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Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Tale of Two (Actually One and One-Half) Dunes

Why only two (or one and one-half, since Villeneuve's Dune is explicitly presented as the first to two parts)? Shouldn't I include Frank Herbert's original book in the comparison? Others might choose to do that, but I don't. Not because I haven't read it; I did...37 years ago or so. While I've never forgotten the basics of the story and have attended to its evolution through other novels over the years, I've never returned to the original book itself in all the decades since. (Oh, and what about the Sci Fi Channel mini-series? Sorry, never saw it.)

Unlike millions of other nerds, Herbert's Dune and its attendant mythology, despite its sweep and majesty and fascinating detail, never became a Bible for me, never was something that took up permanent residency in my imagination, never inspired me to return to it against and again, as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the original series of "Star Trek," or more recently the Harry Potter books all did. While I would never deny the book's significance or power, it's secondary to me: despite having digested a lot of classic sci-fi in my early years (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke--you know, the Trinity), it's possible I might never had read Herbert if it wasn't for lining dutifully up in the winter of 1984 and catching David Lynch's beautiful, phantasmagorical mess of a movie. I approached the books with Lynch's movie as my point of reference, and the same thing happened last night, as I sat with friends taking in Denis Villeneuve's wonderful adaptation on an IMAX screen. So my tale most fundamentally isn't really about the book, much less Herbert's larger mythos; it is rather a tale two films, one which is nearly 40 years old, and one that is only halfway done. Seems somewhat unfair to slap them together, but what else is blogging for?

So, to get the main point out of the way: the Dune of 2021 is a fantastic, visually stunning movie. It tells the first part of Paul Atreides journey well, none of the performances were worse the adequate and some were kind of revelatory, and there are some scenes which are just amazingly gorgeous. (The brief, long-range view we have of the ornithopters flying over the landscape of Arrakis in the scene where Duke Leto and his party go to investigate the spice harves had me just shaking my head in amazement.) The film moves at a stately pace, but it's never sluggish, or so I thought; there were only a couple of points during its 2 1/2-hour running time where I felt the momentum of the film kind of drain away (they really didn't need the sand storm at all, or at least not several minutes of it). Whereas pacing is what truly, above and beyond any complaints (many of which I think are unfair) about over-acting or cheap special effects, is what prevents the Dune of 1984 from being an actually good movie. Yes, Lynch faced all sorts of studio interference, but in the end he signed off on a three-hour script and film, which then later was hacked down to a little over two hours--but even with the best reconstruction of Lynch's 3-hour vision available, Lynch's pacing is still pretty bad. You just can't have an effectively told cinematic story when you spend 2/3rds of your running time telling less than 1/2 of the story you have planned; it can't help but feel jumpy and rushed and underdeveloped. You have to cut stuff, and while I pretty much love everything from the novel which Lynch chose to keep in, I can't deny that the results made for a movie much less than the sum of its parts.

You can say Villeneuve was blessed with having a more supportive studio or being less of an auteur-weirdo than Lynch or whatever you like, but in this absolutely fundamental aspect of filmmaking, of assembling and streamlining a final visual product, he did a better job. A perfect job? No, not at all. By cutting all the backstory to Dr. Yueh's betrayal, Villeneuve made that rather crucial plot point come off as abrupt and silly (not to mention taking away all the cool context that Piter De Vries provides, leaving him in Dune 2021 as just an important lackey, not a fascinating psychopath). By cutting all references to "the weirding way," Lady Jessica's sudden combat prowess at the movie's end becomes an inexplicable surprise (and this is particularly unfortunate, since Rebecca Ferguson played Jessica as much more emotional and conflicted than was the case in Dune 1984, and it would have been interesting to see that double-sided aspect of her life made more explicit). Finally and more importantly, as least to me, cutting all substantive references to or depictions of the Spacing Guild and the Navigators robbed the story of the spice's central, spooky role; we don't get to see its weird and awesome and terrifying power, and are left with just accepting spice as a cool, dangerous, useful, and really expensive and rare hallucinogenic drug. Now--were any of these cuts (or others) fatal to the movie? Not at all. But taking a novel like Dune, cutting it half, and making the first half into a well-paced two-and-a-half hour movie, requires choices, and all of those choices had costs.

But anyway, leave that aside--we're all geeks here, right? So what about those particular parts I mentioned above?

Dune 2021's costuming and set design is very different from Dune 1984's, but not entirely different. There are many elements of 1984's crowded, alternately gaudy or shabby, always very lived-in, proto-steampunk colors and bric-a-brac and ostentation that I actually kind of adore, and I was pleased that Villeneuve didn't dispense with the medals and hats and pipes and flags and other overtly imperial elements entirely. In fact, in some ways he leaned much further into that kind of 19th-century-colonizer-aesethetic than ever Lynch thought to; while the parallels are present in the 1984 movie, in 2021, it is made undeniable--from the veils of the Fremen women to the lattice-work on the walkways of the city of Arrakeen to the chanting of the Freman crowds--that Arrakis is essentially the Islamic (specifically Bedouin) Middle East. I'd always thought that the reading of Dune as a white-savior story was always a kind of silly interpretation, but I wonder if Villeneuve was explicitly asking for it.

If so, that leads to what to me is the most intriguing area of comparison: how the role of Paul Atreides, as he become Muad'Dib and the Kwisatz Haderach, is being contextualized. While obvious every creative work is open to endless (re-)interpretation, I think the most accurate take on how Dune 1984 approached Herbert's complex story of political, religious, and psychological machinations is to stipulate that, while the Bene Gesserit never believed it until it was too late, their breeding program actually ended up fulfilling, in the person of Paul, the role of Fremen's prophesied messiah. This is why the Reverend Mother Mohiam is so horrified and terrified by the ultimate revelation of Paul's power on Arrakis; the Kwisatz Haderach is supposed to be their end goal, not the Fremen's! 

Of course, in the book Herbert (rather condescendingly, I've come to feel when I've thought back about it occasionally over the years) stipulates that Fremen mythology is just that: myths and superstitions that were planted by the Bene Gesserit themselves, with the long-range plan of being able to be made use of by them, as part of future plots. Dune 2021 is obviously taking that aspect of the story seriously, though how seriously will remain to be seen in part two. In this movie we saw Paul, as the spice makes his visions of the future more and more prominent, angry at his mother, both resentful of the Bene Gesserit having seeded ideas of a messiah among the Fremen, because now he feels terrified that he's going to be locked into fulfilling them. Of course, that's very true to the books! But how does it work as a movie? There is a reason, I think, that Stephen R. Donaldson's fascinating (and occasionally repulsive) stories of Thomas Covenant have never been optioned for film treatment--I suspect smart producers and screen-writers blanch at the idea of building a cinematic epic of speculative fiction around a protagonist who actively disbelieves, treats abusively, or simply is otherwise distanced from their own position in the story. If Villeneuve continues to develop the story in this way in part two, with Paul exhibiting a frustrated double-consciousness towards his own persona, it'll make for an audacious (and difficult) cinematic adaptation, that's for certain.

Though actually, this is one way in which the choice of Timothée Chalamet to play Paul Atreides might work. Some people adore Chalamet's work, I realize, but I count myself as one of those have a hard time seeing him on the big screen as anything other than a small and callow teen-ager. He'll grow out of that common visual association, I'm sure (Leonardo DiCaprio eventually did), but for the moment, making us understand the Paul on the screen as a confused teen-ager thrust into something over his head, abruptly concocting plans (like his sudden idea of challenging the Padisha Emperor when talking with Liet-Keynes--whose expanded role in this version was fantastic) and feeling put upon, really works. In my head-canon, Kyle MacLachlan as the obviously-already-grown Paul, a young adult anxious to please his parents but otherwise obviously independent, is a fascinating character; the T.E. Lawrence parallels are obvious and undeniable. But perhaps in conceiving of the story the way he did, Lynch was obliged to work with someone who could present on the scene a surprised, but authentic, messiah? Which I think, at least, MacLachlan did superbly well? Villeneuve, in choosing, Chalamet, may have committed himself to bringing a different, more authentic, but also much more difficult to put on the screen, take of Dune's psychology. I wish him luck; he has shown himself as someone simply brilliant at creating futuristic mises en scène--I don't know how anyone could look at the spaceships of Dune 2021, just hanging there in the air, and not feel like Villeneuve has an unparalleled skill at putting "space" on the screen in all its immensity--but at handing internalize moral contradictions? That's a different kettle of fish entirely.

Okay, this is way too long already. I thought it was a great movie; I hope lots and lots of people go see it. It isn't perfect, but it's much better than the movie which shaped my thinking about Dune 37 years ago, even if that failed movie--with its creepily Lynchian horrors and oddly appropriate moments of over-acting and utterly hypnotic Dune-inspired original lines: "the sleeper must awaken," "it is by will alone I set my mind in motion," etc.)--will always be close to my heart. All hail Dune 2021! Let's hope Villeneuve gets to make part two, and then these movies can inspire nerds for the next 40 years or so.

Friday, October 08, 2021

When Kansas Republicans Become Libertarians, Sort Of

[An article of mine in Current magazine, which is an updated approach to a column that originally ran in the Wichita Eagle and which I expanded upon here.]

President Biden’s September announcement that either COVID-19 vaccinations or regular COVID testing would be mandated of all federal workers, as well as all who work for businesses that employ 100 people or more, was, it goes without saying, divisive. That divisiveness, though, is not entirely widespread. According to the latest polls, Biden’s actions are supported or at least unopposed by two-thirds of the American people, and despite many predictions about protests and resignations, the data suggests that vaccination-reluctant Americans are coming around. So the opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandate in reality seems to be fairly localized.

Take the Republicans in my own state of Kansas, among whom opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandates really is widespread. Not only did the leadership of the Kansas GOP immediately unify around a condemnation of Biden, but one of our U.S. senators was the first to introduce legislation to strip Biden of the financial power to enact his order, a proposal that was defeated on a party-line vote. This fact might align with those who assume the opposition to Biden is entirely a matter of party polarization, and surely it mostly is. But looking at the claims made by Kansas Republicans brings up arguments over ideas as well—although exploring those ideas is a frustrating endeavor.

The language employed by Derek Schmidt, Kansas’s Republican attorney general, is perhaps the best guide to this strange debate. Schmidt, who is planning a 2022 challenge to Kansas’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, was quick to join with other Republican leaders in threatening to fight the Biden vaccination mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. While doing so he made his principles clear: “Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice” that should not be subject to a “government decree.” 

There are many ways in which Schmidt’s formulation is directly aimed at Governor Kelly, who has fought with the Republican majority in the Kansas legislature over mask mandates and school closures for the past eighteen months. Such language will likely be central to his gubernatorial campaign. But at the same time, it presents some Kansas-specific intellectual confusion.

This because in 2022, in addition to voting for a governor, Kansans will vote on the “Value Them Both” amendment, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to Kansas’s constitution. Schmidt is closely tied to the proposed amendment since it is a response to a Kansas State Supreme Court case wherein the Kansas attorney general defended a state law that outlawed a particular second-trimester abortion procedure. The state lost on a 6-1 ruling, with the court declaring that the language of Kansas’s constitution supports the right of a woman to choose to access abortion services, an interpretation Schmidt has regularly condemned. In a recent interview he repeated his condemnation, and strongly connected his support for the amendment to his campaign to return “pro-life” values to Kansas. So far, that’s consistent enough.

But when the interview turned to the public health fights of the past year and a half, Schmidt explicitly affirmed the formulation of “choice” employed in the very same Kansas Supreme Court decision he insists needs to be overturned. He repeatedly emphasized that the choice to get vaccinated is an “individual decision for individual citizens, not for the government,” and that “people ought to be entrusted with” the right to choose what is medically best for themselves. Schmidt concluded: “People do have a right . . . well actually the Kansas Supreme Court in a different context calls it a ‘right to bodily integrity.’ . . . I don’t mean to conflate the two debates [but] . . . it is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in someone’s arm.”

The interviewer pushed back at this point, observing that a woman’s choice to make use of abortion services is an even more personal decision, involving an even more intimate question about one’s “bodily integrity,” with government restrictions that may force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term presumably being “quite a thing” as well. Schmidt’s response: “There is, of course, a difference . . . At least in the view of those of us on the pro-life side, there are two persons’ interests who have to be accounted for in the abortion context. That is not so, or at least less so, in the vaccination context.”

Two points come to mind about all of this. First, if Schmidt sincerely believes that vaccinations should be treated as a matter of personal choice due to the “right to bodily integrity,” such as is reflected in the very case he is seeking to invalidate, then he really should read that case again. Because the deciding majority did, in fact, touch upon the problem of the government sometimes requiring that needles be stuck in arms. The court concluded, while citing other decisions, that their interpretation of the Kansas constitution’s language regarding choice posed no threat to well-established precedents for state-mandated vaccinations so long as individual health exemptions are provided—which, as it happens, the Biden plan does.

Second, Schmidt’s reference to “two persons’ interests” in the case of abortion is also perplexing. What are we to make of someone who presumably holds to a deep belief in preserving unborn life but then looks at the question of vaccinations, hears the clear evidence showing the threat that remaining unvaccinated poses to the lives and livelihoods of millions of others, sees the death that refusing vaccination is bringing into hospitals every day, and still insists that not being required to put a needle in your arm is the more defensible position?

There are ways in which Schmidt’s employ of this particular “pro-choice” formulation could be made more intellectually interesting, even if not coherent. Perhaps one could ask if he in fact denies the life-threatening character of COVID-19, or wonder if he’s going to go full libertarian and attack vaccinations against childhood diseases as well. At the same time, one might be forgiven for suspecting that treating Schmidt’s language as worthy of intellectual engagement simply plays into a cynical, situational game. Maybe in his circle it’s all just political messaging, all the way down. Americans like the idea of choice, and so when one political party advances policies that require restrictions as a matter of public health, wave the banner of choice and oppose them; it’ll resonate with the American people! As for the accusation of inconsistency, well, that can be dismissed as a persnickety concern that won’t get any play on social media anyway.

Those of us who maintain any kind of civic hope must constantly be on guard against such crude reductionisms. Ideas matter, and bad ideas, if exposed, should be noted for what they are. Being as clear and as consistent as possible in our language, and being open about whatever inconsistencies they involve, is essential to doing so; this is a point as old as Orwell. But talking with my students here in Kansas, I recognize I’m in an increasingly marginal position.

COVID-19 hasn’t been alone in bringing stresses to American political discourse that have confused the ideological positions that have long defined our major parties; Trump, of course, has been a primary player as well. But whether we blame Trump or the pandemic or both for our disorientation, it is sad that in the midst of our present crisis principled disagreements over matters of great import—personal liberties and public health—have been hard to find. American democracy requires parties that can advance such arguments honestly. Playing games with them—as too many leaders of the Kansas Republican party are doing today—simply invites further cynicism about the place of ideas in politics, at a time when more cynicism is the last thing we need.