The Straight Story – 6 – Dune

I suck really hard, guys. A lot of stuff came up in the middle of The Straight Story and I wanted to look into Dune as a novel one more time before I explored the film and it just ended up delaying this piece of The Straight Story for a long while. I do intend to get back into gear shortly after I finish reviewing the MCU films up until Avengers: Age of Ultron.

No rush now, given events with the Twin Peaks revival, I guess. Too soon?

Frank Herbert liked Dune.

Granted, Frank Herbert also hates Iron Maiden so there’s that.

Many people consider Dune to be the greatest failure of David Lynch’s career, certainly the picture that killed his three-time acclaim streak starting in and the one that proves that when Lynch isn’t in charge all the way through, what’s going to come out is most likely less than alive or complete.

I personally get an especially weird kick out of watching and can admire a lot of what Lynch and company attempts but the film in itself has so much wrong with it to ever claim it is actually good. It’s actually the sort of ecstasy I witnessed Alejandro Jodorowsky give when he found Lynch messed up Dune himself. That’s the kind of enjoyment I get.

Plus, we got Blue Velvet out of it and well, that’s kind of a magnificent film for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m sure by now we should be aware of a major part of Dune’s troubled development and production history, especially in consideration of the popularity of the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I have reviewed previously. So, I hope I’ll be forgiven for jumping from Jodorowsky’s time with the option to film Dune to legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis’ era with it.

After getting the rights, De Laurentiis went to the author of the seminal science fiction classic itself, Frank Herbert himself to draft a script and – as one can espect as indulgence from somebody being asked to adapt his own novel – Herbert returned with a three hour script. Which, I guess I was being mean about, that is surprisingly restrained for such an author.

De Laurentiis then asked Scott to re-write and direct and 7 months and 3 drafts later, Scott found his heart just wasn’t in the work (partly because his older brother had died during that time) and passed on the project.

So then, suddenly, it became 5 years since De Laurentiis had purchased the rights and so he had discovered that the lack of action is setting the rights to expire. De Laurentiis convinced the company however not only to allow him more time to shoot the picture, but also the rights to the entire Dune franchise including future and not-yet-realized books.

Now he had to hunt for a director and fast.

Enter Lynch into this scenario who was really reeling in the success of The Elephant Man as a picture to go ahead and be offered a hefty amount of film productions at his disposal [the most famous of these being Return of the Jedi, the (then-)concluding picture in the Star Wars saga]. Lynch saw Dune is among those offers and picked it as his next project.

Contractually obliged to write and direct, as well as to work on two more projects for De Laurentiis (one of which is a Dune sequel that never surfaced while the other is quite a miraculous work I’m excited to talk about), Lynch had not read the book at the time he agreed to work on the project.

It shows. A lot.

But, that’s beyond looking at how badly Dune is. Dune isn’t a bad flick because its ending famously betrays a hefty amount of themes and its story feels like a The Last Airbender compression of heavy details of the story that lay out the world and nearly everyone in the film looks like a miscasting of the highest order.

I mean, yeah those all help make Dune a bad picture, but that’s not entirely something missing from Jodorowsky’s idealized Dune picture (minus perhaps the story compression) and public opinion by everyone is that the film would have been a masterpiece. Maybe they watched Jodorowsky’s Dune too many times.

But no, the primary energy of Lynch’s Dune is how much of it feels more like an obligation than a passion project. And considering his history with AFI and ABC and with what happened with Showtime, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that Lynch is the absolute worst when it comes to studio interference. They’re always on absolutely separate wavelengths and there’s no way they can come together on the same idea. This is probably explaining why Lynch disowns the film (to my mind, the only feature film he disowned, but I encourage any readers to inform me if I’m wrong).

In any case, because Herbert’s classic novel is so damn sprawling and the story is essentially a generation-spanning narrative, I had trouble summing up the plot for myself. So I looked to IMDb to try and lift their explanation of the film’s plot:

A Duke’s son leads desert warriors against the galactic emperor and his father’s evil nemesis when they assassinate his father and free their desert world from the emperor’s rule.

cough. That’s only the second half of the damn picture. Which actually helps me with a point I wanted to make: For a picture that goes out of its way to crush its storyline with narration and rushed timeframes, it actually also takes forever to get to its damn point: the fall and resurrection of the House Atreides, in the middle of it, the young son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan in the first of his career collaborations with Lynch and certainly the least inspired of them all) avenging the betrayal and death of his father Leto (Jurgen Prochnow… who I’m guessing was riding off his success from Das Boot at the time).

Anyway, if jumping in cast from the All-American MacLachlan to the then-international star Prochnow isn’t much of a showcase for how absolutely out of it the casting is, I would like to enlighten you further on the casting decisions: Police frontman Sting is Feyd-Rautha, Jose Ferrer is Emperor Shaddam (Lynch would later cast his son Miguel in Twin Peaks and to better use), Virginia Madsen is Princess Irulan, and these are all off-beat and kind of work because of how insanely the cast dedicates themselves to the role (except for Ferrer, who comes off as lazy acting for a legend, but given the opening scene of the film it works for him to be bumbling). Then we get Jack Nance as Captain Nefud, Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, Sean Young… The only casting choices that come off as inspired are Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen and Brad Dourif as De Vries and both of them also are caked in some foully outrageous make-up that serves as almost too distracting from their performances.

Baron Harkonnen himself has been the source of much controversy as his scenes were called out as ‘homophobic’. I can’t comment personally on whether or not I think Lynch is a homophobe as I’ve never seen evidence one way or the other, but I can completely see how one would read the savage large and pus ridden Harkonnen who gets the majority of the gore in the film as a homophobic setting, especially in 1984.

In the meanwhile, the actors all themselves do not do as much favors to the artifice of the films. Many of them look like they barely understand the shit they are saying and others feel like being on set is simply an obligation, a feeling probably shared by Lynch. They are as fake and unbelievable about the film as the green screen looking lounge of the Harkonnens which looks like somebody forgot to insert a backdrop for them or the blocky shields Paul spars the Gurney with (an unexciting spar spurred on by a then-not-as-renowned Patrick Stewart). Even the stuff that doesn’t feel like the creator of the designs fell asleep are just absolute polar opposites in aesthetic that have not leeway to mesh with each other nor any truly distinguishable quality to make the sets stand out – from the cavernous locale of the Fremen to the inconsequential stoneyness of the House Atreides, all underscored by a boisterously ambitious but unfortunately overshot score by the otherwise fantastic Toto.

Clearly De Laurentiis didn’t feel he got his money’s worth, but I also feel like the book Dune is in itself is strictly unadaptable. It’s a difficult large book just as blocky as those shields or the designs. So he should have known what he was getting into.

But there is one thing that keeps it from being a total loss to me and it is that, whether Lynch accepts it or not, we can easily tell it is a Lynch film. There is a manic personality brought out by his frustration that gives the film personality and character, even if it isn’t the observational character of the literature itself. It’s curious but I can’t think it’s a mere accident that (even though it falls into Last Airbender territory of telling instead of showing) we open on a woman’s superimposed face in the starry blackness of wonder speaking hypnotically to us – much like The Elephant Man bookended itself except one of which is in color and one is not. Events – most notably in the middle when Harkonnen and Atreides go into conflict for the first time and we watch the siege begin or Harkonnen’s gleeful bloody sexual pastime – like raw begin to up the ante in energy, cinematography (with Freddie Francis’ return) and editing wise, in an inorganic manner that only Lynch could maybe sometimes get away with and it’s also where the actors begin overacting heavily for the sake of the mood.

And given how much of its ending is an extreme betrayal of Dune‘s commentary about religion, I really honestly think Lynch did that as a final middle finger to the production. Which is admirable, but in the end, still kind of irritating in the same manner that Watchmen as a film gets the plot details right but the themes all wrong.

For that reason, I don’t think Dune is a total waste of space. The most heavily invested of Lynch fanatics, which are there, could certainly use it as a yardstick to see how far you can stress Lynch out before he breaks and even trying to make the film in a way that leaks his own mind doesn’t entirely save the picture. Too many things go wrong. I thought I was one of those Lynch fanatics that could love it, but it seems I am not.

At least we’ll have Blue Velvet

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One thought on “The Straight Story – 6 – Dune

  1. I saw the film last year for my own Lynch retrospective and had very much the same reaction as you. I agree with pretty much everything you said here although I’ve heard the film looks pretty good on blu-ray (I saw it in a REALLY crappy non-anamorphic DVD). And it definitely served an important negative purpose in Lynch’s career, a kind of “never again.” I sometimes wonder if he wouldn’t have rescued Twin Peaks with the finale & film if not for Dune lingering in his memory as an example of artistic failure he did not want to repeat.

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