The Greatest Movies Never Made

03/21/2014 9:45 AM |

alejandro jodorwsky dune documentary

The unmade film is a Messiah delayed in coming. Its promises of grace persist; paradisiacal new worlds would’ve been shown to us—if only we had been less venal, less obsessed with revenue! But the movies are an earthly business; after enough signs of visionary madness, funding gets withdrawn. Meanwhile, studio orthodoxies continue unopposed. Bits of the unmade film’s footage get lost, or screen in bowdlerized forms at festivals, or are hoarded by true believers like the tatters of a holy text. Orson Welles dies. Kubrick dies. And David Lynch makes Dune.

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Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel was visionary in its own way. A Hugo- and Nebula-award winner, Dune is set on a desert planet with a fragile ecosystem and the only extant deposits of a substance both universally desired and thus deeply valuable. But where others read: oil, Alejandro Jodorowsky read: enlightenment. After his surrealist Western El Topo established the midnight movie genre, and his Holy Mountain exhorted addled audiences to take charge of their own reality, Dune was the director’s ideal stepping stone into cosmic consciousness. “The most important picture in the story of humanity,” a white-haired, animated Jodorowsky exclaims in Frank Pavich’s engaging new doc, Jodorowsky’s Dune (which opens today at Film Forum). “It will change the world! And you are… eating Big Macs?”

Big Mac consumption, alas, continued. The documentary doesn’t dwell on the film’s eventual collapse; to do so would squander screen time with Jodorowsky, who in his 80s quakes with enthusiasm and an infectious storytelling élan. As he and other would-be Dunemen weigh in, Pavich animates storyboards of the Dune that wasn’t; it’s the closest we’re ever likely to get to this particular geyser of enlightenment. Cast Dino de Laurentiis as the devil here: ending up with the rights, he called in a different kind of prophet to direct; in certain cuts of the 1984 film, Lynch uses a pseudonym (the classic “Alan Smithee”) in the credits to avoid association with the finished product. The team Jodorowsky had assembled for Dune—HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss—went on to work on Alien, Star Wars and Total Recall, integrating bits of Jodorowsky’s gospel into their work. But now Dali, Udo Kier, Amanda Lear, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles will never appear onscreen together—at least, not in any dimension known to us.

But then such an array was always dubious: Dali requested $100,000 per hour of work, and Welles only agreed to act in Dune when Jodorowsky promised to retain his favorite chef for daily on-set meals. By this time—the mid-70s—Welles had already been working on his own doomed Don Quixote project for nearly 20 years. But what project wasn’t doomed for him? The man’s catalogue of unfinished, recut, and otherwise derailed productions is heartbreaking. No Lear. No Cyrano. Don Quixote was first meant as a TV special, and then a feature film with time-traveling twist (no Paul Menard antics for Welles), but first the money went, and then the lead did (to his eternal rest). Welles recast, rethought, and insisted throughout his life that Cervantes’ characters were eternal: Christ will return, and Arthur, but the perennially untimely Quixote and Sancho Panza couldn’t have left.

Indeed, footage of the Quixote resides presently in Munich, Italy, Madrid—and Paris, where the existing footage of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unrealized L’Infer also decayed for decades, until a producer’s stalled-elevator encounter with Clouzot’s widow brought it to light. Serge Bromberg’s 2009 doc is less enticing as a film than as an artifact: a frame of witnesses and scene readings (with Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin) around what Clouzot managed to make of his design. The Nouvelle Vague piqued the man who’d considered accomplishments The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, and Clouzot’s plan for his tale of ravenous jealousy called for technologies that didn’t yet exist in 1964.

His legion technicians and all three of the movie’s crews rigged lights in such a way that actors’ faces seemed to morph in shadows; makeup was required to make skin look again like skin; the manmade lake which featured prominently in the film was red. It was soon to be drained, too, by the municipality, so more than usual Clouzot had to work against time; in response, he seems to have rebelled and shot the same scenes over and over, torturing his actors in a bid for perfection that was finally curtailed by a heart attack. Bits of Clouzot’s polychrome nightmares made it into his final film La Prisonnière, just as research done for Stanley Kubrick’s never-made Napoleon wound up informing his 1975 adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. But—with no disrespect to Ryan O’Neal—think of those candelabras lighting the Emperor of the French!

The hopelessly terrestrial may suggest that the whole project—film, art—is itself quixotic, the onscreen image forever an approximation, a futile struggle to approach something irreplicable, glanced briefly in the mind’s eye. This is absurd, of course. Where cinema’s concerned, the world is indeed “a million possible things,” as Terry Gilliam said some time ago, before he hinted that his own long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may be revived soon. Let’s hope this iteration of a world beyond ours isn’t shown the door back into the void.