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The Time of Sands

John Harrison's adaptation of Dune for the Sci Fi Channel finds fantastical virtue in storytelling; Queer As Folk is as drearily one-note as Sex and the City.

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If you haven't read Frank Herbert's science-fiction novel Dune, then I've got so much explaining to do that I'd rather not even get started. Before George Lucas, Herbert had clearly dined on Joseph Campbell's refried mythic beans, with lots of Rachel Carson for dessert, after which he hallucinated a space-operatic, eco-dystopian future that was part biblical, part Shakespearean, and extremely thirsty. There are Noble Houses competing for the Emperor's favor; a guild of Navigators who cruise the vast galactic wastes; a coven of witches with occult powers and a breeding program to insinuate their influence; and a coveted cinnamon-smelling "spice," more precious than oil or gold, a sort of magic mushroom without which space travel is impossible, only to be found on the desert planet of Arrakis.

On or about 10,091 a.d., Duke Leto of the House of Atreides is dispatched by the Emperor to Arrakis to superintend production of this spice. He brings with him his concubine, the Bene Gesserit witch Lady Jessica, and their son, Paul, who has weird dreams. They are betrayed from within and attacked from without by the evil Baron of the House of Harkonnen. Leaving behind a dead Duke, Lady Jessica and Paul flee into the arid dunes, where they meet gigantic carnivorous sandworms and the blue-eyed Fremen. Fortunately for everyone concerned, Paul's weird dreams correspond to the prophetic religion of the Fremen. After the usual sadistic tribal initiation rites (plus perhaps too much mind-bending spice), he can see into the vile past and the heroic future, and the Fremen are satisfied that he is indeed their Messiah. What follows is an amalgam not only of El Cid and Ho Chi Minh but also, with its echoes of the ancient Israelites and of Afrikaners on a rousing Voortrek, almost a how-to manual, like the Bible, on lurid visions, crazy violence, and abusive sex in a sun-stunned, worm-munched desert.

You may recall that David Lynch spent a lot of Dino de Laurentiis's money to bring Dune to the big screen in 1984, with Kyle MacLachlan as the messianic Paul and the rock star Sting as a Harkonnen baddie so out of control that he upstaged the sandworms. While interesting to look at, it was incomprehensible to anybody who hadn't read the novel, not that Herbert's fans cared. But John Harrison, who has written and directed this six-hour TV mini-series version on the Sci Fi Channel, does care. He proselytizes, with two hours on Sunday that are, if not Shakespearean, at least feudal, with some Renaissance thrown in; two hours on Monday that are, if not biblical, at least tribal and survivalist, with lots of delphic utterances; and two concluding hours Tuesday in which, more or less, Harry Potter meets Lawrence of Arabia at either Agincourt or Khartoum.

I must say it's great fun. William Hurt as Duke Leto; Saskia Reeves as Lady Jessica; Ian McNeice as Baron Harkonnen; Alec Newman as Paul; Giancarlo Giannini as the Emperor; Julie Cox as Princess Irulan; Laura Burton as Paul's creepy kid sister, Alia; and Barbara Kodetova as his desert peach, Chani, almost make up for any doubts we may have about blue-eyed leadership cults and the romance of the jihad. What was best in Lynch (an Arrakis so drought-ridden and Sahara-like that my camel died) is missing from the mini-series, shot mostly on a Prague sound stage. But what was worst in Lynch (an indifference to narrative amounting to malign neglect) is also missing; Harrison is determined to tell this ecological fairy tale in baroque detail. Even the costumes are splendid, from Chinese mandarin to Student Prince, from Omar Sharif to the Vatican Guard.

"You are the whirlwind," says Chani to Paul after sex. That thump is not a sandworm.

Queer as Folk, the new 22-hour dramatic series on Showtime, is Sex and the City for gays and lesbians. Based on a popular and controversial British series, but set in Pittsburgh instead of Manchester, it is oral, anal, promiscuous, and so super-explicit that you will want to blinker your horses. It also seems to me sleazy, although no more so, at least conceptually, than Aaron Spelling's Titans, in which Yasmine Bleeth, like all the young men in Queer as Folk, never thinks about anything other than sex. Stud muffin Brian (Gale Harold), an advertising account executive, not only thinks about sex all the time; he also gets it all the time. His buddies Michael (Hal Sparks), Emmett (Peter Paige), and Ted (Scott Lowell) aren't so lucky at the dance club. They spend more time downloading porn from the Internet and renting video cassettes like Schindler's Fist (about "hot horny men in a concentration camp").

And then there is the very young Justin (Randy Harrison), who was 15 in the British version, is said to be 17 here, goes to parochial school in a uniform when he isn't cruising the drugs-and-disco scene for Brian, and has to have all the code words explained to him. Michael, moreover, has a worried mother looking over his shoulder, played to a frowsy fare-thee-well by Sharon Gless. And have I mentioned that Brian is the father of a child, born to his lesbian friend Lindsay (Thea Gill), a son he refuses to have circumcised, which explains the resentful rage of Lindsay's Jewish partner, Melanie (Michelle Clunie)? In the two-hour pilot, none of these people ever reads a book, or expresses a political opinion, or leaves the gym long enough to buy a loaf of bread. The best that can be said for Queer as Folk is that it depicts a portion of humanity heretofore absent from, or travestied by, a medium purporting to be representative. I find Sex and the City tiresome, too.

Bruno, in which shirley maclaine for the first time directs herself and everybody else, is one of those movies dumped directly on cable before it got a wide-screen chance. I'm not sure why; it's more intelligent than Bounce. Anyway, Bruno (Alex D. Linz) is a troubled little boy whose policeman father (Gary Sinise) left him to be raised by an overweight mother (Stacey Halprin), and who acts out at Catholic school by cross-dressing. Meaning, of course, that he is bullied and ridiculed not only by his classmates but also by Kathy Bates, as a chain-smoking mother superior. But from dreams in which he's chased by an angel, Bruno has come to believe that dresses are "holy vestments" with magical powers. With these powers, plus his single staunch friend (Kiami Davael) and a bossy grandmother (MacLaine), Bruno in a dress wins so many spelling bees that he gets to go to Rome to meet the pope. Jennifer Tilly, Lainie Kazan, and the late Gwen Verdon have cameos in this surprisingly affecting fable.

TV Notes

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (11/28; 8:30 to 10 p.m.; Cinemax), narrated by RuPaul Charles, seems at the start to be making cruel fun of the singing televangelist who wore too much mascara, as if Johnny Carson hadn't retired after all. But it quickly becomes clear that worse was done to her -- by her corrupt ex-husband Jim Bakker, the oleaginous Jerry Falwell, the ever-obliging Jessica Hahn, even the gleeful media -- than Tammy Faye ever did to anyone. Her "electric Christianity" at least reached out to include gays and aids patients. And her singing is much to be preferred to Christian rock groups like Creed.

David Blaine: Frozen in Time (11/29; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) will include the magician's escape after 58 hours inside a block of ice on the corner of Broadway and 44th Street (not included on the preview cassette because it will be live). Meanwhile, along with guest stars like Kevin Spacey, Lenny Kravitz, Michael J. Fox, and the Knicks, we watch him perform some lesser tricks and travel to exotic places.

Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks (11/30; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; HBO), produced by Denzel Washington, narrated by Alfre Woodard, celebrates the 88th birthday of the photographer, filmmaker, novelist, and musician, from Fort Scott, Kansas, where he was born, to New York City, where he became famous for his pictures in Life magazine, to Hollywood, where he wrote and directed The Learning Tree.

In His Life: The John Lennon Story (December 3; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC), filmed on location in Liverpool, follows the Beatle from age 16 to age 24 -- from his first guitar to the Ed Sullivan show. With Blair Brown as the worried aunt who raised him, and Phillip McQuillan as a rough and passable John. Not only do we get the music the band covered in Liverpool and Hamburg, as well as the music they were beginning to write, but also a kind of memoryscape where Abbey Road, "Strawberry Fields," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Penny Lane" all show up, and it doesn't seem the least bit hokey. It just seems terribly sad.


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