Sunday, September 4, 2011

Radio Free Albemuth

Radio Free Albemuth
by Michael Dare

John Simon's new film of Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth is proof positive that mind boggling science fiction can feature battling human beings instead of battling robots.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
- Philip K. Dick 
"I don't believe anybody. Even the most knowledgeable person on any subject has only a small fraction of the big picture. Whatever anyone says, you add it or subtract if from the big picture. Multiplication and division are out. As soon as you start multiplying and dividing the big picture by individual pieces that happen to fit together, you end up with a sum that's far from a summation."
- Kilgore Trout -
Philip K. Dick is such a good writer you almost wish Hollywood had never discovered him, that he could have remained the overlooked genius, the fanciful madman whose ideas were so profound he could barely find the words to describe them, completely beyond the realm of cinematic translation. There's an alternate universe where that happened, but we live in the universe where this happened...

Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick (who died before Blade Runner came out)

Why PKD isn't the subject of the same adulation as Stephen King, with rows and rows in every book store and library of everything he's ever written, remains a mystery. Search for Philip K. Dick in the sci/fi section of any but a specialty shop and you're lucky to see two or three, but it's not like fans are bereft of material. There are annual Philip K. Dick awards, his wife has written a memoir called Searching for Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is now a highly-praised graphic novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is supposedly being made by the producers of Terminator, Nottingham Trent University has an annual PKD Day celebration, The Adjustment Bureau is now Available on Blu ray and DVD, and in an alternate universe, Amazon will give you one of them for free just by mentioning my name, but that still doesn't explain why The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch isn't in every Borders. (There must be some other reason.)
Just to get it out of the way, from this point on I will continue to refer to Philip K. Dick as PKD because I inadvertently wrote a headline that went something like Radio Free Albemuth, a triumph of Dick, thus causing a cavalcade of inappropriate dick jokes to echo through the shadowy hallways of my demented brain, and which will be corralled into this paragraph and this paragraph alone. One of the difficulties of writing about Dick is not in figuring out how many people were influenced by his work but how to do so without creating inadvertent dick jokes. If I were to mention Philip Jose Farmer or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., if I were to say Farmer this or Vonnegut that, you'd know to whom I was referring. Obviously Vonnegut is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Farmer isn't just some random farmer who wandered into the proceedings unannounced. But if I refer to the cult of Dick or how Dick always makes me laugh and how Dick changed my life completely and how I own every book with the name Dick on it, or how Dick is best enjoyed between two covers, and if I know your film involves Dick, I'm going to run to my neighborhood theater to see how you handled my precious, the reader could be excused for laughing behind my back. Philip K. Dick is harder to write about than one would imagine. Try Googling Vonnegut. Now try Googling Dick. See what I mean? 

Now that we've gotten the 300 lb. gorilla of dick jokes out of my system, it's time to point out that fans of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. might think of PKD as Kilgore Trout, the renegade lunatic science fiction writer who appears in a good half dozen of Vonnegut's own profound novels. Vonnegut's descriptions of Kilgore Trout are spot-on for the pre-Blade Runner PKD - Trout wrote over 117 novels and over 2000 short stories, and is usually described as an unappreciated science fiction writer whose works are used only as filler material in pornographic magazines. He has only two fans, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim, both Vonnegut characters who have complete collections of Trout's work.** Philip Jose Farmer's "Venus on the Half shell by Kilgore Trout" reads a lot like a Philip K. Dick novel, too. Vonnegut eventually admitted that Kilgore Trout was in fact based upon Theodore Sturgeon* (Sturgeon/Trout, get it?**), but I will always think of Trout as half Sturgeon, half Dick. (How did that dick joke get in here? Flee! Be gone to the previous paragraph!)

"So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe -- and I am dead serious when I say this -- do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new."
- Philip K. Dick: How to Build a Universe that Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later -

One day, PKD woke up from a fever dream, as have we all, wrapped up in an enigma, awaking from an alien thought pattern, surely not his own, a message from somewhere else, entering his brain, sending him thoughts from something he could only describe as a system that was vast, active, living, and intelligent, outside himself, sending him messages he could only transcribe as science fiction, making up fantastic worlds beyond imagination, but never giving himself full credit, believing in his own personal vision, that his pineal gland was crystallizing, bringing on what was once defined as senility, but which he knew as a radio transmitter, deep in his brain, a self-generating crystal set allowing him to tune into the cosmos, allowing the cosmos to contact him, a wireless remote controlling his body from somewhere else, a cosmic radio station, Radio Free Albemuth, transmitting the word of the VALIS, the Vast Active Living Intelligent System that spoke through him, PKD, writer of fanciful novels that lived in the vast underbelly of alternative universes we've all grown so used to ignoring. 

Specifically, Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics states that every time the universe has a choice between different realities, it literally splits into every one, creating an eternity of alternate universes where every possible thing that can happen, does happen. This theory, like the theory of gravity and the theory of relativity, has yet to be disproven. How could one disapprove such a thing? You can't. It's a theory that can't be disproven, which was proof enough to PKD. He believed deeply in this theory and his novels show it. In his novels, things happen that can only possibly be explained by the alternate universe theory. PKD knew he wasn't making this shit up, that there actually WAS an alternative universe in which the Axis won WWII, like in The Man in the High Castle, Europe was given to Germany while Japan got the Americas, and everyone was reading a book about another alternative universe, ours, where the allies won the war. It was inevitable because everything that can happen, does happen. The universe splits into another universe every time something different can happen, which is infinitely, every second of your reality, you've just chosen to follow the path you're on, but in another universe, you didn't eat those little chocolate donuts.

It was a pink light, beaming directly to his brain from somewhere in space, a satellite, an overwhelming religious experience that shook him to the core. According to We'll always have VALIS, "Phil dedicated the rest of this life to understanding these visions. He wrote constantly about them, producing a 8000 page exegesis," a massive raving about the nature of the universe that was either genuine divine intervention, the ravings of a drug-addled lunatic losing his grip on reality, or simply symptoms of the stroke that would kill him months later. (To me, much of Exegesis, at least the parts one can read online, the unreadable rants about Jesus, Spinoza, the trinity, the nature of Karma and enlightenment, are products of a mind that has mysteriously lost its humor. He takes himself so serious you just want him to snap out of it, thanks for the profundity without entertainment value, so good luck finding a film in it.)

Either way, there is irony in the fact that the mad preposterous ravings of one science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard are accepted as gospel by millions of Scientologists, whereas the comparatively rational ravings of PKD, which match up pretty constantly with accepted parallel reality theory, have to be treated as science fiction. One can just as easily imagine a world, which must exist somewhere, where VALIS is a true religion with millions of followers of the divine words of PKD, while the works of L. Ron Hubbard are turned into bad John Travolta movies. 

 As the keeper of this monumental truth, PKD found himself in a quandary. He found Scientology vile and refused to do the same thing, even though he knew he was right, that he had found the one true religion, that we were all radio receivers, using the crystals in our pineal glands to get our orders from beyond, not god, not Yahweh, just a vast active living intelligent system that we might as well call VALIS.

I'll leave it to writer/director John Simon to explain the difference between PKD's novel VALIS and PKD's novel Radio Free Albemuth, but let it be said that no other novel of his is more personal or more paranoid. PKD took his own personal dealings with VALIS, the fever dreams keeping him up at night, and gave them to a fictional character named Nicholas Brady, while making himself Nick's best friend Phil trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Is his friend nuts or what? Who could believe such a thing?

In the movie, as in the book, it's real, there's no need for a spoiler alert, right away, we see the satellites sending their transmissions down to Nick, so we know it's really happening. What's more mysterious is the world this takes place in. Where are we? Yet another alternate reality, much like the one in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, where everything is ALMOST right, a deliberately incongruous mixture of technologies and politics, part 1984, part Richard Nixon on steroids.

Radio Free Albemuth (written in 1976 and published posthumously in 1985*) is very much PKD's adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. The original was published in 1948, Orwell just switched the last two numbers to come up with a date 36 years in the future where the world has gone through horrible unimaginable changes. In 1976, 1984 was just over the horizon, PKD could see it coming, only with Nixon in office it wasn't so unimaginable. He could write a REAL 1984 by changing very little. Radio Free Albemuth takes place in an alternate reality that's damn close to the real America of the 80s.

Even if you've never read a word PKD has written, even if you've only seen a few of the films based upon his novels, how can anyone see Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, or The Adjustment Bureau and not ask themselves who is the mind-blistering madman who made all this shit up.

Just as I will always picture Jack Nicholson in Reds whenever I think of Eugene O'Neill, I will always picture Shea Whigham in Radio Free Albemuth whenever I think of PKD. It's a tricky performance to pull off since, in the context of what's happening, he's the sane one, the rational science fiction writer with the emphasis on fiction. What's happening to his friend Nicholas (Jonathan Scarfe) simply cannot be happening in real life, even though he makes up even more implausible stories every day. It's a restrained and fascinating performance, but Simon gets great performances all around, from Alanis Morrissette as a mysterious songstress with her own relationship to VALIS, to Katheryn Winnick, who plays the traditional long suffering wife who doesn't know if her husband is going crazy, with passion and grace. 

The lack of chase scenes and pumped-up CGI lunacy is actually one of the charms of the film. It's low budget because this is all it takes to tell the story, which is intellectual, political, musical, and scientific, in fact, everything good science fiction should be. The fact the SyFy channel has degenerated into one cheesy monster flick after another, as though nothing has changed in the science fiction world since Creature from the Black Lagoon, instead of featuring films like this that stretch the human imagination, is just appalling. No wonder they changed their name. They're to science fiction what Sunny Delight is to Orange Juice.

Radio Free Albemuth opens up the Pandora's Box of the VALIS trilogy. I hope Hollywood is smart enough to let Simon explore it further. Mindfucks this massive deserve proper care and treatment. 

"The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not."
- Philip K. Dick: How to Build a Universe that Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later -

The epitaph on Kilgore Trout's tombstone reads, "Life is no way to treat an animal." Guess what Philip K. Dick's tombstone reads?

He said it, I didn't.


* correctly quoted from Wikipedia
** deliberately misquoted from Wikipedia
***actually remembered
****remembered from a dream state, somewhere between a hallucination and consciousness, where the boundaries between fact and fiction are non-existent and people who use footnotes aren't automatically assumed to be ripping off David Foster Wallace.

If I've failed to mention any of Simon's other projects like The Getaway and Wicker Man, or Katheryn Winnick's brilliant performance on House MD, or Shea Whigham's outstanding bit in Boardwalk Empire, it's only because I expect you to do your own research. What am I, the fucking IMDB?

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