Friday, June 5, 2015

At the Movies: "Dune" and "Jodorowsky's Dune"

At the Movies with Michael5000

David Lynch, 1984.

imbd score: 6.6
Ebert: One Star
Rotten Tomatoes: 56% (!) Fresh

In 1984 I was a high school sophomore, living in a home without a television in a town far too small to have a movie theater, and I was nothing if not easily entertained. So, the most damning thing I can say about Dune is that even back then, when I saw it on the big screen on a trip to the Big City, I thought it was laughably bad. Rewatching it on the small screen recently was kind of fun, but it's the kind of fun that comes from witnessing the flowering of a classic fiasco. It's a bit like watching one of those YouTube "fail" compilations, but set in an alternative universe and made surreal by the occasional appearance of Patrick Stewart, Sting, and enormous sandworms.

The badness of Dune is fourfold. First, the film is paced as if it was intended to replicate Frank Herbert's novel scene for scene, until someone noticed that the first few chapters had taken up much of the length of a standard commercial movie. So, after a indulgently slow-moving set-up of the film's premise, the second half of the film turns into a frantic illustrated summary of events.

Second, the script is as expository as a medical textbook. Many reviews at the time and since have complained that the film was hard to follow, but it really isn't. The problem is that it didn't make paying attention worth the effort. But the political and social complexities of the Dune universe, such as they are, are explained in excruciating detail every step of the way. There is longwinded voice-over narration from a random minor character, and the characters' thoughts are forever being dubbed over close-ups of their pensive faces. These narrated thought-bubbles are kind of painful, or kind of hilarious once you get into the spirit of the thing, both for their inherent ham-handedness and as a sign that the director has given up even trying to make the movie work on the strength of acting and script.

Thirdly, the production budget seems to have been thrown around in a very uneven sort of way. As a science-fiction epic set in the distant future, Dune has a certain obligation to wow us with special effects. Occasionally it kind of does. Some of the set design does a great job of invoking a futuristic shabbiness that you might imagine pervading a galactic feudal society. But many of the visual effects are simply bad -- and I mean really, startlingly bad, uncomfortably reminiscent of the B-movie special effects of 30 years earlier. Like the screenplay, they get worse as the film goes on. To say that the climax battle scene is underwhelming is really putting it very gently.

Finally, this is a movie by David Lynch. He has made a great effort to distance himself from Dune -- I've read that interviewers must always promise not to ask him about it -- but his characteristic visual style is all over it. This gives Dune a certain cache for the kind of film buff who likes, or pretends to like, Eraserhead. Now mind you, I think there is a place for David Lynch in this world, and enjoy a little Blue Velvet as much as the next guy. But why anybody thought he would be a good choice to head up a science fiction spectacular is one of the great mysteries in the history of cinema.

Oh, there's actually a fifth thing. The film music was composed and performed by the rock group Toto, of "Africa" and "Hold the Line" fame. They delivered a mostly unremarkable score, but one that is augmented at dramatic moments by big guitar power chords. Like so much in Lynch's Dune, this is either kind of horrifying or a real hoot, depending on whether you are still rooting for the film or have decided just to sit back and enjoy the train wreck.

The bland pop noodlings over the closing credits are a bit of a horror, too.

Michael 5000's imdb rating: 3.

Jodorowsky's Dune
Frank Pavich, 2013.

imbd score: 8.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 98% (!) Fresh.

Me and Mrs.5000 have developed a taste for a very, very narrow genre of film: independent documentaries about spectacular moviemaking fiascoes. Not films about “The Making of [X]”; those tend to be promotional fluff that don’t actually tell you much about how movies are made. Films about failed projects, ironically, tend to give you more of a sense of the colossal stakes at play in film production. We learn from them that for a movie to happen, there is a vast community of creative and technical talents that must be recruited, organized, housed, fed, coddled, and browbeat, and a ghastly amount of money to be spent by people who have every reason to fear that they will never see any return on it if they let someone pursue an independent artistic vision. Really, the marvel is that movies ever get made at all.

For a lesson in the perils of filmmaking, it is hard to beat Lost in La Mancha, a 2002 documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. With independent financing, an experienced director, a big-name star, and a lively concept, Gilliam’s project seems like a movie that could hardly help becoming a critical and popular hit. Then little problems start cropping up. Then big problems start cropping up. Then, in an astonishing sequence caught on video, a freak of nature wipes out the production, and millions of dollars worth of effort, in a matter of minutes.

Last year’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is about a movie that eventually got made, quite badly, after its original director was fired. There was money in the case, of course: personal issues exacerbated studio fears that Richard Stanley was too inexperienced to actually execute the big-budget project that he had developed. And this was probably a valid concern, but – well, have you ever actually ~seen~ The Island of Dr. Moreau? It is bad, weirdly bad, and whatever Stanley's weaknesses might have been it's clear that the ostensible fixer, veteran director John Frankenheimer, was wholly unable to exert a firm directorial hand. Lost Soul is a testament to the epic corrosive force of “personal differences,” and will strike a chord with anyone who has ever endured the joylessness of a toxic workplace environment.

This brings us to Jodorowsky’s Dune, a look back from forty years later at a legendary science fiction epic that never made it out of pre-production. It is hard to imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction bestseller really materializing the way he imagined it – with Salvador Dali (!) as the Galactic Emperor, for instance, with Orson Welles and Mick Jagger (!) as Harkonnen baddies, and his own son as the hero Paul Attreides, and sprawling out over an absurdly impractical running time. On the other hand, the sheer volume of talent he managed to wrangle into working on pre-production, largely by all appearances on the force of his mad-visionary personality, is pretty startling. And the tour of the storyboards that we get over the course of Jodorowsky’s Dune make it plentifully clear that, had it been made, it might have been amazing. Which raises the wistful question – what if it had been an intelligent science fiction spectacular that reshaped the film industry in the 1970s, instead of the dumb science fiction spectacular that actually was?

Of course, if it could have been amazing, it could also have been an embarrassment on the scale of, well, David Lynch’s Dune. I suspect it would have been. The thing about mad visionaries is that their vision is sometimes sabotaged by their madness. What makes Jodorowsky’s Dune fun to watch is the way it explores that tension between ambition and prudence, between daring to believe in your dreams and staying grounded in your reality. So, is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune a cinematic masterpiece that the world has lost, or is Alejandro Jodorowsky just an eccentric with delusions of grandeur and a cult following? These two things are not, of course, mutually exclusive.

Michael 5000's imdb rating: 7.

Also Mentioned:
  • Eraserheadimbd: 7.4.  Michael5000's provisional imdb rating: 2.
  • Blue Velvet imbd: 7.8.  Michael5000's provisional imdb rating: 7.
  • Lost in La Manchaimbd: 7.4.  Michael5000: 8.
  • Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreauimbd: 7.9.  Michael5000: 7.
  • The Island of Dr. Moreauimbd: 4.4.  Michael5000's provisional imdb rating: 2.
  • The dumb science fiction spectacular that actually was.  imbd: 8.7  Michael5000: 6.


DrSchnell said...

I clicked on your link back to your Star Wars review, and the comments afterwards, already at that point five years ago I was apparently hating on the Lion King.

Michael5000 said...

DrSchnell, you were pretty much born hating on The Lion King.