David Lynch’s 1984 DUNE – Part One


          When Dune was first tagged for a movie, the two directors seriously considered were Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch, both nascent amateur film directors whose sense of whimsy and irreality seemed attractive to those wanting to film Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel.

            Why? I’ve wondered.

            Well, it’s Dune. Which means Face Dancers — or shape shifters — from the planet Tleilax; human computers known as Mentats; the marvelously grotesque Spacing Guild navigators who can fold space and time and travel without moving; a man-worm god; an interstellar holy war; the mystical order of the Bene Gesserit; a fat, floating villan who wants to dethrone the Emperor of the Known Universe; clones; interplanetary intrigue. And — oh yea — there’s this geriatric drug known as Spice or Melange, which can confer long life as well as paradigm-shattering insight into the nature and fabric of reality, and is the glue, really, that keeps this particular universe together.

            So, really? I had to ask?

            Denis Villeneuve, the third batter up, is admittedly different, a new and interesting choice. He can make movies with eerie edges, suffused with mystery and beauty and violence, and he does it in a grown-up, I-stopped-reading-comic-books-a-long-time-ago sobriety, even when — especially when — his subjects are comic bookish. Sort of like Christopher Nolan making the Batman movies for the boys who used to be into DC, but gave them up when they became men. Yeah, I believe that could happen.

            I am a Denis Villeneuve fan. His body of work is profoundly impressive, thoughtful, nothing short of fascinating, and he has an artist’s photographic sensibility. And I am a rabid fan of his Dune One and Dune Two, both of which I’ve seen multiple times.

            But each artist has their stamp, their flavor, their signature, they’re way of navigating through the world.

            I find that the competing Dune movies bring different things to the table, hermetic visions that are not incompatible insofar as each spin is a self-contained bubble of reality. Reality according to them. And that, after all, is what attracts us to them, makes their reputation.

            Jodorowsky would have, given the chance, given us a uniquely flavored Dune, purely Jodorowskyish, built on Frank Herbert yes, but not quite Frank Herbert.

            David Lynch cannot (or will not) do what Denis Villeneuve does, nor can Villeneuve (or want to) do what David Lynch does. They’re singular artists. Villeneuve does things in his version that I wish Lynch had done in his. I’m not sure he could. By the same token, Lynch does things in his version that Villeneuve either cannot, or will not, do. Two painters looking at the same landscape but creating two varying visions.

            Villeneuve wants to wow us, but above all, he wants us to wake up, he wants us to believe in the reality of what we see. Hell yeah. I could ride a sandworm like that if I needed to. In his Dune, Duncan Idaho says to the young Paul Atreides, “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”

            Lynch, on the other hand, wants you to savor the dream and the nightmare to linger. He wants you to see things beyond the veil of waking realities. In his version, the Duke Leto Atreides says to his son, “I’ll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” But what Lynch wants us to awaken to is to those dreams and nightmares nested within each other like Matryoshka dolls. He wants to challenge that which we only think reality is, much like when Jorge Luis Borges shows us in “The Circular Ruins” that the dreamer is really only a character in someone else’s dream.

            Lynch goes fishing for the big deep fish, and hooks a good amount of them. His 1984 Dune is filled with quirky, weird, deliciously inspired insanities and surreal vignettes which in their way awaken the sleeper from one dream to another. I quiver with weird delight, sometimes with a titillating disgust, when watching his conjurations. Not all dreams are pleasant.

            Example? I am fascinated with his mentat Pieter Devries’ red-stained lips, like the smeared lipstick of a jilted, slovenly lover, reciting the mentat credo.

                        It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.

                        It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed,

                        the lips acquire stains,

                        the stains become a warning.

                        It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.

            Ah. And that visit by the grotesquely deformed Spacing Guild pilot, its mouth pursed like a vagina, floating in a tank of gas like the inhabitant of a failed star. And as if that weren’t enough, we get the guild pilot’s attendants wearing black, shiny greatcoats, bald like menacing bikers, spearheading the zoo-like glass vehicle — a submarine emerging from the depths — advancing as the designate speaker talks into a translator that looks like a retro 1900’s Radio Age microphone.

            And the offhand things that the Guild pilot says in his garbled patois, also in translation, offering glimpses of a strange universe viewed peripherally, scenes from the goldmine: “We’ve just folded space from Ix. Lots of machines on Ix.” Weird stuff like that.

            There are the vignettes giving us long glimpses of a nighttime Harkonnen city on the planet Giedi Prime, one corner of the screen shot occupied by a smooth black spherical hollow sculpture yawning with the mouth of a deep-sea creature, set against the Paolo Solerian grid like nightmare of a building designed by controlling fascist leaders.

            And there are other conjured scenes, numerous and marvelous, diamonds whose Baudelairean beauties are highlighted by the mud in which they’re set in this 1984 masterpiece of deconstruction in disarray.

            However, there are unfortunate elements in Lynch that are a bit confounding and/or regrettable, avoidably distracting.

            For example, the entire performance by the actress Linda Hunt’s is embarrassing. It should have been moderated, directed and aimed and cleaned up. The aim was to create a character of enigma and perhaps Shakespearean. Instead we get Monty Python. Sometimes Lynch reaches for campiness, as he did in Eraserhead, and often pulling it off, but not here. And it’s a shame, too. Linda Hunt can be marvelous when she’s properly directed (or not misdirected) as she was in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role of Billy Kwan.

            The part played by Alicia Witt, Alia Atreides, seemed equally off-center: self-conscious and coming across as precisely a performance. It also sounded as if it were dubbed. The performance was an on-the-fence wobbler in that sometimes it felt right, menacing and eerie; and at others as skewed. Child actors can be, of course, difficult to guide, and Alicia Witt, who turned into a marvelous adult actor, is not to blame.

            Paul L. Smith, who I remember as effective as a nasty prison guard in 1978’s Midnight Express — where he was convincingly menacing — played the character of “Beast” Rabban. This was another character whose performance was campy, cartoony and buffoonish. A conglomeration of moments and roles such as this one conspired, among other flaws, to undermine the seriousness of the movie. I used the term “serious” in the way that Don Corleone in The Godfather used it: something or someone with weight, accomplished whether it be in the good or bad arts, but not easily ignored.

            As to the role of Feyd, one of the baron’s nephews, I’ve never cared for the British singer and actor Stink. With an often subsumed but always present sneer, he exudes a narcissistic self-importance with the poise of a distinct poser. He comes across as an asshole. In short, however, he was therefore and actually, quite perfect for his role of Feyd.

            The blocky and personal magnetic body shields used by the Atreides warriors were quite imaginative but ultimately clunky, an unexplainable special effects failure not worthy of the enormous budget. Granted, the movie tech in the early 1980’s might simply not have been up to snuff. The body shields are a difficult concept to conjure effectively and convincingly. The novel itself is maddeningly vague about them, too. (Denis Villeneuve did better job at it, but because it went in the opposite direction of obvious and gaudy, it looks restrained and visually boring. In SciFi we want to see high tech be cool and eye-catching. SciFi is a very visual genre.)

            I loved the scenes showing the massive outer space heighliners actually parked on ground, surrounded by the matrix of surrounding soldiers, indicating a fascistic Brutalist architectural and engineering gestalt.

            But there were many other flaws, especially in light of the enormous budget the movie was given. Some of the desert scenes seemed bald, bereft of the beauties of the desert often evoked in movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, and of course, later in Villeneuve’s version.

            The worms were done well, but the worm riding seemed as tacky as those old detective noir movies that show people driving in car and viewing a city through windshields and side windows which display cut-and-past traffic and movement. False and unconvincing.

            Still, it bears repeating that the isolated but numerous sets and scenes of the movie make it, for me and many others, a worthwhile and exciting cinematic endeavor. There are many other wonderfully composed scenes, vignettes that show the extraordinary mastery of David Lynch’s composition skills as previously (and since) seen in Eraserhead and Elephant Man.

            Sometimes I wonder if, when all is said and done, David Lynch was still a little wet behind the ears when he was given Dune. Eraserhead was a macabre gem, but in many ways a much smaller endeavor. And Elephant Man was a moving, perfect black-and-white cojuration. Dune was his third notable directorial foray, and it was a huge production.

            The film consisted of 42 major speaking parts, a crew of 1,700, not to mention 20,000 extras. There were 80 sets that were built on 8 sound stages. The budget for the movie was the biggest ever for Universal Studios up until then: about $42 million in 1984, which translates to around $111,000 million today. Universal Studios gave Lynch a lot of power, but for that budget, they didn’t give him everything. In many important ways he was constrained, and Lynch has said that Dino De Laurentiis insisted on a movie no longer than 2 hours, presumably to accommodate viewers and also not lose ticket sales. Producers and bankers have different formulas by which they tailor things.

            Jodorowsky came this close to making his version of Dune, but in the end it was no cigar, and he was bitterly disappointed.  Lynch came this close to making the Dune he wanted, but it wasn’t to be, and we were disappointed. He said that he’d sold out even before the movie started filming.

            But the flawed endeavors of gifted movie directors and artists are often more interesting and satisfying to watch than the successful works of lesser talents.

            There are so many things that can go wrong in producing a movie. Given the production stories, it’s a wonder and surprise that masterpieces such as The Godfather and Blade Runner even exist. There are so many cooks in the kitchen, and after Michael Cimino’s debacle with Heaven’s Gate, who can blame producers, who are not always the best decision makers as to artistic decision, at being skittish and second guessing directors. You wanna make the movie your way? Then you pay for it.

            And who’s to say that if David Lynch had actually gotten to film Dune exactly how he wanted to, that it would have been more satisfactory or successful. Lynch has always been idiosyncratic in what he produces and how he produces it, often jagged but invariably brilliant and intriguing. But there hasn’t always been a consensus about his movies. There are aspects of his art that are, in fact, acquired tastes.

            Those of us who are his fans are just happy to be able to have access to some great film scenes and compositions and darkly dreamy artistry in his Dune. Happy to have a David Lynch product before we have to scour the internet for his advertising commercials, often little gems themselves.

            That being said, I’ve often thought of ways that his Dune might have been more effective and less clunky, giving Lynch more space to unfurl and deploy his visions without the interference of some of the movie’s present undisputed handicaps.

            This will be, however, the subject of another blog soon to follow.

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