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Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill

Films of High Adventure: Dune

DUNEHappy 50th Anniversary, Dune! To celebrate (?), we've put together a special edition of Films of High Adventure. Why's it so special? Well, we have Jason Heller, Hugo-award winning editor, author of Taft 2012, and writer for the A.V. Club and NPR here with us! As Jason is a consummate Dune (the novel) fan-cum-expert, we thought it would be fun (for us, at least) to ask him to watch Dune with us, and see if it stands the Films of High Adventure test of time. Heh.

There are roughly 9000000 versions of Dune out there, and we actually tried to watch the 3 hour version of Dune for this... but from what we saw it was mostly a camera panning over watercolors of planets. So we ditched it and went for the director's cut (I think?), which is the pretty dang long, but not the longest version. It's the one we all watched/remembered, so it was more authentic that way.

The Film: Dune (1984)

Responsibility Roundup: While it may seem unfair to hold Frank Herbert accountable for the film, credit where due—he did write the novel. Given all the liberties taken with the text, it seems most accurate to view Herbert as the Great Maker, and writer-director David Lynch and executive producer Dino De Laurentiis as two rival barons fighting to the death over the intoxicating essence produced by their sandworm cash cow. It’s not surprising that the film came to be defined by their conflict, since Lynch is of course best known for his heady, esoteric creations like Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, whereas De Laurentiis is synonymous with meaty, straight-forward fare like Barbarella, Conan the Destroyer, and dozens of other Films of High Adventure candidates. Photography by Hammer and Amicus alum Freddie Francis (Torture Garden), production design by Anthony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey), costume design by Bob Ringwood (Burton’s Batman), and soundtrack by Toto and Brian Eno.

So, on paper Dune looks like it has a dream team behind the scenes, and the cast is no less impressive: Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Sting, Dean Stockwell, José Ferrer, Brad Dourif, Max von Sydow, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart, Virginia Madsen, Krull besties Francesca Annis and Freddie Jones, Twin Peaks besties Jack Nance and Everett McGill, and and and… you get the picture. With a line-up like this on both sides of the camera, how could Dune be anything less than the greatest science fiction epic of the 20th century? How, indeed…

Quote: “My name is a killing word.”

Alternate quote: “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.”

Alternate alternate quote: “The sleeper must awaken.”

First viewing by Jesse: As a teenager.

First viewing by Molly: Tweenager? Teenager? I was in Florida, so I was at least twelve.

First viewing by Jason: Maybe sixteen?

Most recent viewing by everyone: A couple of weeks ago.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Though I’ve never been a huge SF reader, Dune made a deep imprint when I discovered it as an eleven year old Yank living in the Netherlands. I couldn’t get into the sequels, and haven’t gone back to the book since, but at the time it was a monumental experience, the sort of text that rewires your brain a little. Would that I had spent as much time learning my Dutch as I did poring over the glossary in the back of the novel, I might have done better in school…

Unlike the novel, the film came along later in my life and left far less of an impact. Part of the problem probably lies in the fact that the first time I watched it was as a sleep-deprived and drug-addled teen. It was the favorite film of a friend of mine—who’s since gone on to be one hell of a successful artist but who would probably prefer he remain anonymous here—and in the waning hours of an all-night mushroom bender we settled in to behold the majesty. If that sounds like the ideal time to watch Dune, you may be right but I can’t really say, as I remember very little from the experience. Lesson learned: psychedelic fungi are no substitute for the spice melange, and the sleeper, at this point, had not yet awoken.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Monumental. I saw Dune before I read Dune; my dad thought the film was bad ass, and showed it to me. I remember watching it with him, both of us in a pleasure coma of weirdness as my mom slooooowly backed away. (She’s a good sport for most SF/F novels and films, but the Dune film… not so much.) Anyways, I remember being totally blown away by it… I had never seen anything like it. I had yet to see Conan as a wee Tanz, as loyal FoHA readers will know, so I had no knowledge that such a serious, sprawling epic existed—or was even was possible—within speculative filmmaking; I had no understanding of the plot, since the film sure wasn’t going to reveal it to me, so I just let it wash over me like the tides of Caladan; reveled in it like a Harkonnen messily pulling a heart-plug out of a serving-boy.

I went on to read Dune, and loved the novel, too. Perhaps because my first experience was with the film, I don’t hate it like many others. It’s an imperfect film, but it’s an ambitious one, and it’s definitely my favorite David Lynch project. Yes, before you haters ask, I’ve seen others—clutch thy pearls, Lynch fans. I’ll take a pustule-ridden fat man cackling as he swoops around in hover-suspenders any day over… whatever happens in Lost Highway.

Impact on Jason’s childhood development: I grew up in a more or less secular household with only half-assed lip service (if I may so indelicately mix metaphors) paid to religion—which is probably why I took so easily to atheism as a young adult, but also why Dune held an almost spiritual fascination for me when I was a kid. I am talking here about the book. I first read it when I was about eleven, at a time when I was devouring science fiction and fantasy novels to the exclusion of everything else a healthy eleven-year-old might do. The fact that there actually is a bible in Dune—namely the Orange Catholic Bible—as well as far-future mutations of our current theological DNA, I was fascinated. I couldn’t have put it into words at the time, but Dune struck a distinction between religion as faith and religion as myth (if I may boil it down so reductively), and that aligned with how my brain worked at the time—and really, with how I viewed, and still view, the canon of science fiction and fantasy.

Anyway, as you might imagine, that kind of set me for a teeny-tiny letdown when it came to seeing the movie. By the time I watched Dune, I’d read the novel at least four times, and the sprawling mythos of the thing—not to mention its expansion in Children of Dune, Dune Messiah, and God Emperor of Dune, which is as far in Herbert’s series as I’d read by then—had built up far too many expectations in my mind, as had my love of Lynch’s work. I’d seen Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Blue Velvet before I saw Dune (I was sixteen in the late ’80s), and Lynch had blown my mind, as he is wont to do. One of my favorite books adapted by one of my favorite directors? In my algebraically deterministic sixteen-year-old brain, that means Dune had to be THE GREATEST THING SINCE EYEBALLS WERE INVENTED. And when it wasn’t, I had a hard time dealing with that violent disconnect. I’ve since gotten a little better about all that rigid thinking, but the scar still aches. Oh, how it aches.

Random YouTube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:


Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Cautiously optimistic. After I’d regaled Molly with the tiresome non-story of my first attempt at watching Dune (who doesn’t love drug stories?), she insisted we do a viewing, and so we did, years before we started Films of High Adventure. I remember enjoying it more that second time around, but also finding it confounding (a reaction that is not particularly uncommon, it seems). Now that a few more years have passed, I again find myself unable to recall enough particulars to know if I should be excited or deeply, deeply afraid—something about the film makes it impossible for me to retain more than a few scattered images and sensations, and no, I don’t think it’s just persistent after-effects of my youthful dabbling in psychotropic plant life.

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: “Yay, I get to watch Dune!”

Or maybe, more accurately, “Yay, someone’s letting me watch Dune!”

Jason’s thoughts prior to re-watching: A deep psychic sigh. I’ve watched Dune numerous times over the years in an attempt to force myself to at least appreciate it slightly. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a huge fan of changing my long-held opinion on things I dislike, and I kept telling myself that maybe Dune is like guacamole. I reviled guacamole as a kid, and now I’m happy it eat it by the bucketload. I held out little hope, though, of Dune being my cinematic guacamole. Or something.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Hahahaha, okay! Dune, dude. Fuckin’ Dune. What a goddamn mess. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Not having revisited the novel since I was a kid, I’m way better equipped to pick up on what was ported over from the book than what was left out or misinterpreted, but with that in mind, Dune actually seems a better adaptation than I remembered... in spite of itself, at times, but that’s how art goes. I love literally all of the actors Lynch cast in this, but to prove my point let’s take a closer look at the portrayal of Paul in particular—MacLachlan’s waaaaaay too old for the role, sure, but then eleven-year-old Jesse was really, really hoping that by the time he was fifteen he would look like a twenty-five year old Kyle MacLachlan, so I totally buy it as Gary Stu wish fulfillment casting. And all the intrigue biz involving House Atreides and House Harkonnen and the crooked space emperor and the Eraserhead Baby Guild and the Bene Gesserit witches’ prophecy and the Fremen’s kinda sorta different prophecy and Sting’s glistening bod is pretty much how I remember it from the book, too, though I don’t recall a pug fitting so prominently into the narrative:


No matter—the pug, as with so much of Dune, is a weird flourish that adds nothing to the plot but nevertheless thrills with its decadent bravado. The same is true of many and costumes and effects, which range from the beautifully baroque to the charmingly clunky but always stand out as inspired (even if said inspiration is questionable), and which often fade into the background rather than being the focal point of whatever scene they appear in. Lynch has always favored naturalistic and unobtrusive world-building, treating the viewer not as a stranger who needs to be led by the hand but as an old friend who knows the way around as well as he does, letting us glimpse fabulous details on the periphery of the scenes only to have the focus quickly narrow on something relatively mundane... and then along comes Dune, which does its best to employ this strategy when it can get away with it, but for the most part attacks us with endless voice-overs and info-dump monologues. It’s cinematic head-hopping the likes of which I’ve never seen before or since, and the sheer audacity of it is impressive if not wholly commendable.

The main downside of Dune is that partway through the film it remembers it has an epic messianic science fiction plot to make good on, and jerks into motion like a vaguely familiar character actor lurching out of a warped plastic lawn chair in order to perform an inscrutable interpretive dance with a potted cactus. All the earlier, easy charm of the movie is dislodged as we get the Cliff Notes version of Paul and Lady Jessica meeting the Fremen, learning their ways as if they are their own, getting’ hitched, makin’ a creepy baby, leading a revolution, etc. etc. [Molly says: Jesse... Paul doesn't marry his mom (or anyone). Nor does he have a baby with her! Leto Atreides put that baby in Lady Jessica, pre-usurping, and Paul takes Chani as his concubine, but does not impregnate her in this movie. What the heck!]

The first half of Dune works because Lynch’s unhurried pace allows us to be drawn into the lush and campy world, but as the story shifts into high gear the film begins to feel less deliberate and more somnambulant. The lack of tension in these extended action set pieces makes for pretty brutal viewing right up until the emperor arrives in his tricked out Ancient Aliens pyramid spaceship at the end of the movie, but then things get back on track when Sting throws down on Paul (“I WILL KILL YOU!”).

By then, though, the damn thing is over, and even as the credits roll you feel your memories of the film slipping away, like spice in the wind. [Molly says: APPARENTLY] The sleeper, who briefly perked up during the early scenes of Dune, has drifted back under, to dream of all the Dunes that never were, the Dunes that might have been, and yes, even this discredited and disenfranchised attempt. How much really happened, and how much was a vision brought on by the Little Maker’s secretions? Was there ever even a pug at all?

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Okay. I understand why people don’t like Dune. I really do. I mean, it’s a mess. The flailing is obvious even in the intro, where Princess Irulan tries to exposit in one paragraph the world, the spice, the Spacing Guild, and even Dune/Arrakis itself, as she inexplicably fades in and out of the frame. What? Okay! The spice extends consciousness. We're good to go!

And yet… the madness is so mad, the wrong turns so wrong, that there is an internal sanity and rightness to Dune that I can’t help but love. The pacing is majestic; the visuals, suitably strange, futuristic, grotesque, and in the case of the sandworms, delightfully organic. The dialogue (spoken, and the internal narration via voiceovers) is stilted in a way that works for me as part of the savior narrative that’s happening at the heart of the film. And I love the performances, even the miscast Kyle MacLachlan. Sure, Paul Atreides AKA the Notorious Muad’dib is supposed to start out a 16 year old pipsqeak and end up a mature superhuman demigod, and MacLachlan looks his age (around 25) throughout the film, but he’s so enthusiastic that the oddness of a twentysomething man pouting over having to practice knife-fighting is somewhat elided. Somewhat. Anyways, Brad Dourif is amazingly weird as Piter the Mad Mentat, I love me the some Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh, Max von Sydow is a perfect Dr. Kynes, and Sian Philips is magnificent as Reverend Mother Mohaim. And of course, SirPatStew is always fun.

For me, though, Dune is all about the Harkonnens. God damn. I will of course concede that Baron Harkonnen is an incredibly problematic character, possibly irredeemably problematic, but what gets me about the Harkonnen scenes is the pure joy shown by the filmmakers in the representation of hideous decadence. The oily, grimy, hospital scrub green world of Giedi Prime isn’t as much of a warning as it is in the novel, where all food must be imported due to environmental collapse from military and industrial production; instead, it’s a simple exercise in the jubilant visual grotesque. The thrust of the plot on Giedi Prime—the Harkonnen scheme to murder the Duke, obtain his signet ring, and then take back Arrakis—is actually the best-explained and most understandable thread in Dune, but while all that is happening we have a host of wonderful visuals. Like what? Oh… well… there’s The Beast Raban enjoying a juice box of some squealing something-or-other’s essences! Then he throws it in the water, because fuck it! If that’s not enough, there’s the captured mentat Thufir Hawat being given a rat taped to a cat taped to maybe a giant computer circuit board covered in tubes, that he must “milk” to obtain an antidote to a poison they’re feeding him! Huh? And then of course you have the scene where Pete from Twin Peaks plays horrible music with a black future-accordion while Baron Harkonnen flies around cackling. What? I dunno! It’s just a symphony of hideousness, made yet more hideous by the presence of the handsome Sting as Feyd, hanging out in his underwear, steam-bathing or whatever [Jesse says: I skipped covering the Harkonnens because I figured Molly would be discussing them at glorious length, and she has not disappointed—Lynch’s Dune without Lynch’s take on the Harkonnens would be a limp Dune indeed].

I know I’ve been dancing around the abject Baron Harkonnen himself, because, well, it’s super-uncomfortable. See, the tween beholding Dune for the first time still lives somewhere within the adult, more aware me. That tween steps forward when someone lets me watch Dune, and that tween is not aware that Dune came out during the AIDS crisis, or that Baron Harkonnen is but another brick in the ugly wall of Hollywood’s representation of homosexuality. Instead, that tween marvels at the spectacle of a fat man in an anti-gravity suit, riddled with acne even worse than mine was at the time, scheming and giggling and licking his lips and being weird and nasty and brilliant. It’s a sad fact that in SF/F cinema, villains rarely deliver… but Baron Harkonnen is one of the exceptions, along with Thulsa Doom, Loki, Azula, and maybe The Humungus of last month’s entry [Jesse says: I agree with this in the main, though I’d probably swap out Loki for Tim Curry in Legend, Sandhal Bergman in Red Sonja , or mebbe Rip Torn’s turn in Beastmaster] [Molly says: Jesse is a total killjoy about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and frankly, I don’t even remember Rip Torn in Beastmaster, so anyways! I love me some Loki, he’s a great punkass villain and I will never apologize for enjoying him!]. I delight in a spectacle, what can I say?

Dune isn’t a great movie—maybe it’s not even a good movie—but it’s a fucking spectacle, and I’ll never not love it.

Jason’s thoughts post-viewing: No good. I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and I can’t make Dune work for me. Then again, it’s not even trying to meet me a tenth of the way. Jesse, you call the pace “unhurried,” and Molly, you call it “majestic.” With all due respect to you both, I have to honkingly disagree. It’s frenzied and lazy, bombastic and meager, all at the same time. The distortion and compression of the plot is overwhelming, and I have to assume it would remain so even if I could wipe the novel out of my mind. In particular, Paul’s time with the Fremen—such a powerful sequence of quiet moments, spiritual growth, humor, pathos, epiphanies, and world-building—are all squished into a handful of rushed scenes with no connective tissue. Granted, this is my favorite part of the book, so this is personal for me. At it’s heart, Dune is a classic Bildungsroman. And the movie scoops out most of those coming-of-age guts and plops them on the floor in a lifeless heap.

Jesse, you also just mentioned the head-hopping and the infodumps and the excessive monologues, all of which are problematic in and of themselves. But the systemic failure of Dune is more than just the sum of those faulty parts. All of these ill-used devices are tossed around seemingly at random, sometimes all in the same scene—between multiple characters, no less, who are switching back and forth from spoken dialogue with another character to dreary internal monologue voiceover that might be private thoughts to omniscient narration from some distant future to what might even be psychic communication (although it probably isn’t, despite the fact that psychic powers are very much a part of Dune the novel, even if Dune the movie has no idea how to grapple with that admittedly tricky element; instead it just glosses over it). Lynch doesn’t display even the feeblest grasp of the basic technique of cinematic narrative. It’s easy to say, “Oh, this is Lynch! He’s just being weird for weird’s sake.” But that’s never really been his methodology. Even as far back as Eraserhead, he’s been a careful, deliberate, painstaking formalist. His work is practically hermetic, and has no need to be judged against some external metric of weirdness.

But with Dune, my attention is incessantly being called to the weirdness—in a bad way—of the narrative apparatus itself. It isn’t the amount of weirdness in Dune that bugs me. It’s how haphazardly and inconsistently that weirdness is deployed, a flaw that completely undermines the delicate, delicious tension of Lynch at his best: That is, someone who’s in lucid, masterful control of every nuance and texture of his story, even if they’re grotesque to the point of mundanity. Or mundane to the point of grotesquery. Dune gives me neither of these options. It doesn’t fail spectacularly. It doesn’t succeed perversely. It’s just a muddy blur. No guacamole for old Heller.

The pug, however, is the best. A bravura performance. So much so that I want a retelling of Dune from the pug’s point of view, à la Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. Just so long as Brian Herbert doesn’t write it.

High Points: (In Stockwellian whisper) The pug… the puuuuug; the soundtrack; the knife fight? Maybe Alia screaming “for he IS the Kwisatz Haderach!!” and Mohaim clutching her head? Def. the Harkonnens. 

Low points: The movie grinding to a slog in the latter half; the gay panic biz; the pug not getting a bigger part?

Final Verdict: Looks like we don’t have one... so here’s a link to the Pug from Dune’s Twitter

Next Time: Uh… maybe Buckaroo Banzai?