Friday, April 17, 2009
[It’s been a while since we’ve had a film appreciation here, & Eberle has stepped into the cinematic breach with some thoughts about a current favorite—perhaps not a strong enough word—the 1984 David Lynch film, Dune. The film has had a controversial history—it hasn’t fared well with either audiences or critics, & the version Eberle’s writing about is the extended version (once known as the “TV version”), which Lynch disavowed; he used the name “Alan Smithee” on the credits to show he didn’t endorse this cut. Mr Lynch’s personal feelings aside, I’ve always liked the extended version myself, & have long been a fan of this film. Although I’ve mostly written about 1930s screwball comedies in this space, both Eberle & I love sci-fi, so there’s bound to be more to come. Enough for me, tho—here’s Eberle:]
John asked me today if I’d like to write a post for Robert Frost’s Banjo about the 1984 film Dune, adapted from the Frank Herbert novel of the same name—perhaps because over the past couple of weeks I’ve watched it four or five times on my own—perhaps he’s curious why I developed this curious obsession. It‘s quite uncharacteristic—I don’t tend to connect with movies very intensely except during the immediate moments of watching them—in fact, I tend to forget plots almost instantaneously. John is the motivating force behind our movie-watching and I love the way he organizes this for us—not only doing the work of lining up great stuff on the Netflix queue, but choosing from his amazing collection of early twentieth century films on video according to our moods at the end of the day. Sometimes he just takes one look at me and knows that what I need is a low-budget 1950’s sci fi—or that it would finally be the right moment to watch a Lon Chaney sure-to-make-me-cry silent film.
It’s lovely how he does this, and our excursions into the strange cultural mélange that is film have made for some great times together—but I always feel a bit like a traveler from another planet in relation to this medium. For various reasons I never watched many movies until John and I started living together—partly because I spent much of my life in places without movie theatres nearby and usually didn’t have TV. Sometimes I am grateful for this long detachment from mass media, and other times I feel like a cultural mutant. So what was it about Dune that hooked me and made me lose my sense of detachment and self-consciousness?
For those who haven’t seen the movie: it’s set thousands of years in the future when rival royal families (each governing their own planet) are trying to gain control of the most valuable substance in the universe—“the spice.” The spice expands consciousness and enables space travel through the evolution of beings known as Navigators. Spice mining operations are subject to attack by giant worms that live in the harsh open desert of Arrakis, the only planet where spice is known to exist. A race of human computers (the Spacing Guild), an ancient order of women with telepathic powers (the Bene Gesserits), and a secret desert community (the Fremen) are among the forces at play in the struggle to control the spice. Ultimately, the factions that want to control the spice for economic reasons come into battle with those who seek to understand the spice and its mysterious relationship with the giant worms…
The landscape of the movie, first of all, is fantastic. So few movies seem to really create an articulated world that also contains openings to walk into—for me, those gaps and empty spaces are an essential part of any vista that holds enchantment—vague glimpses through distant archways that unfold into mystery rather than explanation. The landscape in Dune seemed entirely real but not entirely explained. Part of this comes from a genius with objects—I have a great respect for any movie that can make a visual world come alive through objects. Blade Runner is another film that I love for the landscape, though I never wanted to watch it over and over. The objects in Dune are completely compelling—the combination of futuristic and antique—the sense of different points in the past and future locking together—medieval touches stand beside art deco technology. I’ll long to see the floating bird-lights again and the quilted interior of the aircraft that went out into the desert, or the equipment used to process worm-bile after the monks wrestled the enormous young worm across the room…With movies I’m always searching after the peak landscape experiences of my youth—reading Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles during school vacations in Idaho, inventing this mysterious place called “the moor,” or the frozen landscape of Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein. It’s hard for anything to live up to these memories, but Dune comes very close.
Then there’s the pace of Dune. I love slow things, things that make me enjoy slowing down. One aspect of getting older I really enjoy is finally being able to simply watch a rainstorm, or look out the window and daydream without a book in hand, without constantly wanting to be doing something else. Dune moves slowly enough to allow time for your own mind to go wandering around the scene without being dragged through it. I like how little the characters speak— their silence seems true to their characters and to the mythic landscape in which they find themselves—it’s coherent—so I can focus on my own imaginings rather than being distracted by layers of self-consciousness in the actors. In passing I will say that although I forget the name of the actor playing the young hero Paul Muad'Dib (and I don’t want to remember it because I will only forget it later and feel traumatized) his face is perfect for my idea of a male hero—sort of dippy and yet transcendent at the same time. So realistic, really.
The female heroine, to my mind, is the child Alia Atreides, born prematurely when her mother Jessica (also the mother of the young adult male hero) drinks the Water of Life to become the spiritual leader of the desert Fremen. Because part of this ritual involves the telepathic transfer of all the experience and wisdom from the previous spiritual leader as she dies, Alia is born with great knowledge and power. When she dances through the battlefield brandishing a knife I lose my heart completely. There are not that many little girl heroines in film and this was definitely part of my obsession with Dune. I had a fascination years ago with the movie Aliens—which also depicted a young girl heroine who battled monsters. The only time I’ve ever wanted to put up a movie image in any room of mine is my present longing for an image of Alia with her knife, dancing…or the image of her quietly walking into the violent storm she has created in order to destroy the villainous Baron Harkonnen.
I also love movie monsters, & I’m especially fond of Ray Harryhausen’s creations. But I will take just about any monster as long as the movie doesn’t involve a lot of gratuitous violence (which limits what I can watch—not all that many films made after 1980.) One of my big complaints is the shortage of ambiguous monsters. This is one reason I like Godzilla movies—the monsters are not always unremittingly evil as they typically are in American films. I always feel a pang when the monsters are killed. The worms in Dune are great monsters in themselves with their sensual and deadly mouths on the end of huge snaky forms, and the way they exist in conjunction with their landscape—traveling deep under the desert surface and sending up ripples and lightning. Though deadly, they have a definite beauty. And they are not evil or ultimately possessed or controlled by humans. They are truly mysterious.
It’s also refreshing to see an adventure film with a spiritual dimension that’s not trivialized and made superficial. I like the series Deep Space Nine for this reason too. Dune's portrayal of the desert men and women, the Fremen, creates a compelling story of an indigenous revolutionary group, with spirituality making part of their struggle against the equivalent of multinational corporate exploitation—a Holy War. There are of course always problems with murder becoming part of a Holy War, even if the warriors are cool enough to ride giant worms… but that’s another discussion.
The VHS of Dune that I’ve been watching was taped by John from TV and included commercials. I watched it so many times that I memorized not only much of the dialogue, but the beginnings of the commercials. I really hated the cut from the embryonic Alia to a plate of bright green jello. Really unfortunate conjunction. John ordered the dvd for us and it just came in the mail. I’m excited about seeing Dune all over once again—sans jello.