Reflections of a Muad’Dib apologist

But see, amid the mimic rout,

   A crawling shape intrude!

A blood-red thing that writhes from out   

   The scenic solitude!

It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs   

The mimes become its food,

And seraphs sob at vermin fangs

   In human gore imbued.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Conqueror Worm”

The new DUNE film made me happy, especially the floating lanterns, or glowglobes, with their bespoke design in the Caladan Castle. Aristocrats living in ultra modernist tombs was the DUNE I happened to want. The movie put all its money on the screen and it looked and sounded glorious. Luckily Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE earlier this year put me in the mood for escapism.

I like the 1984 version of DUNE, with the qualification that the only watchable version for me is the 3-hour Spicediver fan edit. My earliest memory of any kind of media is the shot of the worm consuming the spice harvester, seen on TV. What DUNE 84 has going for it:

  • A bizarre mise en scene like futuristic rococo art. I especially loved the gilt picture frame entryway into the heighliner.
  • The music by Brian Eno and Toto is sick.
  • The Harkonnens are truly fucked up.

But I’m not tainted enough by nostalgia to prefer it over Villeneuve’s adaptation. DUNE 84 has a perfunctoriness to it, like the right elements of the book are presented in the right order, but without the connections and stakes made clear. DUNE 21 is not without its faults but it takes effort on my part to let them bother me. I suspect both suffered from producer interference and constraints, though to different degrees.

All the complaints I heard about DUNE going in turned out to be exaggerated. The fight choreography was excellent: it wasn’t THE RAID REDEMPTION but the concept of the shields and return to swordplay and phalanx warfare were kept in the foreground. Zendaya’s Dove commercial shots weren’t intrusive and in those sequences she is clearly a stand-in for the coming jihad of Muad’Dib, like a Lady Liberty, or whatever the draped woman in the Columbia logo is supposed to represent. The visuals were not bland for being monochromatic but in fact brought out the kind of tactile detail that you want from fantasy cinema. When was the last time Hollywood treated wet stones with such love?

The masses seem to be connecting to DUNE as a mid 20th century story that influenced much fantasy and SF properties after it, now adapted in a way that feels refreshing and not at all derivative, in part because there’s a rudimentary character to it all, the way the planetary environments aren’t extra in their alienness, the way folding space isn’t foregrounded in any flashy way, etc.

At the same time, seeing Rebecca Ferguson in a dark hooded cloak kept reminding me of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Similar to Nolan movies there’s a throwback element to the roadshow spectacle movies of the 50s and 60s, specifically those turgid Roman epics (and DUNE 84 is reminiscent of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, namely in all those voiceovers). But DUNE 21 taps into the kind of epic storytelling the novel does: an impending threat whose details are only revealed slowly. DUNE needs a stately aspect to its tone; the book reads more like a popularized version of Aeschylus than the pulp tradition it comes from.

My favorite thing about the book, and maybe the principal element of its approach to epic storytelling, is the use of epigraphs. The aphorisms and the spiritual/philosophical/mystical vernaculars are fun on their own, as well as the question of who is writing these things and why. But they also telegraph what exactly is about to happen, the same way that the scene headings in Döblin or Brecht’s theater do. It’s not about suspense here but process. Who can forget “A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!” But before that is a quote from “Dictionary of Muad’Dib” where Yueh is “chiefly noted as betrayer of Duke Leto Atreides.” In other words, like a mythical epic poem, the precise sequence of events and the precise nature of the characters has been firmly established. The longer ones are like little stories.

Family life of the Royal Creche is difficult for many people to understand, but I shall try to give you a capsule view of it. My father had only one real friend, I think. That was Count Hasimir Fenring, the genetic-eunuch and one of the deadliest fighters in the Imperium. The Count, a dapper and ugly little man, brought a new slave-concubine to my father one day and I was dispatched by my mother to spy on the proceedings. All of us spied on my father as a matter of self-protection. One of the slave-concubines permitted my father under the Bene Gesserit-Guild agreement could not, of course, bear a Royal Successor, but the intrigues were constant and oppressive in their similarity. We became adept, my mother and sisters and I, at avoiding subtle instruments of death. It may seem a dreadful thing to say, but I’m not at all sure my father was innocent in all these attempts. A Royal Family is not like other families. Here was a new slave-concubine, then, red-haired like my father, willowy and graceful. She had a dancer’s muscles, and her training obviously had included neuro-enticement. My father looked at her for a long time as she postured unclothed before him. Finally he said: “She is too beautiful. We will save her as a gift.” You have no idea how much consternation this restraint created in the Royal Creche. Subtlety and self-control were, after all, the most deadly threats to us all.

—From “In My Father’s House” by the Princess Irulan

Peter O’Toole, first known man to have the Eyes of Ibad.

As for the “white savior” question, I’m the wrong person to ask. Muad’Dib is less like a space Cecil Rhodes to me and more like a space Napoleon, or Stalin. That is, given the political and economic situation presented in DUNE, the jihad represents social progress, excesses and all (like killing tens of billions of people). In my gleeful “tankie” misreading, the Muad’Dib Jihad is a good thing while the Butlerian Jihad was reactionary. Those who say the latter represents the overcoming of our slavish relationship to technology by the human spirit (including the director of DUNE 21) are appealing to humanism to paper over antagonistic class interests. The struggle against AI resulted in the conscious reversion to the feudal class mode of production, while productive relations got scrambled up, so that we have big aristocratic families with private armies that possess their own capitalist industries, treated as household management. The thing about feudalism is that technological and social development are slow as to be nearly static (whereas under capitalism, productive forces attain great dynamism), and so the Imperium reigns for ten thousand years, and behind the Emperor and the decayed planetary parliament of the Landsraad are the monopolists over space transport and the Bene Gesserit, who seem to fill a similar stabilizing role in politics as Taoist assassins did in the Tang Dynasty, to say nothing of their eugenicist plot to create a future ubermensch. The Kwizatz Haderach is a purely economic solution to the Imperium’s dependency on melange for transport (which only exists because of the ban on advanced computer science). Muad’Dib is the true solution, the destruction of clearly outdated organizational forms through political struggle, namely a holy war spreading across the universe like unquenchable fire. (Funny enough, the final result in the first book, marriage between House Atreides and House Corrino, is what could have resolved the political tension in the first place, and not the intermarriage of Atreides and Harkonnen that would serve the ends of the BG.) 

And the film makes clear that Muad’Dib is learning from what his father Duke Leto understood by his reference to “desert power,” a rather Maoist insight that the masses are the key link, not possession of land or wealth. It’s in that sense, the latent force within the Fremen’s peasant rebellion, that Arrakis is the richer planet. Say, maybe DUNE is just IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in space.

The MVP of the movie.

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