The media Gods compel you to obey


The other day my friend Tania drove me to a residential district in San Francisco to see a home that had been transformed into a walk-through haunted house.  I got exponentially more than I bargained for.  The Gregangelo Museum ( “San Francisco’s Immersive Art Experience,” is a labor of wild love and unchained artistry - a folly assembled over years by various dedicated artists, including my friend Tania.  While the walk-through adventure was was favoring a Halloween theme for the season, the house itself was the real spectacle: every inch has been lovingly packed floor to ceiling with jeweled mosaics and sculptures of Egyptian jackals and crazy apothecary glassware and occulty objets and outrageous painted ceilings - silver faces were sticking out of blue velvet walls in the hallway. Live performers in lavish costumes were tap-dancing, acting out spooky vignettes with baby carriages and singing the Doors song, “People Are Strange.”  The whole event was an open homage to The Rocky Horror Picture Show;  there was even a Barbarella room, replete with a large plastic orb-bed filled with fur blankets and a lissome alien who urged us to perform random sensual acts. I ended up dropping to my knees and kissing a stranger’s boots through my Covid mask.  It was a revelation - how could something this wonderful be such a well-kept secret? Tania explained that mainstream popularity has never been the objective of the Gregangelo Museum.  It is one of those Burning Man-adjacent projects that has simply arisen like a purple rose through the cracks in the cultural sidewalk - creative people, doing creative things, existing beautifully without some morbid driving need to monetize. 

This experience was the complete opposite of watching DUNE, the omnipresently-hyped new HBOMax offering, which made a killing in theaters its opening weekend. 

Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve, who did the absurdly well-funded and handsome yet ponderous Bladerunner remake, has brought his particular breed of massively budgeted production values to the remaking of yet another classic of the sci-fi genre. 

The story of DUNE, in Villeneuve’s imagining, is more or less true to the Frank Herbert novel (which I could never get through, although I do remember the boys of junior high carrying around the 896-page mass-market paperbacks for such a long time the pages fattened until they were almost completely round).  It is a vast and complex tale of tensions between politics, ecology, religion and humanity with an anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian, anti-predatory capitalism message. 

The desert planet Arrakis, nicknamed Dune, is the only place in the universe that produces a mystical, hallucinogenic spice that enables space navigation.  The Emperor of the Universe gives the planet as a fiefdom to the Duke Leto Atreides and his family, but it is a trap; the real intention of the Emperor is to destroy the Atreides clan with the help of another rival clan, House Harkonnen.  

The Duke’s son, Paul Atreides, however, is intended for a larger destiny - one foretold by wild bald priestesses of the Bene Geserit sisterhood, who have been manipulating bloodlines for 90 generations and drink forbidden poisons and freak out to Tuvan throat singing. 

A lot happens, I guess.  I watched the whole thing - I didn’t even play poker on my phone the whole time -  but then I had to watch David Lynch’s DUNE from 1984 afterwards to really understand the story.  Villeneuve apparently hates dialog, especially if it moves the plot forward or makes you care about the characters. 

All in all, despite the sight of Jason Momoa in a neoprene codpiece (as the warrior preposterously named Duncan Idaho) - Villeneuve’s DUNE evoked, for me, the same kind of overall feeling as Top Gun :  It seemed to be functioning as a 155 minute Army recruitment ad. The most spectacular of all the images onscreen (besides the enormous, gloriously undulating sand-worms with their thousand pool-cue teeth)  are those of the sleek war machines with dragonfly wings known as ornithopters, which land in angry chanted whispers and take off to the kind of urgent choir music heard at key points in Damien: The Omen 2. 

  All of the massive concrete sets look like federal air-fields, ancient sewer lines or architecturally significant parking garages.  Like Bladerunner 2049, there are a lot of agonizingly slow shots of people in robes walking in front of weirdly lit walls. 

Capitalism seeks to isolate consumers and liberate them from the pressures of having an actual community.  Through its heavy reliance on special effects and its underinvestment in writing - in its flouting of actual interpersonal drama as a way to captivate the interest of the audience, Villeneuve merely succeeds in what ultimately looks like a propaganda video for gadget-centric warfare.  It is impossible to care about anyone, because there is so little dialog to illustrate the human relationships.  Apart from one scene where Momoa has to explain the cultural significance and meaning of a desert tribesman spitting at the Duke (he’s merely sharing his body’s moisture, you see), what dialog there is deeply glum, joyless, airless, and without levity or humanity of any kind. 

DUNE apparently has more richly decorated yet incredibly boring, time-chewing chapters in store; this is merely the first installment of the HBO iteration.  Despite the unrestrained money-hose behind it, it is just a big wealthy dick in the eyehole that leaves one feeling as empty as having gone on a date with a top-shelf rubber doll. Watching a movie with no interpersonal drama makes it too difficult to justify the extravagant production design.  It’s like watching college-level Quidditch — the whole time you’re really just thinking about how stupid the “broomsticks” look between the players’ legs and how much they obstruct normal movement.  Putting writing in the back seat of any dramatic undertaking is a stupid and evil idea; the dizzying visual technologies of the day do not compensate for the lack of any kind of emotional connectivity or deeper meaning — a lesson one would think Villeneuve might have learned from all of the intensely regrettable installations of the Star Wars franchise. 

It is a real shame that cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky spent three years imagining the daylights out of DUNE, with a cast that included Mick Jagger, Salvatore Dali and Orson Welles, and set designs by H.R. Giger, among others - only to be thwarted by spiraling costs.  Whatever the final numbers were, they surely couldn’t have approached the Villeneuve budget, even in 1970s money. 

I was exponentially more impressed by the Gregangelo Museum — they even gave me a bag of Cracker Jacks as I was leaving. More and more, I am starving for the experience of seeing real, unfettered art and collaborations that happen for their own sake.  What you are supposed to pay attention to this week, sayeth the Lords of Media, is DUNE.  What you might have more fun doing:  Get out of your TV set and go see a good haunted house.  At one moment in the Gregangelo Museum, everyone in my little tour group was handed a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses in a room filled with fairy-lights, and when you put them on, everyone else in the room magically disappeared.  It was a simple trick of lighting, arranged by clever artists, that nevertheless delighted the very soul.