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'Jodorowsky's Dune' explores an unrealized yet influential film vision

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In one of his celebrated couplets, Bob Dylan once wrote, "there's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all." The new documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune" sets out to likewise redraw the lines between failure and success.

The film, playing in Los Angeles as it expands to more theaters around the country, explores the making and unmaking of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction novel "Dune" in the mid-1970s. Though never actually filmed, the project's ambitious designs and concepts would prove influential elsewhere. As the doc tells it, a line can be drawn from Jodorowsky's unrealized project on through "Star Wars," "Alien" and "Blade Runner" to more recent films such as "Prometheus."

Directed by Frank Pavich, "Jodorowsky's Dune" is a celebration, not a burial. Though there have been other documentaries touching on failed film projects, such as Terry Gilliam's unfinished "Don Quixote" film or the vast archives of research undertaken by Stanley Kubrick for an unrealized "Napoleon" picture, those films always end with finality. In "Jodorowsky's Dune," the ideas live on.

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"Jodorowsky's 'Dune' is like a perfect failure," said Pavich during a recent phone call from his home in Geneva. "And then the question is did it fail? He [Jodorowsky] doesn't look at it with any bitterness or anger. I don't know if Terry Gilliam's 'Don Quixote' influenced anything after, I don't know if Kubrick's 'Napoleon' went outside those boxes. But Jodorowsky's 'Dune' changed the landscape. It's really the fact that it's not a failure, it's a beautiful success and a fascinating and inspirational story."

The era was post "2001: A Space Odyssey" but pre-"Star Wars," when there existed for a brief moment a possibility of large-scale, expansive, personal, psychedelic sci-fi. Jodorowsky was considered the father of the midnight movie with his mystical, hallucinatory films "El Topo" and "Holy Mountain."

"Dune's" cast included such figures as Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí and David Carradine, with music by Pink Floyd and the French group Magma. Assembled as what Jodorowsky referred to as his "spiritual warriors" was a behind-the-scenes dream team that included artwork and designs by French cartoonist Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Swiss artist H.R. Giger and English illustrator Chris Foss as well as American screenwriter and effects supervisor Dan O'Bannon.

Jodorowsky and his team created an elaborate book that included concept art and storyboards, creating a seeming visualization of the entire film as it would be shot. Only two of the books are known to exist, one owned by Jodorowsky and the other by his producer on the project, Michel Seydoux. (At least one other is known to have been sold online more than 10 years ago, with others presumably unaccounted for but in existence).

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In the years since "Dune" collapsed, Jodorowsky has directed only a few films, focusing instead on writing books and comics. Yet "Dune" has often been on his mind.

"Even though I didn't do it, I made my dream," said the Chilean-born Jodorowsky, now 85, on the phone from his longtime home in Paris. "Maybe I never believed it was possible to do it, because it was so difficult at that time. But I made the fight. And when I didn't do it, I said this is not a failure. Everything I could not do in 'Dune' I would do in comics. We will do it anyway."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the "Dune" project fell apart because of issues over financing after two years of planning and work; ever since it has remained the stuff of legend, included on lists and in books on the greatest films never made.

The American-born Pavich, a longtime Jodorowsky fan, saw a documentary on the filmmaker that included a brief passage on the "Dune" project and wanted to know more. After tracking down a contact for Jodorowsky, Pavich made his pitch and waited.

To Pavich's surprise, Jodorowsky said they could meet in Paris. Pavich took a short trip from Geneva to meet the filmmaker, and their own journey together began.

"To this day he's never asked me what I've done before, what's my background, can I see any of your work. Anything," said Pavich, who makes his feature directing debut with the project. "I think I just kind of appeared enthusiastic and excited. I think he saw something in me that he could trust I was going to do something to the best of my abilities."

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"When Pavich came to see me I didn't ask if he made movies or not," explained Jodorowsky, revealing some of the sly fox method to his apparent madness. "I said I do it because I never believed he'd do it, I never knew for sure if it was a real movie or not. I told him, if he can do it, good. Doesn't do it, good."

The "Dune" production book was circulated at the time to Hollywood studios as the project sought financing partners, and it is thought that some of the ideas and designs may have filtered their way into other movies. Giger clearly repurposed some of his work for the 1979 film "Alien," which featured a screenplay written by O'Bannon.

Jodorowsky's vision of "Dune" — Herbert's book would eventually be brought to the screen in 1984 by David Lynch — can be seen as a path not taken for large-scale American moviemaking, one of personal exploration rather than commercial achievement. Even for the post-hippie Hollywood of the early 1970s, Jodorowsky's ambitions pushed the envelope, verging from weird to downright crazy.

"I'm not crazy, I'm ambitious," said Jodorowsky. "I was demonstrating what was possible. I had those people, they said yes. That is ambition, not outside of reality. Crazy I am not."

Pavich's film animates some of the storyboards from Jodorowsky's "Dune" book, giving viewers of "Jodorowsky's Dune" just a glimpse at what that phantom film might have been like. As it is, we'll never know. Or will we?

"The movie exists, it just doesn't exist on celluloid," said Devin Faraci, editor in chief of the website Badass Digest and featured in the documentary. "It ended up exactly in the form that it needed to exist in. He wanted to make a movie that was like tripping, and tripping isn't a thing that physically exists, so that the movie doesn't physically exist is absolutely perfect. It's a movie we can only see in our own minds."

Work on Pavich's documentary put Jodorowsky back in touch with Seydoux, his former producer, after many years. The pair collaborated on "The Dance of Reality," which premiered with "Jodorowsky's Dune" at last year's Cannes Film Festival and will be released in theaters this spring. Their reunion and renewed collaboration is just one more way in which "Dune," though never filmed, was not for nothing.

Noted Jodorowsky, "To me, the picture, I did it."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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