Sometimes really bad movies take on lives of their own. Dune is a 1984 sci-fi flick directed by David Lynch that was horribly overwrought and dead inside. Based on the novel, it was meant to be operatic and regal, but it actually turned out to be a shiny creepy parade that did not make one bit of sense. It truly is a dream of a movie. Dreams usually don't have plots, and the pacing in Dune is plotlessly inert, the way it goes when people try to tell you their dream-narratives. As in Last night I had this weird dream... They start off really excited but as they tell you they start to realize how boring and unnecessary the dream actually is to anybody else outside of their heads. Lynch made a movie that isn't a movie as much as a strange combination of textures and cornball voice-overs and costumes that seem terribly uncomfortable and senseless, with characters that aren't characters as much as totems on a totem-pole, and scenery that wobbles away from the camera like blinds on windows accidentally sliding up. There's a nervousness to the whole shebang, a tentativeness to the way scenes work out. Lots of talk among people who don't seem to be talking to one another, and not even to the camera. Just talking.
When I was 18, I moved to Tennessee with my mom and sister because my parents got a divorce and my mom was a nutcase right out of a Tennessee Williams play. We lived in a lower-income apartment complex. I was working at a steakhouse washing dishes. My mom's sister was married to a pedophile who had molested his two sons. So when we moved to Tennessee I had to be around this guy and the whole situation, but we couldn't say anything about it of course. It was all secret. I'd dropped out of art school in Indianapolis to move to Tennessee, and I was thinking about going to East Tennessee State, but at this time, December 1984, I was lost and filled with all kinds of poetry that couldn't find a way out. Then Bill and Al, two of my friends who were still going to art school, came to visit me, and we went to see Dune. My uncle, the pedophile, wanted to go with us. So he came too.
In 1984 he was no longer doing what he had done to his two sons, but the aftereffects of it were still in the atmosphere. One son had disowned him, the other forgiven him, and my uncle, who had a large beer-belly and thick blond hair combed back from a wide forehead with keys always jangling on his belt-loop, was living out the rest of his life in a quiet sort of shame, as if everyday he was trying to take back all that he had ever done or felt, but no one was going to help him. So he just kind of floated through his days as an audio-visual guy at the local high school, working part-time at a local radio station. He always looked like he was sorry, but also like he didn't know what he actually was sorry for.
Bill and Al were my friends, and I was jealous and hurt because they were still in art school, and I felt so connected to them but I didn't know how to say it or even express it on my face. It was a secret kind of misery in Tennessee for me, and I kept wondering if this was the way I would live out my whole stinking life: washing dishes, helping my mom and sister, ignoring my pervert uncle, finding a way to escape somehow eventually, but not really knowing what steps to take. It worked itself out of course. I eventually moved back to Indiana, went to college, Bill and I started a life together, etc. I'm not complaining. It's okay.
But that moment in December 1984 when Bill, Al, my uncle and I went to see Dune at the Johnson City Cineplex is kind of burned into my consciousness. In the movie, Kenneth McMillan plays Vladimir Harkonnen, a total grotesque. So evil that he floats around in an evil-king-astronaut outfit, constantly in search of handsome boys to kill by pulling their "heart-plugs" (little plugs installed presumably by his henchman into their chests that when pulled release all their blood), Vladimir Harkonnen was a ghost that came out of that movie and into my head, nesting there. His relentless goofy evilness became a sort of poem when I looked over at my uncle, who was watching the same thing and probably feeling something close to recognition. I think my uncle was evil. I don't think you're supposed to say that about people, especially relatives, but I guess he was. That doesn't mean he should have been shot in the head, but still he did things to people that scarred them beyond scarring, and also his actions created a gaping wound in the whole family that never healed. His actions destroyed a whole house of people.
Harkonnen cultivated sores on his face. He had red hair and green eyes and he was morbidly obese. Something was so wrong with him that no one could fix him. They could only obey him.
My uncle died in 2000 from complications of diabetes. At the end of his life he looked gray and bloated and sore. He looked as if he had never known himself, only what he had wanted. He looked like a king who had been dethroned and cast aside, placed somewhere he could never escape.
Two worlds merged that night when we watched Dune, and there wasn't any kind of epiphany or even insight. I just felt a message had been delivered to me that didn't change anything but somehow made my life stranger and I could identify with the fucked-up poetry because sometimes that's all you have. Dune was a very bad movie, but David Lynch's fucked-up poetry gave it a radioactivity, a nightmarish relevance. I watched it again a couple weeks back, and boy was it bad. But still Vladimir Harkonnen is in it, floating around like a very particular kind of Satan in Outerspace, in search of what he wants, ready to do whatever it takes to be whatever he is.