Friday, June 1, 2007
Stranger Than Fiction
I just finished watching this movie and it's surprisingly good - in no small part because they stole some moves from the PKD playbook.
From a review of the film on the Internet Movie Database:
"The film involves Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent who lives his life by a very strict routine. One day, he wakes up, and begins to hear a woman narrating all of his actions. Suspicious, Crick continues attempting to live his life out, but after an inexplicable comment in regards to his "imminent death", he goes on the hunt for the voice. Randomly spliced into Crick's search is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). She is writing a novel about a character named Harold Crick, and is unknowingly the voice Crick keeps hearing. She is battling a case of writer's block, and spends much of the film attempting to come up with the finale for the character."
Ferrell's character is an average guy, pushing papers in a government bureaucracy. Even his ambitions are humble: strum a few chords on a Fender Strat and make a little love with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Like Dick's most memorable characters, Crick's life is built around routine, giving the viewer a sense that in the current action we are seeing this person far out of his depths.
Ferrell's character feels genuine which is what makes the movie work. We have to believe in his existence in order to swallow the plot. Reader lrjp! hipped me to K-Punk's line on 'The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and Ferrell's performance here drove home Punk's point:
"We’re so habituated to cinema’s default glamour that it’s shocking to see the opening close-ups of Jim Carrey, all rumples and wrinkles, non-designer stubble, disordered hair. Kaufman’s dialogue, with its longeurs, and its awkward, unwitting revelations is the spoken equivalent of this visual sobriety. Despite what you may have heard, Eternal Sunshine is, in every good way, muted: there’s none of the sleek black gloss of The Matrix trilogy. It refuses to Turn the Contrast Up in the way that is de rigeur in contemporary media."
That's spot on about Jim Carey in 'Sunshine...' and true for Ferrell in 'Stranger Than Fiction' as well. I have always thought that Dick adaptations go bad when Hollywood attempts to glom conventional sci-fi elements onto Dick's simmering internal narratives, but perhaps it is when Hollywood attempts to put a sheen on Dick's realities, to make his worlds shiny patent leather and chrome rather than dust and rust, that these stories begin to feel flat.
In perhaps the most Dickian exchange in the movie Crick asks a therapist for advice:
Crick: What if what I said was true. Hypothetically speaking - if I was part of a story a narrative - even if it was only in my mind, what would you suggest I do?
Dr. Mittag-Leffler: I would suggest you take prescribed medication.
The central question for the first two acts of the film is whether or not Crick is crazy. Is he hearing voices or is he in fact a character in a literary masterpiece?
I noted in my masters thesis that often in Dick's fiction an alternate reality will appear in which the protagonist is far more significant and necessary. I think this is one of Dick's most powerful literary techniques: By creating alternate realities that appear both ontologically stable and psychologically appealing to his characters, Dick crafts realities that can be seen as entirely real or utterly delusional.
Emmanuel Carrere in his book 'I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K Dick' argued that Philip K Dick wrote the 1958 masterpiece 'Time Out of Joint' as a shot at psychiatric medicine. Carrere has Dick thinking:
"What if his delusions were in fact an accurate description of reality? What if Freud is just another self-righteous know-it-all, pathologizing a man who understood better what was going on."
Ascribing this mindset to Dick oversimplifies, in fact completely misses the brilliance of, the ending of 'Time Out of Joint.' In order to achieve a truly Dickian reality breakdown all objective measures of reality must be either removed or discredited.
In his biography, Philip K. Dick, Douglas Mackey writes, “[TOoJ's protagonist Ragle Gumm] vacillates between doubting his own sanity and doubting that of the world he lives in. There is no absolute reference point from which to evaluate the relative validity of subject and object” (Mackey 28).
It’s almost always crazy to think that you’re the most important person in the world – unless, of course, you are. In 'Time Out of Joint,' Dick constructed the rare situation in which all of the symptoms of a paranoid delusion turn out to be accurate perceptions. Or the character's gone completely off his nut. Dick's best works never let the reader off the hook at the end. These works serve to remind us that we should always put quotations around the word "reality."
So while this scene with the therapist may seem reminiscent of a PKD-novel it is a simplification of his formula since Crick is clearly shown to be sane, the voice he hears in his head is real. While this complicates the boundaries between the "real" world and a fictive world, it does not destabilize either reality which I think would have been too great a temptation for Dick to resist had he been the screenwriter.