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"Dune"

A much better audience. Thank everything, I had a better audience at the Academy Theater's Friday matinee showing of the 1984 film Dune than I had at the Tuesday night Flash Gordon at the same place. Dune would be easy to ruin with a bad audience; the film might baffle even good audiences. It was a notorious flop upon release, rumored to be hugely over-budget, partly aimed at a younger audience that almost certainly would not have understood it (toys? ACTIVITY BOOKS?), and is at times bonkers.

But I was grinning and/or in awe for much of the film, as I finally saw it on the big screen after first seeing it on cable in the later Eighties. Turns out Dune was the second David Lynch work I'd seen, and the first I'd known to be his; years before on cable, I'd run into his earlier film The Elephant Man, back when I was too young to recognize a filmmaker name that wasn't George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. Speaking of Lucas, Lynch had turned down directing Return of the Jedi to write and direct Dune, distilling Frank Herbert's huge science fiction novel. Herbert himself was happy with Lynch's film, but the overall 1984 reaction to it was "Huh?" Still, I am very impressed with this story, its visuals, and how the environments seem to be both impossible (those buildings and structures are that big?) and lived-in. I became a Lynch fan because of Twin Peaks, but Dune helped lay the foundation.

And so much of what Lynch would do later is evident in how he handles Dune: the importance of dream imagery, and the heightened acting that's still emotionally true. As weird as David Lynch's works get, the emotions in them are often very direct.

The pace is measured but almost never slow. Unlike the thrilling battles of, say, most Star Wars films, the big battle midway through Dune is wrenching and awful...and far easier to follow on a big screen. (A shot that's almost impossible to grasp on a TV, where the evil Harkonnen attackers wipe out an entire airfield of Atreides spaceships in seconds, has an almost you-are-there immediacy on film. A very well-done special effect.) And it's epic and mythic in its own way, befitting the world-changing and likely universe-changing events of this story. The final battle is so uniquely Dune-oriented, you haven't really seen a battle like it.

Parts of this film are troubling and questionable, and almost certainly would not be done in a film version today (as Denis Villeneuve hopes to do). I can't speak well towards this, but people I trust find disturbing AIDS symbolism here, from when AIDS was considered by most Americans to be exclusively a disease you'd get if you were gay. The evil Baron Harkonnen is also the only character to be coded — meaning, shown to be without the film explicitly telling us — as gay, whereas non-hetero sexuality is barely even hinted at for any other characters so there is an apparent undercurrent of "non-straight = bad." The Baron is covered in what look like AIDS sores. The film has other, weirder signs of Harkonnen corruption (those painful-looking body mods; the Baron bathing in raw oil; whatever device Jack Nance's character is using on the Baron; LOOK AT WHAT RABBAN DID TO THAT COW), but the AIDS imagery is disturbingly specific for the era. And I would have completely missed it back then, sheltered as I was.

Still, I am so glad Dune the film exists, and that I finally could see it big and loud. Now I want to re-read the original novel, which I read around 1990, and perhaps finally read Frank Herbert's sequels.