What I'm Watching: 'Dune' | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: 'Dune'


My friend Eric and I went to see David Lynch's Dune at a local movie theater when it first came out in 1984. It was a particularly memorable occasion for two reasons. The first is that Eric and I got into a shouting match with some annoying kids who were sitting behind us and kicking our chairs. (As I recall, we emerged victorious from that confrontation.) The other reason this particular moviegoing experience sticks in my brain is that it was the first and only time that a ticket taker handed me an actual glossary: a two-sided, one-page document to which I would need to refer in order to understand the film.

The glossary, which I wish I still had, defined key terms and concepts that the film itself did not. (I remembered just now that we live in the Internet Age; of course someone else was clever enough to keep a copy of this odd little item. Here's a site that confirms my recollection and gives some context.) Neither Eric nor I had read any of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, so the glossary was probably welcome, though I remember being puzzled by its very existence.

Universal, the studio that released Dune, was justifiably worried that moviegoers would be baffled by its obscure story and lack of explanatory detail. It's indeed hard to make sense of Dune's story — but maybe that doesn't matter so much. I know that Eric and I walked out of that theater in Mamaroneck, N.Y., far more baffled than when we entered it. But, hey, we were 11 years old.

I watched Dune again about a week ago, probably for the first time since its theatrical release. (I'd recently completed a fifth or sixth go-round with Lynch's and Mark Frost's marvelous series "Twin Peaks," and wanted to revisit some of Lynch's earlier work.) I found myself enjoying the film much more than I did 30 years ago, but not necessarily because I found it to make more sense. While printing that glossary smacks of a panicky effort by Universal to curry favor with the viewers it feared alienating, I can understand the studio's reasoning. Dune really doesn't make much sense, period.

The glossary's existence demonstrates, first, that the foremost concern of Hollywood studios — then and now — is to release films with coherent, comprehensible stories. Clarity of storytelling is paramount to most forms of entertainment and art that are aimed at wide audiences. Hollywood films may be the best examples of this tendency: A film's narrative is the device to which our aesthetic, emotional and intellectual pleasures in movie watching are attached. If the story is unclear or incomplete, it's harder to find pleasure in watching the film. The pieces don't fit together satisfactorily.

But, as I often tell my film students, no rule says that films must tell stories. It's an audiovisual medium and not, by definition, a narrative medium. It's just that filmmakers have used the medium, pretty much since its inception, to tell stories. To me, that suggests more about the workings of human cognition than the nature of cinema.

Film offers many pleasures, not all of them narrative. It's actually an informative exercise to watch a film and try to disregard its story; to treat it as a parade of images and collection of audio cues. In this way, any film can become a "story" about patterns of colors, light, shadow, movement and music. When a filmmaker explores such ideas, we often call him or her "experimental," meaning someone who plays around with film's formal qualities.

David Lynch is an important American artist because his films (and television, comics, sculpture and writing) have always experimented with formal properties while suggesting a strange and complex attitude toward narrative. Something like "Twin Peaks," which was made for a wide audience, does have a comprehensible story, though it's presented so weirdly that its key narrative information is often hard to parse.

It's worth noting that, had Lynch and Frost had their way with the show, "Twin Peak"'s central story question — who killed Laura Palmer? — would never have been answered. Such a question is not important to Lynch. Some of his best works, including Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Inland Empire, show a strong disregard for conventional storytelling. This tendency goes back even earlier, to Lynch's first film, Six Figures Getting Sick (1966), which has no story whatsoever.

And that brings us back to Dune. Many of its main story elements are simply not well explained: Characters take actions for no discernible reasons; the choices characters make are not based on evident logic; crucial pieces of terminology are left unclear, even with that glossary. But when I watched the film last week, I didn't much care that the story was "imperfectly" told, for two reasons.

First, even if it was made by David Lynch, this is still a genre film (sci-fi) released by a major Hollywood studio. We don't know specifically what's happening, but we know generally that the Good Guy will triumph over the Bad Guy, and that he'll almost certainly find love along the way. These things happen in Dune

The second reason is that the film's visuals are breathtaking. Dune is gorgeous, with lush colors, arresting compositions and fantastical imagery. The set design looks like one of H.R. Giger's weirdest fever dreams. Take a look at the incredible composition of the image at the top of this post, and the unearthly details in the two stills below.

Gimme two hours to witness images such as these and I'm a happy, aesthetically satisfied guy.

And let's not forget the other, odder pleasures that Dune offers. I asked my cinephile friend Jake for his take on the film and he wrote, "My opinion on Dune is that it should never have been made, but I'm so glad that it was. Watched it recently for the first time in years and found it inexplicably enjoyable and unusually hypnotic. I miss such lavish set pieces.

"Also, Patrick Stewart charging into battle, cradling a space-pug," Jake added. "Case closed, really."