Dune

Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Jürgen Prochnow

Dune. Not Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 behemoth, that pleasure still awaits. But David Lynch’s 1984 version, the only film in his career that he wished he hadn’t made and will not talk about in interviews, except to say he shouldn’t have made it.

And not the theatrical version either, but the “extended” one worked up for TV so it could be shown in two 90 minute chunks. Lynch hated this one so much he had his name taken off the credits. So welcome to another “Alan Smithee film”.

Acutally Lynch originally had a four-hour cut in mind but had managed to get the running time down to three hours. Not short enough for his producers, who were worried that anything over two hours and 17 minutes would mean one fewer showing per day in the cinemas. And so two hours 17 minutes it is, and comprehensibility be damned. Which is why I turned to the TV version, hoping against hope that three hours would fill in some of the gaps.

The vastly sprawling plot can be distilled down to: the Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer), anxious that his barons are gaining in power, sets two houses – Harkonnen (boo) and Atreides (hooray) – against each other in a divide-and-rule contest over who will control the mining and trade of Spice, a magical substance with bitcoin-meets-crack allure found only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), a sandy waste where killer monster sandworms hold sway.

Think of Harkonnen as the Empire and Atreides as the Rebel Alliance, if you want a Star Wars hook to hang this film on, and young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in his debut) as a Luke Skywalker type growing in stature from callow youth to mighty warrior as he faces down the Harkonnen and uncovers the Emperor’s treachery.

On the planet Arrakis, aka Dune
On the planet Arrakis



Both Star Wars and Dune are in hock visually to the 1930s Flash Gordon films but David Lynch seems to have been drinking deeper from the cup than George Lucas ever did. The faintly militaristic look, the art nouveau styling, the hair just so, the way everyone speaks in awed sci-fi tones about concepts that must be everyday to them, that all connects directly to the era of Buster Crabbe’s Flash and Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden.

Lucas, his scrolling preamble aside, found clever narrative ways to explain the who, what and where of what was going on in his film in a way that Lynch never manages. This film is heavy with explication, with a voiceover narrator (some of it added for the TV version, admittedly), internal monologue from characters and a tendency for every new interaction between people to begin with an explicatory preamble contextualising what the characters are about to discuss.

Villeneuve’s film has broken Frank Herbert’s original novel into two halves, and watching Lynch trying to get all of its plot onto the screen in 1984 you can’t help feeling he (or the De Laurentiises, who produced) would have done better to do the same. This Dune is drowning in guff.

Blame Herbert’s book, if you like. Personally, reading it was the moment when I broke with sci-fi, which until then I’d associated with pithy, ideas-driven stories from the likes of Asimov, Le Guin, Dick, Heinlein and Bradbury. Dune, by contrast, was a soap opera in space. And long. The original book was 400 and something pages, with more volumes forming a traffic jam behind. Call it an attention span disorder but I gave up around the halfway mark.

This is not a good film, not at any level. Lynch is not an action director, the look of it is shonky, even with the great Freddie Francis as DP, the sets are frequently wobbly, and though vast amounts of money have clearly been spent on the mostly practical effects (there are some crude early CG moments), it’s been wasted. Toto’s soundtrack is senseless – it brings to mind the vamping Lynch would get from a later musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, which is fine for odd open-ended dramas but does not work here, where a bit of ta-daa and boom is needed rather than airy blah.

There are good things to be found. MacLachlan is fantastic as the wide-eyed youth growing into the nobility already possessed by his father (Jürgen Prochnow). Francesca Annis as his mother has that fatalistic Lady Macbeth thing going on. Siân Phillips is a fantastically swivel-eyed priestess. Max Von Sydow in warrior attire is dignity incarnate. Sean Young, underused but welcome in a Princess Leia-ish role as Paul Atreides’ love interest. Jose Ferrer, not in it half enough, makes a great and commanding Emperor, and Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, face covered in pustules and with a tendency to float off into the air, seems to be enjoying himself in his pantomime role.

Imagine if Ridley Scott had made this, as was mooted at one point (he made Blade Runner instead). That would have freed David Lynch up to make Return of the Jedi, which he turned down to make this. Right there, two alternate-reality sci-fi scenarios.



Dune – Watch /buy the theatrical version at Amazon

David Lynch box set at Amazon – Includes Dune, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me





I am an Amazon affiliate






© Steve Morrissey 2021









Inland Empire

Laura Dern and fantasy girls in Inland Empire

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 February

 

 

Carole King born, 1942

On this day in 1942, the singer/songwriter Carole King was born, as Carole Klein, in New York.

A prodigious talent who was playing piano at four, she had formed her own band in high school. Writing songs from her early teens, she was a professional while still in college, where one of her ex boyfriends, Neil Sedaka wrote the hit Oh Carol for her in 1959.

It was however Jerry Goffin she married and went into songwriting partnership with. Together they wrote Take Good Care of My Baby, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and The Locomotion, among 100 chart hits, including Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman and James Taylor’s You Got a Friend. Her friendship with Taylor led to her expanding her solo work. After a split from her husband and a move to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, she released her second solo album, Tapestry, in 1971. Marking the high water mark of the early 1970s singer/songwriter boom, the album has sold more than 25 million copies and at the time of writing is still in the Billboard 200.

 

 

 

Inland Empire (2006, dir: David Lynch)

This is it, the last film made by David Lynch, who has since announced his retirement, though he continues to produce adverts for Dior, music videos for the likes of Duran Duran, his intention being to focus on music rather than film-making for now at least.

But it is the perfect Lynchian farewell, a gift for the fans who were hoping for something suitably weird from the director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. And weird it undoubtedly is, like a film playing very loud in another room down a hotel corridor, and at its centre Laura Dern, who the IMDb insists is playing two character but it seemed to me more like three or four.

And here’s the difficult plot bit: Dern plays a fading actress who lands a part in an overcooked melodrama, discovers that it’s actually an unfinished project and that its original stars were murdered. As she journeys further into the identity of the character and the woman who originally played the part, she increasingly starts to disappear into her own inland empire. I think.

Shot on the hoof with no script, with a camera you could buy for buttons in a supermarket, Inland Empire was literally made up as it went along, Lynch shooting scenes that grabbed his fancy and then stitching them all together in post-production.

So of course it’s chaotic, dreamlike, artificial, infuriating and almost impossible to follow – are we watching Dern as the actress, as the character she’s playing, as the murdered actress, as a strongly imagined fantasy character? They’re all up for grabs.

Giant rabbits feature, would it be a Lynch film if they didn’t? Pop music, 1950s decor, non-sequitur dialogue, uneasy shifts between black and white and colour, between Poland and the USA, grotesque stylisation, foreign languages, Lynch keeps piling on the alienation until, poor viewer, you’re forced to abandon any attempt to wrest meaning from the whole thing and instead become a screen across which Lynch projects his neurotic psychodrama.

And at exactly this point, way way into the three hours that the film runs, it starts to make a sort of schizophrenic sense.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • David Lynch’s final film, so he says
  • Jeremy Irons and Justin Theroux’s supporting roles
  • Naomi Watts voices one of the giant rabbits
  • Goffin and King’s The Loco-Motion in an entirely new light

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inland Empire – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Eraserhead

 

 

 

David Lynch’s first full length film was made piecemeal between 1971 and 1977 and is the perfect visual accompaniment to an era obsessed with industrial decay – check out the music of Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle for the aural equivalent. It follows a passive, expressionless man with a perpendicular hairstyle through a succession of grim, clanking scenarios back to his home, where his livid girlfriend and their newborn child – a cross between ET and something that might crawl up your urethra and start living in your insides – seem to be waging psychic war on him. Is he schizophrenic? Are we viewing these scenes from inside his mind? Lynch won’t say, never has. But as with so many films Lynch has made since, there appears to be a piece of information missing. If only we knew what it was, everything would make sense. And it’s this voyeuristic straining after the bits we can’t quite see as much as the puzzlement over the bits we can (what’s going on with the radiators in Eraserhead, for example) that has driven Lynch’s best films since, with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and his last great film, Inland Empire, all eliciting similar murmurs of baffled appreciation. And here, in Eraserhead, is the motherlode.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Eraserhead – at Amazon