The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick
Directed by Mark Steensland and Andy Massagli
First Run Features
Philip K. Dick was to some a sci-fi writer, to others nearly a messiah. The truth lies somewhere in between. An extremely prolific writer, he is best known these days as a writer whose material has found a home in Hollywood (years too late to do the perennially poor Dick any good). Blade Runner, from his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is perhaps the best known, but Total Recall was based on his story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale,” and the new Tom Cruise epic, “Minority Report” is from another Dick short story. His overriding theme of questioning reality seems more apt today than ever, and his greatest novels — The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, or Dr. Bloodmoney seem even more relevant today than when they were written in ’50s or ’60s.
But nearly as interesting, and certainly as unexplainable as his fiction sometimes was, was PKD’s life. According to him, a break-in of his home in 1974 was either: A) A plot hatched by government agents; B) Divine intervention in Dick’s life; or C) Something he did himself, and forgot. He claimed to have been visited by a being that fed him information via a pink beam of light. All of this sounds nuts — and he was the first to admit such — but the events fueled the last decade of his writing, a period of time that saw the creation of a works concerning the events — such as Valis in 1981, or the 8,000 page Exegesis, which was never fully published. Paranoid, perhaps drug-addled, his mind was able to grasp entire universes in a thought, and spin tangent after tangent. Any glimpse into his psyche is fascinating — a look behind the screen, as it were.
Almost any glimpse, I should say, because this film, newly released on DVD, does its subject (as well as any viewer) a grave disservice. Containing no historical information, focusing totally on his last ten years, this film is a mish-mash of interviews with his friends and co-writers (including Robert Anton Wilson, author of The Illuminatus Trilogy and Ray Nelson, with whom Dick wrote The Ganymede Takeover) as well as those who wrote about PKD, including Crawdaddy magazine founder Paul Williams, who wrote a 1975 profile on Dick for Rolling Stone magazine that brought increased interest in the writer, as well as Only Apparently Real, a work based on his interviews and writings about PKD. A portion of Williams’s interview with Dick is included, using only PKD’s words — from the mouth of an animated caricature of the author. Once or twice, this technique is cute. Repeated over and over in a film, it becomes incredibly tedious, to the point you begin to loathe the film and its makers. When biographical information has to be imparted, the “virtual” PKD laboriously rolls in a sheet of paper into a cartoon manual typewriter, types the information, and places it on a table. Over and over again. It begins to set your teeth on edge.
When a film includes interviews with Web masters of fan sites about the subject (as this film does, with two different people), then you can assume a few things: A) these guys aren’t the D.A. Pennebakers of sci-fi documentary; and B) seemingly no one in Dick’s family assisted in the making of the film, since no interviews with them are included, nor are any pictures of him. In fact, the only images of him (that aren’t cartoons) occur when a brief shot of the Rolling Stone article is shown. This film reduces one of America’s greatest writers to a paranoiac, rambling buffoon — or so says the people they interviewed. If you didn’t know anything about Dick before watching this movie, you’d know even less afterward. If you had read his writings, and longed for any further information about his genius, then you walk away from this movie in disgust. It is at best incomplete, at worst, disrespectful of a rare talent. Philip K. Dick is due far better.
First Run Features: http://www.firstrunfeatures.com