© 2010 by James Clark
The prospect of understanding what it is Lynch communicates from film to film is never within easy reach; but it only attains to extra-galactic proportions with that battle-fatigued singularity, titled, Dune (1984), and directed, variously, by “David Lynch” and “Alan Smithee.” Lynch has been quoted as being attracted to a film rendition of Frank Herbert’s 1965 blockbuster sci-fi novel, inasmuch as there were “tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved.”
Notice he did not allude to “things” Herbert loved. As coming from a practitioner in good standing of sci-fi as “entertainment,” those latter “things”—abundantly salient in the literary plot—would occupy a groove of breath-stilling futurity (the story begins in the year 10,192) wherein awesome physical forces clash for the sake of succeeding in dominating all comers. “Domination” is the keyword; and, you know what? It ain’t new. One of the “things” Lynch loved was industrial design in the form of continuation of the occupant’s level of consciousness, and in Dune he clearly relishes enmeshing the “advanced” experiences in fusty Victorian/Edwardian decor (and garments). For instance, on a reconnaissance mission by the hero and his royal father, conducted by someone known as the “Judge of the Change,” the plush, quaint and busy interior of their flying craft (with silk-quilted walls, no less) strongly resembles that of “innovator” Captain Nemo’s submarine in the Disney version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1954). (Design tinctures [as well as Oxbridge emanations] from other Victorian adventures, like Journey to the Center of the Earth  and The Time Machine  also come to bear. And, to cap things off, the desert derring-do comes saturated with tropes from the “stout chap” heroics of Lawrence of Arabia .)
Crucially entailed in the “what change?” look of this picture is its highlighting extremities of that ascetic heritage herniating to florid precincts in the Victorian era. Dune carries a daunting freight of stoic and mystic intellectualism by which to map out features of its power politics that can be trained to look (and, vestigially, be) truly innovative, which is to say, non-ascetic. (In this amorphous—but, in the sequels, explicit—malaise about totalitarian historical “fixes,” Lynch would have recognized a current of “possibilities,” he could characteristically jack up to fearsomely unique levels. The prime villain, “Baron Vladimir [as in ‘Vlad,’ Dracula] Harkonnen” who, in the novel is presented as hugely obese, an inert blob of raw matter having to be propped up by an anti-gravity device, becomes, in Lynch’s viewfinder, not merely morbidly non-dynamic, but oozing pus, mucous and blood from various sources as signalling the poisonous distemper of his efforts to counter stasis.) Herbert’s ecological rejoinder to good-old-fashioned power political devastation would be, for the “Alan Smithee” hereabouts, one other factor of the “too little, too late” brush-off in store for a product impressively popular, and, thereby, sublimely lucrative, and, thereby, sacred to the financiers of a film along those lines.
While it may be downright foolhardy to specify any one above others of the countless booby traps bedevilling this project as a David Lynch creation, Herbert’s whacko metaphysics serving as life-support for our hero, Paul, does produce an unusual chill when factoring within a takeoff point for nonpredestinarian disclosure. This injection comes by way of a bid (very successful, as far as it goes) to spice up the usual noisy collision of (small-time) power seekers. The historical universe has come to consist of fiefdoms (“noble houses”) each controlling a planet by the sufferance of an “Emperor” (from the “Imperial [Sicilian?] House Corrino”). As we check in, the Emperor has put into motion a plot to rid himself of a rival (Paul’s father), by way of the latter’s displacing the long-time enemy (the Harkonnen) of that overachiever from a desert planet, “Dune,” and then surreptitiously fostering a recovery of Dune and execution of the “Duke Leto” in question. Dune is the only place in the universe yielding a harmonic drug or “spice” (“Melange”)—the book was produced in the ’60s—which not only guaranteed an “expanded consciousness,” but , thereby, an open sesame of originary quantum participation such that one can “fold the universe” (master “foldspace technology”) to an upshot of “instantaneous travel” to any point, “travel without moving.” In addition, the what’s-not-to-love drug “extends life.” Even before we get down to the musical chairs the Emperor feels strongly about, he is visited by a coal-black, iron-horse-like-plane disgorging a gang of chimney-sweep-like security (in big black coats) for a vaporous, gigantic amoeba—the baby in Eraserhead having picked up some attitude—who levels with the Don in no uncertain terms that he’s concerned about a curtailment of spice production. “The spice must flow.” Not only that, we get a foretaste of what consciousness expansion means here, in the Big Head’s seeing far ahead to Paul’s future role as a disturber of spice consumption. “We want him killed.”
This putting the finger on the kid puzzles the Emperor, he being strictly an exponent of doing things about CEOs. He clearly has failed to keep up with the deep future drug scene; but his wife!….is something else. Even before the sooty panels of the intruding force have slid open to reveal the Head’s big fishbowl, even before one of the nasty overcoats demands, “The witch must leave!” this Royal We has whispered to him, “We felt his presence…I am your truth-sayer, my Lord.” In the course of getting the Boss fully booted, the demanding visitor has reeled off the aphoristic, “The answer is within the problem.” You almost have to sympathize with the elderly assassin, surrounded as he is with folks who’ve already got it all figured out. (Lynch’s counter-attack begins to stir, with the double-entendre that the prize is sheer, irrevocable problematicness.) Not one to be content opening new hospitals, The Empress has latched on to a franchise giving full scope to her talents. She manages something known as “Bene Gesserit,” a sisterhood, the first premise of which—intentness “to control the affairs of mankind more effectively”—for all its invasiveness, seems benign enough, in a nebulous sort of way. But the infill of this “rise up” mission statement paints a far more scientistic, prediction-obsessed enterprise. As if the surround of an oversized George Bernard Shaw play must presuppose social engineering priding itself on ruthless outrage toward problematic nuances destabilizing causality, the Empress’ affairs place a high premium upon a spice diet, and its facilitation of knowing causal outcomes not yet unfolded, as ultimately cueing breeding schemes culminating in giving birth to a god-like entity, the “Kwisatz Haderach,” to be manipulated to the advantage of the cult. This breathtakingly presumptuous speculation—taking a level of validation from perennially conventional classical rationalism, as supplemented by dollops of incongruous Dionysian mysticism—hunkers down in the form of a womb-vanity cult of female supremacists. And so it transpires that the Royal We, seeing to a power grab running parallel to that of her husband’s, folds space and pays a visit to Paul’s family, beginning with chilly reproof of his mother, the “Royal Concubine Jessica,” (herself something of an exponent of that feminist mysticism [the Empress referring to her as “my greatest student and my greatest disappointment”]) for having the temerity to bear a son because her partner wanted one (all the while telegraphing to us that she knows Duke Leto has pretty much come to the end of his life). Her instincts about the future have impelled her to run a test of pain-endurance on Paul, to discover if, even though coming out of left field, he’s got the makings of that messiah she’s angling for. Jessica rallies her son to the cause with the rather precious remark, “The Reverend Mother is going to observe you.” (Paul had indicated earlier how ready he was for this orgy of advantage, by basking in his father’s delight that he was the best student his tutors had ever seen. “I want you to be proud of me.”) Paul passes with flying colors. His courage had effectively mastered his fear of the pain produced by a box (a Pandora’s Box?). “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.” This leads the Empress to go into another wrinkle of her super-human repertoire—“A man will come and go where women cannot.” And so he comes to occupy the matrix of both machinations.
Lynch would count, among the “things” he loved about Herbert’s framework, that recognition of individual courage asserting itself within a world history effectively precluding it. During the first tour of Dune, a spice-harvesting rig is consumed by one of the indigenous “sand worms,” a whale-sized horror, and Duke Leto’s showing much more passion (love) for the stricken crew than for the drug impresses the Judge of the Change. Just prior to the springing of the trap upon the Duke and his people, and coming after the avalanche of reckless and smug intellection and its self-absorption, there is a moment wherein Jessica and her man share some simple affection. True, he has to blurt out, “I should have married you years ago.” But the language of their bodies speaks to a compelling and all-but-doomed antithetical purity, all the more remarkable in the context of Herbert’s turgid calculus, thinking (so typically of its era) to have it both ways, ecstatic and sure-fire; free-wheeling and totally gratifying. On her and her son’s escape from the massacre by the Harkonnen—the Duke being captured, tortured and killed—realization of his father’s death does not touch Paul. “Where are my feelings?…I feel for no one.” Efficiencies, advantage-directedness of courage have come to eclipse the range of love intrinsic to courage.
From the bit of narrative we have engaged so far, it is possible to discern Lynch’s contrarian instincts being swallowed up by the “tons” of self-indulgences, some of which carry the mirage of headway. Whatever inventions (unauthorized by Herbert’s text) to activate the problematic of integrity, he might have envisaged putting across, as the production progressed it would be dawning on Lynch that consummate breakthroughs, definitive for his art, like, for example, the “eyes open…darkness” of Eraserhead and “Go with me somewhere” of Mulholland Drive, were not on the board for this slack material. But having said that, we (and Lynch) still have something in play, “something big” as Kiss Me Deadly’s Mike Hammer would say. Paul’s father, contemplating leaving their seas and greenery for a wasteland, can see beyond that disappointment to a more primal exigency. “Without change something sleeps inside us. The sleeper must awake.” Although that recognition seems confident about consummating such change in personal history, there is lurking within its hypothesis the arresting possibility of not only a whole current population but a whole world history averse to change, to movement, to untrammelled sensuality, and thus dead to its innermost powers. This no doubt was for Lynch a very tempting aspect of the cosmic proportions of Herbert’s “science fiction.”
The second half of the narrative spotlights Paul as a man of action in a time calling for men of action; and, along with a not quite likewise skeptical Herbert, the work examines the quality of his kinetic range. From his desert exile he opens proceedings with, “Father, I will avenge your death!” Earlier on, with a tutor, he demonstrated his prowess as a martial arts technician, and now he demonstrates a similar prowess in strategy with a view to defeating the forces having routed his father and his people. “He who controls the spice controls the universe,” being a premise for his recovery of political power, he capitalizes upon his ability to impress the Bedouin population, the “Fremen,” with his fighting skills as especially centering upon a “weirding way” in the form of directing a hand-held pulsator with a kind of karate or rock front-man yell and air-punch. (“Some thoughts have an acoustic form that can work to destroy physical matter.”) During the development of a kinship with these stolid primitives (freedom-abbreviated “Fremen”), Paul brings to bear his reservoir of grace as cued by parents having devoted serious efforts in that regard. He falls in love with a beautiful young Fremen girl, becomes recognized by the tribe as the long-awaited Messiah (his second coup along these lines) and enacts the rather glib phrase, “and so a dream unfolds.” On wrecking with his cohorts the machinery of spice production (“He who can destroy a thing controls that thing”)—Lawrence and his Arabs inevitably coming to mind—he turns his attention to harnessing the worms as king-sized (battle) ships of the desert, and heads a spectacularly successful war party against the forces of Baron Harkonnen and the Emperor. (During his initial foray against a worm [prior to harnessing it and riding it], he once again demonstrates his mastery of fear. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer.” Then he undergoes an ordeal of being tied up in the desert and drinking “the Water of Life,” a potential killer. His somewhat-lost-in-the-shuffle beloved calls out, “Paul, I will love you forever. You are my life.” On attaining to “visions terrifying to women” he can declare, “Now I truly control the world.” He goes on to polish off a Harkonnen champion from the Emperor’s camp.) He has now acquired the iridescent (apparently far-and deep-seeing) blues eyes of the Fremen and the name, “Muad’ Dib.” Completing his capitulation to the stilted bathos of ascetic piety, he confirms that he has “become the hand of God,” turning war to peace, hate to love. “One cannot go against the word of God.”
Whereas such puffery would constitute for the novelist a challenging point of departure, a diorama of troubling but results-ensuring mass mobility, it would strike Lynch as a major absurdity and a nightmare. His optimal reflective and cinematically expressive range being distinguished personal experience in a context of individual freedom to be undistinguished, the feudal lockdown of this scenario poses the bugbear of wall-to-wall travesty and no wiggle room for that change glimpsed by the new Emperor’s father, now reduced to suicidal heresy. Lynch would have been fascinated with the prospect of questioning an evolution of social stewardship in maintaining problematic priorities, but this tale of hysterical totalitarianism with a quasi-benign face was not the vehicle for such a task. Whatever carnal sizzle there could be obtruding through the military struggles has been instantly folded into an icy, doctrinaire rationalism. The “Melange” process of the diet of the elites proves unable to live up to its promise of viable sensuality.
For a contrarian in the surrealist mold, musings about the distant future would tempt a consideration of an epoch less successful than ours in extorting betrayal of the uncanniness we all carry. But, as Lynch’s filmography seems to suggest, that is daydreaming that leads nowhere. The intimist thread generating such heat and light in the fully accomplished works would seem to be all that is allowed by a wilfully obtuse, hostile, motion-averse (and yet not always so) history.
Dune comes to us these days as a crippled, derelict space ship (shards of discarded machinery loosely fastened and flapping in the solar winds), disowned and abandoned by a captain who apparently wants it gone from his consciousness forever. But, for someone wanting to savor the workings of his subsequent accomplishments, it comprises a workshop for assembling parameters of articulation as to the startling pot shots managed by his beloved Surrealist mentors. Cocteau and his compatriots were not above messing with fantasy (often to ironic effect concerning self-centeredness); but their products were priced in strict accordance with down-to-earth dramatic realities. Accordingly, Lynch would have been especially touched by Herbert’s term, “Melange,” to cover the kick of the indispensable “spice.” A melange is a mixture of varied aspects, a compound. In Dune, the name looks to a composition of factors constituting human sensibility. The most basic form of this composition is a duality of simple, high-pitch rocketing and complex, low-pitch elaboration of the former’s energies for the sake of attending to survival and its embellishment. (An early display of Melange was the ancient Greek Dionysian/Apollonian project.) The crux of that duality is its posing the necessity of maintaining both moments in equilibrium such that the poetics of the former are not eclipsed by the prosaics of the latter. As it happens, that task is far from easy, and is given a nasty twist inasmuch as those having settled for and become devoted to the prose bear a huge resentment toward signs of the poetry in others. Such equilibrium is alluded to in Dune when Paul feels compelled to assimilate the “Waters of Life.” “I’m dead to everyone unless I become what I may be.” During his concentration in this regard, he cries tears of blood, and the Empress, Jessica and her young daughter are laid low and discharge blood from their nose and mouth.
This is a sequence pertaining to Lynch’s dilemma in being saddled with Herbert’s text. The latter had no problem skimming from his highs into ridiculous concatenations and Victorian clichés, like the position about such equilibrium as that at issue being beyond the strength of women. On emerging from his ordeal, Paul declares, “Now I truly control the world!” and many monster worms gather around him like puppies. The whole bag of such childish facility—particularly the nonsense about foretelling the future—as culminating in messiah-fulfilment, rests upon playing fast and loose with a crucial difference between the syntheses’ playing a (modest) part in providing creative energy, and actually “controlling” the full sequentiality of world historical eventuation. Herbert’s slipshod dabbling with that duality overplays the human initiative (as neatly segueing to a human God) and underplays the remote, mysterious, hugely problematic wellspring to which history contributes. Lynch, as his great films, unlike Dune, aptly disclose, was well aware of the complexity of personal self-control and public interaction. The plot of Dune was to show a boy’s becoming, through personal courage (as it happens, truncated), a wise adult warrior, cleansing the universe for the sake of “the righteous.” The glibness of such a juggernaut could be cinematically tempered. At the end, Paul Muad’ Dib, thinking to be leading “the people to true freedom” [equilibrium seen as a corporate product], and intoning, “One cannot go against the word of God,” has induced a rainstorm to visit the desert planet for the first time. His little sister, described as remarkably astute, declares, “He is the Kwisatz Haderach.” Lynch gives her a Donald Duck voice, perhaps acknowledging that such little demurs as he could stage would still leave a disaster.
The out-takes include a scene which, had Lynch been allowed the final cut, might have gone some distance toward revealing Paul’s missing the boat as to incisive balance, while having to face unavoidable and all-consuming wartime pressures. He is shown killing a Fremen challenger in a knife duel and being shaken by what he has done. His mother sidles up to him and, in her best Sisterhood manner, asks him, “How does it feel to be a killer?” She informs the crowd, “This is the first man he has killed.” Then he is shown during a sleepless night, distractedly saying, “No, no, no!” to the prospect of being a warlord. “Am I the one?” Had there been that and more such conflictedness, the film could have seriously posed the unique difficulty of public life. But for this current to really work, there would have to be high-powered tempering of the messianic motif (including some love/equilibrium motivated eschewal of flipping his Fremen girl in order to marry the former Emperor’s daughter for political gains). But then it would no longer be a Herbert story. And then it would no longer be a profit centre.