- Mise en scene (putting on stage)
- Narrative Structures
I’ll be continuously referring back to one film in particular, my favorite film of all time in fact, David Lynch’s “Dune” based on the novel series of the same name, written by Frank Herbert. the reason why I plan to focus on this film in particular, through out this blog, is simple, I know the film extremely well and will be able to go into minute detail. Having said all that i will also spice things up by mixing in other films of my own choosing and comparing them to Dune. You’ll probably start to see certain reoccurring themes crop up, such as Sci-fi, Horror, Cerebral films or a combination of the above.
But first, how about a little plot summary.
Dune takes place in a complex imagined society set roughly 20,000 years in the future. The story begins in the year 10,191, by their calender, which they date from an event known as the Butlerian jihad, a religious crusade against intelligent machines that had enslaved humanity up till that point. Human beings have spread and colonized planets throughout the universe, although their technology is incredibly advanced, there are no computers or robots, in fact an eleventh commandment has been added to all holy texts, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind” instead there are several different types of human who have been altered either through mutagenic drugs, mental conditioning or selective breeding, to the point where they are capable of preforming the tasks that thinking machines were once necessary for.
The entire known universe is united into a single empire, ruled by the Padishah Emperor. The ancient feudal system has been reinstated and planets are now ruled by Dukes, Barons and Lords. All these noble houses are organised into a sort of parliament, loyal to the Emperor, but rival houses still fight each other in war, with the Emperors permission. One of the most bitter and long standing inter-house rivalries is between house Atreides and house Harkonnen.
On the ocean planet, Caladan, Duke Leto, head of the House of Atreides, is preparing to leave for his new position as the governor of the incredibly valuable planet Arrakis, he is unhappy with the move but it has been mandated by the Emperor. Arrakis is a desolately dry desert planet. It’s only known inhabitants are a mysterious people called the Fremen, who call the planet Dune, and a gigantic, deadly sand worms, bigger than mountains. The only thing that makes Arrakis so valuable is something called the spice. The spice is incredibly vital to human existence. To put it simply it is an extremely addictive drug that does many things to people when they take it. A small amount will extend your life expectancy to about 300 years, a lager amount will give you the power to see into the future, as well as make your eyes glow blue from within and if you take a huge amount, you will mutate into a navigator, a hideously deformed and distorted creature whose brain is capable of preforming incredibly complex calculations that are used in place of computers to guide spaceships through faster than light travel. The navigators are organised into a faction called the Spacing Guild which possess almost as much power as the Emperor since they have a total monopoly over space travel.
Leto and his family, his concubine, Jessica, and his son, Paul, suspect a trap by their rivals, the Harkonnens, led by Baron Harkonnen. Leto decides to settle on Arrakis because of its rich supplies of melange, despite warnings from his men, including his adviser, Thufir Hawat, and his master-of-arms, Gurney Halleck.
The Atreides arrive on Arrakis and the duke quickly moves to secure the planet from a Harkonnen attack. His main plan is to enlist the Fremen, the tough natives of the Arrakeen desert, as soldiers and advisers. Meanwhile, Paul’s and Jessica’s special abilities intrigue the Fremen. Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, an all female group of super humans who have been enhanced by 10000 years of genetic engineering and selective breeding, they posses strange mental powers and one day hope to create an ultimate being, the “Kwisatz Haderach” Jessica believes that her son might be this being .The Fremen believe that Jessica and her son are saviors who have come to lead them toward creating a lush paradise on the dry Arrakis.
Dr. Yueh, a member of the Atreides house, betrays them. The Harkonnens arrive and wipe most of the Atreides out by using Sardaukar, the super-soldiers of the emperor, who is secretly helping the Harkonnens. The traitor, Dr. Yueh, hands Duke Leto over to the baron, but in his guilt he helps Jessica and Paul escape. Dr. Yueh places a secret tooth in Duke Leto’s mouth. Duke Leto dies by emitting poison gas from the secret tooth, in a failed attempt to kill the baron. Hawat and Halleck escape as well. Halleck joins the local smugglers while Hawat attempts to join the Fremen, but Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens. He then agrees to work for Baron Harkonnen as a Mentat, or thinker, while secretly plotting his revenge against the baron and against Jessica, who he thinks betrayed Duke Leto.
Dr. Kynes, a Fremen leader and planetary ecologist, orders the Fremen to find Jessica and Paul. The Fremen capture and then quickly accept Jessica and Paul as their destined leaders. Jessica becomes their reverend mother, while Paul is recognized as something close to a religious prophet. Paul takes the name Muad’Dib, a religious title that means “the desert mouse”. As he matures swiftly following his father’s death, Paul discovers he has great powers above and beyond those of his mother. He can see into both the future and the distant past. His consumption of the spice heightens his powers.
Two years pass. The baron, living on the Harkonnen home world, schemes to usurp the emperor, while grooming one of his own nephew, Feyd-Rautha, to be his heir. Meanwhile, on Arrakis, Paul has become very powerful and influential among the Fremen. He is both their secular and religious leader, like Kynes before him, but his powers are far greater than those of Kynes. He has a child with a Fremen woman, Chani, the daughter of Kynes, and his mother has given birth to Alia, Duke Leto’s daughter. Paul teaches the Fremen to fight using a special style called the “weirding way” and using the advanced fighting techniques of the Bene Gesserit. One day, the Fremen discover that the baron has abandoned his aid to Rabban, his other nephew he assigned to rule over Arrakis. Paul and the Fremen make plans to raid the city of Arrakeen, capital of Arrakis, now that Rabban is cut off from the baron’s help.
Upon discovering the power of the Fremen, the emperor himself comes to Arrakis, along with his Sardaukar and the Harkonnens. The Fremen attack the emperor, quickly dismantling his spaceships while destroying the Sardaukar. In the battle, Alia kills Baron Harkonnen, and Paul’s young son dies in a raid. Paul demands that the emperor step down; Paul asks to marry the emperor’s daughter, Irulan, so that he may become the new emperor. Feyd-Rautha challenges Paul, citing the right of vengeance, and Paul kills him in a duel. Powerless now, the emperor agrees to Paul’s demands, and Paul becomes the new emperor.
Mise en scène (Putting on stage)
To kick things off I’m going to list every single aspect of “mise en scene” and then follow each up with a discussion of how it applies to Dune, these may vary in length, depending on how much there is to say. Also I will probably add another list or paragraph, comparing the elements of Dune with other films.
- Set Design
If there’s one area where dune stands out it’s set design. Every set is elaborate and characterful. One particular thing that I’ve noticed about the film is that certain sets reflect the personality of characters that would be typically associated with that location within the films world. For example, the set of the Throne room scene, near the begging of the film, and it’s reflection of the Emperor.
The Emperor is an ostentatious, regal individual, surrounded by the trappings of power, all these features are also seen in the Throne room it’s self. As the scene opens we get a wonderful panning shot of the set, in which we see all the hurly-burly of a bustling imperial court. we get to see people dressed as futuristic Lords, Ladies, priests, soldiers and one guy working some small dogs, because why not? With all that said, those are costume designs, a subject for later, here we’re talking about the set and that is where we get some real ostentatiousness (is that a word?). Literally everything is made of gold, golden walls, golden furniture, golden sculptures, golden pillars, golden wall decorations, a golden throne and to round it all off, statues of enormous golden lions (once again because why not?) all this finery about the room serves to reflect the man that owns the room.
Of course all this reinforcement of the Emperors power is stripped from him by his encounter with the Navigator, where we see tremendous fear and apprehension in his face, this tells us that the strong, powerful person we were just introduced to has something to fear in this creature, which serves to display it’s power and magnitude, it is shown to be above and beyond the emperor.
Here is the scene in question:
A lot of the lighting in Dune seems counter intuitive to me. If you were to ask me how lighting could be used to influence an audiences perception of characters and morality, then I would instinctively say that the “good guys” should be seen and associated with light and that the “bad guys” should be connected with darkness. However that isn’t really the case in Dune. You often see people who can quite definitely be considered antagonists, such as the Harkonnens and the Emperor, in very well lit areas and our protagonists like the Atreides and the Fremen in quite low lit places. This could be some sort of clever juxtaposition on the traditions of colour and lighting in film, that date back to the days of westerns where the good guys wore light colours and the bad guys wore dark, or it could just be me reading too much into it.
In some ways Dune can be considered ground breaking in terms of it’s use of space. It made extensive use of models in order give a sense of enormity and to add visual effects, the directors used what was, at the time, the largest blue screen in the world. It measured 35 feet high and 108 feet wide.
An element of composition that crops up in several scenes is the representation of vast armies or graet numbers of people. Several thousand extras were involved in the making of Dune and boy do they make use of them.
The costumes are another one of my favorite things about Dune. Every single costume is fascinating to me, they range from science fiction re imaginings of period clothing (i.e the Emperor’s uniform, which you saw earlier, resembles the sort of thing you’d expect to see a early 1900s European nobleman to be wearing, but with futuristic additions here and there) to utterly bizarre, things that appear to be from some unimaginable, future culture, unlike anything on earth.
Probably the most iconic costume from dune (if anything from a cult film could be considered iconic) would be the Stillsuit. The Stillsuit is a pivotal part of the Dune universe, in both book and film. Forgive me for a moment but I’m just going to go a little way into the back ground information of Dune, I promise it will be relevant and help to explain the design of this particular costume. In Frank Herbert’s books it is explained that the Stillsuit was developed over many, many generations by the Fremen to be the ultimate tool for survival on the desert planet, Arrakis. They store and recycle all bodily waste, every drop of sweat or urine is saved and purified for use later. It even saves the water you would loose when you breath in and out through your mouth or nose. All this back story goes towards explaining the design behind this costume. The bulges on the chest are the water storage cavities and the tube in the nose is the moister extractor. So it’s one of those designs that you might think looks silly (although I personally love it) but it makes sense in context of the universe.
Another great example of what I was talking about earlier, with science fiction interpretations of ceremonial military uniforms is this. This is Paul and Leto’s costume during the opening portion of the film. The costume evokes many aspects of House Atreides, it has their red, sea hawk insignia on the collar and the fact that it is a sort of military uniform is a testament to the Atreides persona as “men of the people” and “lead from the front” type of leaders, this attitude is typified by Paul throughout the film.
By way of contrast here are some of the Harkonnen costumes (in fact the lower image is that of the Baron Harkonnen himself) the Harkonnen costumes are extremely different from those of the Atreides. Where the Atreides costumes embody traditionalism and honor, the Harkonnen costumes (like the Harkonnens themselves) embody decadence and corruption, they’re all composed of black leather with tubes and straps all over the place. of course the definitive Harkonnen costume is worn by the one and only Baron Harkonnen. Barons costume is another one of those with a back story to it. You see the Baron is so indulgent and excessive in his vices that he has become too obese to even walk by himself and has to be supported by an anti-gravity suit, he is also plagued by debilitating STDs which are the reason for the huge boils all over his face.
- Makeup and hair styles
In a similar way to the costumes, the hairstyles in Dune serve to illustrate the fact that this is all taking place in a culture so divorced from ours by a great gulf of time. Basically they tend to be something that you could not possibly imagine any one in our time actually having. The hairstyles are also another way in which we see a difference between the Atreides and the Harkonnens. You see the Atreides with very normal, tame and traditional styles and the Harkonnens with… well just look at Sting’s hair, in this picture on the right, oh did I forget to mention? Sting is in this movie and he’s playing one of the Harkonnens.
Now when we’re talking about Dune and especially when we’re talking about the hairstyles in Dune their is one thing we absolutely cannot fail to mention and that is, of course, the eyebrows. Just look at them, aren’t they amazing. This isn’t one of those things about the movie where I explain the reasons why from the book, there’s absolutely no reason for these things to exist but it’s wonderful that they do anyway.
Every other aspect of Dune is completely bizarre so it’s only fitting that the styles of acting are equally so. Not every one is acting strangely but you’ll sure as hell notice the few that are. There’s a wide rang of crazy in this film, from the Harkonnens doing this;
To the Emperor soliloquizing, Shakespeare style, and talking directly to the camera.
There’s not all that much to say on the film stock front. It’s in colour, the film is somewhat grainy but that’s probably due to the technology of the time.
- Aspect ratio
Finally we come to the last thing on the list, aspect ratio, I’m afraid I have virtually nothing to say about it. The aspect ratio is usually wide screen and that’s pretty much all I’ve got on that one.