Dune, My Dad, and Dementia

My dad was the one who first introduced me to Dune. We started with the 1984 David Lynch film, famously weird but ultimately endearing to us. I was fascinated by the universe of the movie, even to the point of annoying my dad during church the next morning with endless questions, to the point where I had to be shushed. When I was a little older I dove into the book. It was dense, complex, and a struggle to get through. I was furious when I got to the end to discover that there was a glossary that I could have been using the whole time that my loving father had neglected to tell me about. He thought it was hilarious. I’ve never forgiven him. The book rapidly grew to be one of my very favorites and I read it over and over. Though I never progressed to the rest of the series, as my dad had read them all and didn’t recommend them, Dune was always one of the pop culture bonds we shared.

My dad has dementia. It started with some vision problems soon after he retired. He was eventually diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy, an Alzheimer’s-like disease that affects the back portion of the brain that controls visual processing. He lost the ability to safely drive, to play golf, to be able to see to navigate around rooms. He’s not blind, strictly speaking, but he may as well be given his limitations. He can’t help out around the house in any way. He “watches” a lot of a TV, but most of the time he doesn’t even look at the screen, he just listens. It’s progressed far beyond his vision by now, affecting every part of his life. His general awareness of the world around him has shrunk, he talks nonsense or makes noises to himself all the time. He’s grown increasingly foul-mouthed, especially in the middle of the night. He has bathroom troubles. He’s occasionally been unable to recognize his wife of over 50 years, though he’s not quite so far gone that he doesn’t remember or recognize anyone or anything. It’s been hard on us all, especially my mother, who is an absolute saint in the way she takes care of him despite the enormous burden this is for her.

When the new version of Dune from Denis Villeneuve was announced 5 years or so ago, I was thrilled. We were due for an update, one that was both more faithful to the book while also being more accessible for a wider audience. At the time, my dad’s dementia hadn’t progressed as far as it has, and I looked forward to discussing the new Dune with him, comparing it to the book and to the 1984 film, seeing where it shined or where it fell short, analyzing the cast, debating the need to split the book into two movies, hoping part 2 would get made, etc. Given his condition, I didn’t expect the same level of conversation as we might have had when I was in high school, it was still something I was excited about.

Of course, by the time the movie was released in October of last year my father’s condition had changed significantly from even just five years before. I still wanted to take him to see it, but I kept coming up with various excuses to not do it. I couldn’t find the right time to go, or somebody was sick, or whatever. I kept making a good faith effort to plan an outing with my dad during its theatrical run, but I never treated it like it was something I really wanted to do. I think deep down I was scared. It wasn’t just the natural fear of having to manage my dad for 3 hours, safely getting him into my car, into the theater, and dealing with anything unexpected that came up, it was also the fear of disappointment. 

I knew that my hopes were destined to not come true. There’d be no exciting anticipation before the movie, no lengthy discussion afterwards. We wouldn’t debate how the movie had handled the many iconic scenes from the book, what had been changed or added or dropped. The best I could hope for would be some awareness or familiarity with certain moments. We’d talked over and over of the Gob Jabbar, so I still held onto hope that it might elicit a reaction from him when we saw it. Or perhaps the first sandworm attack on the spice harvester. Or even Dr. Yeuh and the tooth (which I had pestered him about in church all those many years ago). 

I chickened out, however. I never found an opportunity to watch it with my father. Instead I went to a late night showing with a good friend and fellow Dune fan, and that showing was everything I’d hoped it could be. A great movie with great discussion paired with it, with only a slight pang of guilt that it wasn’t with my dad. I knew he wouldn’t even know to hold it against me, but I still felt like I was letting him down. But hey, I had sort of tried to get it to work out so I could take him, but it just didn’t come together. That happens sometimes, right?

I figured that would be the end of it, but I was wrong. Since Dune was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it was given a showing at our local theater among a slate of all the Best Picture nominees. This time, for some unknown reason, my courage didn’t fail me, and I rearranged things to make sure I wouldn’t miss this opportunity again. So on a Saturday afternoon I took my 72 year old father with dementia to see Dune.

I chose seats that wouldn’t require climbing many stairs. I harassed the guy selling tickets to give me paper ticket copies. I helped my dad get his mask on. I bought popcorn for us and I even got him a Coke Icee, which used to be his favorite movie drink. I knew this could very well be the last time I ever get to go to a movie with my dad, the man who helped stoke my love of cinema and who went to a movie with me at least once a week for years and years. I was going to do everything I could to make it special for him, even if he didn’t understand.

Ultimately, that disappointment I had feared turned out to be well founded. On the way there he had asked me, “What’s the name of the movie we’re seeing about?” (His own confused way of asking what we were seeing.) I told him it was Dune and he nodded like he understood. I tried to explain that it was only the first half of the book, but I don’t know whether that meant anything to him. At the theater he couldn’t really drink his Coke Icee because fiddling with his mask and trying to drink out of a straw he can’t see is just too much to ask. He didn’t eat any popcorn. He stared into the distance during the whole movie, with no discernable reaction to anything that happened. I’d hoped for a nod at the famous line, “I hold at your neck the Gom Jabbar,” but nothing. I was struck on my second viewing, watching with my father as my primary consideration, how loud the movie is, particularly once the Harkonnens attack. Dark and loud with explosions and things that would be just indecipherable light to my dad.

There was no discussion afterwards, of course. No talk about gender-swapping Liet Kynes, or the design of the film, or where they decided to split the story. No talk about how we felt about Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Not even any real acknowledgement of the movie at all. Still, I was glad I took him. It did him no harm, it gave my mom a nice quiet afternoon to herself, and it was nice to be able to share that with my dad even if he got nothing from it.

I’m not far from being able to take my son, who is three and a half, to the movies. We’ve had plenty of fun watching all kinds of animated movies at home, both new and classics. He does a good job of sitting still for a movie at home, so he’d probably do just fine in a theater, though we’re going to wait until he’s been vaccinated for Covid before we take him out somewhere like that. Still, I may never get the chance to see a movie with both my dad and my son in the theater. It’s possible within a short while my dad might be in some kind of assisted living situation, and my son may never get to make that kind of multi-generation movie memory like I did with my dad and grandfather.

But despite the disappointment and the sadness, the realizations that the man who raised me isn’t the same as he used to be and that many doors are now closed that I’d hoped would remain open, there’s a positive memory from our movie outing that will always stick with me. It’s one that ultimately has nothing to do with Dune. Before I left to pick up my dad to go to the movie I gave some serious thought to what to listen to in the car. I normally just listen to audiobooks when I drive, but I wanted some music that I thought he’d enjoy.

I ended up picking the 1994 album Cracked Rear View by Hootie and the Blowfish. I could have gone with the Beatles, or CSNY, or Simon and Garfunkel, or any of a dozen other groups that he taught me to love in the same way he taught me to love Dune, but I went with Hootie, which got regular play in my house as a kid. As soon as I pulled the music up in my car, my dad got a huge grin on his face. He sang along to every song in his own creaking way, despite clearly not remembering many of the words or being able to carry a tune. The music jogged something in his memory and every song felt familiar to him. He smiled and sang the whole way there and the whole way back, and from now on whenever I think of Dune I’ll remember my dad, beaten down by the ravages of time, brought back to life by this familiar music. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for from an outing to a movie we both would have looked forward to 10 or more years ago, but it was a moment of connection, a moment of happiness, and a reminder that the dad I love is still inside him and is still human. It’s not everything, but it’s enough.