The Woodburner Sessions: Dune
The Woodburner Sessions are a series of columns bringing this Medium page back to two great strengths: the subject the writer in question got good at writing from writing about: film, and going down pop culture rabbit holes as a form of escapism from daily reality living under the [large medical news story of the last two years]. Even if we do end up learning something about the stuff we put into our ears and eyeballs along the way.
After haphazardly moving house with minimal support we were stuck with a preloaded Amazon Firestick, some pillows and a woodburner as the only things in our living room. Turns out there are alot of things the people who distribute these films want you to see and in a particular, if algorithmic, order — because they’re just so good. Well, we’ll see about that. And we’ll totally avoid talking about the [large medical news story] while we are at it. With this express purpose of isolating from stress in mind, the turnover of these stories will make a 20% contribution to MIND.
Alot of my contemporaries don’t like David Fincher, even though I feel the stretch of work he did around the turn of the century was pretty transcendent. To explain, the two-three combo of Seven, The Game and Fight Club collectively made such easy work of developing a visual and editorial language of cynicism, of giving that very perspective on life a slippery, semi-committal register for responding to events on camera that it actually slipped that perspective into camerawork, which then transcended (particularly in the case of the latter) the dramatic needs which the frame was so often bound to express. When the commentary your choice of shots and shot lengths seems to be providing a more or less shrugging acceptance of the inevitability of plot events, there is infinite freedom to retool how to depict those events, rather than feel a need to give everything dramatic coverage that screams a degree of insecurity. ‘It’s like what has happened, was doomed to happen.’ Sums up Fincher himself, in an interview given during the Panic Room era. The effect is to reward expectations and remain uncaring to the outcome of individual scenes and instead express the power dynamics and character development in said scenes which will then go on to affect the outcome of a given sequence, act or the entire film; information that’s often gleaned from a judicious use of ensemble staging, direct interaction with CGI or VFX elements or which cuts across entirely different camera set ups. Consider also Fincher’s affinity for true crime drama, where we know what the factual outcomes are going to be or at least what they’re likely to be. It’s a visual style which aims to provide a level of detail beyond stage directions or the most obvious parts of setpieces but it’s also a style which has its pace and pitch dictated by characters; even if they don’t always reach the seminality of Tyler Durden or Ellen Ripley.
For all the showing off featured in the style of Fincher and his two closest European contemporaries, Paul Verhoeven and Luc Besson — whom have styles more or less of their own but have carved careers out of nastier genre iterations and straight dramatic plays of similar taboos across both commercial and art cinema nonetheless — one of the primary values here seems to be discipline, which I accept in Fincher’s case as a synonym for restraint but not necessarily a homonym. Alien movies where the alien doesn’t show up for forty minutes at a time, serial killer dramas in which he is never caught, men caught in an Achilles — Patroculus tryst in which Achilles isn’t even real (or is it Patroculus who is artificial?) all rewarding bleeds of information. A style built around character dramas and mysteries in order to shoulder off setpieces in favor of subtle shifts in emotion and interaction.
Why, oh why, has Dennis Villeneuve felt the need to, with the best will and charity…absorb, yeah absorb — let’s just say that — Fincher’s visual language and then apply it to larger and larger pieces of spectacle? Was it appropriate with the claustrophobic mystery of Enemy? Sure. For the claustrophobic mystery of Prisoners? Why not. For the procedural drama wrought with claustrophbic setpieces and mystery Sicario? Uh…yeah? With the huge, planetary drama of Arrival, mostly set in a mysterious, claustrophoic spaceship? Knock yourself out, bud. Has the man being making the same film for ten years? Absolutely not, his commitment to flitting between genres and collaborators admirably mimics Altman or even Kubrick. Does it feel like he has been making the same pissing film for the past ten years? Yes and the miss-allocation of millions of dollars which causes this feeling is brilliantly indemnified by Dune.
In good faith, it’s worth giving slightly more detail on the times this formula has worked — as a vessel for the plots of Enemy and Prisoners and as a great tent-polling for the genuinely less predictable yet touchingly familiar Blade Runner 2049, where the attachment of a ‘visionary’ role is a duty rather than a vanity and Villeneuve clearly knew as much from the outset. These tighter yet considerably more LoFi and more violent films used a plodding pace and smooth editing to introduce pieces of elaborate set design, blocking and ensemble staging which represented the change in dramatic or editorial stakes brought on by having a tantrum in front of the detective who suspects you of your daughter’s disappearance or sharing a drink with a Blade Runner. They take their time to establish an ability to work with two or three well costumed actors and a dash of dramatically ironic dialogue, so when the scale increases to battles and shoot outs and car chases the earlier level of involvement is well rewarded and the increase in drama is self evident, to say nothing of well executed. A tried and tested formulae but a good one. Though, when listening to a large subsection of Villeneuve’s fans, some who write about film for a living and others who don’t, this is apparently a newly discovered height of filmic communication which his contemporaries can only hope to one day rival.
What’s being communicated in Dune? If the press releases and distribution releases marking the two parter as a 1:1 scale recreation of the Frank Herbert novel are to be believed, one of the greatest science fiction narratives of all time. What’s being communicated through camera sensors and microphone diodes in Dune? Several handwaves to other popular films and hour dramas rooted well within the ongoing (and often praise worthy) trend of factionalised narratives (house and or organisation A has a beef with B, where each indemnifies this or that culture or principal or behaviour) and four action scenes. Your Game of Thrones, your Hunger Games and your Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan are all handwaved by the production design like a stabbed man trying to hail a sympathetic cab. Meanwhile the conversation sequences, the fucking near unending conversation sequences, communicate a sense of ‘hey, would you look at that’ and continue on with an execution indistinguishable from a bottle episode of Doctor Who or a particularly sharply scripted daytime Syfy Channel series — which might be forgivable if decades of franchise management hadn’t already yielded a middling daytime Syfy Channel series of Dune about fifteen odd years ago.
The equation of the new sights a new adaption can offer with the otherwise effective bildungsroman of young Paul Atriedes venturing to the new sights of his family’s new fief of the desert planet Arakis is a viable narrative avenue but it’s left entirely to increasingly tired production design and a woefully under-directed cast. There are problems with Timothee Chalamet’s Paul. An otherwise excellent young talent instructed to observe both the growing pathos and the growing discipline that the subject of a bildungsroman so often goes through. But it’s directed in reverse gear — starting the film admiring social graces and cementing his socio-political relationships whilst spending the latter half in an increasing Shinji Ikari state of semi-vulnerable histrionics. This does not only a fantastic job of scuppering the proportion of the stakes and scale of trauma he is supposed to react to, finding the unreserved help and protection of his mother a tantrum worthy imposition whilst hardly reacting to the murder of hundreds of his family’s retainers, but it makes incredibly short work of the question hanging over Paul’s autonomy: as the film questions whether he is a benevolent ruler or a prophesied android of religious, runic value. It’s the first one because after you’ve seen the witchy superpowers on screen a few times, the first one is more interesting. Please do not continue that little dangler into the second three hour film.
A late setpiece involving a knife fight to the death brings these threads together reasonably well with, minor spoiler, Paul repeatedly besting and trying to spare his opponent from what is, simultaneously, a developed understanding of the value of life and an underdeveloped sense of the stakes in the desert. Here, warrens of rock and bush imply the depth of the native Fremen settlements as secrets to be dived into in the follow up film, making for a natural segregation of the plot as well as a firm narrative root for Paul’s own decision to stay on the planet — bringing that all important autonomy back for an encore.
All of these events, in fact, just about every major sequence in the film, is abutted by an extended came from Paul’s love interest, Chani and it’s here we get another parity between the real life insecurities of this adaptation and the decisions the film makes to patch over them. It’s staggering how much energy the film commits to over exposing this character where it isn’t necessary to do so in the early narrative, just as the otherwise excellent actress playing her, Zendaya, strikes several filmgoing circles — including my own personal ring of hell here — as being one of the most over exposed artists in the recent memory. There’s a genuine warmth to the notion that the young woman has accrued such a familiarity and articulacy for life’s realities that she can play such a variety of characters at such an age, quite why every pissing director who has ever directed her in a feature film in said time period has tattooed ‘generally carry yourself like an arrogant, precocious, self humoured bore’ to the inside of her eyelids I don’t know. In those pieces where she is given enough screen time to workshop in a more vivid interpretation of her characters (see Euphoria and the recent Spiderman: Homecoming trilogy) there is a stalwart attempt to resist this but it’s hard to imagine a procession of middle aged directors who’s own generation would have hesitated to place a mixed race girl in leading roles in the first place can give any more nuance that what was described above.
Meanwhile, a shockingly off their game David Dasmalachian makes up the majority of the screen time for the villainous House Harkonnen failing to display the eccentricity which would indicate a feverish commitment to their cause. This leaves just two named characters, in a faction of thousands of soldiers, provocateurs and assassins, to carry the furthest pendulum swing of the film’s visual and narrative design. A solid, if safe performance from Stellan Skarsgard as the sadistic, fat, semi eugenicist, semi spiritualist and… aberrationally homosexual Baron Harkonen crops up. Guess which one of those adjectives actually makes it in to the film, though. The shrugging refusal by the casting team to accept that Alfred Molina, Vincent D’Onofrio and Glenn Fleshler are still alive and very much ready to be cast as bigger blokes playing bigger characters is a headscratcher. This just leaves Dave Bautista, whom, along with John Cena and Dwayne Johnson is turning out to be perhaps the major success story of moving to the screen from the wrestling ring. Regardless, whoever was responsible for where the casting and writing of the film intersect was too chickenshit to give his mesmerising presence and delivery more than a handful of lines, just as they were in Spectre and Blade Runner 2049, wait a minute…
I have similar difficulty in praising the cinematography. It gets in as many of those ‘Kurosawa wides’, which have started to replace the unbroken tracking shot ‘oner’ as the main cause for fanwank, as possible or is that as many as necessary because just shooting CGI assets that large would require the same treatment but Villeneuve has no idea of the disease. 100 man battles and inter-spousal conversation sequences are shot the exact same way: with a music video’s efficiency but with none of its flare.
In summation, Villeneuve is none the less serving his audience exactly what they want and using a combination of relatively difficult and expensive handful of technical and dramatic techniques to do so. Is it that, in that Michael Bay sense, they are consistently the wrong ones, however sexy the execution? That sounds like an oversimplification, instead consider what many of my great colleagues have said: that they’re all the right beats played with the rhythm of a metronome. Functional, proscenium, even comfortingly consistent but not particularly interesting.