‘Dune’ as directed by David Lynch
‘Kagemusha’ as directed by Akira Kurosawa
In 1984 a film version of the acclaimed science fiction novel ‘Dune’, directed by avant-noir director David Lynch was released. It was universally derided for its pointless uninflected acting and boring, exposition focused script. I picked up a copy of Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’ from 1980 and I was struck by many similarities in subject matter. I think Lynch was heavily influenced by Kurosawa and Japanese cinema more generally and I’m going to tell you about it.
Could this actually be a defence of ‘Dune’ as directed so atrociously by David Lynch? I think it is. How bizarre! I could never have imagined myself writing this, but what the hey. When you see it, you see it.
‘Dune’ and ‘Kagemusha’ have similar subject matters. They both depict members of powerful, rich, noble families who head up vast armies of servants, soldiers and retainers. Both films try to show us how staid, formalised and restrictive the lives of these characters could be. These characters are on show every waking second of their lives. They have no privacy. They are dressed, fed, work, play and even sleep under the eyes of servants, guards and retainers. True relaxation is non-existent. People who are constantly on display. On their guard 24/7, maintaining a stony wall of aloofness to even their closest confidantes. Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating subjects to write and direct for. Kurosawa, relying on a tradition of formal gesture, a shifting between control and uncontrol, stiffness and looseness in Japanese traditional theatre pulls it off grandly. Unfortunately Lynch, relying on his instincts, makes a horrible botch job of it.
In ‘Dune’ we have a stilted, declarative style of acting. Lots of exposition in lieu of convincing dialogue. Static blocking and staging, almost no movement. I imagine Lynch telling his actors to restrain themselves and keep their emotions and impulses under check. They just speak in a bland, speechy way. Some of them are decent actors, so it’s all on the director for this one. Dialogue wanders off into unnecessary exposition of the philosophy and sociology of the universe. It’s a mess.
In ‘Kagemusha’ Kurosawa embraces this environment. The characters are constantly on show and on guard and this is one of the central themes of the film. The impersonator has to learn this truth: that though he is impersonating a lord with all his privileges, he is actually playing a role for the people around him, to inspire them, to lead them and to hold them together. It is a text about the very nature of being a figurehead. Thus the style is still declarative and mannered. The characters speak as though their words will be written down and pored over for every nuance of meaning. It is stiff and much of the dialogue is expository. However there is a noh like rhythm to the stiffness: stillness is punctuated by emotional outbursts and highly stylised theatrical gestures. Because of this innate rhythm Kurosawa’s highly mannered staging seems naturalistc. It seems right for the characters and their time. It works. Very well.
This is where Lynch falls down. He has not built his invented style on a performance tradition: he has skimmed off Kurosawa’s depiction of stiff, formal nobles, but the themes of ‘Dune’ don’t support and explain that. Unsurprisingly, audience’s don’t get it. He hasn’t built a rhythmic approach to motion and stillness based on a theatrical tradition of staging bu t simply imitated what Kurosawa has done without really understanding the meta language of how Kurosawa directed actors
This is fun, so let’s go a little further and look at the dialogue The dialogue of ‘Kagemusha’ is, like that in ‘Dune’ strangely stiff, formal and expository. But this is in the context of Japanese script writing, where it is common for characters to drop out of naturalistic styles and to declare the philosophical and emotional themes of the piece in soliloquy. This is very forced, but it is also very characteristic of Japanese writing. I find it extremely appealing. Kurosawa also has almost all of the dialogue being about the story, usually a no no, but this formal world seems to cry out for it. It reinforces the restrictive emotional life of the characters.
I see what Lynch saw in this style. If you’re a director trying to find a staging and dialogue style to depict a universe as foreign and exotic as the world of Dune. If you’re out to depict smart, powerful but self contained people responding to events greater than themselves, Kurosawa’s style and that of Japanese cinema more generally is a great place to look for stylistic inspiration.
It just seems that Lynch hadn’t the knack for punctuating the dialogue with the right rhythm and timing. His expository dialogue just falls embarrassingly flat. Where Kurosawa’s dialogue exposits the themes and events and touches only tangentially on the sociology, Lynch is preoccupied with making sure viewers are hammered (repeatedly) with every tedious detail of the fictional universe. He fails to direct his dialogue onto theme in any meaningful way. And that just will not do.
‘Kagemusha’ is a wonderful, compelling film. ‘Dune’ is painful to watch. It is a marvellous, visually stunning and inventive piece which crumbles under the weight of experimentation. It is a failure. A wonderful failure. For having produced a film of such breathtaking audacity and messed it up? I applaud. I get it. I love it. Let’s have more.