Slate PKD article: forked

Joseph S. Barrera III
Mon, 29 Apr 2002 08:47:58 -0700

Just in case the Slate article becomes unavailable,
I wanted to fork it for posterity...

and buried at the end of the article is a link to
more writing from Star about PKD:

The Filming of Philip K. Dick
By Alexander Star
Posted Thursday, April 25, 2002, at 1:15 PM PT

[ Still from Minority Report ]

When the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick died in 1982, he had just 
returned from a screening of Blade Runner, the first of many movies that 
would be made from his work. Dick was impressed: Though he had hoped to 
see Victoria Principal play the leading female role, he was nonetheless 
quite pleased by the film's night-soaked atmosphere and paranoid style. 
In an interview, he praised director Ridley Scott's creation of a 
grimily futuristic cityscape. "It's not a hygienically pristine space 
colony which looks like a model seen at the Smithsonian Institute," he 
said. "No, this is a world where people live. And the cars use gas and 
are dirty and there is a kind of gritty rain falling and it's smoggy. 
It's just terribly convincing when you see it."

Dick has a great deal to offer the filmmaker, and Hollywood has 
responded by making a number of movies from his vast repertoire of 
novels, short stories, and searching mystical investigations; the latest 
is Minority Report, which is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Tom 
Cruise. But are these movies convincing? Over the course of four 
decades, Dick worked ingenious variations on the questions of "what is 
real?" and "what is human?" He created hallucinations and hallucinations 
within hallucinations, interlocking time loops, and extravagant 
conspiracies. Under pressure from his publishers, he also included a 
good deal of flashy gadgetry and extraterrestrial warfare. (He wrote a 
novel called The Zap Gun because his editor wanted a book with that 
title.) Underlying everything was his succinctly stated suspicion that 
the world is "a forgery (& our memories also)."

Not surprisingly, Hollywood has been more entranced with Dick's 
reality-bending premises than with his efforts to understand how human 
beings might actually live in a world where they cannot trust 
appearances. It has turned his humble employees into muscle-bound 
superheroes and replaced his wry humor ("God is responsible for 
everything, but it's hard to get him to admit it") with crowd-pleasing 
laugh lines ("Consider that a divorce," crows Arnold Schwarzenegger in 
Total Recall after killing his wife played by Sharon Stone).

This is a shame, because Dick's novels are remarkable not only for their 
head-spinning reality games and sci-fi melodrama; they are also marked 
by the modesty and fragility of their protagonists and by the mordant 
humor with which those protagonists make sense of their bewildering 
lives. His books are strewn with hapless repairmen, lonely truck 
drivers, and timid bureaucrats who must cope with the unexpected and 
unbearable breakdown of reality. And yet when Arnold Schwarzenegger 
plays one of Dick's "lowly clerks" in Total Recall, the effect is 
entirely lost. There's a certain power to the scene in which 
Schwarzenegger's Douglas Quaid watches the videotaped statement of a man 
who tells him, "You are not you; you're me." But there's little urgency 
to Quaid's ensuing quest for his true self, since it seems unlikely that 
this introspection-free hulk ever had one to begin with. (As the makers 
of the Terminator series understood, Schwarzenegger is far more 
convincing playing an automaton than a human being.) Total Recall, 
derived from the story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" and 
directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a better science fiction thriller than 
most, but it hardly does justice to the spirit of Dick's writing. And 
despite a strong ending, the 1995 film Screamers, which was based on 
Dick's story "Second Variety," is more generic still; it makes Total 
Recall seem like a work of the greatest subtlety.

Minority Report, to be released this summer, is about a police agency 
that identifies and incarcerates murderers before they actually commit 
their crimes. Though this might sound like a fantasy sprung from the 
head of John Ashcroft, it is actually another of Dick's fearful 
scenarios, and one might hope that Spielberg will make a film that 
combines philosophical paradox with human drama. In A.I., after all, 
Spielberg created something at once chilling and poignant out of the 
typically Dick-ian effort to locate human feeling in a world that is 
"metal and cruel." But the choice of Tom Cruise as star augurs badly. 
His smug performance as a playboy magazine heir in Vanilla Sky 
undermined a potentially interesting film that also carried undeniable 
Dick-ian overtones.

Even Blade Runner, which is an arresting film, omits the most powerful 
elements of its source, Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric 
Sheep? Both the novel and the film tell the story of Rick Deckard, a 
bounty hunter whose job is to hunt down and kill the androids who escape 
from Earth's colonies on Mars. Ridley Scott's vision of a mechanical 
world is a haunting one: After one of the androids destroys his human 
creator, the camera turns to record the blank stare of the mechanical 
owl who had seen it all. And yet Scott downplays Deckard's struggles to 
make sense of his cruel calling. In the book, Deckard is beset with a 
troubled marriage and money problems; he agrees to take on a final 
android-killing mission because he wants to replace the unimpressive 
mechanical sheep he keeps on his roof with a real live pet. But in the 
film, Deckard (who is played by Harrison Ford) has no wife and no pet 
and no financial troubles; he takes the mission after his boss goads him 
with the words, "You know the score; if you're not a cop, you're little 
people." Most significantly, Scott ignores Deckard's emotional reactions 
to his work. In Dick's novel, when Deckard feels nothing for the 
androids he kills, he wonders if this might be a sign that he too is 
merely a machine, a creature defined by "the flattening of affect." But 
when Deckard does begin to develop some empathy for his victims, he 
wonders if this also might be an indication that he is an android. Scott 
skips over this fascinating set of conundrums. The movie goes much 
further than the novel in suggesting that Deckard actually is an 
android; but it leaves out Deckard's own grapplings with the question of 
his identity.

Of course, Dick has influenced many films that fall outside the format 
of the Hollywood action picture. In 1992, the French director Jerome 
Boivin based his movie Confessions d'un Barjo on Dick's bitterly comic 
novel Confessions of a Crap Artist. It's an offbeat and engaging, if 
somewhat slight film. Dick's novel, which was set in the outer reaches 
of Marin County, concerns a grown-up misfit who has never outlived his 
teen-age enthusiasm for collecting milk bottle caps and strange ideas 
from science fiction novels. He lives with his sister and her husband in 
a large, comfortable house in the woods; he torments them with his 
foolishly earnest questions, but his naive transgressions hardly compare 
to the couple's brutal treatment of each other. Boivin skillfully 
transposes this black-hearted sendup of suburban ennui into the French 
countryside. Barjo himself is a convincingly awkward young man; with a 
deranged exuberance, he asks the leader of a local doomsday cult whether 
he will be able to return his library books before "la fin du monde." 
Boivin balances green lawns and bucolic woods against a succession of 
acrylic walls and mustard-yellow clothes; the result somehow conveys 
both the loneliness of rural isolation and the toxicity of a mechanical 
civilization choking on its own exhaust.

But the best cinematic treatment of Dick's concerns may be a movie with 
no explicit connection to any of his writings: last year's Memento. The 
materials of the film are deliberately generic: We trace a tired murder 
mystery through the anonymous motels, deserted warehouses, and leafy 
villas of the B-movie ecosystem. Against this plain backdrop, the film's 
cognitive dislocations stand out dramatically. The protagonist, like 
Quaid in Total Recall, has a defective memory and must struggle to 
furnish his life with even the most minimal sense of temporal 
continuity. It soon becomes clear that Memento's scenes are presented in 
the reverse order of the plot's chronology; viewers can only make sense 
of the film when they realize that effects precede causes rather than 
follow them. Dick himself was fascinated by the reversal of time. 
Influenced by a case study by the existential psychoanalyst Ludwig 
Binswanger, he returned again and again to the notion of a moldering 
"tomb world" where all the usual processes of growth and development 
that characterize life are reversed. In his spectacular 1969 novel UBIK, 
he envisioned a strange environment where everyday objects revert to 
earlier versions of themselves: Sleek modern elevators and airplanes 
become antiques, and "all the cigarettes in the world are stale." In a 
film scenario for the novel, Dick suggested the use of older and older 
film stocks and directing techniques as the film progressed. (Nothing 
ever came of it, though John Lennon did express some interest in filming 
Dick's equally remarkable novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.)

The latest news from the theater of Philip K. Dick is that Richard 
Linklater may direct A Scanner Darkly, Dick's study of a drug-addled 
policeman in a futuristic Orange County. It's one of Dick's best novels, 
and Linklater may be the director the book deserves. In Waking Life, 
Linklater had his rambling philosophical soliloquists invoke Dick as 
they pondered the impossibility of distinguishing reality from a dream; 
the film's brightly colored animation of live action scenes suggested 
the "double exposure" of realities that Dick wrote about obsessively in 
his later years. I had reservations about Waking Life, but I suspect 
Dick would have loved it. And one can imagine Linklater finding his way 
through the peculiar thickets of logic and illogic that make up A 
Scanner Darkly. In Dazed and Confused, Linklater had Matthew 
McConaughey's aging stoner Wooderson return to his old school to deliver 
the immortal line: "That's what I love about these high-school girls, 
man. I get older, they stay the same age." In A Scanner Darkly, the 
drugged-up, schizoid cop Bob Arctor senses that his world has become 
truly unfathomable: "You know something," he observes with mounting 
anxiety and confusion, "I used to be the same age as everyone else."

Related on the Web

Dick's most ardent fans can be found here:

Click here to read Alexander Star survey
Dick's literature more extensively:

and here for the Minority Report trailer:

Alexander Star is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. This fall, he will 
begin editing the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe.

Still from Minority Report by David James  2002 20th Century Fox and 
DreamWorks. All rights reserved.

The filming of Philip K. Dick.
posted April 25, 2002
Alexander Star

What did you think of this article?
Join the Fray, our reader discussion forum

Notes From The Fray Editor:

A couple of readers mentioned the film The Truman Show as having been 
influenced by Dick. There was also much discussion of the details of 
Blade Runner: for example here from Flying Monkey.

Reader Comments From The Fray:

Movies allow the viewer to mainline sensory input through two senses at 
once at warp speed. If a moviegoer is sitting there thinking about plot 
nuances, that moviegoer is missing the next scene and losing the plot.

The deeper impact of movies comes from subtle visual cues. Ridley 
Scott's brilliant rendering of the backgrounds in Blade Runner are a 
perfect case in point. After an hour and forty minutes of the scenery in 
Blade Runner, you don't want to live in that world. This is how Scott 
partially compensates for not having forty pages to devote to describing 
the scenery the way a typical novel would.


(To find or answer this post, click here.)

First of all, I must say that I'm surprised a film of Confession of a 
Crap Artist was ever made--not because the novel makes for a poor 
source, but because other than the lunacy that occurs inside the 
protagonist's head, it contains none of the usual gimcrackery of 
paperback science fiction. As for the films of Dick's works, that they 
neglect the existential suffering of their protagonists (and 
antagonists) should surprise no one. Serious fiction, as does serious 
film, attempts to convey truth through the suspension of disbelief--that 
is, as Dick might argue, if there is anything true at all. 
Unfortunately, most filmmakers these days, like most of the sci-fi pulp 
authors with whom Dick had to compete for the fan's dollar, are all too 
willing to be dazzled by the illusions that are the tools of their 
respective trades. Yet Dick endures. And why not? Someone has to poke 
this country in its materialistic eye. Ursula LeGuin said it best: "He 
is our homegrown Borges." Amen to that.

--The Escapist

(To find or answer this post, click here.)


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