Dune: The Long and the Short of It

I've been wading through Universal's "Extended Edition" DVD of DUNE, which contains both the original theatrical cut and a longer version assembled for syndicated television 1988.

It's a nice box set, with a handful of good extras; unfortunately, there is no participation from a key figure: writer-director David Lynch, who adapted Frank Herbert's excellent science-fiction novel back in 1984.

It's not hard to understand why: Lynch disowned the extended cut of the film, replacing his name on the credits, which now read, "Screenplay by Judas Booth" and "Directed by Alan Smithee." It's a weird thought that a DVD, so often the medium by which directors get their preferred cut to viewers, is in this case, preseving a version that Lynch would prefer to forget.

To understand the problem, a little background information is required: Herbert's novels is one of the great achivements in science-fiction literature, but its strengths defy translation into a feature film -- plot, characterizations, and background details of the universe in which it is set are just too enormous and too dense to be squeezed down to two hours. Lynch's first assembly, before spcial effects were added, ran over four hours. At that time, he scripted and filmed a new sequence to convey some exposition in condensed form and cut out large chuncks of the film to get the running time down.

This has led to rumors that there is a four-hour director's cut of DUNE, and it's possible that fans who don't pay much attention may think that's what they're getting when they purchaset his new DVD. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Lynch told Tim Hewitt in Cinefantastique magazine (October 1986), "...the rough cut was very long. It's a bit movie. But it wouldn't have worked and that was never the final cut. I think what we ended up with is the best that could be done with it."

Because the deleted scenes existed only in rough cut form, they were never finished (that is, final editing, dubbing, and scoring was never performed on them). Restoring the footage, therefore, is not a matter of restoring the director's cut; in fact, Lynch himself (in the same interview) expressed reservations about going back and re-tooling DUNE:

"There's something wrong with that movie. I don't really know what it is,a nd I'm not certain you could 'fix' it. It's just so big, you know, and there's so much there. A lot of it I like, but a lot of it I don't like. It's just got problems..."

Lynch's reservations didn't stop Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, from handing the film over to Harry Tattleman, vice president for special projects, in 1988. Tattleman's television version, which was intended to air as a two-parter that would fill a pair of two-hour timeslots on consecutive nights. The running time (without commercials) was reported as 187 minutes, including footage to bridge the gap between the first and second night. (The extended edition on the DVD is listed as 177 minutes, presumably because it runs as a continuous movie, with no need to preview scenes from tomorrow night's episode or bring viewers back up to speed by replaying scenes from the previous night's episode.)

At the time Cinefantastique ran an interesting and informative if slightly off kilter article about the television cut in their January 1989 issue (which actually hit stands near the end of the previous year) . Written by Dennis Fischer, the analysis does a good job of detailing the changes made and notes that Lynch dismissed the expanded version as "not the film I envisioned."

Yet for some reason, the article insists on presenting the longer cut as preferable (the headline reads, "Director David Lynch disowns the improvements made on his epic") -- despite noting several egregious errors that are, to be charitable, laughably bad.

The longer version does add several bits and pieces that help make more sense of the film, helping to clarifying plot points and fill in details of characterization. But in order to enjoy these tidbits, you have to sit through an absurdly patronizing voice-over narration that explains far too much, as if assuming that the audience is comprised of idiots who won't understand what's happening unless they are led by the nose.

Lynch's original cut featured Princess Uralan (played by Virginia Madsen, who was later nominated for an Oscar for SIDEWAYS), setting the scene by speaking directly to the audience. This was Lynch's somewhat forced attempt to capture an important element of the novel, which is laced with excerpts supposedly culled from books written by the princess. While not totally successful, this filmic device at least set the tone and let you know from whose point of view these bits of exposition were being delivered.

Tattleman's cut removes Princess Uralan and replaces her with an anonymous male narrator. The film begins with an intolerable ten-minute prologue, during which the voice drones on and on while paintings of the different characters and planets flash on screen. There is not enough visual material to wrap up this heavy load of exposition, so the same paintings are used and reused until the scene seems interminable.

From that point on, the voice pops up again and again, but it tells us little that we need to know; in fact, it often merely states blunt facts that will eventually emerge naturally through the dialogue. Worse, the narration actually further slows down the pace of an already plodding film: in several cases, long takes with no action have been added of individual characters simply standing in front of the camera while the narrator tells us who they are.

As a result, the extended cut is at most a curiosity. If you can force yourself to sit through the garbage, it is interesting to see the longer, intact scenes that give a fuller sense of the story and universe that Frank Herbert created, but these small virtues are hardly enough to make the expanded DUNE "one of the most intelligent and impressive science-fiction films ever made," as Dennis Fischer proclaimed at the end of his Cinefantastique article.

Lynch's version was a bit of a mess, but at least it was an interesting mess. As the writer-director would later do with WILD AT HEART, Lynch grafted his own obsessions and weird visuals onto an excellent narrative, creating an uneasy and not totally satisfying mixture. He didn't have a good feel for noble heroics, and when it comes to handling action and space opera, he was a bit out of his depth.

But at least he had a strong grasp of the surreal and mystical elements in Herbert's story, and he rendered them on screen in terms that displayed Lynch's own unique vision, resulting in a film that was flawed but distinct -- not just another anonymous Hollywood blockbuster. Perhaps a better cut of the film could have been fashioned from the material that Lynch shot, but the expanded edition now available on DVD is not it.

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