What is power for? Who does power hurt? How should power be used? Who should have power, share it, and should power be described in terms of wins, losses, and compromises? Can stories look at alternatives to the usual ways in which power is used and abused? These are the kinds of questions that occurred to me watching Spencer, but also Dune.
As an Australian, I can look at the notion of royalty from a distance and think it’s a bit ridiculous, wasteful, odd, and remote from my everyday life. On the other hand, the British royals are, or maybe were, the drawcard of Britain. As the film Spencer notes, royalty is currency, embodied on coins, but also as symbol and even on the other side of the planet I’ve watched their weddings, funerals, and scandals. Royal individuals are currency for not just the people they directly employ, but are the currency of an industry and an institution. The idea of the institution is crucial. It’s where people mistake Harry and Megan’s criticisms regarding the institution as direct criticism of the Queen. The institution isn’t the Queen or her family, the institution are the rules and laws, and the people who are the guardians and sticklers of these rules that pertain to past, present and future. The royal family live inside this framework, they are immensely privileged by birth, but they are restricted by the expectations upon them from culture, society, duty and, most importantly, the traditions of the institution, very few of which they can change. That’s seat of power: the institution, the Queen embodies and bears the responsibility for it, and it’s what she really represents. I think.
How people cope, don’t cope, and have been failed when asking for help to cope with the gilded cage of it all, has been grist of the mill of the royalty industry – the tabloid press, morning TV programs, the story writers, and now, film makers for decades. These were my big thoughts about Spencer, but as to the film, I was unsure if it was the searing string instrumentals throughout, or the ghost of a previous Queen…but I never thought a biopic of Diana would be a bit of an arthouse psychological thriller made all the more compelling by Kristen Stewart, who is remarkable. I kept thinking that none of this could be accurate, but all of it was possible. As Chief Bromden noted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “it’s true even if it didn’t happen.” Thus, by the end, I came to sincerely hope Diana and her children got to experience something akin to the last scenes as they subverted the institution, just for a moment’s respite.
Sands of time repeating
Dune was beautiful and I fervently wish I could’ve seen it on a big screen, but I kept wondering why everything felt so…tired. Sure, it’s a remake of a film based on books, but that just means the problems of the film were baked in to the source material. To make it clear, my issues are the same ones I had with The Eternals: the colonialism, racism, and saviourism of it all. The actors, the performances, the sets, everything was worthy of a space epic. However, if writers (and film makers) are going to endlessly recycle history (in this case Iraq’s history with oil swapped for spice), why can’t it be inverted, or subverted, why does there have to be a saviour, and if there does, why can’t this saviour be from Arrakis, or be the woman Paul dreams of. If books can become films, how much do film makers owe the text? Or were Dune fans going to get all Taurieled up if themes and plots are changed too much? Where are the warrior women, where are the societies evolved beyond violence, why is there space feudalism and imperialism, instead of galactic democracy or something else? I have no problems with a dutiful son subverting warrior tropes by being an heir to his mother’s talents while also being a capable soldier, that’s an interesting story. His mother and her culture are interesting, his father had potential to be interesting as his son straddles martial and more mystical worlds, but much of the interest was swept away by the predictable socio-political background, where once again families are immured in institutions of power and control and continue in the same martial ways they always have. Meanwhile, I was much more interested in the natural realm and how those from Arrakis thrive there, and fight the exploitation of their home. I don’t mind how Paul (and his mother) become a way into seeing this world, but the Fremen (and me) don’t need Paul as their leader.
Others have argued more cogently than I have about what’s needed, and it’s not just about using actors from appropriate backgrounds, it’s about imagining power differently.
It’s about new science fiction, new fantasy, new ideas, or going back to ancient ideas. It’s about subverting history instead of mirroring, while adding giant sand worms. If there’s a sequel, I want subversion of the original plot, the characters, their goals. I want environmental degradation, colonialism and imperialism thwarted by an outbreak of peace or a different kind of war, I want the Fremen of Arrakis under their own leadership. I want the Only One Special Boy King to listen to his mother, leave the sword in the stone, and recognise that maybe his foreshadowed designated role is as problematic as the imperialism of his former society. I want Paul to realise his visions of the woman are taking him to a leader, rather than a woman who can teach him to lead. I want different dreams of power than Frank Herbert’s to manifest, not just more epic landscapes for the usual inter-familial-colonial-feudal ones to play out.
Anyway, both films are worth a look.
The 2022 Writing Update
Acceptances by publisher: 11
Acceptances by work: 14