by Truly Edison, Lucas Fink, Lucas Wylie, and Phil Segal
PART 1: Truly on the Troubling Deficit of Horniness in Modern Film
Half an hour before I watched Denis Villenueve’s Dune on Friday, I reread one of my all-time favorite pieces of film meta: Raquel S. Benedict’s “Everyone Is Beautiful And No One Is Horny”. I honestly can’t recommend this article enough to anybody interested in film culture, but I’ll give the basic rundown. Benedict identifies the human body as “a strange contradiction at the heart of the modern blockbuster”, impossibly gorgeous while simultaneously depicted as devoid of sexual desire when compared to popular films of the 1980s. I didn’t consciously pick this out as pre-Dune reading material, by the way; I catch myself returning to it periodically because it’s just that damn good. But Benedict shouts out 1986’s Blue Velvet and the character played by Kyle MacLachlan—who just so happens to have starred in David Lynch’s original Dune two years earlier. Funny how things like that work out, huh? So I went into this new Dune with perhaps a very unusual lens of analysis, one I’ve tried and largely failed to entirely parse out in my mind. With any luck, I’ll do a better job on my computer.
I’m hesitant to say whether or not I liked Villenueve’s Dune, because I don’t entirely know the answer to that myself. I don’t intend for this to be yet another adaptation-rage article despite my continual defense of Lynch’s Dune; there were aspects of this new one I really liked, liked more, even. For starters, the rave reviews aren’t kidding when they say Villenueve’s Dune is stunningly beautiful. I also thought the score was a major highlight, which is always nice to see (or hear, I guess). The most honest review I can give is that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, for better or for worse: it’s like my brain is a clam and this thing is a grain of sand that I’m trying to turn into a pearl of a blog post. And I like thinking about movies a lot, good or bad.
But when I think about Dune in concurrence with Benedict’s article, there’s something undeniably off.
For starters, nobody in Villenueve’s Dune really has a body. Between the fascist-lite military uniforms of House Atreides and the desert survival stillsuits of the Fremen, we’re treated to the film’s insanely attractive cast pretty much exclusively from the neck up. Even their faces are covered far more consistently than in Lynch’s Dune, perhaps in the name of rhetorical authenticity. Going further than that, so much of Villenueve’s Dune feels profoundly empty: sweeping shots of vast multi-planetary landscapes, self-sustaining sci-fi machinery or rooms too big and too beautiful to be lived in. People are frequently overshadowed by their surroundings, dots in the sand or appealingly shaped masses for a far-away camera. Rather than fetishizing the body, the way Benedict describes modern blockbusters do, Villenueve seems to fetishize the spaces and the spacecrafts that bodies occupy. It creates a world that is beautiful—I cannot stress this enough, beautiful—but undisturbed by human touch. When you look at popular reviews of this Dune, nearly all of them will mention the cinematography or the mise-en-scene or the worldbuilding, but far fewer will mention the actors who populate those elements.
I think this contributes to my biggest disappointment in the new Dune: its depiction of the iconic Litany Against Fear, when Paul Atreides must prove himself to a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit by sticking his hand into a box that causes him to experience excruciating pain. In Lynch’s treatment of the scene, Paul envisions his hand slowly burning up, the flesh charring and sloughing off as Kyle MacLachlan’s face contorts with agony. It’s simple, but effective—it makes me wince every time I see it. Villenueve’s take is far more abstract. When Timothee Chalamet’s Paul puts his hand in the box, he sees scenes of the Arrakis desert, his usual flash-forwards of what his life will be there, fire burning somewhere else, what might be an arm reduced to ashes but goes by so fast it could just as well be anybody’s arm, or a tree branch. These images are gorgeous, meticulously framed and shot, but they just don’t mesh with Chalamet’s exaggerated and at times comical facial expressions. He’s doing his best, I’m sure, but it’s much more difficult to turn this bodyless montage to a physical experience, especially when there’s no precedent that tells us Paul has a body he can feel pain with.
And if we can’t even understand Paul’s pain, how are we ever going to possibly conceive of his pleasure?
For all the cultural fascination he inspires, Timothee Chalamet is the weirdest part of the Dune equation to me. I worked really hard to come up with a way to say this without sounding too mean and none of them really landed, so you’ll have to cut me some slack: I find his screen presence across his entire filmography to be mostly sexless. Including films where he’s been in sex scenes! I don’t claim to be any expert at being attracted to men, but the Chalamet catnip eludes me. He’s a masculine ideal far from the sculpted Marvel hunks Benedict mentions, but his pretty-boy look is equally as micromanaged and crafted by innumerable hands. There is no possible way for an individual person with a regular amount of money to do the same thing. On the handful of occasions he’s shirtless in Dune, he evokes not a body but the image of a body, Benedict’s idea of a “collection of features”. When you see your boyfriend take his shirt off for the first time, he’s not going to look like Timothee Chalamet. He’s probably not going to look like Kyle MacLachlan, either, but Benedict’s point is that maybe he could.
Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya are not going to fuck in Dune Part Two (if it ends up getting greenlit). If I’m wrong, I’ll print out this blog post and eat it. But I’m not going to be wrong, because nobody is going to fuck in Dune the same way nobody fucks in Star Wars and nobody fucks in the MCU, even when they have sex. It’s not about sex scenes; it’s about what Benedict calls “sex-haver energy” when she identifes it in 80s action heros like Kurt Russel’s Snake Plissken. Regardless of a film’s actual sexual content, it's about building the impression that this is an individual who experiences embodied desire for the world and for other people who experience the same desire. There’s a confidence inherent to it that goes well with the genre--the signal of a character that is firmly grounded within their world, within their own body and its interactions with the bodies of others.
You know who’s a really good example of sex-haver energy? Feyd-Rautha, Sting’s character in the original Dune. Yes, that Sting. Feyd is the balls-to-the-wall insane nephew of Baron Harkonnen, effectively the ‘evil Paul’ in the similar way he was raised from birth to become a future political leader. He’s a major player in one of the first film’s most iconic scenes, an intense hand-to-hand Battle Of The Narrative Foils near the climax. I choose to remember him instead for the scene where he steps out of a steam chamber wearing nothing but a leather speedo for no discernible reason. I tried so, SO hard to remember why this happens plot-wise, and I came up with nothing. That’s why I’m obsessed with it. What the hell, right? It’s exactly the kind of 80s nonsense you would never see in a big end-of-the-year sci-fi movie today, and exactly what Benedict was going for in her description of how blockbusters used to be. What I would have given to be a cultural fly on the wall when millions of sexually repressed young Americans were first subjected to Sting’s oiled up, skinny-but-somehow-also-shockingly-muscular body on thousands of giant cinema screens nationwide. There’s no on-screen sex in Lynch’s Dune (that I remember), but as soon as you see this scene, you just KNOW that Feyd FUCKS. Big-time.
As an interesting aside, Feyd is not in Villenueve’s Dune, despite being a major character in the novel and the original film. Some people are holding out hope that he’ll make an appearance in Part 2, as most of his big scenes are towards the end of the book, but I don’t have that same confidence; wouldn’t we have at least seen him bumming around with the other Harkonnens? I want to believe that his unexpected absence has everything to do with that absolutely fantastic scene. It’s completely antithetical to Villenueve’s aesthetic: over-the-top where he wants to be understated, nonsensical where he wants to be scientifically accurate, wasteful and awkward where he wants his film to run as smoothly as one of its many beautiful spaceships. Above all, weirdly horny where his Dune is, consciously or unconsciously, as barren as the desert planet it takes place on. I like the idea that this little thirty-second scene spooked Villenueve so much that he threw Feyd out entirely, not wanting to touch him with a ten-foot boom mic. Maybe he wakes up in a cold sweat haunted by the specter of that shit-eating, confirmed sex-haver grin Sting does when he puts his hands on his hips.
So let’s talk about Villenueve’s Dune again. In comparison, Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides has TERMINALLY low sex-haver energy. Some of it comes from his weirdly impressive boyishness; Chalamet is twenty-five, the same age MacLachlan was in the role, but his Paul could just as easily be fifteen. This isn’t helped by the extra dose of royal family space-angst that’s been applied to make him less of a Spiced-up Skywalker and more, well, a character re-written for Timothee Chalamet to play. More than this, it's because Paul is now situated in a film that draws Benedict’s take on the modern blockbuster’s relationship to the body out to an even more stark conclusion. Most films are still obsessed with the image of the body even as they strip it of its desires--Villenueve’s Dune is utterly indifferent to it. On Arrakis, a body is an afterthought, a prop that moves its person from one plot point, or one gorgeous CGI set piece, to another. It’s a struggle even to fully comprehend the embodied, physical feelings and experiences we see Paul have on-screen--forget the ones we imagine he could be having off screen.
And it honestly makes sense, given the time period Villenueve is reconsidering Dune in. Has there ever been a period of human history where we were so woefully disconnected from our own bodies? Social media, pandemic, general slow-burn Apocalypse ennui… I’m sure I don’t need to go on. As Benedict mentions, people our age have never been having less sex. We’re certainly having less sex than our parents were when Lynch’s Dune dropped in ‘84. However you feel about his Dune, it was undeniably an expression of the time it was made in; Villennueve’s Dune is exactly the same. A disembodied empty film for a disembodied empty time that will be watched and discussed by disembodied empty twenty-somethings for however long it keeps a flame going in the ruthless Arrakis-windstorm of content. It’s just as that perennial film critic, The Joker, so insightfully observed; we do, in fact, live in a society.
The universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune is a universe so far in the future that all technological achievement imaginable has already been tried and rejected; artificial intelligence led to a brutal A.I war, so there is not a single computer in sight. In Villenueve’s treatment, it’s easy to imagine that the exact same thing has happened to sex.
PART 2: Lucas F on the Fun Spaceships
I saw Dune recently and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I haven’t seen Lynch’s interpretation nor have I read the book. I do struggle somewhat with stories that concern a handful of very powerful individuals the lives and choices of whom dictate the lives and choices of countless unnamed and unseen individuals implied to be populating the story-world for a.) empathy is less readily fostered for very powerful people and b.) such stories – however inadvertently – frame the experiences of these powerful individuals as playing out in a vacuum incubated from the consequences wrought upon the unnamed and unseen masses, who are only ever implied to exist. Villeneuve’s Dune shirks this problem to the extent it can by using the Fremen as a stand-in for the laypeople, for those innumerable individuals in the galaxy who don’t belong to one of the select bloodlines. This is fine and cool and I’m pretty okay it.
I was thoroughly compelled by the movie in the following ways:
Another thing that I find really interesting about science-fiction and fantasy stories is the limbo between our world and the story-world the dialogue exists in. It must be intelligible for us and yet sufficiently alien. Star Wars, for instance, doesn’t care too much about ensuring its dialogue its sufficiently alien: its characters are consistently sarcastic and reference ideas and objects and things specific to our world. Lord of the Rings exists on the other end of the spectrum: its characters are hyper-sincere and often their speech is barely intelligible, relying as it does on the countless specificities of that story-world/Middle Earth. I love that Dune goes down the hyper-sincere, barely intelligible route. I love it when I feel almost-but-not-quite able to keep up. I also find sincerity really refreshing in a world saturated by post-post-meta-ironic whatever yada-yada. I love when movies trust the viewer to be able to roughly track the general contours of the narrative and themes and leave some stuff as subtext, freeing them up to do more interesting things narratively and thematically. That said, choosing to explicitly communicate everything to the audience is not a bad thing as such. Anyways, fear is the mindkiller and Denis Villeneuve is probably the most consistently impressive director working today. 4/5 grains of psychedelic spice.
PART 3: Lucas W - The One Who Actually Read the Book
Having read the book, my main worry going into this film was just how the hell it was going to get out the immense amount of information you need to know about Dune (even just the first half) in a decipherable way. However that was obviously Denis Villeneuve’s main concern as well and I couldn’t be more grateful for the care with which he approached it. I’ve heard other people express frustration at its slow start, a totally fair reaction for someone going in blind, but I was personally so happy watching all of that slow intricate worldbuilding play out. One subversive technique I noticed was that right after some big complicated sci-fi word was spoken (Bene Gesserit, for one) the dialogue would often switch to a different language or the Atreides hand signals, so that the audience could just read the word off the subtitles. Turns out that (at least part of) the answer to how you make a film out of an “unfilmable” book is to make your audience read. Villeneuve’s talent for grandeur is also on full display here, and I really liked the realism with which he approached many of the designs. I won’t deny that most of the enjoyment I got out of my viewing experience was from the incredible world and story of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but Villeneuve’s entire job here was to make room for that story to shine, and to him I say: Mission Accomplished.
PART 4: Phil on Having Not Really Seen The Movie
I haven’t been greatly anticipating Dune. My older brother read at least the first few books in the series in high school, but unlike Tolkein, Herbert wasn’t one of the writers I picked up from him. Most of what I picked up about the book made it sound more like a reference work than a novel and sci-fi/fantasy worldbuilding is often where I tune out. I enjoyed both of the Denis Villeneuve films I’ve seen, Enemy and Blade Runner 2049, but neither made Villeneuve feel like a director I needed to seek out; they were good films, but they didn’t connect with me on any deeper level than that. Still, I regretted missing a chance to see Dune in theaters with other BAMPFA blog writers in order to get work done even if getting work done was the right thing to do.
I had mentioned Dune to one of my roommates when I was initially planning on going to that theatrical screening. It turned out he’d never heard of the movie or the book. Completely unaware that a movie or book called Dune existed or who any of the actors are, although he recognized Dave Bautista from wrestling when I showed him a picture (after trying to describe him, saying, “No, you’ve definitely seen him, he’s got this face… you’ll recognize the face if you see it.”) So I was surprised when, on this Tuesday evening, he said he was thinking of checking out Dune. I mentioned that it was on HBO Max, although everyone’s been saying not to watch it that way (when he asked me why people are saying not to watch it that way, my explanation came out, “Well, I think it’s big. You know, there’s like a lot of large… stuff in it.”). That didn’t deter him, although I let him know I would have to duck out for a bit to conduct an interview for this blog.
Before we started the film, he wanted to know what Dune was. Being the one with slightly more knowledge, although I did make it clear I hadn’t read the book, I gave him a rundown based on half-remembered posts I’d read: “It’s the future, but there’s no computers, because they got rid of the computers and instead space travel has something to do with psychics and psychedelics. There’s Spice, which is important, because it gives you visions and lets you travel through space, and there’s a Spice planet called ‘Dune,’ and the leader guy puts people in charge of it to take the Spice from the native Free-men. So the planet ‘Dune’ is in the control of bad guys, the Hart-Conans, and that’s a good thing to have control of because it’s got the space hallucinogens, and then the Atreides are put in charge by the leader guy. Paul Atreides is a chosen one, and then Lawrence of Arabia happens.”
Having half-paid attention to the movie, I still believe this to be largely true.
We put Dune on, but almost immediately my roommate asked more questions over the opening narration when they were presumably explaining a lot of what was going on, and I tried to answer based on what I had gleaned, so I didn’t really get that exposition, although I think I got the gist: the Harkonnens are bad and the Fremen are against them, Spice is cool, and a new group of people is taking over from the Harkonnens.
Now I started losing track at this point because I was antsy about conducting the interview so I started checking the time on my phone and going over in my mind whether there was any more prep I could do, and once the phone was out I had to start fiddling with it and looking at apps, but there was something about Paul doing a voice and a lot of images of big ships.
I think I got through some training sequences, the sparring match with Josh Brolin and the weird hand box thing, before having to leave to conduct the interview.
I came back and there was some battling, the Atreides had been kidnapped, more magic voice stuff. I don’t know, look, at this point I was revising an assignment and going through emails, occasionally glancing up at Dune. My roommate who had wanted to put it on decided to go get boba with somebody and left. Most of what I took in was the score, which I did not care for (those vocalizations bring back memories of the worst of 90s new age). The things I did see looked silly and unconvincing, but I imagine if I had been invested I would have bought into them, and also it was being streamed on a TV with a less-than-stellar internet connection, so it was not exactly being presented in optimal quality.
It would have made sense to turn the movie off, since the roommate who had originally decided to put it on wasn’t there any longer, but for whatever reason I let it play out. I guess once the movie is like two hours of the way through, you might as well finish it.
I can’t draw any conclusion on the movie because I might as well have not seen it. The best I have is, “Dune: It’s a movie that was on in a room I was in for most but definitely not all of the time it was on.”