Watching Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth, a 2007 Argentine documentary, directed by Emiliano Larre, is an exercise in watching a solid work about a mediocre subject. Philip K. Dick is one of those mechanistic sci fi writers who lacked any insight into the human condition because he spent his own life in solipsistic fantasies, detached from the real world, and in a state of borderline neurosis and psychosis. What he actually lacked was vision. Yes, he had ‘visions,’ in the sense that he would sometimes have inner fictions play out in his mind, but ALL artists have this, at some point. Only truly crazy people believe they are real; and this schism is what points the way to why Dick is far more notable a nut than a writer.
I started off my review of his Selected Stories by stating:
Let me start by debunking three of the critical myths about Philip K. Dick: 1) He is in no way shape nor form as great a writer as Franz Kafka. 2) Like most sci fi writers his stories are long on machinations (albeit often clever) and very short on characterization, and especially realistic dialogue. 3) He is in no sense of the word a surrealist. Unlike Kafka PKD could never get inside a character. In a sense his characters are all philosophical zombies in a medium whose essence is designed to show the exact opposite of that. Kafka could, for every man is K or Josef K., while PKD’s characters are merely everymen. This is not semantics, but archetype vs. stereotype and classicism vs. genericism. As for surrealism? Given the ‘hardness’ of PKD’s sci fi tales the term simply doesn’t apply, for we are always in a crystal cut universe, and not one of the gooey DNA from which surrealism is cut.
In the years since that review, and in other works of Dick that I’ve read, nothing has changed the above stated criticism. In fact, it’s only been vastly more supported.
This 89 minute film only deepens and hardens my earlier insights. Its strengths are the interviews with Dick’s five ex-wives and several girlfriends, and how their own manifest neuroses seemed to only add into Dick’s. The fact that Dick, this mediocrity, with little in the way of social skills, and almost no public speaking skills (scenes of a speech given to a sci fi convention in France, in 1977, show Dick painfully unaware of the rolling eyes and giggles in the audience, which includes his then embarrassed girlfriend), whose tales are good premises that inevitably fail for their predictable tropes and insane silliness, has become a post-mortem sci fi legend, is an absurdity that his fans would gleefully snicker is Dickian.
But the film also augurs Dick’s eventual literary fate following that of his premature death, at the age of 53, for his own essential personal hollowness is immanent in his writings. Here is a man who longed to connect with his dead sister- a twin who lived only a few months after their births, longed to find suck on the nipple of a god, but never really could accept that limitation of his ego. But the greatest indictment comes from the talking heads of the film. His ex-wives are a mixed lot- some as insane as he was, others willing to admit he was a fruitcake. Stepdaughter Tandi Ford seems a sane voice- damning both her mother and Dick as luntics. Other sci fi writers, such as Ray Nelson, Tim Powers, K. W. Jeter, and Dan O’Bannon, alternately praise and hagiographize him, with a few also willing to condemn him as an idiot. Ironically, after decades of not being able to live off his writing, and becoming a prescription drug addict, then an illegal narcotics addict, in the last four years of his life, with many of his works being optioned for films, and his works and reputation rising, Dick was suddenly flush with money- and pissed most of it away on drugs. But, at the bottom of it all, is the fact that Dick was simply not that an interesting man. In an earlier age he would have been locked away. Lost in the shuffle of this bizarre hagiography is Dick’s middle period, where he abandoned sci fi and tried to be a ‘literary’ novelist. No one even opines on whether or not that writing was better or worse than his genre fare, although I suspect it was merely more of the same, thinly veiled into pretentious moralism.
The film, as a work of art, is at its best when it juxtaposes Dick’s manifest ills with his out of proportion critical acclaim- both pre- and postmortem, and at its worst with a lame gimmick showing Men In Black government types being ordered by a disembodied Big Brotherish voice to investigate the claims Dick made of having visions, dialoguing with God, and having government agents ransack his home and blow up his safe and file cabinet because he was getting too close to THE TRUTH (whatever that may have been), as well as others actually arguing that Dick, indeed, could see the future. Of course, this is more of the same old tired hagiographizing of artists for things besides their art, as someone as myself has led a far more interesting and diverse, as well as bizarre, life than Dick ever imagined- or could.
The film was written by Patricio Vega, who is noted as a television writer in his native country, and it is one of those films that does not depend upon great visuals, but on ideas, and, given the philosophic mish-mash that Dick’s ideas were, the resultant film can only recapitulate the mish with this mash. While Dick did deal with a few deep ideas in his work, his actual writing about them was NOT deep, but rather flippant, banal, and ephemeral. Unless you are a hardcore Dickian, this film will likely cause many to nod off, and when they wake….? They’ll likely nod off again. Sorry, but reading this piece a century after it’s written, you’ll know what I mean, and what my contemporaries have missed.