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." I hadn't seen it since freshmen year of college when it was on the Student Union marquee, back when if you wanted to see a movie and were living in the dorm, you had to go to the auditorium in HB Crause Hall and pay $2, and it was on the big screen and projected from a 16mm or 35mm print and blah blah man we were so much cooler then. I had just gotten high on hash before going in, back when hash was hard to find as a freshman and blah blah, and man, I really loved it, really vibed with old DUNE. Couldn't figure out why it had drawn so much critical flak back in its troubled history and initial theatrical run. Maybe in order to love its self-important complexly-incoherent trippiness you had to be a trippy self-important innocent yourself. Either way, it 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, no longer afraid of what cool older kids might think of me for liking DUNE, and not fully awake from that nap even now, I'm man enough to confess that watching a strapping young Kyle McLachlan, in a form-fitting, dusty and dusky ribbed dark black suit, riding atop a giant sand worm (a real one, not CGI) as the thunder cracks, the sand churns, hearing--like it's been buried under their surface of Arrakis all this time-- an electric guitar from composing band Toto crackling through the hitherto uncharacteristically guitar-less orchestration like the blazing ray of sun of a Pacific NW springtime- well it blew my half-asleep cool adult mind. 

Directed by David Lynch  + produced by Dino de Laurentiis = a match made in heaven, not just for BLUE VELVET. Snooty critics and Herbert purists wouldn't believe that at the time, though. Today, decades of cheap CGI have made--in hindsight--even the most unconvincing miniature work of the 60s-80s seem endearing and wondrous. Yeah, I may be half-asleep even now - (the dreamer must awaken...but later) but that's the best state to approach surrealism in. Movies that suck to a straight/awake mind sometimes make beautiful poetic sense to the one who is nodding off in his movie chair. See a film by Jess Franco or Jean Rollin a few times and you will agree - in the right hands, an unbearable snoozer of amateurish banality becomes a wonderful dream once its sludgy non-pacing has lulled you unconscious. See a David Lynch movie in the theater and even the projector light above your head, or the stickiness of the floor, becomes as weirdly surreal as what's onscreen. It's not about figuring out what the film "means" it's about letting go of meaning entirely, so that the immediacy of the entire experience manifests and reality as you know it widens in a spasm, the way an acupuncture needle in the right place can cause a tight muscle to spring loose and cause your epidermal cells to ripple on the opposite pole of your meridian.

Consider the weirdness of DUNE: we open on a bald sister psychic asked by the "emperor" to psychically eavesdrop on the thoughts of a 'navigator' (a Metaluna-headed giant slug swimming in a big brown fish tank) 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 (see top image).

Knowing nothing about the books to prepare you, to be thrown into this scenario from the first scene is a sink or swim moment that causes most viewers to fall right to the bottom and never be seen again. But if you can imagine being, say, Bill Burroughs, high on heroin and hashish, hiding out from 'the Man' in a crumbling Art Deco theater in mid-town Manhattan, watching a 40s Warner Brothers costume drama, i.e. the kind with Bette Davis as Elizabeth I receiving ambassadors of the evil Spanish Inquisition, then suddenly DUNE becomes its own kind of awesome. You can practically hear old Bill's voice imagining the ambassadors as uptight narco squad slugs; suddenly this old familiar very straight-edge costume drama becomes more alien than an old stack of Weird Tales pulps. In its total otherness, DUNE 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, slowly peeling in spots under the glare of the kliegs, this shit's truly psychedelic. Lynch + Laurentiis = batshit crazy

The guitar of Toto made me think of another pic produced by Dino de that rocked a most bodacious rock score, FLASH GORDON (1980). One of the most brazenly cockediddly-dude insanely unforgettable rock and roll soundtracks in history, by the Queen, enables a similar mythic arc to DUNE's. There too, an off-world 'deliverer' come to a strange planet to unite and free the oppressed people from an evil galactic emperor. Though it didn't have a rock score, Dino's 1982 CONAN did have an almost Erich Korngoldenly pervasive and bombastic De Falla's La Bruja interpretation. And instead of an evil dictator and a deposed rightful ruler/messiah, it had a fisher king permutation asking for help from a thuggish mercenary against a kind of combination Charlie Manson / pied piper snake god. Dino de Laurentiis did ORCA too, which had a swooping vocalizing Ennio score that gave the whole thing a swooning sense of epic tragedy, letting us know in advance that the monster, the shark, was going to be Richard Harris, not the whale. 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 of DUNE comes forth, 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 like a pint-sized Kali.


DUNE offers a universe free of trite morality - so a 'concubine' or 'consort' can still be a nun, and 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 at dinner and send you to rehab, or that the cops will pull you over. In short, it's an actual 'sane' future, the sort envisioned in 60s psychedelic mysticism and via practices like remote viewing. The internal voiceover aspect (we hear people's thoughts) doesn't bother me because for 1) theres so much telepathy going on and 2) Shakespeare adaptations by Olivier and Welles, both do it. And 3) The use of sound waves and voice as a weapon serves to rearrange how we think of language in speaking. People do not blather in DUNE. Spoken words carry heavy import, so 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. Unlike our civilization's own dismissive attitude towards drugs and psychic powers, in DUNE they are a long-recognized part of reality; drugs are not treated with disrespect and fear, and psychonauts are valued for their shamanic contribution to the good of their houses. Is this part of the reason the film was so initially panned in the US, its year of release being during a peak of "just say no" ant-drug hysteria? What about, too, how it shows women in positions of power, as good fighters who need not be babied and protected from the world but who can control minds with their mastery of the "weirding way"?

It's all too common, alas, to find irrational critical vitriol heaped on any film that offers a positive view of drugs and strong women. The knee-jerk reaction towards any film that condones psychedelics and matriarchies is that it must be panned, banned and put in its 'proper' ash can. STAR MAIDENS and ALL THAT GLITTERS are not even on DVD! The latter hasn't even been on tape or shown... anywhere! 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 single cutting word, how matriarchal is that?! As a super-human genius of the Bene Jesserit sisterhood, his mom is 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's weird names all carry a Muslim root 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, he chose to live deep in caves with desert nomads and fight the 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, be it the Akashic records or 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 at least one fish of my Pisces brain believes in the Akashic records, which 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, 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.  I loathe their kinky blue-black outfits, and am not tickled by with the fat ugly brother (son?) and evil overacting bloated father, and wild-eyed Sting, like a Malcolm McDowell Caligula, stepping out of the steam bath in nothing but his metal jock strap, letting his relatives float around him in a delirious incestuous homosexual spice-fueled mad lust, a lust finally sated only by pulling out the nipple plugs on some little red haired boy. Lynch tends to have these dark disturbing scenes, which Todd McGowan would call the fantasmatic underside to the mundane collective real, but there is no mundane 'real' in DUNE, so it's just too much overacting and pussy buboes. And too much garish red hair. It's clear these Harkonens are supposed to be the hated Irish. 

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 HB Crouse Hall), nor do I like seen 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, for reels on end. We can connect these stretches to 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). Lynch's absurdist relish for the grotesque horrors of the fantasmatic tend to get bogged down in the depths of bad, sludgy fake laughing and wile lighting, but 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 a pic of him here, as he's too gross) who plays his scenes as if he's been peaking on a massive dose of cocaine for ten years straight. 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 gluttony, 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 make with his crazy eyes but even 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. Can we move on to the pretty people now?" 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. 
Their bit of the plot is followed easy enough this way -
 and to scroll past the horrors is to know true peace.
Have you On-Demand or the DVD?
Scroll through, Moad Dib, 
Scroll the Harkonens into Oblivion!

I scroll until Paul and his mother are being taken out to the desert to die by two of the Harkonen's men, that's when it becomes awesome; 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 in DUNE with his deep voice and solemn-but-not-dour manner, he brings great mythic depth to the ornate and no-frills mythic dialogue of Silgur, leader of the Fremen. Most people couldn't get across stilted, strange lines like "Usul, we have wormsign the likes of which even Gawd has never seen!" But McGill makes them work flawlessly. The ever-wooden Sean Young-as Paul's Freman lover-- smolders too, with lines like "Tell me of your homeworld, Usul." It's as if she's learned nothing in all her other post-BLADE RUNNER roles about the craft of acting. But like it did in BLADERUNNER, once her hair is down it stays down; undoing her tight hair makes her come alive with a breathy carnal intimacy that sucks the viewer right up against her. Young delivers confessions of love and experesses concern over Paul's taking the water of life (No man has ever survived it, only women, which in itself is badass. Sorry boys, this shit will kill you.)  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 in the Fremen scenes to a dusky earthen hue from which deep blue eyes blaze most becomingly; for the next barrage - and some of the dosed montages seem to be forced to repeat imagery, 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 getting high on all this spice has made Kyle McLachlan so much hotter. Maybe the light is just more 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, or whateverthefach.

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 on a mission 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 institutio, and the worm turns through the guts of time's beggar king, conquering all, even 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]. 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 spends so 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 unconvincing 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 of the screaming virgin of the real, yet even as he boggles the mind, he can cause eye rolls with his sense of the puerile and shock-for-shock's sake. 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 the entire bloody history of oppression, of 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 with serpentine splendor; 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 the Ketlalblachmannicanch! 

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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