Misreviews: Lynch’s “Dune” and “Pirates of the Caribbean 4.”
I wanted to review Villeneuve’s Dune, but I probably won’t get around to seeing it. Instead, I watched David Lynch’s Dune for the first time yesterday, always having known that I’d like it just from the way it looked. These first impressions are always surprisingly informative. In thriftstores, you can scan the books from several feet away and pick out the good ones just from their jacket design. There are exceptions, like Octavia Butler, but when it comes to “aesthetic works” like literature, there almost has to be a relation between a thing’s inner truths and its sensuous exterior. Right? I’ve never read Herbert’s Dune but I’m not sure it matters when it comes to the film. I don’t know if I want to fully understand. If I’m preparing to watch another space-epic ruled over by the ineluctability of an action movie plot, it’s going to come as a relief when it’s a work of stilted, Symbolist science-fiction. Usually, among Hollywood action films, this freedom from the plot only happens unintentionally, when the studio panics and pushes something unsalvageable through just to meet deadlines.
When they fuck up, I usually enjoy it, as was the case for example with Pirates of the Caribbean 4, subtitled “On Stranger Tides.” The general story of Stranger Tides makes sense: they’re searching for the fountain of youth. But in several parts of the movie, you get that feeling you used to get as a kid while clothes shopping at the mall with your Mom and need to take a break at the food court for like an hour. I like this. I like when characters seem like they’re searching for the plot. The would-be or has-been romance between Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Penelope Cruz’s Angelica goes nowhere, except to a climax in which Sparrow tricks her into involuntarily killing off her own father, Blackbeard. “I hate you,” she tells him as he rows her to an island, where he'll deposit her with a gun to signal a ship or do herself in. She layers on the lies to trick him into taking her with him, and just as they’re about to kiss, the violins peak and he turns and says “I gotta go.” This anti-sentimentalism was probably the result of an intended sequel, but whatever the reasoning, and however bad the movie, it amounts to a form-breaker for Hollywood. Liberated from a plot, we turn to images. In a few places in the film, Sparrow checks to see if his arms and legs are still intact, and subtly gestures that, if they are, all is right in the world. This indicates a destiny. If all you care about is working limbs and an adventurous mode of being, civilized society will have little place or appeal for you. This spoke to me.
Dune actually has a pretty straightforward plot, but to his credit, Lynch somehow manages to make it not make sense. The geopolitical and ecological themes are there enough and it probably helped to have a political wildcard like Lynch as the director to bring out their imagery rather than turn the book into glib Hollywood allegorizing. It’s cool that, in an American major motion picture, they have a terrorist cell of space-bedouins training to bring an extractive industry to its knees, but also pretty funny that their savior figure is a guy named Paul played by a guy named Kyle. They recognize him as the Messiah because he’s the one who can drink the mouthwash and survive. Why is mouthwash considered the “water of life” on their planet? Who knows. It primarily functions as an image, like the worms, the thumpers, the pain box, the sound weapons, the pug that marches into war with Patrick Stewart, the cat harnessed in what looks like a desktop-mod that’s supposed to be “milked,” the poisonous-breath tooth-capsule, the eyebrows, the double-blue eyes, the ubiquitous quasi-Islamic aesthetics, and last but not least Paul’s designer overcoat at the ending ceremony. Images don’t have to non sequitur as hard as they do in Lynch, but they should never simply dissolve into explanation if they’re going to have a life of their own. Infact, nothing should simply dissolve into explanation, not even dialogue.
Dune doesn’t really have dialogue. Instead, the characters speak in monologues at each other, or to themselves, or for an unseen audience, making it feel a bit like a production of Aeschylus. However, true to form, Lynch defamiliarizes even everyday language. Life-coaching advice like “fear is the mindkiller” somehow feels oracular coming out of these people’s mouths. Duke Leto, realizing he must leave the comforts of his kingdom, admits to his son “I’ll miss the sea, but a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside of us and seldom awakens…. The sleeper must awaken.” When I first told my Dad that I was moving to Europe, and that I’d probably be moving to a different city every few months, his first response was: “Good, that will make time… slow down.” I deeply respect that my Dad’s first concern was phenomenological. Not career, family, or safety, none of the usual parental anxieties— just time dilation. Maybe on some level, I was saying to my father, as Paul said to his, “I want you to be proud of me.” And my father, just like Duke Leto, was telling me as well: “The sleeper must awaken!”
When you don’t really know anything about film, as is plainly the case with me, often your best hope is in strong misreadings, especially when it comes to what superior tastes might consider a sub-par picture. For this, it helps when films invite your mind to wander. This invitation can come from either “artfully slow” cinema or just plain bad movies that have lost the thread (and to be honest, these aren’t always fully distinguishable). In their gaps you can dwell and ponder, much as you dwelled and pondered in the food court waiting for your Mom to finish picking out shoes for the wedding. What I particularly enjoyed about Lynch’s Dune was probably what dissatisfied many movie-goers most: it’s almost entirely void of “action” of the kind you expect from Hollywood. The “action scenes,” like the battles and fights, were just washes of movements that seemed zen and preordained, like an ancient epic— the Ramayana, for example. Even in the final knife fight with Sting, the closest the film got to Hollywood’s lessonless gladiatorial action, I wasn’t really worried. Paul seemed like he had it covered. Leave it to Lynch to make violence somehow meditative. My very-non-rhetorical question is why we demand “action”— scripted gladiatorialism— in the first place. Why do we want to recreationally rehearse these same sequences over and over, watching the good guy drive his dagger into the bad guy as he falls from the ledge of a skyscraper, in slow motion, and into the mouth of a volcano? What are we getting out of this? I really don’t know, but that won't spare you from me speaking confidently about it in a later review.