Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Laurentiis of Drug-rabia: DUNE (Great Acid Cinema #43)

Caught the last half of DUNE on Showtime after a groovy nap and it was good enough I had to watch the first part "on demand" - and to find it necessitated all sorts of button-pushing and scrolling hassles, man, so it must have made an impression! Sometimes naps can change your impression of a movie profoundly. It was the first film I saw on hash at the Student Union- freshman year of college -  and its self-important complexly-incoherent trippiness blew my mind --not that I was secure enough to admit it (in 1985, as in now, it's not 'cool' to love DUNE). But this second time, 32 years older, unafraid and not fully awake even now, I'm man enough to confess that watching Kyle McLachlan in a sexy ribbed dark black suit riding atop a giant sand worm as the thunder cracks, the sand churns, and finally--like it's been buried under the surface of Arrakis all this time-- an electric guitar from Toto crackles through the moody orchestration like a blazing ray of sun - well it blew my mind. Directed by David Lynch  + produced by Dino de Laurentiis = a match made in heaven, whether anyone knew it back in the realm before cheap CGI made even unconvincing miniature work forever precious or not (they'd find out later though, with BLUE VELVET). Yeah, I may be half-asleep even now - (the dreamer must awaken... later) but there's nothing wrong with approaching surrealist dream cinema in such a state. As in dreams, you may not understand shit about what's going on, but as asleep, you don't care so much, because you've never seen anything like it.

We open on a bald sister psychic asked by the emperor to psychically eavesdrop on the thoughts of a 'navigator' (those Metaluna-brained giant newts) escorted by a flock of austere leprous monks with cracked-egg brains--who file into a wildly psychedelic golden throne room carrying a Grand Central concourse entrance-cum- 30s diner train car betwixt them--then the windows open and the navigator swims out of the murk up against the glass to address the emperor via a translator device that looks like a 20s radio microphone. This, you realize, is not common, not hackneyed or trite or cliche, this is the kind of thing Bill Burroughs might hallucinate while on yage in the 50s, watching an old WB movie wherein Spanish ambassadors complain about privatized buccaneers to Queen Elizabeth while in the throes of junk delirium in the back of a decaying Moroccan cinema. In its total otherness it might even be a film actually made on another planet, one where the burnished dusky Art Deco Grand Central concourse oyster bar Illuminati 1939 Worlds' Fair Dali fever dream decor never went out of style, just matured along a separate tributary from the sci-fi we know. Even (or especially) if from certain angles you can see all the gold fixtures (right down to the gleaming highlights) are painted backdrop, this shit's truly psychedelic. Lynch + Laurentiis = batshit crazy

The guitar of Toto made me think of another pic produced by Dino de, FLASH GORDON (1980), with its unforgettable rock and roll Queen soundtrack. The stories are the same, too: the 'deliverer' come to a strange new world to free the people in bondage from Von Sydow's or Jose Ferrer's galactic emperor. CONAN too... with its thunderous De Falla permutations, going against Thulsa Doom. ORCA in reverse. Dino de Laurentiis did them all. Dino! I feel your guiding hand, it's holding an electric guitar!

Now in 2017, aired on Showtime in tandem with Lynch's TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, the true psychedelic yield comes forth, like one of those big 'Guild Navigator' beings, that look kind of like a giant newt with the cranium of a Metalunan mutant and googly eyes of a giant monster squid. Acting as a kind of intergalactic MTA, folding space through their swimming in gaseous clouds of the psychedelic spice, they blow from their icky Burroughsian orifices big plasma balls at images of planets and in doing so dissolve the space betwixt them, a kind of butterfly wing / tsunami / Dustin Hoffman folding a blanket thing. And they expect to have their fog of spice fresh and churning for their troubles. The film doesn't get much help trying to decipher all that, even with Virginia Madsen's coyly apologetic voiceover, you do get some weird-ass sights, giant worms, morgue extras who can't keep their toe-tags still and a five year-old Alicia Witt dancing with a curved knife in celebration of death and destruction like a pint-sized Kali.


DUNE offers a universe free of trite morality - so a 'concubine' or 'consort' can be a religious lady, choose her children's gender through sheer will, and they're not bastards but heirs to the throne. And trying big doses of spice while on Arrakis leads you to bond with far-off elements of the planet and prolong life -- not feel paranoid your mom will find out or the cops will pull you over. In short, it's an actual sane future, of the sort envisioned in 60s psychedelic mysticism and via practices like remote viewing, and 'going where no man has ever gone before' not including, necessarily, toting your body along. The internal voiceover aspect (we hear people's thoughts) doesn't bother me because for 1) theres so much telepathy and 2) Shakespeare adaptations by Olivier and Welles, both do it. And 3) The use of sound waves to formulate thought and vibrate objects to explode is amazing (though there's no sound based telekinesis - and since supposedly that's how the pyramids were built), it's still never been adequately developed in film or reality - and one side effect of the use of voice as a weapon is to rearrange how we think of language in speaking. People do not blather in DUNE - words carry heavy import - while inner monologues become a whole second tier.

And even stronger than 'the spice' there's a liquid made from the bile of the worms of Arrakis, "the water of life" equivalent to, in a sense, eating the worm at the bottom of the mezcal bottle times a million--all the preparations and anticipation of danger making a fine parallel with smoking, say, DMT or 50x Salvia Divinorum. As with drugs, psychic powers are not belittled and demonized but a part of reality, drugs not treated with disrespect and fear, and psychonauts valued for their shamanic contribution to the good of their house. Is this part of the reason the film was so panned? What about how it shows women in positions of power, as good fighters who need not be babied and protected but who can control minds with their mastery of the "weirding way"? For all its legitimate problems, for some of us, vitriol heaped on a film that features positive views of drugs and women is suspect, bro. Like if a film condones psychedelics and matriarchies, it's a film that must be panned. STAR MAIDENS and ALL THAT GLITTERS are not on DVD. The latter hasn't even been on tape! Free the matriarchal structured sci-fi from uptight fanboy damnation! 

Luckily DUNE, being a 'David Lynch Film' endures. So though we have a straight white male hero Christ figure, his mother, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis - left) is a badass who's taught her son the bulk of his fighting and telepathic skills. He can kill with a word. But it's his mom who taught her. As a super-human genius of the Bene Jesserit sisterhood, she's a figure unique in western literature and film. Only Jet Li's mother in the FONG SAI YUK compares in cool capability. And just having an array of holy sisters in positions of power and authority (a fully matriarchal lineage within the DUNE universe, covering both sides of the clash - there's a reverend mother within even the Fremen) makes the film worth seeing. One of Lynch's great strengths is his comfort around a large cast of female characters whose roles transcend gender norms while still retaining their sex appeal. 


Time has been kind to DUNE politically as well. In 1984 all it reminded us of was LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but today--after 9/11--it seems most prescient. The character weird names all carry a Muslim whiff and the word 'jihad' is even used. We should remember that Lawrence of Arabia was working for the British, and was plenty mad when they betrayed all his promises to the Saudis, but could do nothing about it. He came home and sulked. Osama bin Laden on the other hand, went all the way, like Kurtz. a rich son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, chose to live deep in caves with desert nomads and fight first world super powers (first Russia, then 'us') through sabotage and terrorism, very much like a certain Paul Atreiades. Not that this itself redeems either Osama or DUNE - but it shows the way creative vision always comes from somewhere. The Akashic records, or just the wind of messiah complexes and the Golden Crescent opium trade. A nicely paranoid post (by 'OsamabinladenreadDune) in the Fortean Times notes the worms resemble the jets used to ram the towers and the year of the big change in the story is 10191, i.e. 09/11. Whoa, bro.

Silver Strain - The Jihad of Muad'Dib
I don't think DUNE inspired actual terrorism, but I do believe, at least one fish of my Pisces brain believes, in the Akashic records which anyone who could come up with such an elaborate, dosey world as Frank Herbert, surely accessed. So while Lynch's film may not be perfect, it is 'connected' to a divine source - and if you doubt it. Read the book, or go to the alternate realms of consciousness yourself, and thou shalt know.


Alas, to my mind the main issue with DUNE today isn't the condensed fragmentary confusion of the narrative (that explains itself after the third viewing) nor the STRANGE INTERLUDE-ish inner monologues (they make sense with so much telepathy and mysticism), but the ick factor with the lengthy torture and sadism and gluttonous evil laughing scenes with Baron Harkonen "the floating fat man" - and his family and toadies in their ugly world - the towers of which resemble skyscrapers done up in pre-code two-strip color Warner Bros. horror film pinks and jades, and light from within a giant front porch bug zapper.  In their kinky blue-black outfits, the fat ugly brother (son?) and wild-eyed Sting looking like Malcolm McDowell's Caligula stepping out of the steam bath-- in nothing but his metal jock strap, and let his relatives float around him in a delirious incestuous homosexual spice-fueled mad lust, finally sated only by pulling out the nipple plugs on some little red haired boy. The Italian fascination with red hair goes back to the giallos of the 70s, of course, and here it seems to reach a kind of incestual-ancestral zenith from which it can never return, especially after the grotesque scene with a distressed mouse sewed to the back of a cat, or something (I fast forward past it and don't look - being traumatized by it back at the Student Union), and people eating strips of meat cut from a trussed up dead cow, or cleaning out the open sores and leprous acne from Harkonen's drug-ravaged pan, all for no other real purpose except to provoke disgust and loathing. We can connect these stretches with the stuff like the house where Frank has stashed the son and husband of Dorothy Vallens in BLUE VELVET, or One-Eyed Jacks in TWIN PEAKS or some other den of hyper-intense debauchery (the red stains on the mouths of one people in league with the Harkonens reminds one of--naturally--gluttonous winos) and thus pin them on Lynch's absurdist relish for the grotesque horrors of the fantasmatic 'subconscious' zone (which always have lots of drugs, violence, and maniacal laughing). Here it's even worse, as Baron eats his beautiful boys, or drinks them, and then gloats and laughs in a point of rich hysteria, thus lumping homosexuality in as just another disgust-generating depravity.

That said, one must admire the insane commitment of Kenneth McMillan as the evil baron (though I won't show him as he's too gross) who plays his scenes as if he's peaking on a massive dose of cocaine, each death he watches or engineers gives him a loathsome thrill. Floating around like the kid full of blueberries in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, he and his party milking and crushing and otherwise destroying an array of (actual or puppet) living creatures in an orgy of odious relish, his only real competition in unadulterated odium is perhaps Albert Cole in THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT. I'll always support evil laughing fits and a chance for Sting to wear his crazy eyes but eveb in the 80s, sooner or later even the sickest freak watching this shit goes "Okay, David, we get it - these red-headed creepy Harkonen are the bad guys." On the big screen, a little repulsiveness goes a long way, and one almost senses Lynch expressing his frustration at Dino's meddling by upping the quotient. If he can't inspire us and move our souls to alternate realities, he can at least leave a slightly traumatic and grotesque imprint.

But this can be solved, this Harkonen vileness circumvented as if through magic:
Scroll! Scroll through past the unpleasantries. They're plot is followed easy enough
this way - and to true peace.
Have you On-Demand or the DVD?
Scroll through, Moad Dib, scroll to freedom

And when Paul and his family are all in their capture (up until Paul and his mother are being taken out to the desert to die by two of the Harkonen's men) when it becomes awesome --that's when I stop fast-forwarding; watching Paul's mother seduce one of the guards into cutting her bonds and stabbing the pilot via her use of a deep throaty voice (the 'weirding way') makes all the forwarding worthwhile.


Everett McGill always seemed kind of useless as the sad sack forlorn lover of Peggy Lipton in TWIN PEAKS but here with his deep voice and solemn but not dour manner finds the ornate and no-frills mythic dialogue of Silgur, leader of the Fremen, he's a perfect match. Most people couldn't get across stilted, strange lines like "Usul, we have wormsign the likes of which even Gawd has never seen!" But they McGill makes them work to flawlessly. Sean Young as Paul's lover Fremen molders too with lines like "Tell me of your homeworld, Usul," as if she's learned nothing in all our other post-BLADE RUNENR roles about the craft of acting. But it, too, works, and once her hair is down it stays down; her confessions of love and her concern over Paul's taking the water of life (No man has ever survived it, only women usually take it when advancing levels of the reverent sisterhood - which in itself is badass. Sorry boys, this shit will kill you - have a Shirley Temple.")  And here in the misty dust of the Fremen's underground universe, Francesca Anna's dark eye make-up, hair all loose and half tucked into her tunic, is gorgeous and haunting.

Sean Young's luminous presence, and the cool desert suits bring the art direction to a dusky earthen hue from which the deep blue eyes blaze most becomingly; for the next barrage - and some of the dosed montages seem to be forced to repeat imagery, but the idea of the sister being born prematurely while Paul's mom is taking the 'water of life' and tripping her brains out, and thus sister becoming a wild telepathic super killer is divine, and who could blame her, it's like getting high on all this spice has made Kyle McLachlan so much hotter. Maybe the light is just flattering on this world, but as he grows, as the 'the sleeper awakens' - the baby fat of earlier scenes is gone, replaced by angular leaner jawline. A star is hatching from its egg right before us. He really is the Ashach Backhalcharacn

In other words, dear friends, check it out on demand and see if it's better the second time. If you've never seen it, I'd say go right to the second time and never worry about following the plot. If you can't manage that, well, just relish in the fact that--simply put--there's no jokes or smiles or anachronistic winks at the audience in DUNE, yet it's never sanctimonious or plodding. You can't argue with a messiah who sends his five year-old sister alone into the imperial spaceship of his enemy in order to slice up an evil baron. These things go a long way. So long in fact, you may not appreciate them for 33 years. But now Alicia Witt is older and hot. Kyle is an institution thanks to TWIN PEAKS, and the worm turns through time's beggar king, conquering all, even through endless shots of stunt men being blown up as they run along the sand at night, over and over, and over.

from top: Flash, Dune (x2), Conan (x2) Flash Gordon, Barbarella (x5), Diabolik

And it's real crime is that in all this while, we've never seen another film where to celebrate victory a child dances in slow motion waving a curved blood-soaked dagger as exultant electric guitar chords twanging her victory. Lynch may not know how to play well with others, and may have let himself be too casually destroyed by lack of final cut, but after all- if not for Dino and DUNE there'd be no BLUE VELVET (Dino funded it). And without that, would there even be a TWIN PEAKS? Without Dino, would there be such a rich CONAN, such Masonic high-weirdness in FLASH?

The great Sean Kelly shared a bit of observation with me about Dino de Laurentiis, noting he so spends lavishly on sets and costumes he runs out of money half-way through production, so what starts out as grand and mind-boggling beauty on lavish sets ends up as convincing miniatures and third rate effects, wires showing, mismatched backgrounds, etc. You can see it, for example, in the way everyone drips sweat under all those furs in what's supposed to be the arctic at the climax of ORCA or the way closer looks at the emperor's golden throne room reveal so much of the ornate gold finishing are actually 2 dimensional clapboard paintings that start to peel and buckle halfway through the scene.

That might have seemed like a problem at the time, but in the age of CGI, the acoustic tactile effect of real shit in real time forgives a whole mess of problems. We can always sigh and moan and wonder 'what if' Jodorowsky's version was made, but hey- his films aren't perfect either. His work is like a sledgehammer to reality-- he reaches in and pulls the guts out--even as it boggles the mind it can cause eye rolls with its puerility and shock-for-shock's sake outrage. This Lynch-Laurentiis-Herbert version might not be perfect, but it rocks. It might be incoherent at times, but it's beautiful. In its unique look and courageous bizarro conviction, it stands alone in a sea of shiite; its only neighbors on its giant hill crest, CONAN, FLASH, and maybe BARBARELLA. What do they have in common? Dino de Laurentiis, whose gorgeous slightly megalomaniacal bliss comes from the ability to act like Catholicism and the War on Drugs never happened. Ruling in a world free of burdensome petty 'proper' morality, he offers something fantasy cinema can find nowhere else, real resonant full-bodied Old Testament Nietzschean moxy. In Laurentiis land, women do their own killing and are fine with it, drugs can exert their effect on consciousness right out in public, the worm is eaten, the tiles glisten serpentine, and the electric guitars break through the clouds, illuminating at --long last--something. Whatever it is, however much it cost, however cheap it looks, doesn't matter. It is. 

1 comment:

  1. Dino's King Kong deserves a lot more love than it has ever received. Way better than Jackson's.


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