Way back when I started this blog (a little over a year ago) one of my first posts was about an Italian scholar named Frasca Gabriele and his contention that the 1946 Frank Capra film "It's A Wonderful Life" may very well have inspired PKD's notion of false realities. In that post I quoted another Italian Dick-head, Umberto Rossi, as saying,
"Well, I saw [the film] yesterday and I have to admit it's so true it's almost ludicrous. The Cosmic Puppets comes from that. But also other things (the scene in CASTLE where Tagomi visits our world, plus some aspects of UBIK)."
Well I just finished watching the movie and I have to agree. Especially after reading The Cosmic Puppets.
Whether or not PKD was consciously influenced by Capra's film or the short story it was based upon is irrelevant. The moral of Capra's film is the moral in any number of PKD stories: that in small and seemingly insignificant ways people are heroes; ordinary people, through kindness, and most importantly, through a kind of empathic connection to those around them, make this world real for us. It's late so I'll just quote Ursula Le Guin:
"There are no heroes in Dick's books but there are heroics. One is reminded of Dickens: what counts is the honesty, constancy, kindness and patience of ordinary people."
Everybody has seen 'It's A Wonderful Life' right?
I hadn't. I recognized some of the lines, and the famous scenes, but I didn't know the story. And, my friends, the Dickian lies in the details here, so please allow me to recap.
Capra's protagonist George Bailey (famously, and I must say brilliantly, portrayed by little Jimmy Stewart) is torn between his own dreams of travel and adventure, and carrying on his family's small loan business after his kindly old father dies suddenly of a stroke. George decides to postpone his dreams of "kicking off the dust of this old town" and stays in New Bedford in order to continue the family business as it battles with Scrooge-like tycoon Henry F Potter who embodies miserly greed completely untempered by any compassion for the townspeople upon whom his shadow falls. Imagine Montgomery Burns without the gentle ethics of Smithers to restrain his malevolence.
When George's uncle accidentally loses an $8000 deposit to the bank, threatening not only the family business but possible jail time for George on charges of fraud or embezzlement, George considers throwing himself off a bridge so that his family can collect his life insurance policy and settle his debts. Of course, a Twain-reading angel (second class) named Clarence shows George what the world would be like if he had never been born.
What's important in relation to PKD's work is the way the Joe-everyman hero, of modest means and high ethics, is set against the knife-edge of ruthless, cutthroat, Wall Street-style capitalism (uh, there's this one book called Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch that is kind of like that). In fact the entire town of Bedford Falls lies in the balance. In the reality in which George was never born, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, the entire city transformed into a den of iniquity with bars, Burlesque houses, boxing arenas, pimps, hos - you know, straight thug life. You gotta see the way Stewart plays this. His panic upon discovering the "wrongness" of this reality is so perfectly Dickian - don't you think?).
Note to actors in this Ubik film this is how you play it.
In the most Dickian scene never featured in a PKD book, George Bailey stumbles around the dusty, decaying house he shares with his wife and family in his other reality. He's brushing aside cobwebs and dust, searching desperately for his family in his new reality of decay and emotional emptiness.
Of course when he finally sees his wife Mary (an old-maid librarian in this reality) he delivers his famous, "Mary, Mary, don't know me?" line.
While on the surface 'It's A Wonderful Life' appears to be a pretty straightforward anti-suicide, pro-God, Jesus, and family pic, a little deeper, it's is a scathing indictment against Ayn-Rand-style capitalistic greed. That's not to say that the film is anti-capitalism (or a Marxist critique of any kind), but rather that it promotes the same kind of honorable, decent, marketplace that PKD venerates in his books: small business owners who sweep the sidewalks in front of their store before it opens (I think you need more than two hands to count the number of times this scene has appeared in various PKD books); banks that provide loans that enable lower-middle class workers to buy a home; small town business, handshake deals, and a code of honor. The kind of business ethics I like to imagine PKD learned from his boss and mentor Herb Hollis. What both the movie and PKD's work seem to reject is ruthless capitalism, dehumanized capitalism, Palmer Eldritch-style capitalism, corporate thug capitalism. George Bailey, like so many of Dick's characters holds this tide of oligarchical evil at bay by simply by adhering to a higher ethical standard.
What's more 'It's A Wonderful Life' depicts the celestial world of Heaven as a fundamentally bureaucratic one in which angels are given ranks and promotions, and where prayers, when enough people say them, can get God of his couch and into action.
I'm currently reading Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, and there are a number of similarities to 'It's A Wonderful Life': basically both depict people encountering worlds where they never existed. But a book like The Penultimate Truth also resonates with the film because in that novel the fake reality is perpetuated for profit. Similar to 'The Matrix', there is a stake in maintaining the illusory reality; certain entities are profiting off the bamboozlment and exploitation of others. These false realities lack realness because an essential human element is missing: the empathic connection between citizens that keeps everyone's greed in check.
Perhaps a better way to explain this is to note that in PKD's books and the film it is greed that alters and perverts reality, in both cases, until it is no longer 'real.'
Stay tuned for another post on the similarities between 'It's A Wonderful Life' and The Cosmic Puppets.