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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Lynch Party

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Choosing a common theme for these columns isn't always an easy task. Sometimes I'll stand in front of the shelf I have reserved for on-deck discs (a bottom shelf, naturally) staring at the spines for hours at a time, trying to find a pattern like a shorter but better-looking version of Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Last week, I saw on opposite ends of the shelf Universal's recent re-release of David Lynch's science fiction epic Dune and Sony's re-release of Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, presented by none other than David Lynch. Sure, the movies themselves couldn't be more different and I'm the first to admit that this connection is tenuous at best. It definitely made for an interesting double feature, though. Last week, I saw on opposite ends of the shelf Universal's recent re-release of David Lynch's science fiction epic Dune and Sony's re-release of Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, presented by none other than David Lynch. Sure, the movies themselves couldn't be more different and I'm the first to admit that this connection is tenuous at best. It definitely made for an interesting double feature, though.


Dune: Extended Edition

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Dune: Extended Edition
1984 (2005) - Universal

The first and last time I saw Dune in its entirety was upon its theatrical release back around Christmas of 1984. In retrospect, that trip to the movies may have been a key formative experience in my decision to write about them. It was the first time I can remember people getting mad at me for not liking a movie. I had gone to the movie with some friends and as the lights came up I said, "Well, that wasn't too good, was it?" My friends had found much to appreciate about Dune and while I'm not sure if their opinions have changed over the years, I stand by that 15-year-old's snarky comment. Dune isn't too good.

In its defense, Dune is also not a complete disaster. It isn't nearly as confusing as some of its harshest critics make it out to be. True, you do have to pay attention and also true, the stilted beyond-Shakespearean style of the performances and the dialogue may make paying close attention difficult for some. Fans of Frank Herbert's novel complain, and justifiably so, that the film omits major chunks of the book. True enough but try to find a movie based on a complex book that doesn't do the same thing. And while Herbert's Dune is a very good book, it isn't such a sacred text that filmmakers shouldn't be allowed to adapt it as they see fit.


Technically, the film is very impressive. Whether you're enjoying the movie or not, it's easy to become mesmerized by the work of production designer Anthony Masters, costume designer Bob Ringwood, creature designer Carlo Rambaldi and director of photography Freddie Francis. In some respects, the sumptuous look of the film may be a contributor to Dune's reputation as a confusing mess. The first time you see the movie, you're almost hypnotized by the images on screen. By the time your mind switches back to concentrate on the dialogue and the story, you may well be totally lost.

But for all it has going for it, to call Dune a misunderstood, underappreciated masterpiece is to overstate the case by a lot. The film appears to be well cast if you just look at the credits and production stills. But almost all the actors seem to be lost amid the overwhelming design elements and the formalized, unnatural dialogue. If some feel that Kyle MacLachlan owes his career to Lynch casting him in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, MacLachlan probably thinks Lynch owed it to him after making his film debut in Dune. In retrospect, it isn't a bad performance. But as an introduction to film audiences, it could have been crippling. Lynch relies on voice-over narration in a comic book thought-bubble style, forcing actors like Max Von Sydow to endure overlong shots of them looking pensive while their thoughts are read over the soundtrack. Other actors who either had already worked with Lynch or would go on to work with him again, such as Jack Nance, Brad Dourif and Dean Stockwell, give very entertaining and eccentric performances but all seem to be in a different movie from the rest of the cast. Only Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen comes through the other end of the movie unscathed, creating a truly impressive and memorable character.

The main selling point of Universal's new DVD release is the first-ever inclusion of the extended version of the film on the flip side of the disc. Lynch had his name removed from this and rightly so. The longer version just makes matters worse, trying to fill in the narrative gaps at the beginning via conceptual art and a ham-handed voice-over that would be better suited to a book-and-record version of the movie. Making matters worse, the narrator keeps popping up throughout the film, explaining not only the details but things that seem to be readily apparent to anyone watching the film. While not as contrary to the intent of the film as is the "Love Conquers All" version of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the extended version of Dune is clearly not what Lynch wanted to do with the project and should only be viewed as a point of academic interest rather than as a genuine alternate version of the movie.

The rest of the DVD isn't perfect but it's certainly a better special edition of Dune than I ever thought we'd see. I'm not thrilled with Universal's decision to release this as a double-sided DVD-18 instead of a multi-disc set but I didn't run into any glitches with the disc, so I guess I can live with it. All the extras are on side A with the theatrical cut and they're decent but hardly comprehensive. Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis introduces an interesting selection of deleted scenes. The rest of the featurettes concentrate, as expected, on the visual aspects of the film. Anthony Masters talks production design, Bob Ringwood discusses costumes, visual effects and models are given over to Kit West and Brian Smithies. There's also an extensive photo gallery and production notes. All of this is interesting enough but it barely scratches the surface of Dune's production. This isn't entirely Universal's fault. Lynch's unwillingness to participate in the production of the disc makes it difficult to assemble a more comprehensive special edition. Difficult but not impossible. More could have and should have been done.

As it is, this is probably the best presentation of David Lynch's Dune that we're likely to get. It's a reasonably satisfying DVD that should really only disappoint those who believe Dune to be a lot more popular than it really is. Let's face it. Dune is a cult movie, not the major mainstream sci-fi success that Universal wanted. If it had been a huge hit, we'd undoubtedly get a packed special edition DVD. But it also wouldn't be the same movie that its fans enjoy. Those fans will just have to settle for this. If nothing else, I'm willing to bet you wouldn't find a better DVD that includes a film directed by Alan Smithee.

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/C/C-



Crumb

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Crumb
1995 (2006) - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

I love documentaries but even among my favorites, there are very few that I've ever watched more than once. Especially among the new wave of documentaries, so many non-fiction films want the audience to learn something new. This is great and the best of these films are important and eye-opening. But once you've learned it, you know it. Watching the movie a second time is kind of redundant.

Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, a profile of legendary comic book artist R. Crumb, belongs to a different classification of non-fiction film. Crumb rewards multiple viewings because it's operating on so many different levels at once. At its most basic, it's an introduction to Robert Crumb, the man who gave us Zap Comix and Fritz the Cat, turned "keep on truckin'" into an instantly recognizable phrase and image, and is one of the pioneers of underground comics.


But Zwigoff goes far beyond mere A&E Biography territory. Much of Crumb's work is divisive and controversial and Zwigoff acknowledges that, interviewing both defenders and opponents of Crumb's art. He doesn't take a side, just lays out the difference of opinion and leaves the audience to make up their own mind. In fact, he goes into specific detail on one of Crumb's most controversial comics, a Mr. Natural story about a headless woman, and allows Crumb to tell us its story himself.

Crumb is a fascinating character by any definition, an artist who came to prominence and fame amidst the counterculture of the 1960's and is strongly identified with that movement but couldn't be farther from it in many respects. He hates the music and the styles of the era and doesn't have much use for most American culture of the past fifty or so years. Zwigoff is able to mine this territory for quite a bit but just about any halfway competent documentary filmmaker could have done the same. His greatest achievement is in his treatment of Crumb's family. While the casual observer might dismiss Crumb as an anachronistic misanthrope, the truth is far less simplistic. With the sequences featuring his two brothers, we see two possible alternative fates that Crumb seems to have barely escaped. His older brother Charles, a gifted artist who introduced Robert to comics, lives at home with their mother, having long ago abandoned any artistic efforts and seemingly harboring an envious grudge against Robert. Their younger brother Maxon lives in a rundown hotel in San Francisco, painting and following a bizarre spiritual path that involves begging on the street, meditating on a bed of nails, and periodically cleaning out his body by passing a long strip of fabric through his digestive system. Like all families, they all share a complex and, on some levels, unfathomable relationship based on shared history, love, hatred, respect and jealousy. The glimpses we get into the Crumb family in this film are as intimate and fascinating as in any movie, fiction or non-fiction.

The press materials for this disc referred to it as a "special edition", which is something of an exaggeration. The movie is presented in 1.33:1 full-screen ratio and looks a bit battered and grainy. A disclaimer at the beginning says it was modified to fit the screen but more than likely the theatrical prints were matted and we're seeing the whole image here. The disc looks better than any other version of Crumb I've ever seen, including when I saw it theatrically back in '95. The sound is serviceable but unspectacular. The only real extra to speak of is a generally lively commentary track with Zwigoff and Roger Ebert. As usual, Ebert does a great job prompting Zwigoff and steering the direction of the conversation. Zwigoff reveals exactly what David Lynch's involvement in the film was (answer: not much), debunks the myth that he threatened to kill himself if Crumb didn't allow him to make the film, and gives insight into the making of the film. It's one of the better commentaries I've listened to recently. A lot of other material could have been prepared (art galleries, if nothing else) but it wasn't. Instead, there's just a clutch of trailers for additional Sony products and a scene from Zwigoff's new movie, Art School Confidential.

Terry Zwigoff is one of only a handful of documentary filmmakers to make the transition into narrative moviemaking. Watching Crumb, it's easy to see why. It's a funny, fascinating, sometimes disturbing film that aims at multiple targets and hits almost all of them. Zwigoff doesn't want to teach us about Robert Crumb. He wants to tell us his story. It's this distinction that makes Crumb so entertaining and so compulsively rewatchable.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C+/D+


Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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