‘Dune’: Selling Out in Deep Space

By Lovorko Marić

David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.

After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.

The offer for Dune could not have been refused, and Dino De Laurentiiis was Lynch’s Don Vito Corleone. According to Stuart Cornfeld, the executive producer for The Elephant Man, Lynch was tired of being a broke artist for so much of his adult life, having went through the agonizing (but still rewarding) experience of making his first feature for five long years, that the idea of a blank cheque from a legendary Italian producer and the ability to work on eight sound stages in Mexico City on one of the biggest science fiction projects ever was simply too tempting. Lynch does not like to talk about Dune in interviews—the mention of the film literally (and amusingly so) makes him wince, the experience for him was “75% nightmare,” he never fails to mention that he “sold out” with the project (to use a worn-out phrase), but the fact remains that Lynch acquired from Dune what he considers to be the most valuable lesson for an artist and a filmmaker—always have final cut, no matter what. After his experience with Dune, Lynch was in complete control of his projects, resulting in a long and vital career, and it just goes to show that Lynch’s persistence, along with his talent and a bit of luck, is the thing that made him successful, since Dune would be for pretty much anybody else a glorified career funeral with the coffin brutally thrown in the dirt and buried under a hundred backhoes.

Even though Dune isn’t a pure David Lynch film by any means, since Dino De Laurentiis did have the right to final cut, and what a butchering cut it was—there are decisions made by the director (and writer) himself that are downright baffling and out-of-character. Dune is based on an epic novel by Frank Herbert, whose convoluted plot of two royal space families going into a war over a universe-defining “spice” on a desert planet (fans of the book will forgive for oversimplifying the plot while acknowledging the irony that this is indeed a review of a film that did exactly that), was obviously too complicated and drawn out to fit into a 136-minute film, and the result shows precisely this; the film is frustrating, incoherent and at times literally incomprehensible. For a director whose first film of 90 minutes had 20 pages of script, defying the one-minute-per-page rule with style and grace (although, admittedly, “grace” is not the first word that would come to mind when thinking of Eraserhead), to go from that sort of storytelling to a movie that refuses to stop with its constant exposition, explaining what is occurring on screen and in general spitting on the golden rule of fiction: show, don’t tell.

Dune takes this anti-rule to such extremes with its most perplexing narrative choice—the characters are explaining, Mexican telenovela style, via cheesy voiceover, what they are thinking at that moment while the camera is catching them in a pensive pose. Where other David Lynch movies refuse to offer clean interpretations of what is going on screen, Dune is exposition pornography at the highest level, abolishing any possibility the viewer should have to discover for himself what is trying to be conveyed. And yet the film is at the same time incoherent, jumping from narrative to narrative without any consideration of sensible pacing or compelling character development. Lynch has compared the film to a collection of scenes meshed in a garbage compactor to fit them together, resulting in a Frankenstein-ish entity with internal organs pressed so hard to each other that they lose their vital functions. In retrospect, it is difficult to see what exactly drawn Lynch to the project (he did refuse George Lucas in a most amusing manner to direct Return of the Jedi, the third Star Wars film); the character of Paul Atreides, “the sleeper who awakens,” shares that epiphanic experience with some of the other characters in Lynch’s filmography, and the production design includes much of the machinery and industry that is so prevalent in director’s other work. The latter is the one thing that holds up to this day—the baroque, expansive interiors of palaces and the vast industrial landscapes of Dune are a spectacle to watch and the one thing that seem to actually look like it was a product of exceptionally long but fruitful and ultimately successful endeavor.

Positive effects of Dune on Lynch also reflect in his choice of actors, primarily in Kyle MacLachlan, who has grown to be, especially with the upcoming 18-hour Twin Peaks, to Lynch what Mifune was to Kurosawa, Kinski to Herzog or De Niro to Scorsese. “Grown to be” is an intentionally used phrase here since the debutante MacLachlan does seem at times lost at sea here with the overwhelming material that never allows his lead, messianic character of Paul (or any other for that matter) to breathe, resulting in occasional awkward moments, even though he fares better than the villains of the piece, who are so laughably over-the-top with cartoonish grins and silly grimaces, showing yet again that the world is so un-Lynchian that, what the usual operatic, larger-than-life shenanigans of his legendary villains like Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet or Frank Silva’s BOB in Twin Peaks do with ease, in Dune they are objects of purely unintentional ridicule, with the main culprits being Kenneth McMillan in the role of the slimy but ultimately laughable Baron Harkonnen and, of course, the woefully misguided Sting, snickering away like a lost adolescent, desperately trying to be both cool and psychotic while achieving neither. The great German actor Jürgen Prochnow of Das Boot fame tries to bring a certain pathos to his underused character of Paul’s father, Duke Leto, while Sean Young doesn’t have any time to develop her character—a love interest to Paul—to leave any kind of impression. Nevertheless, some powerful acting talent in Dune cannot be denied—thespian giants such as Patrick Stewart and Max von Sydow mostly survive Dune unscathed, while collaborations with Everett McGill (Twin Peaks, The Straight Story) and Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet) originated here, only to be taken after Dune to much more iconic and important appearances in worlds that can truly be called Lynchian.

Lynch was always more comfortable with investigating more personal spaces–homes in dubious suburban neighborhoods in quaint small towns as extensions of the dark psychological psyches of his characters. This is one of the reasons why Dune seems so incongruous in the director’s extension of his own mind—it travels through different worlds, dimensions and planets, none of which seem as extensive, fulfilled and boundless as the seemingly tiny but creepy outskirts and family houses of Blue Velvet’s Lumberton, or Twin Peaks, or even larger areas such as Mulholland Drive. The personal vision gets lost in dated special effects and confusing sandworm-infested battles; as the film crumbles towards its messy and feeble climax, one can imagine Lynch’s exhaustion with the project reaching its crescendo, losing any kind of momentum in the process. Dune is one of those films who seemed to have a better and more dramatic story behind-the-scenes than what transpired in front of the camera, although Lynch—professionally and honestly—does not bear any ill will on De Laurentiis (Lynch continues to insist they had a very amicable relationship), but blames his misgivings and indecisiveness with the material as reasons for so many of the flaws.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, the great Chilean surrealist director, had his own comments on Lynch’s failure in the fascinating documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which chronicles the fallout of his version of Dune in the 70s that should have featured production design by Moebius and H.R. Giger (the great Swiss artist and the creator of the unforgettable, phallic creature of Alien), special effects by Dan O’Bannon (effects and lead role on John Carpenter’s Dark Star and the writer of Alien), music by Pink Floyd and starred Salvador Dali as the Emperor of the Universe (playing himself in other words), Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and many others. This project represents a never fulfilled dream for many cinephiles, and its storyboards and visual ideas have found their way in many other iconic Hollywood genre films, such as Alien, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Terminator. Jodorowsky describes how he reluctantly went to see Lynch’s Dune, ready to have a miserable experience all the way through it (like many viewers of Dune indeed had had, but for vastly different reasons), only to become overjoyed to see that the “film was awful,” but that he immediately recognised that it wasn’t the work of David Lynch, “a big artist.” One has to take into account the possibility of a parallel universe where an unrealised David Lynch film called Dune would have had a similar legendary reputation like Jodorowsky’s, who blatantly admits that he would have narratively “raped” Herbert’s novel and made a 10-hour version (something that the major financiers would naturally never allow), all of which implies that this could have just as well been another mess of an attempt at a personal vision being swallowed whole by the demands of major producers. In other words, be careful what you wish for. Lynch started to be careful after “dying the death” as he puts it with Dune, with De Laurentiis conceding him final cut on his next project with the condition of drastically lowering his salary, consequently creating the quintessential American film of the 1980s and opening the door for many other creative wunderkinds with a little movie called Blue Velvet.

Here’s a rarity: David Lynch’s screenplay for Dune [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers.

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Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Dune. Photographed by George Whitear © Dino De Laurentiis Company, Universal Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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