Monday, March 08, 2010

Movie Review: Dune (1984)

Frank Herbert's book is singularly ill-served in this movie, made in 1984, with screenplay by David Lynch, big name special-effects people, and very competent if not exactly superstar actors. It should have been a good movie, but it's not. Boring, tedious, pointlessly repetitious, it looks like a patch job, cobbled together from a much longer movie, the gaps bridged by voice overs that do little to explain the long and complex story.

Dune is a huge book, a movie of it should be in at least three parts of about 2-1/2 hours each. The interpretation is crucial, and Lynch's concept of a fascistic, decaying imperium doesn't help. The story's backbone is simple enough: Arrakis, a desert planet, is the source of melange, a drug that not only combines the effects of pot, LSD, cocaine, and assorted other goodies, it enables spaceship pilots to fold space, and so bring any spaceship from one location to another in no time at all. Paul Atreides is the long-prophesied stranger from the sky who will set the Fremen of Arrakis free, a task at which he succeeds despite the opposition and machinations of the Emperor and House Harkonnen, the Atreides' traditional and evil enemy. He does so by taming sandworms, which he and his Fremen use as battle tanks.

The Bene Gesserit, an order of telepathic nuns, complicate the story because of their attempts to breed a superior human (female, of course) that will rule the known universe. Paul's mother, a Bene Gesserit, conceived him despite orders not to conceive a male child, because she loved Paul's father, who wanted a male heir. But she does later conceive a girl, and this girl becomes a crucial player in the last battle, when her psychic powers overcome those of the Bene Gesserit Mother Superior who is the Emperor's adviser, sometime concubine, and collaborator. For the girl, like Paul, is the superior human the Bene Gesserit have been working towards.

Frank Herbert hung a complex plot on this skimpy skeleton, with many subplots, a huge cast of characters, and that mix of myth, legend, and realism that almost guarantees a cult following. His gift was character and social ambiance, the plot creaks and groans under the weight of sheer narrative stuff that Herbert has piled into this book. He also wrote shorter pieces that fit more or less well into the universe of Dune, and left an enormous quantity of notes, which his son and collaborators have written up as still further parts of the saga. Turning all this into a movie is daunting at best. I don't know the history of the project, but it looks very much as if was conceived on a grand scale, a la Star Wars, but that money or energy or enthusiasm ran out. Maybe all three, but most likely money. I suspect that the producers realised too late what the project entailed, stopped the filming, and shot a few voice overs to stitch the footage together.

Not that we lost a masterpiece. As I said, concept is everything, and David Lynch (and whoever worked with him) conceived a fascistic imperium, but Herbert conceived a Byzantine one. The Fremen are nothing like what Herbert describes, the Harkonnens are merely nasty, not evil, the Emperor hasn't enough character to convince as a Machiavellian plotter, the Guild of pilots could as well have been played by cardboard cutouts, and the final battle scene goes on too long, with laughably unhurt Fremen, very peculiar psychically powered weapons, (which fire when the wielder grunts, and of course always hit their (evil) targets), and far too many repetitive shots of sandworms rearing up and opening their vast fangy throat. Someone wanted a Ran-like Goetterdaemmerung, but manages only a hokey shoot-em-up.

Well, I can now say I've seen it. I'm sorry I put Marie through it. Paul watched it too, but I don't think it was a high point in his movie life. They both found it hard to follow, and the characters weren't engaging enough to make us care for them. Pity, since one of Herbert's gifts is characterisation. Thumbs down.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Book Review: A Child of Six Could Do It

Melly & Glaves-Smith A Child of Six Could Do It! (1973) “100 years of cartoons about modern art” it says in the subtitle, and that’s exactly what it is, with a couple of essays attempting to explain why modern art has been the butt of jokes from about 1870 to the publication date. The writers invoke Freud et al, but I think they miss the obvious explanation, which is the effect of newspapers becoming mass media.

The joking started with Impressionism in the 1870s. This was about the time that telegraphy vastly expanded the reach of newspaper journalism, and steam-powered printing presses had become powerful enough to spew out tons of newsprint per day. That lowered the price of the newspaper so that most of the population could afford one. Newspapers became the first mass media. General interest magazines quickly followed. Earlier magazines had reached a more select audience, so much so that their contents have become a staple in C18 and C19 literature courses. But now there was a need for news, lots of it, to fill those pages.

So art news became matter for the mass media. But to be news it had to be controversial: mere notices of exhibitions aren’t news, but annoyed or irritated reactions are. Besides, “art” was still a pastime for the upper strata of society, and very much a matter of fashion and “taste”. Those who could afford original paintings wanted to have both the latest and the safest. That’s why reactions to new styles were so strong: people didn’t know whether it was safe to put the stuff up on their drawing room walls. There was always the danger that guests would snicker more or less surreptitiously at their hosts’ taste. So art news was also a kind of society gossip. That meant that a fairly large audience became aware of controversies, and had a smattering of knowledge of what the controversies were about. The cartoonist therefore had another subject for his drawings, and Lord knows, a cartoonist needs subjects, else he can’t make a living.

Many of the cartoons are muddily reproduced as half tones, unfortunately. The selection is surprisingly boring: irritation at new art styles is also a matter of fashion, and dated fashions have at best a historical interest. The best cartoons satirise the consumption of art as interior decoration or status symbol. That weakness is universal and eternal. Not surprisingly, many of these come from the New Yorker, a magazine that has managed to tweak its readers while entertaining and enlightening them. The book is entertaining, but not a keeper. **