The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we delve into the strange world of David Lynch’s mind, attempting to make sense of things along the way.
Dune is a bad movie. More than that, actually. It’s downright terrible. An incoherent, strange, plotless, poorly structured mess that has to be seen to really be believed. It’s so terrible, in fact, that Lynch himself has done all that he can to disown this mess of a film from his life, refusing to speak of it in interviews and even removing his name entirely from the film’s three-hour extended edition.
It is an unmitigated disaster of a movie… yet it is also an important part of Lynch’s career. Throughout my Retrospective series, I’ve gone through moments when the directors I analyzed would go through their “darkest hours”. Aronofsky with his criminally underrated The Fountain, and Malick with his then-misunderstood Days of Heaven (which lead to his two-decade absence). The story of Dune’s production, post-production, release, box-office disappointment, and critical panning is indeed the darkest hour of Lynch’s long career–and the darkest I’ve ever chronicled in this series.
But there are always at least two sides to every story, and the story of how this film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s celebrated epic sci-fi novel came to be is a fascinating one. Like my previous entry on The Elephant Man, there isn’t much in Dune to discuss that really connects thematically to Lynch’s other works (this is his first purely commercial endeavor, after all). Still, it’s a film that, for better or worse, affected the rest of his career in a very pertinent way.
Without further ado, let’s travel to the desert world of Arrakis with David Lynch’s notorious Dune.
“The sleeper has awakened.”
This entry will be more history lesson than filmography-introspection, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless.
Sometime hot off the success of his critical and commercial success for The Elephant Man, David Lynch was approached by the infamous Italian Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis to do an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi epic Dune. Dino was notorious in his day for many reasons. One of those reasons was his quest to make a monster film that out-did the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, going so far as to reboot the King Kong franchise and make his own Jaws imitator called, what else, Orca: The Killer Whale. Seeing as how those were nowhere near Jaws territory, DeLaurentiis had hopes that adapting a huge property like Dune would net him the same success as another big fish in the film industry: Star Wars.
A Dune movie had been in the works for some time. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs was the first to get the film rights to the story, and even asked David Lean to direct. That project never got off the ground. One version that fans had always wanted to see was the one that director Alejandro Jodorowsky (Best known for El Topo, Santa Sangre, and The Holy Mountain) was set to do with such collaborators as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, and more (with a soundtrack from Pink Floyd, no less). That project never got off the ground.
After that version fell through, it was DeLaurentiis who got the rights, asking Ridley Scott to direct in 1979, only to quit shortly after. It’s worth noting that after quitting, Scott moved on to make none other than Blade Runner, while the special effects man for Jodorowsky’s version of Dune, Dan O’Bannon, admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital after the experience, where he wrote a number of scripts. One of those scripts just so happened to be the sci-fi horror classic Alien.
With all of these directors and crewmen now moving on to better projects, Dune was still without a director. DeLaurentiis’s rights were ready to expire at this point, meaning if he wanted to get his Star Wars-level success off the ground, he needed to find a director fast. That’s when he ended up seeing The Elephant Man, and then decided that Lynch should direct. The rest is history.
While it’s never been explicitly stated, it’s safe to assume that DeLaurentiis called on Lynch to direct Dune not only because of how big of a success The Elephant Man was, but also because he was asked himself to direct Return of the Jedi. No really, that actually happened. George Lucas literally just asked Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi, an offer Lynch declined because he felt that Star Wars was Lucas’s vision and he should be the one to complete it instead of bringing his own take on it. That is what you call a really cool guy.
It’s hard to really tell why it was that Lynch decided to accept DeLaurentiis’s offer. Did he genuinely have a unique vision for Dune that he wanted to bring to life on the big screen? Was there some small part of him that actually did want to direct Return of the Jedi and this offer was the next best thing? We’ll never know for sure, of course, but that’s beside the point. At this point, Lynch had accepted the offer and went head-first into the material, writing his script alongside his Elephant Man partners Chris de Vore and Eric Bergren.
What DeLaurentiis didn’t know about Lynch’s acceptance of the material, however, was that Lynch and his writing partners had never read the book before, nor had they ever known what it was even about. It also didn’t help that Herbert’s novel is confounding even on its own. Considerably dense, confusing, and strange, it was not friendly source material to work with no matter the director, and the fact that Lynch had no experience with it was the first sign of disaster.
The script-writing process itself was a huge hurdle to go through. After the first two drafts, DeLaurentiis wasn’t satisfied with what Lynch, de Vore, and Bergren had conjured up. Lynch then decided to work on the script all by himself, resulting in his original vision being astoundingly long. Including both the time Lynch spent with his writing partners and the time he wrote the script all by himself, Dune went through a total of seven drafts before the sixth one (which was 135 pages long) was chosen to be the shooting script.
Dune‘s production and post-production were both notoriously troubled. It was an expensive shoot, with a budget of over $40 million (really expensive for its day), a crew of over 1700 people, around 80 different and highly elaborate sets, and the startling realization that Lynch’s original cut of the film was nearly 3 hours long.
If there’s one thing that will always remain consistent with studios over the course of history, it’s their insistence that a huge blockbuster be around 2 hours long and no more. Dino, his daughter Rafaella, and David Lynch all worked together to shorten the film to a length of around 2 hour and 15 minutes. Not only were many scenes cut, new scenes were filmed to condense the plot into something more simple, including an introduction that wasn’t in the script in which Virginia Madsen expounded on exposition for the film’s universe and lore.
What this ended up doing, however, was make a final product that remained confounding and incomprehensible, but also felt oddly chopped up, creating one of the most strangely paced takes on a traditional three-act Hero’s Journey structure ever made.
Dune is truly deserving of its reputation as an incongruous mess. It takes place in the year 10,191. Humanity was able to accomplish space-travel using “the spice Melange” which they refer to as “the spice”, thus making every character sound like culinary obsessives. “The Spice extends life.” “The Spice must be attained.” “The Spice is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” Yeesh. Anyway, Paul Atreides (Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan) is our “prophesied hero” destined to save the desert planet of Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune), which contains the spice, from the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who’s been feuding with his family for quite some time.
Okay. Some strange elements working in there, but it sounds simple enough, right? Well…
Now it should be noted that I too haven’t read the book and had zero knowledge of what it was even about before seeing the film for this retrospective (which ironically puts me in the same position that Lynch was in when he agreed to make the film), so I’m unsure whether a lot of the film’s more confusing elements really do come from the text or not. Regardless of what I happen to know, Lynch and co. failed to find a way to have this story and its various elements make sense on a cinematic level. The film is more useless exposition than plot, with so much time spent explaining things like the Water of Life, the Kwisatz Haderach, the Spice’s ability to also expand consciousness and life, and other such things that end up proving useless to what is otherwise a simplistic Hero’s Journey story.
One of the most confusing (and now infamous) instances of this kind of exposition is the film’s strange use of voice-over narration. Sometimes, when events happen that the audience can’t get, we get a close-up of a character making a thinking face while soft, reverb-induced internal monologues explain what is going on right at that very moment, in the hopes that the audience doesn’t get lost. Of course, it goes by so quickly and without warning that it only adds further confusion outside of the fact that it’s just plain jarring.
The structure is all over the place too. The entire first hour of the film is devoted to the first act of the film, meaning that much of the actual meat and action of the story all takes place within the final hour and fifteen minutes. This makes the film feel both interminably long and strangely rushed.
With so much time devoted to slow-paced set-up and exposition in its first hour, further confusion abounds when the second act rolls around and our hero Paul Atreides transforms from unlikely protagonist to war-hero, develops a romance that’s given barely any screentime, learns how to tame and mount the planet’s gigantic worms, train an entire army, and have his mother prematurely give birth to his younger sister all within the span of about 30-45 minutes. It is simply much too much to take in at such a condensed amount of time, and the fact that all of these elements just fly by in an instance compared to the slow, exposition-heavy first hour makes the entire second half of the film feel incredibly jarring.
There’s also an incredibly useless subplot involving Paul having to drink from the Water of Life so he can muster up his strength or something, but this sequence only wastes more time and ends up being entirely useless to the overall plot of the film.
The final act, meanwhile, is a messy conclusion that contains a large-scale siege battle in which our heroes ride in atop the giant worms, shoot lasers that are formed from their shouts (think “FUS RO DAH” before Skyrim was even a thing), and a scene in which Paul’s younger sister (who looks no older than 8) kills the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen by pulling out his deformed nipples. No, really. Then the film jarringly cuts to another climactic battle that takes place the following day in which Paul Atreides must settle his differences with the Baron’s nephew Feyd (played by Sting…oh by the way Sting is in this movie) with a duel. Upon winning the duel, Paul demonstrates his new power as the prophesied one by bringing rain to the desert planet.
And after that, the movie just kinda…stops, ending in the most abrupt fashion possible. You’d almost feel disappointed if you actually cared about what was going on.
It becomes easy to see upon watching it why Dune bombed so terribly. With a plot that was much too confusing for its own sake, an apparent misunderstanding of the material, some truly hit-or-miss special effects (when they land, it’s magnificent to behold, but when it doesn’t, it’s laughable how cheap it looks considering the expensive budget), and its jarring pace, Dune might as well have been destined to fail.
And the saddest part is… a lot of it isn’t Lynch’s fault.
I mean, sure, he had no real understanding of the material upon signing up for the film, but he could’ve easily been able to do research and give himself time to really “learn” the material. But alas, that was not the case, for this is a classic case of an auteur being strangled by an aggressive, focus-group addled studio system. I could go more into it, but David Foster Wallace best described the dilemma better than I ever could with his words on the film, and how Lynch approached it…
“Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though as good a technician as anyone in film, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them but will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control over the game and its rules and appurtenances—in short very definitely not an administrator.”
The initial cut’s failure on the big screen led Universal and DeLaurentiis to cut together a three-hour extended edition primarily for syndicated television. Lynch was so disappointed in the final product, that to see his already bastardized vision bastardized even further led him to outright remove his name from the Extended Edition, instead giving the credit to two fakes names: “Alan Smithee” as director, and “Judas Booth” as screenwriter.
And it was likely at that moment that Lynch underwent what you can argue was the most important transformation of not only his career, but his life: He learned to become the administrator. Instead of slinking away as a forgotten, ambitious director who fell apart after being unable to process failure, or turning into a studio-controlled puppet, Lynch ended up defining himself after that experience. Every single project Lynch worked on after Dune was 100% his vision. Through Dune, he learned the trials of Hollywood against the imagination, and through it learned an even more important lesson: To never compromise.
“The experience taught me a lesson,” he once said in an interview many years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”
With these lessons learned, Lynch knew to never make those same mistakes and compromises again, and he used both that and the failures of Dune to his advantage. By signing up with DeLaurentiis, he was under contract to make two more films. Well, technically, only one more film since one of those two was supposed to be a Dune sequel that, due to the success of the original, never saw the light of day. The second project however–the one that Lynch undertook next–was to be a more personal vision. Something with no compromises to Lynch’s artistic vision.
The end result is the film that solidified Lynch’s status as one of the greatest and most unique filmmakers of all time, and in many ways, the film that awakened the “true” David Lynch from his long slumber after Eraserhead. Much like Paul Atreides in Dune, the sleeper had awakened, and his true potential was finally ready to be revealed.
Next week: She wore Blue Velvet.
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