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Posts Tagged ‘Sian Phillips’

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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