Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Spice Must Flow

David Lynch's 1984 version of Dune is a magnificent folly. You can see the vast resources lavished on the screen in the costumes and the sets and in an absolutely stellar cast, but like most of Dino De Laurentis's attempts at grand-scale science fiction, this all turns to ashes in the end. Dune is one of the most interesting bad movies ever made. It's compulsively watchable. You can't take your eyes off of it, even when it makes you wince. I like to think that Dune is the movie equivalent of Afghanistan, in which great empires break themselves in spite of vast treasures pissed down the hole. That's appropriate, I think, given the ethnic model on which Frank Herbert based the Fremen of Arrakis. And somehow, some way, the film made it into the collective meme pool of pop culture. I saw a tee shirt a few years ago that modifies the mentat chant: "It is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion." Fatboy Slim samples the line "If we walk without rhythm, we won't attract the worm" for "Weapon of Choice." Dune is a weird, weird vortex in the meme pool.

The story in Dune follows the fortunes of the Atreides family, who in the movie's mythology have developed a new weapon technology and have a charismatic leader in Duke Leto. The Emperor of the Galaxy is afraid of the Atreides clan, and conspires with their arch rivals, the Harkonnens, to set them up as the governors of Arrakis, the desert world that produces the Spice, Melange, the substance that makes interstellar travel possible, with the intent to betray them and wipe them out. Unfortunately for the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood has different plans for the Atreides. They've been selectively breeding humans for millennia in a quest to produce a superman, who they would of course control. Lady Jessica, Duke Leto's consort, gave birth to Paul in defiance of her sisterhood, who demanded that she only bear female children. Is Paul the end product of their plan? After the Emperor's plot plays out, Paul gets to test the idea. He and his mother escape and find refuge with the Fremen who shortly begin to think that Paul is the messiah promised by their mythology. Paul vows to lead the Fremen in revolt against the Harkonnens first, and then the rest of the galaxy...

It starts with the novel, I guess, though I owe it to the movie to dissociate my impressions of the book with my impressions of the movie. I don't know that the book is unfilmable. I think it might be possible to make a film out of it that captures the essence of Frank Herbert's delirious world building. I don't think it can be done at a two hour running time; the background is too dense and requires too much exposition. It's an intractable source, for sure. The first failure of Lynch's movie is the way it handles its exposition. It begins with Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, who, in the books, is Paul Atreides's future biographer and future wife. The movie never really explains why Irulan is the voice of exposition; it's just there. The movie further elaborates on the plot before getting underway by laying out the primary conflict between the Atreides family and the Harkonnens in a series of history lessons read by Paul. It also puts some of the context into dreams, including one in which Paul repeatedly whispers "Arrakis, Dune, desert planet." This is one of the more absurd scenes in the movie, and it totally doesn't sell it. I'll get to Kyle MacLachlan in a bit, but this is one of the first hints that maybe, just maybe, he's the wrong actor for the part. Finally, Lynch decides to make the inner monologues of most of his important characters audible to the audience. These snippets of thought are usually redundant. When Lady Jessica enters the room after Paul's encounter with the Gom Jabbar, does the audience really need to know that she's thinking "My son is alive?" I mean Francesca Annis is an amazing actress and you can already see it in her face. I wonder how the movie would play with all of these snippets of thought removed. Better, I think.

Anyway, I say it starts with the book, and here's where the movie begins to go awry. Herbert explained nothing. He threw the reader to the wolves and let them figure out his world on their own. One of the senses of accomplishment one gets if one soldiers through the first hundred and fifty pages or so comes from the fact that it all eventually begins to make sense. The movie version doesn't trust the audience, especially for the extremely compressed time frame that watching a movie represents versus reading a book. The Sci-Fi channel's later adaptation gets this at least partly right. It gives the story enough space so the audience can puzzle things out.

The sense of cramming in these scenes doesn't really abate much during the main plot, which runs from highlight to highlight and plot point to plot point without pausing for a breath. It LOOKS great, but the characters get short shrift from this. We don't really care much about any of them. What sympathy we do develop comes from the actors rather than the filmmakers. Unlike the audience, who the filmmakers mollycoddle, they throw the actors to the wolves. It's a testament to the strength of the cast that they actually survive this. The exceptions are Kyle MacLachlan and Sean Young, who were largely unknown at the time. Part of the movie depends on their characters developing a great romantic relationship, and they just don't have any chemistry. Even at a longer length, I doubt either of them would have been capable of forming a bond. For the most part, I think that alone of all the actors in the film, they're miscast. They're too old, for one. If Kyle MacLachlan's Paul is as old as MacLachlan obviously was when this was filmed, then he's one hell of a mama's boy. In any event, as a genre adventure, this is pretty much a failure. It's too confusing to generate much of a rooting interest for an audience, so it ends up with a lot of sound and fury in which no one is particularly invested in the outcome.

All of this is true, but the story is only half the movie.

This is still a David Lynch movie, and even if he didn't have the kind of control over it that he would have preferred, you can still see his fingerprints all over it. As a visual object, Dune is wonder. It creates several worlds for the screen that have never been seen before, from the Emperor's palace to the industrial wastes of the Harkonnen's Geidi Prime, to the watery home of the Atreides, and Dune itself. This is a triumph of production design. In between these worlds, Lynch provides a connective tissue of psychic visions and hallucinations, from the folding of space by the spacer guild to Paul's dreams at various points in the movie. As in most of Lynch's signature work, this is an oneiric experience, and in some ways, it can be forgiven if it doesn't make much sense. Dreams don't have to make sense to stick with you, and clearly, Dune has lodged itself in the collective unconscious. Dune also manages to retain a semblance of the concerns of Frank Herbert's book. In particular, you still have echoes of the politics of oil and the underlying notion that messiahs are dangerous. So even if it's a failure as a genre exercise, that may not be the intent of the filmmakers to start with.

Make no mistake: Dune is a visionary film. Seriously, there's nothing else like it. But it's worth keeping in mind that visionaries are often crackpots and their visions are often castles made of sand.

Nota bene: I swiped these screen caps from here because they were loads better than anything I could get with my own equipment. I'll own up to the larceny, though I'm not swiping bandwidth. That would be wrong. Plus, it's a good site.

Also, I'm posting this on David Lynch's birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Lynch.


- said...

As a fan of the books, I had problems with the film in that it didn't make sense in parts. Things just happened without explanation and unless you had read the book, you wouldn't even begin to have a clue.

That being said, it is an awesome film to look at and listen to (the score is inspiring) and Lynch handled so much of it so well.

Here's my fun Kyle McLaughlin story. I had a kind of obsession with him when I was in high school, having been a fan of Dune and Blue Velvet. I may have been the only person to see The Hidden because he was in it. So I was in an elevator at the Beverly Center, a mall in West Hollywood, and I look over and see a bearded Kyle M. standing next to me.

All I could say was "You're Kyle McLaughlin!" He was actually quite pleased to be recognized. I never sought autographs and so didn't ask him for one, but it was fairly amazing to run into someone I had an obsession with. He and I chatted a little and he was really decent.


Vulnavia Morbius said...

Have I mentioned that you tell the coolest stories?

I really loved The Hidden. I should track it down so I can write about it. That weird detachment Kyle MacLachlan has in Dune works perfectly if you postulate that he's hosting an alien that's controlling his every move. I can't remember seeing him in anything since Showgirls, though.

- said...

He was a regular on both Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives. The guy has actually worked a lot.

I can tell you stories for days and most of them are based in fact :D Remind me to tell you about the time Richard Dryfuss tried to bite me.


Samantha Shanti said...

Oh Tasha dear, you should never, ever give him the chance. That was your first mistake. He's a quirky one, and teasing him like that was just the kind of thing he'd look at in his wonderful and twisted manner and say to himself "They won't expect this!"

Christianne, I cannot lie, I loved Dune warts and all the first time I saw it because I had read all the books. That it was rushed, incomplete and hacked up was lost on me because I was seeing it throught the coloured lenses of my adoration for the books and the world they brought me too. And the world they took me away from. When first I saw it I was lost in Chauni's eyes. I so wanted to be her, be there.

Mind you I'd never have come to Dune had it not been for my 11th grade English professor, who after sizing me up, and finding out I had in fact already passed the state English regents decided neither of us was going to be happy with ME in the classroom. I picked the Genre, he assigned me Dune and the rest as they say is history. Mr. Trezza was awesome, and challenging me to take on Dune was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I warped through Dune in a couple of days, and then again, then the rest of the books in the series, and even the ones his son wrote.

So part of my suspension of disbelief for the movie was willingly overlooking the mess and instead overlaying the real story line and plot with the visuals in the movie. For me in so many ways the movie was just seeing it through someone else's eyes for a change instead of my own. When I read, the inside of my head is like a holodeck, as I read, the environment, the planets, ships, people all appear and I watch it unfold. The sleeper had most certainly awoken some when I saw the film. The movie was just seeing it from a different vantage point.

I suspect I'm not alone there. This may be park of why as something of a bad movie became a cult classic. Either that or I'm crazy.

- said...

No, Sam. He was really mean to my friends and I. We had gone to see The Last Temptation of Christ at the Cineplex Odeon at Universal City (one of the first great multiplexes) and I was with my friend, Dave, who always wore this army jacket and whenever we were out, we would run into a celebrity and he would get them to sign it.

So there we were in line for concessions and we realize that Dreyfuss and Sonia Braga are right in front of us (they had just shot Moon Over Parador). So my friend says, "Hey, you're-"

And Dreyfuss cuts him off, "Bobby DeNiro" and turns away. When Dave asked him to sign his jacket, Dreyfuss yelled at us and started barking, then snapped his teeth a few times and we back away appropriately.

Uncomfortably, they were both in the theatre with us.

As far as Dune goes, once I slogged through the first 150 pages or so, I was hooked through Chapterhouse Dune. At that point, I said if there's one more gosh darned Duncan Idaho, I'm through :D

cinemarchaeologist said...

Have you seen the longer version of the movie, doc, the one to which Lynch didn't attach his name? It still has the compression problem--it's just too big a book--but it's a whole> lot better than the theatrical release everyone saw.

A lot of the film's problems come from the book. With a few glaring--and really stupid--exceptions ("weirding modules," Paul literally becoming a god), it really is a remarkably faithful adaptation that falls flat because of both time constraints and because so much of what makes the book so great can't be conveyed through a cinematic adaptation. Those behind the Sci Fi Channel abomination realized this, and pretty much chucked the book right from the beginning.

When the project that became this DUNE was originally set in motion in the '70s, it was put in the hands of Alejandro Jodorowsky, of all people. His version wouldn't have looked like the book at all, but his ideas for it were just awe-inspiring, and the fact that it was never completed or filmed has to be ranked as one of the great lost opportunities in the history of cinema.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. I've seen the expanded version. I mostly hated it, because in order to further lead the audience around by the nose, they inserted a great deal of expository material in the most ham-handed way imaginable. I mean, they were using production art stills for pete's sake! And the male voiceover makes no sense when you've already introduced Virginia Madsen as the narrator at the beginning of the movie. Also, a lot of the additional footage looked unfinished to me. It struck me as a kind of shambolic after the fact attempt to salvage what was already thought to be a disaster. I don't really blame Lynch for disowning it.

- said...

Plus the nature of the male voice-over is odd. He sounds like an old country boy (his pronunciation of "Sardukar" is priceless).

Yes, there are additional scenes, but there's no art to it. If you get the chance, check out the brilliant Criterion Brazil set where they provide both Gilliam's cut and the studio cut. Using the exact same footage, they made two entirely different films. The same thing happened with Dune, except that neither film was nearly as brilliant as Gilliam's Brazil.


cinemarchaeologist said...

"...his pronunciation of 'Sardukar' is priceless"

Yes, it makes it sound as if he's describing a domestic violence situation.

Doc, it sounds as if you may have seen a different version than I. Irulan isn't introduced as the narrator of the longer cut--her narration is entirely removed and replaced with that of the creaky-sounding fellow. Some of it is crudely assembled, as I recall. There was definitely some recycled footage (I haven't seen it in some years). It extends several scenes--some character moments--and adds a lot of others that help fill the huge gaps in the shorter version. I think it is, overall, a much better movie. I suspect it's probably also more "user-friendly" than the shorter cut.

Unknown said...

Good lord, I love Dune (and I know I shouldn't). Great to see it getting a bit of love. I do wonder what the Jodorowsky version would have turned out like though, what with the Jagger, Giger, Dali, Pink Floyd etc. getting involved.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. I've heard stories about the Jodorowski version, including some of the weird stuff (nunsploitation!) that apparently got the project yanked. The director himself blames Star Wars for the failure of his production. But, yeah. Giger. Pink Floyd. The possiblities....