Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dune (TV Miniseries)


My apologies for being so long away from all of my adoring fans. As you all know, I am simply swaddled in plaster from ankle to hip as my right femur mends following that disastrous zamboni accident several weeks ago. I had been recuperating without incident at Chateau Maine, my absolutely stunning home (featured in the April, 1971 Architectural Digest) high in the Hollywood Hills. Unfortunately, one of my least favorite people, Mrs. Doreen Lester Scrawcrunch, who fancies herself some sort of younger and prettier sister, took it upon herself to begin nursing me through my time of injury. 

My inability to get down stairs has left me trapped on the upper floors of my sumptuous home and Doreen seems to have tired of the tender, loving care I so richly deserve. Just this morning, as she was helping me into the bath, she kept making grotesque references to my wheelchair and, for reasons I can't even begin to fathom, started referring to me as Blanche. Now I did play Blanche DuBois in the Allentown production of A Streetcar Named Desire opposite my darling Norman's Stanley but I don't think Doreen was aware of the project. Anyway, I've been trying to get some additional help in the home but the phone seems to be out of order continually. I tried to get some help from an internet chat room community but every time I explained I was trapped in my bedroom, I'd get the rudest invitations, full of gross impropriety. 

Anyway, to pass the time, I have been trying to work my way through my pile of unviewed DVDs. Recently, I spent several evenings with John Harrison's television miniseries version of Dune, broadcast initially in this country on the Sci-Fi channel in 2000. The film has been completely re-edited and expanded for its DVD release, now running 4 3/4 hours in three parts in a spiffy new set. 

Dune began as a serial in the science-fiction magazine, Analog in 1963-64. It was sparked by the interest of Frank Herbert, a writer and reporter from the Pacific Northwest, in an ecological project to keep the Oregon sand dunes of the Pacific coast from spreading and threatening native vegetation. The original stories were extensively rewritten by Herbert, long known for his short fiction, into the novel Dune in 1965. Herbert kept up his interest in his fictional world through the remainder of his life, publishing five sequels (of gradually declining quality) until his death in 1986. His son, Brian, is currently writing additional fiction using his father's worlds and ecological philosophies as a basis. 

Dune is the story of young Paul Atreides (Alec Newman), heir to the Duke Leto Atreides (William Hurt) by his mother, Jessica (Saskia Reeves), the Duke's bound concubine. In the universe of Dune, it's thousands of years past our current time - interstellar travel is common and the known worlds are bound into an empire under the Emperor Shaddam Corrino (Giancarlo Giannini), a man who manipulates the other great houses such as Atreides and their enemies, the Harkonnen in a delicate dance of politics and death to keep power and control. The Atreides have been rulers of the water planet, Caladan, for years but the emperor has offered them a new prize, the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, which had been ruled (badly) by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Ian McNeice). Dune is a world of vast deserts, inhabited by enormous sandworms. It's of value as it's the only known source of the spice, mélange, which, in gaseous form, allows the navigators of the great star freighters, to bend and fold the space-time continuum so that interplanetary trade and travel are possible. 

Paul's mother, the lady Jessica, is a member of an ancient order of wise women, the Bene Gesserit, who have been manipulating the breeding lines of the great houses, trying to produce a male, capable of using the spice's brain powers to expand consciousness (shades of mid-60s LSD theory). She believes that her son could be this chosen one, and when the natives of Arrakis, the Fremen, produce legends of an off-world messiah who will lead them to freedom, she quietly encourages these beliefs to help her and her son adapt to their new desert world. 

The removal of House Atreides to Arrakis is, of course, a set-up and the Emperor, in league with the Harkonnen, invade and attempt to destroy the Atreides. Paul and his mother, however, escape to the deep desert where they befriend the Fremen, led by Stilgar (Uwe Ochsenknecht). Under Paul's leadership, the Fremen become a force to be reckoned with, the secrets of the spice and the sandworms are revealed, and Jessica and Paul fulfill their various destinies. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the spacing guild, the Bene Gesserit, the emperor, his daughter and heir Irulan (Julie Cox), Baron Harkonnen and his nephews, Rabban (Lazslo Kish) and Feyd (Matt Keeslar) continue in their court intrigues, unaware that jihad is about to shatter their world. 

The novel is justly celebrated as a classic of the science fiction genre due to its attention to detail and its carefully thought out ecological balance. The layers of political intrigue are played out in a multilayered tapestry against a unique background of climate and nature which permeates and dominates the plot. Herbert was never able to duplicate the success of his original novel. The sequels became pallid copies of the original as the richness of detail in nature gave way to tepid plot mechanics. 

In the mid 1980s, visionary film maker David Lynch filmed the novel on an enormous budget with an all-star international cast. His vision was butchered by the studio down to 2 1/4 hours and the result, while visually stunning, was an enormous mess and could only be followed by those who had read the book. Other hands reconstructed a 3 1/4 hour cut for television later which Lynch disowned. (One can hope that Lynch will eventually go back to the footage and reconstruct his original vision for DVD as Ridley Scott has done for Legend.) Fans of the novel found much to like in The Lynch film but it was felt to be wanting. 

In the late 1990s, writer/director John Harrison approached the Sci-Fi channel with an idea of remaking Dune for television in a miniseries format, allowing enough time to tell Herbert's story properly. Harrison is a protégé of writer/director George Romero and was eventually able to put together enough financing to get the project made. His budget, unfortunately, was just a small fraction of Lynch's. His cast is mainly lesser known European actors and, rather than the location shooting done by Lynch, his entire film was made on soundstages in the Czech republic. 

The result is a much more satisfying narrative than the original film. The long running time allows the film to delve into the complex politics of the world and gives the characters time to grow and change and the audience a chance to understand the intricacies of the story. The addition of scenes not in the original US broadcast clarifies some plot points and motivations and the re-edit minimizes some of the false climaxes inherent in film for television that scream out 'insert commercial break here'. 

Unfortunately, the budget film making undermines some of the intentions of the makers. The multi-national cast has a confusing Babel of accents that makes no sense across political or ethnic lines. The Harkonnens, for instance, spout a plumy British RSC dialect (the Baron), a barely intelligible mittel-European (Rabban) and American sit-com (Feyd). The sets and costumes, while sumptuous, seem a little frayed around the edges. What should be silk and satin and velvet is, in close-up, rayon and polyester blend. Costume designer Theodor Pistek (an Oscar winner for Amadeus), takes great delight in ridiculous millinery. This is a society of fantastic headgear but it all looks like it was constructed with cardboard, felt, and a handy glue gun. The great European cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, works magic with lighting to disguise the soundstage look of the film and to heighten mood with light and shadow. At times, he's a little too fond of colored filters (I kept expecting Paul to break into Bali H'ai) but his chiaroscuro effects are gorgeous. 

The performances of the large cast are adequate. Most of the supporting cast are Czech and difficult to comprehend at times, but the leads are mainly British. In the central role of Paul, young Alec Newman is not afraid to be petulant and unlikable early in the film, giving him a chance to complete a character arc. Saskia Reeves, as Jessica and Julie Cox as Irulan have some fabulous moments and Ian McNeice has great fun as the cackling baron, who for unexplained reasons, ends all of his scenes with an iambic pentameter rhyming couplet. The big disappointment is William Hurt's Duke Leto. Hurt has chosen to play the part as an ineffectual man who knows he is doomed, a far cry from the Leto of the novel and a choice which throws much of the first part of the film off kilter. One cannot imagine this man playing politics of great houses. Fortunately, he's dispatched at the end of part one and we don't have to worry about him anymore. 

The DVD set is sumptuous and rich with extras. Each part is on a separate DVD and is a widescreen transfer with remixed 5.1 sound. There is an alternate commentary track with writer/director Harrison and his key staffers. There are a number of puff piece 'behind the scenes' documentaries. A sequel, covering the material in the novels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune is in the works for broadcast in 2003. 

Levitating leather underpants. Decadent baron. Gladiatorial combat. Erupting sandworm. Poisoned needles. Secret water repositories. Monumental statuary. Drowned annelid. Blue on blue eyes. Baby abomination. Worm riding. 

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