Saturday, August 8, 2009
Dune (1984) A Film by David Lynch (or is it Alan Smithee?)
If one were to apply some sort of numerical system for rating the consistency or artistic similarities in David Lynch's oeuvre, it might look something like this, with Dune being that fat, bulky outlier in no man's land. The last project the film community expected Lynch to partake in following his initial two features was the adaption of Frank Herbert's colossal saga, Dune, a 412-page novel now and then declared as one of the greatest sci-fi epics ever written. Lynch condensed this into a three hour epic of his own which targets the grand tradition of Star Wars but lands somewhere altogether different. Taking into account the harsh critical bashing that is often lobbed at the film - not to mention the dispensation of it as "A Film by Alan Smithee", the official pseudonym used in Hollywood when a director wishes to disown his project - Dune stood before me as a brutish task. As a Lynch "completist", I knew I had to see it, but could have easily watched something else before it. Well, now I have indeed seen it, and it certainly is a confusing enigma, an undeniably bizarre sojourn into big-budget filmmaking for the otherwise self-motivated artist.
One of the greatest mistakes the film makes (to distinguish from a mistake Lynch makes, because it is difficult to say with the finished product what was the studio's addition and what was Lynch's) is in the first ten minutes, when a didactic narration accompanies Herbertian paintings of galactic scenes, the rapidity of which strands the viewer in left field. The narrator, who sounds like an indifferent, drunken Gene Hackman, fires establishing information at us about the Dune universe, the desert planet, the three sparring planetary houses (House Atreides, House Harkonnen, House Corrino), the gargantuan worm that lives beneath the desert and harvests a certain spice that induces eternal life, and also a bit about the tapestry of individuals. Duke Leto Atreides is the good in the universe, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a bile, tumor-laden, flying obesity, is the evil. The Duke's son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) is destined to become heroic but must first stave off an unnamed traitor he is informed of. The supporting narration - seemingly a reason to make comprehensible that which is skidded over in Lynch's kinetic storytelling style - returns variably throughout the film, providing more and more dense information in a slapdash manner. These were likely manifested as extended descriptions in Herbert's novel that required rereading.
Another device frequently used in the film that requires prerequisite knowledge of the book in order to make sense of it is the slew of internal monologues spoken in portentous whisper. Paul is the heftiest purveyor of such confusion; when faced with a difficult situation, he resorts to his conscience, gasping lines like "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration." or "He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing.", and also connecting occurrences to celestial meanings regarding "the second moon...", "the spice...", or "the voice...". However, one cannot say that the film is from the point of view of Paul, because several other times throughout Dune we hear the same device utilized for Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, the Duke, and Piter De Vries, a bushy-eyebrowed deceiver of Atreides, to name a few. Lynch's use of the internal monologue here is haphazard and listless, providing us with combating modes of thought that echo in the mind as they do on the soundtrack. It is uncertain what kind of grasp the "director"/studio-heads have over the project, for it seems a beast as unpredictable as the massive, spike-mouthed worms that seethe beneath the desert planet, and the result in an inchoate blob of sci-fi schtick.
All narrative inconsistencies aside, the film has a special kind of visual allure that spawns not out of calculation of tone but rather out of a certain gaudiness inherent in the special effects work. Dune is the kind of film where the illusion of reality is shattered when it becomes blatant that action sequences are taking place largely in front of green screens. This is visible when Paul lassos the worm and lands on its back, when space shuttles hover smoothly over planetary surfaces, and when crew members are shown from the inside of their flying devices. Scenes like this back-peddle through cinema history to a point where Kubrick's 2001 is undeniably superior. But believing in the action is not what counts; it's often an enjoyment just to marvel at the artifice. Also, the costumes and sets are spectacularly elaborate - albeit relatively plastic-like on the outset - so that there's frequently something within the frame to pick out and stare at when the drama goes haywire. Unfortunately, the color seems to have been mildly drained out to a putrid brownish.
The film is a classic case of heavy studio interference. Lynch apparently shot a great amount more than what is seen in the finished product. It's arguable whether or not any more length or personal vision would have enhanced this film; it seems more likely that it would augment the already tedious nature of the current version. Despite this, there are several times when the film rushes through segments, most crucially the finale, which boasts Paul as a hero but does not accompany his stature with filmic grandiosity. The narrative has its best moments when Lynch slows down the pace, such as when Reverend Mother Ramallo tests Paul's strength through a miniature box designed to infict mental suffering. Dune only occasionally stumbles over a recognizably Lynchian element (the brief dream sequences involving dense superimpositions with ominous hands), and when it does it is largely unsatisfying, like a lazy reprise Eraserhead's cosmic imagery. One leaves the film with a bad feeling, both for having witnessed such a grueling, incomprehensible film, and also for thinking of the great amount of sets, talent, and labor that went to waste.