Sunday, March 30, 2014

What I'm watching now: Dune (1984)


It is infamous, the final realization of Dino De Laurentiis's attempts to bring Frank Herbert's novel to screen. After Ridley Scott left the project in favor of Blade Runner De Laurentiis turned to young up and coming director David Lynch to helm his project. For Lynch this would be his second big feature after the acclaimed "Elephant Man", all his previous films being produced independently. This would be Lynch's first, and only, attempt to make a big Hollywood blockbuster popcorn epic. (Lynch had also been reportedly offered directorship of Return of the Jedi at about the same time)
It would be simple to write Dune off as suffering from an inexperienced director, or the wrong director for the project. Lynch himself has stated that he had not read the novel beforehand and had little real interest in Sci Fi, so this would all make sense right? If Jodorosky or Scott had have been behind this project, crisis would have been averted and the unfilmable would have been made possible, right? I'm not so sure.
It is important to remember that a film of a book or comic is an adaptation of that work. Two very important things about adaptations, first; the linguistic components of different mediums require them to be handled in different ways between versions. Dune the book will be different from Dune the Comic, or the Role Playing game, or the Computer game or the Movie; in the same way as a photograph of a tree is different than a drawing of the same tree and is different than a text description of said tree.  (and is different from the Tree itself)
The second (as I mentioned in the article on canon) is that the author has influence over the work. Adaptations are in many ways the authors reaction to the source material, it will focus on the aspects of the source material that the author found engaging. The Shining is Kubrick's reaction to the novel, it is different because it is reflected through his eyes as a film maker. Slavish adaptations tend to be very dry and lack personality or subtext, see Snyder's insipid version of "Watchmen" or Chris Columbus's two Harry Potter films. (The first two, not bad films but they lack the energy and depth of Cuaron's "Prisoner of Azkaban"a film which which made me a Potter believer)
So Lynch reacts to Dune as a non Sci Fi fan reacting to an unfilmable work of literary Sci Fi...
Which in many ways made him a perfect fit, Herbert disliked the trappings of his genre and added various concepts to his story that would frustrate technologically based storytelling. (The Butlarian Jihad, Sheilds etc) Lynch also has an interest in transcendentalism and surrealism; dreams, meditation and transformation of the self through these things were aspects of the novel he focused on when putting the screenplay together.
The scope of the story was one of the aspects that made it such an "unfilmable" work, it is a story with dozens of moving parts and concepts not explained directly in dialogue. As I mentioned last time, the other great unfilmable work was "The Lord of the Rings", due to it's length and the production requirements. When Peter Jackson finally produced the filmic version he stated that he only wanted to tell one story, that of Frodo and the ring. The story was pruned (despite still taking over six hours to tell) and the focus moved to that central plot arc. Lynch's Dune is the same, as I suspect Jodorosky's and Scott's would have been as well. (And for those who think we never saw Scott's, think again) Lynch would focus on the ascension of one man, Paul Atredies, to demi godhood via dreams, meditation and the mind altering Spice.
Still even Lynch's version reportedly was looking to be close to three hours long, just as the script De Laurentiis had commissioned Herbert to write would have been. This issue was resolved in a couple of ways, Lynch was not given final cut on the film, an introductory monologue would be added and voice over narration would be added as well to expedite storytelling.
So does this film work? In hindsight that is a very complex question. Lynch is a very good film maker, a great vision filmmaker and a great director of actors. The production design is almost universally fantastic, so striking in many places that it has shaped the way the novel is visualized ever since. Lynch's Dune is a Baroque Diesel-punk vision, a decaying feudal universe that lacks silver or chrome or neon. The soundtrack from Brian Eno and Toto is orchestral and evocative, even today I am unable to read or watch anything related to the franchise without the soundtrack playing in the back of my head. There are sequences of the film, particularly early on, that quite well explain the setting and characters. (Although the opening sequence with the Emperor and the Guild is a little redundant, it puts a little too much focus on the Emperor's assistance to Baron Harkonan which could have come out organically via the story) However once the story shifts to Arakis and the fall of house Atredies the story speeds up and becomes a little disjointed. Lynch is workman like with the large battle sequences, they are not badly done and some of the sequences are quite striking, but he is not a director of cinematic action and it shows. For Lynch violence is not cinematic, it is visceral and emotional, in all his work he puts a particular exclamation on violence in order to make the audience uncomfortable. (Because I suspect, he feels it should) He notably makes the "Weirding way" a combat technique using sound and motion rather than one of extreme body control because he did not want to do a film featuring "Kung Fu on sand dunes". Violence for Lynch is an emotional story element, seen especially in the deaths of many of Paul's allies during the attack on Arakine. The Harkonnen's brutality is highlighted as lynch wants us to feel the desire for revenge that Paul feels and that is part of Paul's ascension. The journey of Paul Atreides to Maud'dib is what is important here, the Harkonnen motivations and machinations are simplified to provide bloody fuel for this story. While I do generally disagree with Critics who cite the Baron Harkonnen as an indication of Homophobia on the part of Lynch, that aspect of the character was ported almost directly from Herbert's novel and not focused on anywhere near the extent that Lynch often does focus on the psycho-sexual aspects of characters. It seems to be there to a small extent as a nod to the character's motivation in the novel. Lynch did make the Baron a much more manic villain than the novel calls for, but again this is part of Lynch's emotive subtext; we see Baron Harkonnen as Paul sees Baron Harkonnen.

Dune is a film whose elements add up to a good film, but not a great film, and this is where the disappointment in it comes from. Its parts are much greater than its whole, it has no shortage of acting talent, the effects are mostly very good (not quite at the levels ILM were at, but close), the script is strong. The changes to the story are not devastating, and in many cases seem necessary to tell the story in the confines of a two hour film. Something about the project does mesh though, if that is down to Lynch or Producer Rafaela De Laurentiis (who had final cut) will probably never be known. Dune is probably a story too large for a two hour film, and sadly was made in a day were the possibilities of sequels was yet to be understood. We know Lynch's cut would have been longer, Herbert's version of the script as well, the project I feel is damaged by the complex story being truncated into a summer blockbuster format. We get something that pleases neither the general cinema goer nor the Dune fan boy, so is regarded as a failure by history. Longer cuts do exist, but they are generally cobbling together material that was on the cutting room floor for a reason. So many of the "extra" scenes added to the three hour Alan Smithe cut are first takes or rehearsals, many scenes are lengthened needlessly. (Such as one where there is fully 10 seconds of Pieter DeVris and a Harkonnen guard dragging Dr Yui's body out of a room while the camera sits locked off. Yes editing often makes scenes shorter for a reason!) It is possible that a good editor could make a workable longer cut of the film, but Lynch's lack of interest seems to preclude that ever happening.
Many internet people are very critical of the film due to its deviation from the novel, a line of argument I find to be more than a little lazy. The film has genuine issues of tone and story telling, but these are more complicated then "The Sadukar suits are silly" or "The Baron's Doctor was not a character in the novel". Being more slavish and accurate to Herbert's novel will do almost nothing to fix the fact that the excellent elements of the film fail to come together in the final product.
So do we praise or bury Lynch's Dune? A little bit of both, perhaps Lynch was not the director to bring this to screen. The mantel of "big event film" director does not sit on his head well and perhaps this was just not the project for him? The format demanded by De Laurentiis, a single two hour motion picture, could also be to blame. Maybe as Frank Herbert (who for the most part enjoyed the movie) was correct in seeing that the point of the novel was missed in this adaptation, it is not the story of man becoming a god but a man playing at being god.