Friday, February 1, 2019

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Ten: Dune

Rob: Welcome to Weird on Top, where the spice must flow. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.

Rob: The moment has come. The sleeper must awaken. It’s time for us to talk about 1984’s Dune, the $40 million science fiction epic that marked David Lynch’s first and only foray into major studio filmmaking. Based on Frank Herbert’s legendary science fiction novel, Dune is the story of Paul (Kyle MacLachlan), heir to the noble House Atreides of planet Caladan. His father, Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow), is growing so popular that he threatens to overtake the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer). Shaddam, seeking to secure his position, draws Leto into a scheme by pretending to give him control over Arrakis (source of the spice melange, a mind-expanding substance that also enables interstellar travel) while actually arming Leto’s chief rival, House Harkonnen’s ruthless Baron Vladimir (Kenneth McMillan), for a sneak attack. When Shaddam’s plan comes to fruition and House Atreides is destroyed, Paul and his mother Jessica (Francesca Annis) take shelter with the Fremen, a native race embedded deep in the deserts of Arrakis. As Paul acclimates himself with Fremen society, its leaders (including Everett McGill as Stilgar and Sean Young as Chani) begin to suspect he may be their long-awaited messiah.
Perhaps the biggest outlier in the writer/director’s career, David Lynch calls Dune the film “[he] started selling out on.” Producer Dino De Laurentiis (who bought the novel’s film rights after failed adaptation attempts from the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott) was eager to snap up the man behind Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, but Universal Pictures refused to give David Lynch final cut, and he’s largely disowned the resulting product. We can see why: It’s a mixed bag of a film that threads together goofy ostentation with incomprehensible density. It pulls us into a world, but then keeps us at a distance. Emily Asher-Perrin writes for that Dune “is a perfect example of what happens to an excellent science fiction premise in the hands of someone who has no particular love for the genre.” That hasn’t stopped it from becoming a cult classic, though, and the Dune property has stayed popular enough to produce sequel novels, a Sci Fi Channel miniseries in 2000, and an upcoming theatrical remake from Denis Villeneuve.

My friends and I were huge fans of the Dune series growing up, so this ended up being the very first David Lynch film I ever saw. If I’m being honest, though, I always preferred the Sci Fi miniseries (it was one of the first DVDs I ever bought). I think that’s because — even with time and context — Dune is incredibly frustrating. It’s alienating when it should be immersive. There are things I like, of course, namely Kyle MacLachlan’s lead performance and the screenplay’s general audacity and bombast. Cheap effects aside, there’s also some wonderful Lynchian creature design (it’s nice to see the baby from Eraserhead getting work as a spaceship navigator!) and a few moments of genuine exhilaration. But it’s also terribly uneven, going from the first whiplash-inducing hour of constant voice-over exposition and confusing worldbuilding to a second hour of repetitive action and anticlimactic drama. And look, I understand how difficult it is to dilute a sprawling novel into a two hour film, and how much pressure Lynch must have felt working with a big studio for the first time. But for as much as I enjoy a lot of the camp and wonder of it all, it feels very much like things got away from him. The whole thing lacks confidence.
Needless to say, I’m conflicted. I may just be taking this too seriously. Ale, what are your initial thoughts on Dune?

Alejandra: Had I not known that this was based on the 1965 novel published way before the release of Star Wars, I for sure would have thought that Dune was a work of comedic genius. I would have interpreted the entire thing as the perfect spoof of the Sci-Fi genre, because there could have been no way that this was ever meant to be taken seriously. In fact, a very small part of me believes that they weren’t being serious, but a bigger part of me knows this was a very genuine project and cringes at the thought. Either way, Dune is an absolute catastrophe in filmmaking and I love every second of it.

I won’t pretend to know exactly what the fuck is going on in it, or even to have remembered everyone’s name, but I do think Dune has some pretty amazing things to offer. As far as things that were meant to be amazing go, this movie looks pretty stunning. I know not everybody is on the same page with that, and I’ll admit that so many of the special effects are laughably bad. Still, I think that some of the sets were beautifully elaborate and I really appreciated a lot of the costume design in Dune. I am very excited to see how much of it inspires the way Villeneuve’s adaptation will look.
Also, can we talk about the super ‘80s fact that fucking Toto epically scored this film? I feel as if everybody knew this except me until researching the film for this column. The score is easily the best part of Dune, which leads me to my next point: why wasn’t this a rock opera musical? It could have joined the likes of Shock Treatment and Phantom of the Paradise, I just know it! I mean, they brought Sting on board for seemingly no reason at all. He could have really helped to make this a rock opera musical for the ages. I mainly just think that Dune is something that would be a blast to watch in a group because of how much laughter would ensue. I don’t want that to be taken as an offense to the film, because by now I think we understand Lynch to be a wildly capable filmmaker, I just think all the laughable ridiculousness only ends up endearing me to it. The incessant melodramatic internal monologues, the boxy protective shields that look like Minecraft characters, the creepy and surely-possessed Alia — all things I understand are not perfectly executed but still totally love simply because they make me laugh. That sounds condescending, but I mean it as sincerely as possible.

All of that being said, I do think there are things in Dune that...could have used some help. Mainly, the pacing of the whole thing is so uneven that if you aren’t as entertained by Dune’s eccentricities the way I was by the first 45 minutes, chances are you’d turn it off. The first hour or so is painfully slow and lacks any semblance of action that would make it bearable. Then, instead of picking up the pace gradually, Dune goes from 0 to 60 with no warning and everything happens at once. Also, remember those internal monologues I mentioned earlier? Well, I personally loved them, but I know they were meant to better help the audience understand what the hell was going on but somehow accomplished the exact opposite of that. I also found the characters to be extremely flat, and when your villain is the most likable person in your film, I feel like that may be a problem. So yes, Dune is a total disaster, but one I loved. I know your reaction to the film was less positive, but was there anything about Dune that you really enjoyed?

Rob: Alright, well now I absolutely adore the idea of Dune as a campy rock musical. Maybe someone on YouTube has done a supercut in that style? The hairstyles in this film certainly demand a power ballad.

But I think maybe it’s my affection for the source material, the director, and just the sci-fi genre in general that makes me less able to have that sort of semi-ironic fun with Dune’s goofy grandiosity. I get frustrated when Virginia Madsen’s “opening Star Wars crawl” introduction gives way to a computer screen planet introduction, which itself gives way to a bizarre scene introducing people, traditions, and prophecies that lack definition and a real sense of intrigue. And, again: I’ve read the novel a number of times. I know exactly what’s going on, and I’m still lost. And then the remaining time is mostly spent setting something up, paying it off, setting something else up, paying it off, and so on. There’s too much, and none of it lands with any real, well, impact. What struck me the funniest is that there are several dialogue exchanges in the film that are slow, stilted, and unnatural in exactly that “David Lynch” style. They’d feel right at home in any other Lynch film, but they’re totally out of place in this one. This one is supposed to be playing it all straight, right?
There are larger social concerns, too, namely the gross homophobia/AIDS imagery of the Harkonnens. They’re all coded as sadomasochistic deviants who employ S&M tools as torture devices and seem to specifically target young men. The infamous “Sting in a g-string” scene serves no other purpose than to convey the lesion-faced and pock-marked Baron’s insatiable lust. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with coding a character as gay or with anyone lusting after Sting, of course (though, you know, it is his nephew), but the messaging here is tough given that the film was released in the midst of the AIDS crisis. I don’t know which script draft is responsible for the Baron’s skin condition, but he sure as hell doesn’t have it in the novel.

But you asked for positives! As I said earlier, I love MacLachlan’s performance; most of the cast’s, really. I think everyone is very earnest and doing their best to get into the spirit of things. But then again, who really has a chance to shine? It’s not Sean Young or Patrick Stewart. It’s not Virginia Madsen. Ah! Positives! Positives! I like the Toto soundtrack, as you do. I like a lot of the costuming. I like David Lynch’s weird cameo as the operator of a harvester. I liked that sandworm/harvester/spice mining stuff because it reminded me of all the hours I spent playing Dune 2000 on the PC. Look, I’m trying, here! I know there are a lot of people who love Dune, and the general sense I’m getting is that I really just need to lighten up. But I take science fiction seriously, and I take David Lynch seriously, and it’s uncomfortable when they don’t gel the way I want them to.

Anything else on Dune?
Alejandra: Well, I do appreciate that you brought up how concerning all of the homophobic undertones with Baron were. They present him as predatory too, which does nothing for perpetuating stigmas that were present during the time. Maybe I thought of the musical thing because those characters remind me so much of Beef from Phantom of the Paradise and the way he is presented, too. I also think there is a lot to say about the biblical parallels that can be found in Dune (mainly with the messiah stuff), and also how it’s commonly seen as an allegory for the oil industry, but I feel like the book is a better point of reference if one were to unpack all of that. I don’t think the film is executed in a well enough way to really generate a strong argument to back either of those claims. Mainly, I’m just excited that we got to talk about Dune and am even more excited that we get to talk about the next film we’re going to cover.

I think David Lynch’s Dune will absolutely have a rebirth once Villeneuve’s adaptation is released, and I can’t wait for more people to watch it. I think that despite not being Lynch’s best, it plays such a pivotal role in his development as a filmmaker and his history with filmmaking.

Rob: Alright, that just leaves us with one more theatrical entry in our David Lynch journey! Join us next time to talk 2001’s Mulholland Drive. Until then, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.


  1. DUNE has always been sort of this frustrating piece of "what should have been never was". Lynch would have been perfect to do the adaptation if he had been set loose and was free to do as he wished. But I think the big studio aspect forced him to reign some things back. But it is also a supreme argument for a book this dense needs to be made into a series. I think SCY FY channel had the right idea to expand the running time to a mini-series. And therein lies the largest problem. DUNE as written is far too dense to ever be a coherent story inside of 2 hours. It also has too much internal dialogue to put on the screen. Lynch tried, but it didn't fly. But damn if it doesn't look amazing! Space opera should always look this great!

    1. Agreed, and I think the mini-series (and upcoming two-part theatrical effort) gives that dense story some room to breathe. What makes Lynch's exposition so painful is that you can tell that that a forced conceit in the editing.

      I was thinking the other day about the David Lynch/Mark Frost partnership on Twin Peaks. Lynch's strengths are in imagery and character, while Frost's are in the lore and word-building. I'm wondering if Dune might have fared better if they had taken it on together.

  2. This was wildly entertaining! But I can't wait for MULHOLLAND DRIVE. <3