Chronicling my adventures in home video
“Dune” (David Lynch, 1984)
I’ve been on a Lynch kick recently, and despite every warning, wanted to see what he did with “Dune.” I’m unfamiliar with the source material, but the first sentence of the Netflix synopsis (“In the year 10,191, the world is at war for control of the desert planet Dune -- the only place where the time-travel substance Spice can be found.”) sounded intriguing, and the cult following it’s built convinced me that I would be uncovering a misunderstood masterpiece.
I couldn’t be more wrong. Roger Ebert put it most succinctly in saying, “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
The film is over two hours long, and torturously paced. It simultaneously feels as though a trilogy is being stuffed into a single film and as if absolutely nothing is happening. I understand that there’s an extended cut available, but the prospect of watching an even longer version is frankly unthinkable.
Lynch works best on an intimate level, and it feels like “Dune” just got too big for him. We’re never properly introduced to any of the characters, and as a result, it becomes exceedingly difficult to care what happens to them. The sets are bland and the effects are unimpressive. To make it to the credits is a trial of will in itself.
Twin Peaks (Mark Frost & David Lynch, 1990)
I got the Twin Peaks “Gold Box Edition” for my birthday two years ago and never made it very far. I think I felt daunted by the prospect of committing to ten discs and soon retired the set to my shelf. I decided to give it another shot last month, and without the pressure of feeling obligated to get through it, found myself really enjoying it.
The second and final season is pretty widely disliked, seemingly as much by the cast and crew of the show as its fans based on the behind the scenes interviews I watched, but going into it with low expectations, I found it overlong but enjoyable. The big controversy is that halfway through the season, the crux of the show—the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder—is solved. Some peg this revelation as the series’ downfall.
Personally, however, I think the season improves after the plotline is dropped. I prefer the weird, goofy, tangential second half of the season to the first, which feels like it’s artificially extending the Palmer case. Had Twin Peaks continued, I think it would have been interesting to tackle one main mystery a season.
The show is somewhat dated, and the acting and effects aren’t always top notch, but it’s still worth watching, and watching all the way through.
Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)
I think I remember hearing of “Carnival of Souls” in some famous person’s top 5 films list on Rotten Tomatoes, and with that in mind, found it generally disappointing. By no means bad, it’s a somewhat bland black and white horror film in which a young woman experiences strange phenomena after crashing her car into a river.
Mostly this phenomena boils down to an omnipresent ghoulish-looking man who haunts her at every corner (growing less and less effective with each appearance). Nevertheless, there’s some interesting imagery when she explores an abandoned midway, with a scene not unlike “The Shining” in which an entire ballroom comes to life with the waltzing undead.
The movie also has an interesting social dynamic to it, with the introverted protagonist being courted by a sleazy boarder across the hall. Their relationship really comprises the bulk of the film, and watching them interact is genuinely discomforting.
If nothing else, I think I just expected something more consistently bizarre from a film called “Carnival of Souls,” which turns out to just to be a moderately successful pre-“Night of the Living Dead” social horror film.
Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
The east coast snowstorm afforded me the unusual opportunity to watch movies for an entire day between shoveling, and the second film I watched, available via the Netflix instant queue, is the 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, “Primer.”
From a filmmaking standpoint I was instantly underwhelmed by the low-budget aesthetic and DIY casting, but assumed the championed story would win me over. Its heady approach to time-travel has been insanely well received, but as the movie wore on, I felt my comprehension of the plot gradually deteriorate until I was left with nothing.
Determined to see the greatness I had missed, I proceeded to read 11 pages of a thesis essay explaining the plot of “Primer” point by point. When I reached a level of satisfactory understanding, I decided that I didn’t like the film very much. It’s convoluted to the point of absurdity, and the direction is muddled, disorienting, and inelegant. “Primer” is a brilliant film blundered.
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
This really qualifies as a “I Can’t Belive You’ve Never Seen.” I’m shamefully poorly versed in Hitchcock’s films, and though I’ve seen bits and pieces of “The Birds” here and there, this past week was the first time I sat through it from start to finish.
What’s really surprising is how the perception of Hitchcock’s films differ from the reality. For example, the first time I saw “Psycho,” I imagined the shower sequence would be the finale, and with “The Birds,” I was pleasantly surprised that the plot is more about a blossoming relationship than a swarm of killer crows.
A huge chunk of the movie, and a huge chunk of all of the Hitchcock films I’ve seen, is just about the way people interact with each other. He chooses fascinating characters and his absolute control and subtle manipulation of the audience in shot choice and framing is incredibly impressive.
“The Birds” was far from my favorite of his films, but Hitchcock is undeniably a master of the medium.
Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
Tim Burton should have stuck to comedy. I remember watching “Beetlejuice” as a kid and thinking it was pretty great, but was still surprised by how well it holds up ten years later. The script has a great satirical edge to it, and Burton’s weird imagery really works when he doesn’t want you to take it seriously.
Once we get into the “Sweeney Todds” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factories” of his career, he still employs the same aesthetic tricks, but in a context where he wants us to respect his goofy art direction and silly effects. Not to mention that the CG nonsense he’s pumping out now is infinitely less charming than the creative practical effects in “Beetlejuice.”
There’s a lot of surprising cast members and terrific performances here from the likes of Alec Baldwin, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael Keaton. The movie is witty, fun, and reminds me why a uniform distaste for Burton’s filmmaking is an absolute oversight.