Drama Index



Vanilla Sky, 2001. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Tilda Swinton, Noah Taylor

A Beautiful Mind, 2001. Directed by Ron Howard. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany.

The Legacy of Philip K. Dick: I recently read an interesting book by Thomas M. Disch called The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. The premise of the book, for which Disch makes a compelling argument, is that the literary ghetto-genre of science fiction has shaped every aspect of the world we live in, from entertainment to fashion to industrial design to international politics to labor relations to our basic epistemology. This last item bears some further comment in relation to the films I saw this week. Basic epistemology, the way we perceive our reality, has taken a lot of hits during the last thirty years or so. The root causes of the JFK assassination, the war in Vietnam, the pollution caused by industry, and even the relationships between the sexes have given rise to the most outlandish conspiracy theories imaginable. As a society, our grip on what is real and what is paranoid delusion is tenuous at best. Small wonder that the last quarter century has given rise to an endless parade of new-age religious cults and UFO devotees. We live in a paranoid’s paradise. The Twentieth Century’s poet laureate of paranoia was Philip K. Dick.

Beginning in (roughly) 1982, the year of his death, Dick began a posthumous transformation as strange as anything in the stories he wrote. A writer of pulp science fiction, Dick’s work has slowly become one of the most influential of all bodies of literature. An amazing feat for a writer who wrote paperback originals and who never made a significant amount of money from his writing and who, late in his career, suffered a psychotic break as profound as anything he ever wrote about. Nevertheless, his ceaseless variations on reality, identity, and disillusionment have spread corrosively throughout the culture at large. Dick was always a writer’s writer, and his influence has been felt in print since the early seventies. Everytime I see an ad for "used memory" in the back of a computer magazine, I think of Dick. In 1982, the cinema began taking an interest in Dick. Through his influence on the cinema, Dick has become one of the most important writers of the age. Five movies are directly adapted from Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Confessions of a Crap Artist (Confessions d'un Barjo), and Imposter) with a sixth on the way from Steven Spielberg later this year (Minority Report). Many many more are directly influenced by Dick (The Terminator, for instance, is eerily similar to Dick’s "Second Variety;" The Truman Show is lifted almost whole from Time Out of Joint, as is The Matrix; M. Night Shyamalan’s two major films, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, trade in exactly the kind of reality dislocation and identity games that Dick pioneered). 2001 saw Dick’s influence become paramount. Memento, A.I., Mulholland Drive, and The Others, four of the year’s most important films, reflect Dick’s worldview. Add to that list Vanilla Sky and A Beautiful Mind. In both cases, I was struck by how completely Philip Dick has been assimilated into the mainstream.

Vanilla Sky, based on Alejandro Amenabar's Abre Los Ojos (which also stars Penelope Cruz), is more obviously influenced by Dick (particularly by "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale," and A Maze of Death). The film features a character who has a tenuous grip on reality and who is gripped by profound paranoia. The victim of a horrific accident caused by a jilted lover who wanted to wreck his life, he suddenly finds himself in a world where not everything is as it seems and where his life seems to be going down paths he could not have imagined. It even features a science-fictional explanation (worthy of Dick himself) for the endlessly recursive plot. It’s interesting that it hasn’t been sold to the public as a science fiction movie (even though it tacitly belongs to that genre). Too much prestige attached to the project, I guess, but anyone who sees it will recognize it for what it is. The critical reception the movie has received has been interesting, too. On the one hand, you have people like Pete Travers at Rolling Stone, who grooved on what the film is and didn’t ask it to be something it isn’t. On the other hand, you have Stephanie Zacharek at, who excoriated the film for being a "cop out," for providing the audience with a (transparent) explanation the film’s mysteries. The latter type of critics seem to be the consensus. This is particularly interesting when you compare it to the reaction these self-same critics gave Mulholland Drive, which provides no explanation for it’s mysteries. In other words, an artist must deliberately obscure his meaning when dealing with epistemology in order to be taken seriously, whereas an artist who makes his meaning clear is pandering to the popular audience. This strikes me as being completely wrong-headed and, to be frank, elitist. On the other hand, Mulholland Drive will never enter into the pop culture in the way a Tom Cruise blockbuster will—the broader marketplace of ideas exacts a toll for appealing to an elite few.

All of which, to my mind, is probably beside the point regarding this particular movie anyway. Cameron Crowe populates the film with striking imagery and fascinating peripheral characters (especially Cameron Diaz and Tilda Swinton), but leaves a sucking vacuum at the film’s center. Tom Cruise’s character is so shallow and so morally repugnant that it is difficult to sympathize with the various permutations the film puts him through. And really, given a choice between Cameron Diaz (who is electric when she is on screen) and the agreeably attractive, but thoroughly bland Penelope Cruz, who in their right minds would choose Cruz? The craft of the film is superb, but the center of the narrative is empty.

A Beautiful Mind is a completely different animal. It tells the story of John Nash, a Nobel-prize winning mathematician who also suffers from schizophrenia. This is, as the saying goes, a true story. How then, can it be influenced by the science fiction of Philip K. Dick? Funny you should ask…John Nash’s life and career find eerie parallels in the biography of Philip K. Dick, who suffered a similar psychotic break in the early seventies before proceeding to finish his life in a blaze of intellectual glory. This is merely an accident, I presume. The design of the movie, however, is a mirror image of Dick’s Time Out of Joint. In that book, Dick’s main character lives in a reality that resembles 1959 and makes his living by doing cyphers and puzzles in newspaper contests. This reality has been constructed for him by the military to insulate him from what he is REALLY doing, which is codebreaking for a hot and cold war in 1996. Compare this to the narrative structure of A Beautiful Mind, in which the reality we are given in the first half of the film has Nash recruited as a codebreaker by the military during the Cold War. The codes he is breaking are found in newspaper and magazine articles. The reality behind the reality Nash perceives is the mundane reality of 1950s academia. The parallel is almost too striking to be accidental. Since screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has as much as admitted to the press that most of the structure and incident of the film is fictitious (invented, he claims, to provide a frame work for the audience to understand both Nash's theories and his affliction--think of that what you will), I will go so far as to call it outright plagiarism.

As with Vanilla Sky, the craft on display in A Beautiful Mind is superb. Certainly, this is the performance for which Russell Crowe SHOULD have won his Oscar. During the first half of the film, I was astounded that Ron Howard and screenwriter Goldsman (who was responsible for the scripts for the Joel Schumacher Batman movies) were the makers of this film. In the last third of the film, I was reminded, forcefully, of who I was dealing with. Nash’s "solution" to dealing with schizophrenia is pie-in-the-sky love-conquers-all Hollywood hokum. It’s crap and it pissed me off. A good friend of mine was married to a schizophrenic until two years ago. She related the ordeal of living with someone who was THAT profoundly paranoid as being like sleeping in a mine field. Her ex-husband would leave razor blades in her books, would booby-trap places she was likely to walk at night with broken glass, and was self-destructive enough to merit numerous trips to the hospital due to self-mutilation. This man is now under a court order to take his medications. He is tested every month to insure that he takes them and if he isn’t, he will be carted to a sanitarium. A Beautiful Mind only hints at these kinds of horrors and presents Jennifer Connelly’s character as some kind of mothering saint. I didn’t buy it, and I know for a fact that the vast gulf of decades the film skips over in its back end were NOT as rosy as the film would have us believe. Given the overall dishonesty of the film in presenting Nash’s life and given the fact that it gives only lip service to his intellectual accomplishments (in the film demonstrated as an elaborate strategy for getting laid), provided me with no end of annoyance during its last twenty minutes or so. On the other hand, I have a hard time getting overly annoyed with a film whose big emotional climax is the presentation of the Nobel Prize.