The Frustrating Dune

dune1Late last night I found myself idly flicking through the channels before retiring to bed and came upon David Lynch’s Dune playing on the Horror channel (there’s a commentary in that scheduling just in itself). It was toward the end of the film, and I found myself sticking around until the bitter end (truth be told, those last twenty-thirty minutes are the worst the film has to offer, the film collapsing into an awful turgid mess as it falters towards its conclusion).

I hadn’t seen Dune in a good while, but it always suckers me in. I love the book you see. Its the Ben Hur of science fiction, and just begging to be given a three-hour epic treatment on the silver screen, its religious allegories as timely now as ever. Back in 1984 its excellent marketing/mysterious posters with the twin moons… well it looked to be something special. It wasn’t of course. It was a mess.

I’d love to be able to sit down with David Lynch, if only for a half-hour, to listen to him explain what happened with Dune. Now, Lynch doesn’t talk to anyone about the film, having utterly disowned it. Understable as that may be, I do think there is a fascinating discussion there. What was he trying to do with it? Where did it go wrong? When did he lose control? When did he know it was just hopeless and time to walk away?

Or did he think it was brilliant and became appalled at its reception? Who knows? Lynch of course went on to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and so much more. Dune would be just a mainstream blip on his increasingly weird resumé. But it just sits there forever on tv re-runs, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray releases… a broken film that looks utterly captivating in places and full of odd casting, disjointed editing, a rock soundtrack, so many bizarre decisions that sometimes work and most times don’t. It looks like a film that could have been so great but turned out pretty poor, never becoming ‘cult’ as other commercial failures like The Thing and Blade Runner would do. You’ll never hear about Lynch’s Dune being a misunderstood classic movie to be rediscovered. I’d just love to have a chat with Lynch and hear his thoughts about it after so many years.

7 thoughts on “The Frustrating Dune

  1. I hear you man. I bag on Lynch’s Dune every opportunity. But I mostly hammer it for the atrocious visual design, and weird, weird choices that breaks some of the interesting things about the books.

    But getting into Lynch’s head about it might be interesting.

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    I’m so fond of this film.
    I think the first hour or so is wonderful. Then pretty much everything from the point where Paul joins the Fremen is terrible. But I saw it when it came out, immediately after watching Eraserhead for the first time, so I could see the Lynch in it very clearly.

    Lynch, as far as I know, had sussed during production that this wasn’t going to turn out well. He dutifully did all the publicity required on release, but then moved on quickly to Blue Velvet. That was so well-received that he never needed to look back, so never has. Fair play.

    Incidentally, I’ve just downloaded the final Fan Edit of Dune which I saw mentioned in Sight & Sound recently: it’s supposed to be very good. I could share if you fancy it?

    1. Sounds interesting! Never heard of a fan edit of the film. I’d be fascinated to see what gets ‘fixed’. God knows it (Dune) deserves better than it got, Lynch disowning it always disappointed me. How it turned out may have been largely out of his control but he could still, years later, have worked on a directors cut or workprint version for the films fans.

  3. Matthew McKinnon

    I think the problems are insurmountable for even a re-edit: the script compresses too much into too short a space of time (notice how Paul basically becomes the leader of the Fremen in about 10 minutes, something that spans years in the novel).

    From what little he has said (that he wished he’d made it in b&w and 3 hours long), there’s no way it could ever be fixed to his satisfaction and Lynch just doesn’t want to go back and invest more time in something that’s not personal.

    The fan edit has gone through various stages over the last few years: it repurposes the footage from the theatrical and terrible extended TV cut to try to make the film closer to the novel. I’ve yet to see how that works out.

    Did you ever pick up the 1984 Lynch edition of Cinefantastique? Half of it is about Dune, the other half a massive making of Eraserhead? It’s incredible, well worth hunting down.

  4. I really need to revisit this. I love the novel too, and I remember preferring the miniseries adaptation to the film, but my memory of the movie is getting hazy… I kinda feel like it’s a great story in any telling, but maybe a re-watch would change my mind!

  5. Yeah I’m looking for my dvd copy of the miniseries to give that a rewatch. I recall I preferred it to the movie but felt annoyed that the art direction lacked the strangeness of the Lynch film. For all the plot/editing problems and the ropy fx, the film looks gorgeous. One of the reasons its so frustrating. Pretty but vapid, and yet the book is so smart!

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