolved and the communal, higher level of cognizance, fulfilled. So, in a cathartic moment towards the end of the documentary, Pavich iterates the cosmic parallel between Paul’s death and the death of (non-)Dune in an interview with Jodorowsky and his son, Brontis Jodorowsky: “Dune is like Paul […] Its throat was cut, the film was killed, it wasn’t made. But, you know that you can hear in some films, I am Dune, I am Dune, I am Dune”. As Variety encapsulates in their review of the documentary, “Pavich happens upon a compelling theory: that even in its still-born form, the film manifested the sort of collective conscious that Jodorowsky was trying to peddle through the plot, trickling down to influence other sci-fi films that followed.” Pavich’s film thus embeds a subliminal rejection of the sacred original creation into its very texture by resisting the notion that Dune ever truly belonged to any one ego, not even Herbert’s or Jodorowsky’s.

Ultimately, the layered contemplation of creative energy, recycled myth, and liberation from the original creation in Jodorowsky’s Dune can be said culminate, finally, in the film’s very own mere existence. Not only does the documentary channel Jodorowsky’s explicit rejection of the original creation, and demonstrate the cyclical movement of creative energy in the re-incarnations of the un-made Dune, but it also physically embodies the notion of creative re-incarnation by in and of itself extending the Dune universe (also aptly dubbed, the Duniverse). As a documentary about Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune, it is itself a cinematic adaptation of the original creation, and one that holds no concern for ‘loyalty’ to Herbert’s original saga. In Jodorowsky’s words, “the mind is like a universe. It’s constantly expanding. Like the universe, exactly like the universe, open the mind.” This image of the expanding universe superimposes poetically, in miniature scale, onto the Duniverse: always expanding, always growing, moving through the boundless cosmos towards infinite re-incarnation.

Ebba loves literature, but has a BA in the slightly lower ranked art form of cinema, (a nerdy theory degree, not an arty filmmaking one). She likes Pauline Kael and is a big defender of Trash culture, balancing her Netflix time carefully between RuPaul’s Drag Race and teen movies from the 90s. She wrote her dissertation on gender and cyborgs, her two favorite topics of conversation. Ebba spends most of her time listening to pop-culture podcasts, trying to read philosophy and just generally being a bit pretentious. She wants to write about pop/high/low culture, and is looking to do a masters in film studies in 2017.

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