Damn this sand! When will it ever end?

Dave Bautista

I fondly recall my sister telling me about seeing David Lynch’s DUNE with her boyfriend of the time, who was the worst at following movie plots, and kept up a constant stream of “Who’s that again?” throughout. DUNE is, I guess, fairly challenging to the narratively-challenged.

No such issues when Fiona and I traipsed over to the Vue Ocean Terminal (former the Ster Century, or Monster Sanctuary as we called it) to see Denis Villeneuve’s version. Just a sigh of “That was so BORING, I thought I was going to fall asleep,” from Fiona at the end.

When DV’s BLADE RUNNER sequel came out and tanked, I think I said “I guess we won’t get to see his DUNE then.” But maybe the contracts had already been signed and couldn’t be broken? Or maybe those strange people at Legendary Films just wanted to see what he’d do with it.

For purposes of this article I will, like everyone else, pretend John Harrison’s TV miniseries doesn’t exist, even though I met JH and both his stars and they were all very nice. Haven’t seen the show.

Stellan Skarsgard

The new DUNE suffers from Roman Epic Syndrome, where you have a very far-off culture to portray and it makes it hard to humanize the characters so we can get involved emotionally. It’s not actually a problem for the culture to be very different from ours, but it’s a problem for the characters to lack recognisable behaviour. In Old Hollywood the denaturalising of the performances was actually a deliberate policy, born of some kind of crazed belief that ancient history and/or the Bible require a particular performance style, declamatory and wooden, exemplified, indeed apotheosised, by Chuckles Heston in DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS. So that when Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in, was it QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what era, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” asked Ustinov, reasonably. On BEN-HUR, there was a lively screenwriter’s debate about which was better, “Is the food not to your liking?” or “Don’t you like your dinner?” The former won out. It is not any more genuinely ancient-world than the alternative.

Lynch’s DUNE is plagued by several problems: by taking no heed of the demands of running time when he wrote it long, and then allowed for further improvisations when shooting, lengthening it more, Lynch saved up a problem for the edit which slammed him badly. The rough cuts of ERASERHEAD and THE ELEPHANT MAN had been very long, so he thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but those movies have pretty sparse plots. DUNE has all these damn FACTIONS. If you cut one scene you have to shoehorn the exposition it once contained someplace else. Hence all those internal monologues, where even comparatively minor character like Max Von Sydow whisper their thoughts to their chums, the audience. Going hand-in-hand with this is a palpable panic and loss of confidence, so that some of these VOs are spectacularly redundant, insulting and alienating: Francesca Annis leaves the room, thinking her son will be killed; she comes back and sees him alive; looks relieved. And her voice on the soundtrack helpfully remarks: “My son — LIVES!” Which is also an unsayable line.

Villeneuve’s DUNE, like Lynch’s, begins with an info-dump, and it’s a far less charming and arresting one than Virginia Madsen’s starfield piece-to-camera in the Lynch. It throws in some battle scenes (one day we’ll see a version of Frank Herbert’s book where we don’t see Arrakis until Paul does) and I bet most audiences don’t absorb a tenth of the info dumped on them, too busy admiring the pictures. But, generally, the new film is less anxious for us to understand things, which is good. “As writer, you must deliver your story points,” said Herr Wilder, “but the elegance with which you deliver them is the measure of how good you are.” Or words to that effect. The Villeneuve doesn’t fall prey to Lynch’s clumsinesses.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have ANY of his eccentricity, which is what makes the Lynch film lively and engaging. I found myself missing Kyle MacLachlan’s bluff heartiness. I really felt, even though it was oversold, that his Paul Atreides really LIKES his buddies in House Atreides. With Timotei Shalamar, I’m not even sure he likes his mom.

Timotei Shalimar and friends

Lynch’s gallery of grotesques pop out of the screen: only the Emperor is a stiff. Kenneth McMillan (who we recently enjoyed in Salem’s Lot), Paul L. Smith, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Alicia Witt… When Sting, who was quite prepared to play his shower scene nude, was asked to wear a golden eagle codpiece, he refused. They wore him down, but he eventually agreed to paste the bird to his junk only if he could play the part as the kind of guy who WOULD wear a crotch-accipitrid in the shower. And they LET him. Patrick Stewart, one of the less lurid performers, nevertheless goes into battle clutching a tiny pug. Freddie Jones has a scene, only included in the various unsigned extended cuts, has a scene at the end that’s heart-breaking and bizarre. Nothing in the new film stirs the empathy.

Villeneuve likes underplaying, and casts good underplayers, and attains a consistency Lynch doesn’t even seem to value as a goal. With the result that, though we get a Paul who’s convincingly teenage (he’s around the same age MacLachlan was, but slighter), we don’t meet anyone we’d like to eat dinner with. Rebecca Ferguson gets some actual emotion into it, and Javier Bardem shows actual star intensity, briefly waking things up. Stellan Skarsgård, a sort of grudging, inward-aiming actor, is a very dull substitute for the illustrious McMillan, who made intergalactic scheming while unplugging the hearts of twinks look like THE BEST FUN.

“I was so bored by those dream sequences…” Fiona complained. And they are boring, in the Villeneuve, even though they’re full of ACTION. But it’s action that doesn’t mean anything to us yet. I wouldn’t have thought prophecy could be as tedious than backstory, but apparently it can amount to the same thing. The Lynch film’s prophecies were shot by Frederick Elmes, his ERASERHEAD and future BLUE VELVET DoP. “We had one of those crisis meetings and I told them,” said Freddie Francis, DUNE’s veteran cinematographer, “that if Freddie Elmes shoots another frame of film I’m quitting. They didn’t fire him, though, they kept him around shooting drops of water.” But, with all respect to FF, who was old-school experienced and super-talented, Elmes’ epic drips are among the film’s most memorable images.

Villeneuve’s future dreams ultimately cheat the audience by NOT coming true, not really. It’s a bigger swindle than the time-shift of ARRIVAL, which works emotionally but is dirty pool, playing with the audience for no reason except to kick us in the heart.

Villeneuve’s big advantage over Lynch is that he gets a longer runtime to tell half the story, so he’s not forced into the damaging compressions that occluded his predecessor’s vision. He doesn’t always use his time sensibly, though. The character of Shadout Mapes appears in both films, and her entire role is to get nearly killed by a flying needle, then genuinely killed by a big knife. Oh, and in this version she gives Paul’s mom another knife. Why is this cleaning woman included? I sort of like the democratic instinct that would make a cleaning woman a character in a space epic, but you might as well also feature an Arrakis dogcatcher, the House Harkonnen’s PR guy, a Fremen dishwasher, and I’ll commend you for it IF you find anything for them to do.

Lynch’s DUNE, like most of his movies, looks awfully white, and Villeneuve corrects that in multiple ways, though most of the POC are dead by the time we’re told “This is just the beginning.” His film has scale (although the ornithopters can’t help but look tiny), great design (though tending to the monochromatic), it’s beautiful to look at. But I find I prefer most of Lynch’s faults to most of Villeneuve’s virtues.

12 Responses to “Damn this sand! When will it ever end?”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    What about <A HREF="https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1935156/"Jodorowsky's Dune ?

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I happen to think the Old Hollywood Epic ideas wasn’t too bad because they draw from ancient roman sources so all we know about these figures are the larger-than-life versions of them. Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA goes all the way in making the story about these super-powerful leaders and he really uses the scale to drive home that their decisions affected millions of lives.

    As for DUNE, the problem is that the source material, of the first book which I’ve read, is not very dramatic. It’s got no sense of scale. You have a galactic empire but for some reason all the combat is basically West-Side Story knife-fights. Some of the most interesting stuff in the books happens off-screen and most of it is devoted to Sociology 101 riffs which at this point has lost its novelty. A lot of people have accused Lucas of ripping off Dune for Star Wars but give the man credit, he drove home a sense of scale and he changed knife-fights to laserswords. To the extent there’s drama it’s off-screen, i.e. the fact that the hero ultimately becomes a fascist and orders a genocide and that stuff is basically described in passing so we don’t even see any of it.

    So it’s got little drama for a single movie and story. To me the only way to do it is go Boorman and EXCALIBUR and do the entire Myth-Cycle in a 2hour narrative. Extreme compression and concision. This kind of overly reverent attitude (and even the Lynch film

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Oh Hell! Well how about Cottafavi?

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Bravo, once more, David E., with your references. I have both Jodowsky’s DUNE documentary and HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS that even MOVIE liked in its heyday. As for “Stink” (as the editor of on old fanzine ORIENTAL CINEMA used to refer to him) too much Too Young Sir Laurence Olivier which he does not have the talent to copy. With exceptions, they fall into the category, “If you want to see a bad movie, go see somethng with David Bowie in it.” I’ve not seen JUST A GIGOLO, though. As always I’m open to any corrections.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Tony I trust you’re familiar with the MacMahonists and their high priest Michel Mourlet whose “La Mise en Scene Comme Langage” is required reading.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    No, but I’m always grateful for any directions

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The MacMahonists (named after the MacMahon cinema in Paris) had next to no interest in montage and were obsessed by the frame and how it coud be filled with detailed imagery. Their principle interests were therefore Lang (especially “The Tiger of Eschnapur / The Hindu Tomb”) , Losey (especially “Time Without Pity”), Walsh, Fuller, Cottafavi and Rohmer.

  10. Nobody ever speculates about what the performances and dialogue in Jod’s Dune would have been like, but since he planned to cast Salvador Dali as the Emperor, I picture something in line with Santa Sangre, with heavily-accented actors of different nations gamely yelling their poorly-translated lines at each other, or at us. Which might have worked quite well as a modern take on the Hollywood Epic Style.

    Cottafavi at his best is a major stylist. And he also believed in ruthlessly expunging naturalism from the epic film.

    Sting finally gave a terrific perf, as a grouchy old version of himself in Only Murders in the Building.

  11. Saves me the trip to LA I was planning to take to see this in a really good theater. Cinemas in Vegas are shit for the most part, and barely passable if you’re lucky. But I have been questioning whether DUNE would be worth the drive.

  12. Great sound, very fulsome score, some great photography… (though Arrakis only looks hot in the reddish-hued dreams). I’m glad I saw it on the big screen.

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