SF Question of the Day: Dune and Lawrence of Arabia

Would Frank Herbert’s Dune have been such a wide success if its publication in 1965 had not been preceded by David Lean’s masterful cinematography of windswept dunes in 1962’s immensely popular film Lawrence of Arabia?

Without those filmic visions clearly in the readers’ minds, would they have been able to relate to great saga of the desert planet, or the heroic characterisation of the Arab-descended Fremen tribes in their fight for justice, in the way that they did?

How, more generally, does our experience of pictorial representations of landscapes and people (both still and moving pictures) influence our perceptions of other works of art, of the world and people around us, and even of our own self-awareness?

I know I’ve read articles about studies showing that the ubiquity of cameras has made us much more self-aware than previous generations, almost as aware of how we look for the camera as a trained actor would have been a few generations ago, and how the range of normal affect-display caught on film has changed over the last century (can I find those articles right now? No – if you know the ones I mean please link in comments!). Combine this increased self-awareness with years of exposure to montage editing techniques in film and television to shape the narrative, techniques that rely on the actors being relatively expressionless (following on from work of famous Russian film editor Kuleshov), and what happens? The change in people’s affect displays in candid documentary film footage over the generations is easily demonstrated – we simply do not gesture as broadly or move our heads or our facial muscles as freely as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did. We don’t gesture or grimace as freely as even early motion picture stars did, to the point where looking at their work today it often strikes us as ridiculous overacting. Is the change over time just because each generation looks at various idosyncratic family/community affective habits and decides that’s not what the cool movie stars are doing now, and we all want to be cool, so we tend to suppress those affective habits in ourselves?

I find all this socialisation effect of media on our interpersonal interactions, and how the feedback into both our perception and creation of artistic narratives changes our social conventions of communication, fascinating.

Image credit: index thumbnail image shared under CCL by patrickw1 on flickr

Categories: arts & entertainment, fun & hobbies, media, Sociology

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3 replies

  1. One of the things about early motion picture acting is that it was largely influenced by theatrical acting – gestures and expressions had to be visible to the people in the back row of the Gods, not just to the folks in the front two rows of the stalls. Movies changed the way that actors perform their trade, too – it caused the creation of a whole new form of performance, one where clever editing can make the most wooden-faced actor into a subtle genius.
    However, the lens and the screen alter the way that faces are perceived as well – they flatten out the features, make faces broader and wider. So it’s not surprise that the people who do best on screen tend to have relatively narrow faces and slender silhouettes. It’ll be interesting to see whether the current “3D with everything” craze carries on, and if so, whether it alters the way we perceive actors cinematically.

  2. You lured me into this post under false pretences! I thought it was going to be about Dune and Lawrence of Arabia!

    • Happy to talk about the connections there, tree! Just got distracted by the bigger idea.
      Obviously there’s many parallels: a marginalised people rising up for their independence, their legitimate desire for self-determination manipulated as a strategy of the jostlings of larger powers for whom a region is just a poker chip in the power play. In both stories the desert is essentially a character as well, an eternal force that looms over the plans of mere mortals.
      It’s not that LoA was the first big film set in the desert – Charlton Heston did plenty of desert in both Moses and Ben Hur, there’d been various WW1 and WW2 movies set in the desert, there’d been all those early harems in tents movies. But most of those films used sound stages, American only-just-desert and stock footage, and it just wasn’t the same.

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