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Posts Tagged ‘David Lynch’

I earned various gasps and envious mutterings from my friends the other night when I casually let slip that the next day I had a ticket to a showing of Dune on the big screen. This naturally abated somewhat when I made it clear this wasn’t the delayed, and now even-more-eagerly anticipated new version of the story directed by Denis Villeneuve, but another outing for David Lynch’s 1984 crack at the story, courtesy of the Prince Charlie near Leicester Square.

(Ah, the Prince Charlie: looking back I’m startled to realise I’ve only been there two or three times in the past, and not since 2013, but every time I even go past I feel like it’s somehow my spiritual home. It’s almost enough to make me contemplate moving to London just so I can go to this one cinema more often. Very odd.)

‘I become very happy, because the film is terrible,’ said Alejandro Jodorowsky, describing his own first experience of seeing Lynch’s Dune on the big screen. As is now quite well-known, Jodorowsky spent years planning a lavish ten-hour-plus version of the book, starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali (amongst others), with music by Pink Floyd. Strangely enough, no studio was willing to finance this project, and the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel fell into the grasp of Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis. Meanwhile, if you believe the folklore, Jodorowsky’s pre-production work went on to inspire the great wave of blockbuster SF-fantasy films that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s kind of ironic that the Lynch Dune is part of this wave itself. I was vaguely aware of it at the time it came out, when it was definitely marketed as a sci-fi blockbuster not unlike the previous year’s Return of the Jedi, complete with Panini sticker album given away free with the comic 2000 AD. But I don’t remember anyone ever really being very excited or interested in Dune, hardly anyone bothered collecting the stickers, and I’m not even sure it showed near me. The only person I knew who’d seen it (much older than I was) said it made no sense at all unless you’d read the book.

But, hey, there was a pretty good turnout for the Prince Charlie revival, so what were we all there for? Presumably a few sci-fi die-hards, and David Lynch completists, and people wanting to refresh their memories ahead of the new film (across the way they were showing a thirty minute preview of the Villeneuve version; hopefully nobody got confused and went to the wrong one). And I suppose this is a sort of cult film, which only goes to show that cults can crop up in all sorts of places.

The film gets underway with an introductory monologue from Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor of the Universe. This actually does a pretty decent job of setting the scene is very broad strokes, establishing that we’re in for an epic tale of ruthless galactic politics, all based around control of the planet Dune, source of the most important substance in existence. The titles and music crash in, it’s all very impressive and stirring, and it’s only much later that you realise that pretty much all that Madsen does in the rest of the film is stand around in the background; her character is completely insignificant.

Things stay visually impressive, in terms of costuming and set design and a lot of the special effects, as we get a brief gazetteer of important planets in the story (Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, Kaitain), and the various factions attached to them (the Fremen, the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Imperial House, the Guild of Navigators) and we are privy to an audience between the Emperor of the Universe (Jose Ferrer) and a third-stage Guild Navigator, telepathically overheard by his Bene Gesserit advisor (Sian Phillips), where the Emperor’s plan to use the Harkonnens to destroy his Atreides rivals is outlined, while the threat posed to the Navigators by Duke Atreides’ son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) is also touched upon.

And all this is just in the first scene. Are you baffled yet? If not, you are either some kind of a savant, or have read the book, or aren’t really bothering to pay attention (all of these are equally acceptable excuses).

The thing about Dune, the novel, is that it is essentially a straightforward, even archetypal tale of a young man born into privilege who loses everything but undergoes various trials through which he attains superhuman faculties, which he uses to avenge himself on his numerous enemies. Nothing wrong with that; that’s a perfectly solid framework for a story.

The other thing about Dune, however, the one that makes the book so extraordinary and has ensured its reputation as a masterpiece of SF, is the complexity of the world of the story, and the way it is filled with intricate background detail. The main problem with the film is that Lynch concentrates on all the throwaway detail and back-story so much that the actual central narrative disappears from view.

Names of people and things pile up: Mentat, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Shadout Mapes, Shai-Halud, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, weirding modules, Gom Jabbar, the Waters of Life. Introducing all of this (all without ever quite explaining what much of it is) causes the film to grind to a halt and buckle under the weight of its own baffling exposition. Characters like Irulan are introduced as if they’re going to be significant, only for them to barely appear again.

That the film makes any sense at all is because of Lynch’s lavish use of voice-over as an aid to explaining what’s going on. We are frequently privy to the thoughts of many characters, mid-scene, even when we could likely figure out for ourselves what they are thinking, while the progress of the story is usually accompanied by a bit of voice-over explaining what’s happening or has just happened.

I can’t stress enough how important this is: I’ve read Dune several times and some parts of this film are still impenetrable. You can usually tell when something important is happening in a scene – the appearance of the stirring main theme is usually a clue, especially if the electric guitars kick in – but quite what it is or its significance is frequently a mystery. Everything that’s wrong with this film is encapsulated in the final moments, with the last line of the film being an unlikely cry of ‘For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!’ Who or what the Kwisatz Haderach actually is has only been touched upon in the vaguest of terms, rendering this moment both momentous and deeply obscure. This doesn’t feel like an attempt at a slingshot ending or an enthymeme, where lack of traditional closure is part of the intended effect – it’s just bad scripting from Lynch.

You can see why they employed someone with Lynch’s kind of visual sense on a grandiose project like this one, but the narrative utterly escapes his control and he seems more interested in small details  – Baron Harkonnen’s disgusting pustules, for instance – than epic storytelling. I think it’s telling to compare Dune with the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, another lavish De Laurentiis extravaganza – Dune’s climax, where desert warriors riding on gargantuan worms do battle with imperial terror troops as atomic weapons go off in the background, is broadly akin to the Hawkman attack on the rocket ship in the earlier film, but where Flash Gordon is lively and colourful and thrilling, Dune is subdued and ponderous.

Most of the cast (McLachlan, Sean Young, Francesca Annis) are good looking but bland. Even very fine actors like Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (yes, it’s our week for discussing early Patrick Stewart fantasy movie roles) end up just standing around doing the best they can to make an impression. Well-drawn characters simply vanish into the art direction (which, to be fair, is consistently good); Baron Harkonnen, one of the great villains of SF, is reduced to being simply a ‘flying fatman’, in charge of a family of slavering perverts.

Perhaps Jodorowsky was right and it’s impossible to do Dune justice as a conventional movie; you either need to do it as a TV mini-series or an absurdly long mega-epic, or a series of films. Jodorowsky opted for the mega-epic; Villeneuve, I understand, has opted just to do the first half of the book and hope the film is successful enough to allow him to finish it off in a second movie. We shall see; the audience is certainly there for a really good Dune movie, the question remains whether such a thing is even really possible.

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‘Life… is full of surprises,’ declaims the sideshow owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) as part of his spiel, near the beginning of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s a darkly funny, knowing moment, very much of a piece with the strange conspiracy that the movie enters into. The whole point of the film is that the title character is a hideously deformed man, from whose presence ladies and those of a nervous disposition flee, distraught. This is what it’s about, and that’s a rather high-stakes proposition for a film to be based around.

Because, initially at least, the film is in the same position as the sideshow barker, promising to show us something truly exceptional in return for a few pennies, while we are in the same position as the people queuing up in the film, wondering if it can really be as bad as all that. Quite properly, we have to pay to get in (or we would have done, back in 1980): while the title character, John Merrick (John Hurt), does appear on the poster, he has a bag over his head that merely suggests the extremity of his condition.

I think this is essential to understanding The Elephant Man as a film. It opens with a dream sequence in which Merrick’s mother (Phoebe Nicholls or Lydia Lisle, depending on whether she’s a photo or live action) is mugged by a herd of elephants. This is about as stylish and weird as one would expect from a Lynch movie, and – along with Freddie Francis’ luminous black and white cinematography – it goes a long way to establishing the fairy tale ambience which permeates much of the movie.

Following this, we find ourselves in the company of ambitious young surgeon Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, not quite a bright young thing, but not the substantial figure he has since become, either), who is prowling the backstreets of London, seemingly in search of Bytes’ show. When the police shut Bytes down and move him on, on the grounds that the Elephant Man is an affront to public decency, Treves pays one of your actual Victorian urchins to track the show down again. Eventually he manages to arrange a private viewing for himself – but one to which the viewer is not privy, as the camera cuts away to Treves’ dumbstruck, wide-eyed face: tears run from his eyes at the mere sight of Merrick.

It’s a neat way of communicating the extent of Merrick’s condition while still preserving the mystery of what he looks like, but you do get a sense of the film milking it a bit:  Treves arranges to display Merrick to his colleagues, and we are still not allowed a good look at him; even after he is severely beaten by Bytes and is taken to Treves’ hospital for treatment, we are still waiting for the money shot. And then a young nurse (Lesley Dunlop) is required to go up to Merrick’s top-floor room, alone, and take him his dinner…

It plays out, in short, like a horror or monster movie: you can’t show the beast too early, there is a certain grammar and pacing involved that you ignore at your peril. And while The Elephant Man handles this convention as well as one would expect, given Lynch’s facility with genre movie tropes, it is strikingly at odds with the tone that the rest of the film works hard to achieve.

Central to the film, from this point on at least, is the idea that beneath the truly horrible deformities, Merrick is a gentle, decent, almost saintly man, infinitely more sinned against than sinning. Virtually everyone who meets him is moved to tears by just what a nice guy he is. Who is the real monster here? is the somewhat trite question the film is asking, although there is also a slightly sharper subplot about whether Treves is truly any less of an exploiter of Merrick than Bytes was.

I mean, this is a very good looking film with fine performances from an array of terrific English actors: apart from Hopkins, Hurt and Jones, it features John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick and Anne Bancroft. (There are a couple of oddities in the cast list, too: Dexter Fletcher, who these days is a rather successful director of bio-pics himself, appears as an urchin, while in a small role is the actor Frederick Treves, the great-nephew of the character Hopkins is actually playing.) As noted, it looks good, too. But I do find it to be terribly sentimental and manipulative, especially considering the abrupt switch from the horror mode it executes.

And it’s not just sentimental, it’s a bit slow, too – or at least, there’s not much of a plot to the film, once Merrick is installed in the hospital. In order to provide anything approaching a conventional dramatic structure, they have to contrive a subplot where Bytes reappears and drags Merrick off to Belgium, from where he has to escape and make his way back to London. From here we are off into a particularly sickly-sweet climax, accompanied by soaring classical music and the quoting of poetry.

As a piece of entertainment I suppose it passes the time very decently, the first time or two at least, but the more you become familiar with the reality of this story, the more questionable much of this film becomes: it’s largely based on Treves’ book about Merrick. The two men were supposedly close friends, but the weird thing is that Treves got Merrick’s name wrong: in reality his first name was Joseph, not John. And yet John Merrick is the name by which Merrick is now widely known. The rest of the film is up to the same standard of biographical fidelity, omitting all kinds of facts that don’t suit the film’s simplistic thesis. Merrick was not born deformed – his condition grew progressively worse throughout his life (exactly what his condition was remains a contentious issue). Perhaps most importantly, it’s not as if he was effectively sold into slavery, as the film suggests – joining the sideshow was Merrick’s own idea.

Well, as we have had cause to note in the past, it’s not at all unusual for historically-based movies to take the odd liberties in the interests of a good story. The question here is whether the story is good enough to justify departing quite so radically from the facts. For all the skill which has gone into the making of The Elephant Man, I’m not sure it is – as noted, it is trite and simplistic, and the keenness with which it adopts horror movie tropes in its opening act makes one really doubt its sincerity, too. An interesting movie, and worth seeing for the cinematography and acting, but not as substantial as its reputation would suggest.

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