Thursday, July 12, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.3: David Lynch's Dune

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 34 (C-)

Well, let’s look at the bright side- Dune isn’t quite as atrocious as I remembered. That isn’t saying very much, though, as it’s only bumped up from “one of the biggest disasters I’ve ever seen” to “gigantic misfire” in my book. After the success of The Elephant Man, David Lynch tried getting a few idiosyncratic projects off the ground (including his still dormant script Ronnie Rocket) before George Lucas offered him a chance to direct Return of the Jedi (seriously). Lynch turned it down, believing it would be more Lucas’ vision than his own, but was convinced by Dino de Laurentiis to direct the first in a planned series based on Frank Herbert’s beloved science fiction series, Dune. That anyone thought that Dune would have a filmed sequel is pretty funny, considering how the mammoth undertaking of adapting Herbert’s sprawling universe had already defeated another surrealist (Alejandro Jodorowsky) and a superb craftsman (Ridley Scott). Lynch’s Dune was doomed from the start.

Streamlined plot: Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) is the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow), ruler of the planet Caladan. They are rivals to Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), ruler of the planet Giedi Prime. The Emperor of the known universe (Jose Ferrer) has been instructed to kill the Atreides family by another more sinister force. He sends the Atreides family to rule the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, where the spice mélange is a key energy source for the rest of the universe. When Harkonnen and his forces attack and overthrow the Atreides family, Paul and his mother are forced to hide with a secret society in the desert, where Paul becomes Maud’Dib, the leader of the society, and a possible messiah known as the Kwisatz Haderach, which was predicted by the psychic society of which Paul’s mother is a member.

So, did any of that make any sense? Exactly. That’s the central problem with adapting Dune- it’s a very complicated world with a  lot of characters (I barely mentioned any of them in the plot summary, it would take too long), four different planets, and obscure vocabulary that’s bound to confuse the audience unless it’s either simplified or painstakingly explained. Lynch was led to believe he would have three hours (still probably not enough) to tell his story. He got less than 2 ½.

Ambitious science fiction films often leave their audiences asking big questions, like “what makes us human” or “is there a god?”. Dune has a number of questions throughout, but they more or less amount to the following: “What?” “Huh?” “Who’s that?” “Where did this come from?” “What’s going on?” “What does that mean?” “What in the fuck?”. The film begins with Virginia Madsen’s minor character showing up and throwing exposition at the audience in a fashion that’s bound to confuse. Only the truly devoted Frank Herbert fans will understand what’s going on, which doesn’t help the feeling that there’s going to be a very hard quiz at the end of this. It doesn’t help that the characters’ thoughts are often narrated with what’s either a hushed internal monologue or some sort of telepathic thought. Nor does Lynch’s weak handling of special effects and action sequences give the film any narrative drive. It’s utterly confusing, painfully slow, and Lynch never manages to find a clear or concise way to tell its story. Perhaps grabbing a master surrealist who’s usually uninterested in telling complicated linear stories or doing big budget action was a bad idea.

Dune has a spectacular cast (Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, and Everett McGill as heroes, Brad Dourif, Ferrer, and Jack Nance as villains), but they’ve been saddled with unwieldy, unspeakable dialogue that’s alternatingly pretentious, bewildering, or dour. Most of the actors are well cast- MacLachlan as a thinking man’s Luke Skywalker, Stewart as one of his mentors, Dean Stockwell as a conflicted traitor- but there are too many characters who disappear and reappear with no warning, and too few of them can overcome their dialogue or the fact that their motivations are unclear. The central villains- McMillan, Dourif, and especially a bug-eyed, crazy Sting- turn out a bit better, but they’re largely defeated by the film’s glaring flaws by the end.

Not all of the blame can be put at Lynch’s feet, however. The film grows from deeply flawed to actively terrible in the last third, but that has more to do with confusing editing that skips over the course of several years without any warning or semblance of time and place. There have been large chunks of film taken out of this (the extended cut confirms this, although Lynch disapproved and disowned it and has steadfastly refused to put out his own director’s cut), and the editing grows disastrous and often outright puzzling in the final thirty minutes (there’s an edit that’s basically a tear in the screen, complete with a ripping sound, that’s absolutely hilarious). Also deserving scorn- the awful, overproduced rock score from cheese band Toto, which grows increasingly distracting as the film gets worse.

In spite of all of its problems, however, Dune does fit into Lynch’s filmography in a fascinating way. It’s another film with Lynch successfully experimenting with creepy sound and character design (the brain creature with a vagina mouth that talks to the emperor is straight out of Eraserhead). Particularly strong are the nightmarish scenes involving the sexually ravenous Harkonnen (covered in horrifying boils) menacing his subjects and rivals. In its best moments, the film takes on a tone of hushed tension and surreal madness that would define Lynch’s best work for years to come. Lynch has clearly come to the film with a strong sense of purpose, however misguided, and has chosen his influences well- the epic sweep of Star Wars and classical Biblical tales (particularly the stories of Moses and Jesus in Paul’s central story), the nightmarish surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the uneasy tension of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick. It’s a great director with a strong vision at work here. It’s just the wrong vision for the wrong movie.

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