Thanks to the critical success of The Elephant Man, Lynch hoped next to get his long gestating Ronnie Rocket off the launch pad. Sadly due to the near collapse of American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s production outfit, the project was shelved. Lynch then next had the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi but famously turned it down citing the age old issue of creative freedom and the fact that the film was essentially ‘George’s Baby’.
Instead Lynch hooked up with uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis who had the rights to Frank Herbert’s wildly popular Dune series which had sold massive amounts of copies in the 60s. Dune was a tricky prospect for filmmakers and had already churned out people like Roger Corman, Alexander Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott who all tried and failed to get Herbert’s concepts across into a coherent and visually exciting screenplay.
Set in the far future, Dune tells the tale of warring empires the Atriedes and the Harkonnen’s battling it out over control of the planet Arrakis which is a desert planet and home to the Spice Melange, a powerful substance that is fertilised by giant sandworms. At the start of the story we meet the evil Baron Harkonnen and his minions, we also meet the son of Duke Leto Atriedes, Paul, a child that should not have been born a man, and whom the mystics proclaim to be some kind of chosen one. The Atriedes arrive on Arrakis where Paul is to begin his work as ruler but they are betrayed and the Harkonnen’s attack and take over. Paul and his mother flee into the desert where they meet The Fremen, a race of humans who live in the desert and use the spice for its powerful hallucinogenic qualities and psychic abilities it imbues them with. Paul harnesses the Fremen’s ability of attacking with sound with ease and they proclaim him their messiah the Muad’dib. Paul then leads the Fremens against the Harkonnen’s in a final battle with the use of the gigantic sand worms.
The above summary is of the plot of Dune the book and the film and still doesn’t include things like Paul’s younger sister and her creepy psychic powers, the navigators who exposed to the spice for prolonged periods are becoming reptilian creatures or the appearance of Sting as a warrior of the Harkonnen. This is perhaps the problem with Dune; it’s clearly unfilmable with its allusions towards the Koran with Paul Atriedes as a Mohammed styled prophet. The unfilmable label has never stopped Hollywood though and the film was already over budget before it began.
The film was shot in 1983 with a fresh faced Kyle Maclachlan in the lead role, Maclachlan would of course go on to be a pivotal figure in Lynch’s filmography. The production was troubled further by much of the cast and crew coming down with ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ in the Mexican shooting locations. Eventually the film when released amidst an impressive PR campaign was met with critical indifference and box office disappointment. Lynch was originally signed for two further films in the saga and a script was written for the second, sadly the box office meant that a second film never went into production. Lynch himself regards this film as a disappointment and has not revisited it for any special edition DVD release due to the heartache associated with the finished product. Several different cuts exist for the film with the longest being three hours, the compromised two hour cut that was released feels oddly incomplete and rushed and Lynch took his name off the television version completely.
Dune as a film is amongst the most visually stunning of the 1980’s. Even watching it now, it’s impressive and harkens back to an age when sets were actually built practically and costumes were extravagant. For this aspect alone Dune is worth watching, it’s also a fine example of when Hollywood bites off more than it can chew. The script written by Lynch himself makes the odd decision of transposing much of the source novel’s interior character monologues and pasting them directly on the screen with little explanation or thought given to how this translates visually. As a result the film is a bit of a muddle. The first twenty minutes you are unsure as to what exactly is happening, with many characters introduced and then disappearing. When the film gets to Arrakis it calms down a bit and the schizophrenic tone of the piece gives way to the action science fiction epic that the producers were intending. Then towards the end everything becomes a bit of a rush to explain Paul’s destiny and have him win the battle. Giving Lynch final cut may have improved the final film, it may not have. Nothing can improve a script that is essentially unfilmable itself based on an unfilmable book.
Dune is an anomaly in Lynch’s career and interesting for the fact that it represents the first and last time Lynch went ‘Hollywood’. It also represents a turning point where Lynch’s projects would become more personal than ever. Interestingly Hollywood hasn’t learnt a lesson from the film and a new version of the saga has been in development for a few years now and has already chewed up and spat out a few directors during its time in development.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Despite the financial disaster which was Dune, the terms of Lynch’s contract with De Laurentiis Entertainment entitled the director to make a low budget personal project. Lynch was offered total artistic freedom on the project if he kept the budget low and took a cut in his personal salary. Lynch first had the idea for Blue Velvet in 1973 during the time when he was trying to get Eraserhead made. When he finished The Elephant Man he was pitching Ronnie Rocket around and when asked by one producer what else he had, he pitched the idea of a man seeing something that would lead to a murder mystery. The producer liked the idea and asked Lynch to go home and write a treatment. Lynch went home and came up with the early scene of Jeffrey Beaumont finding a severed ear in a field. The story takes place in the small town of Lumberton which was very much like the place Lynch grew up in Spokane, Washington where he always suspected that something nasty and dark was festering under the surface. Jeffrey as played by Kyle Maclachlan dresses very much like Lynch did at the time. The rest of the cast fell into place with the role of Frank Booth being taken by the newly sober Dennis Hopper and Dorothy Vallens being played by model and daughter of Ingrid Bergman; Isabella Rossellini. Filming began in autumn 1985 in North Carolina.
Blue Velvet begins with several shots showing that Lumberton is an American as apple pie and homely small town with red roses and white picket fences. A man falls down and suffers a heart attack in his garden and the camera pans down to the undergrowth where we see insects swarming in the darkness. We then cut to teenager Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) back from college, who is the son of the man who collapsed. On his way back from the hospital visiting his father he finds a severed ear in a field, he puts it in a brown paper bag and takes it to the local police. Jeffery’s curiosity gets the better of him and with Sandy (Laura Dern) he investigates further and is lead to nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who is engaged in a sado-masochistic relationship with deranged local gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Lynch claimed that the production of Blue Velvet was his best filmmaking experience since Eraserhead. A number of preview screenings led to a number of walk outs from people who couldn’t take the violence and the misogyny present in the story. When the film opened the reviews were mostly positive but many took Lynch to task for what they perceived as a perverted sensibility that was present in the film. Many attributed Frank Booth’s twisted sexual psychosis to the director himself. Nevertheless when it opened in September 1986, Blue Velvet was a modest hit and garnered Lynch his second best director Oscar nomination. Crucially it also propelled the titular Bobbie Vinton song back into the top ten.
Blue Velvet viewed now is still a great piece of cinema. It feels like a dangerous piece of film that is still powerful in these liberal times and must have blown minds back in 1986. Like all of Lynch’s films it looks fantastic, with a great use of colour and shadows. You can see the film’s influence in lots of things even today. Rian Johnson’s fantastic teenage high school noir Brick; owes a large debt to both Blue Velvet as well as Twin Peaks which you can see especially in the finale of the film. In a scenario that mirrors Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, there is something like two hours worth of deleted scenes existing which have recently been found and included on the Blu-Ray release. If you haven’t seen Blue Velvet yet you really need to seek it out, it’s a milestone of independent cinema and represents the beginning of something of cultural shift that would come to a head in the mid 90s with the independent scene.
Next: Surrealism goes mainstream with Twin Peaks and Wild At Heart.