Desert Power, Desert Vision

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-12-19 16:00:00-05:00 No comments

Purchase on Amazon

I finally saw the first part of Denis Villeneuve's Dune the other night, thanks to the magic of Plex, and my only regret was not being able to see it in a theater. It's only half the movie, as it were, and that's why this isn't a review proper (though I may change my mind when the disc shows up in January), but it's excellent all the same. It also made me think about how its reception as both a cult item and a mainstream entertainment are significant.

This movie would not have been possible in 1984 — the year of David Lynch's ambitious but still failed adaptation — for a host of reasons. Some of them technological, but most of them strategic. Maybe you could have made it as a TV miniseries then, even using the same teleplay. A big problem with the earlier adaptations was how they got mired down in the wrong minutiae of the story; this version streamlines things without gutting them.

I think the way to Dune's success, both artistic and commercial, wasn't just because the thing in itself was done well. It helps that it had precursors: Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones and other such spectacle. Audiences are now more curious about wide-gauge fantasies than they used to be thanks to those projects. Dune was only a partial step away from them, without sacrificing most of what made the project so fascinating: the politics, the warning message about messianic forces, the way it melded past social organization and future technology.

I was rather amused to learn that Alejandro Jodorowsky — he who would have spearheaded his own Dune in the 1970s — wrote the whole thing off, and was pleased to learn from an acquaintance that it was no good. No good in what sense? I had to ask. No good because it wasn't Jodorowsky? What does he know. Jodorowsky may be a visionary artist in his own right, and I do love his work, but a) he's best off when doing his own things, not adapting other people's material (his Dune mostly raided the original material for parts which he turned into something that sounded like it would have been outlandish for its own sake), and b) he has no sense, perhaps calculatedly so, of how things intended for a wide audience can still be good. And, I would add, need to be good in a way that a more esoteric piece of work does not.

See, I used to think Jodorowsky's view was a culmination, a ne plus ultra for an artist — that the point of artistry was to reach that level of contempt for what the rest of the world was doing. You didn't go to the world with your vision; you made the world come to you. Now I see this is reductive and arrogant — not the good arrogance of self-confidence, but the bad arrogance of denying yourself possibilities you wouldn't have otherwise.

Purchase on Amazon

You can make the world come to you if you're really good, sure. But you can also go to it and pull the rug out from under its feet. Takashi Miike, maker of over 100 films in Japan's studio system, has produced films that are both nakedly commercial (the Phoenix Wright live-action movie, for god's sake!) and as artful and boundary-pushing as anything Lynch or Jodorowsky have done (Gozu, Izo, Agitator, Ichi The Killer, etc.). All of them, passion projects and product alike, show a command and mastery of filmmaking anyone would be happy to have half of. One cannot call him a mere hustler.

Now that I think about it, Villeneuve's own career has been a refutation of that as well. Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 were both top-grade cinematic SF, the former one of the few examples of actual science fiction in the movies and the latter a near-impossible job: making a successor to an iconic piece of culture that expands on the original without becoming redundant or insulting. Dune — and now Rendezvous With Rama, goodness me — seemed like a natural successor to all that, and it was. He too was not trading up any vision or integrity for the sake of an artistically successful project. These have not been Avatar-scale smash hits, but they made back their money; even 2049, which Warner Brother's board admitted was a $140 million art film, edged into the black. And speaking of Avatar, how is it a film can make literally billions of dollars and then vanish from cultural consciousness as though systematically erased? (There are fanfics that have more of an active fanbase than Cameron's project.)

We should all do our own thing as we see fit to, but remember that doing your own thing is a broad subject. The economics of these things should be an entirely different lesson from the aesthetics.

Tags: Alejandro Jodorowsky Denis Villeneuve Dune James Cameron