Monday, June 2, 2008

Next Stop Pottersville

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.


Anonymous said...

It's Capra with a C, not Kapra with a K - take another look at that poster!

Ragle Gumm said...

Thanks Anonymous. Too much Kafka, not enough Calvin Coolidge - or something.

Anonymous said...

not surprising considering Dick's "TV Series Idea" published in The Shifting Realities...

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right about the guy sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store. It is a recurrent picture in PKD's writing. There is a sidewalk sweeping scene on the first page of "Voices From the Street".
Last year when I was driving to Point Reyes station to shoot pictures for the "Scenery from "Confessions of Crap Artist" page, as I was crossing a town (Fairfax I think) looking for "PKD scenery" I saw a guy sweeping the sidewalk in front of his store. It was an eerie sight in the context of my trip. Unfortunately I was caught in the traffic an could not take a picture.

Fili said...

Fascinating! I've never looked at the movie that way. I just finished reading The Cosmic Puppets last week and it's become one of my favorites by PKD.

Anonymous said...

That notion of Wonderful Life being anti-capitalist -- some critics in the 40s said exactly the same thing, in fact the FBI (!) said the movie was Communist propaganda:

Anonymous said...

A 1940s publishing history of the short story (with a link to the full text)can be found at
A great deal of information about the film and a link to the March 1947 Lux Radio Theater version of It's A Wonderful Life can be found at's_a_Wonderful_Life. "Ownership and Copyright Issues" and "Belated Success" are particularly worth reading in relation to possible influence on PKD. The impression "Everybody has seen 'It's A Wonderful Life' right?" is derived from the post-1974 to 1993 period of very excessive TV airings while stations were able to broadcast it without paying royalties.

Without looking it up I'd suggest that the theatrical showings of IAWL were during a period when Phil would have generally avoided going to public places such as movie theaters (the Sutin and Rickman biographies should have info concerning this) and I seem to recall that he was essentially a TV non-watcher at least until 1958 or so which would certainly decrease the probability that he saw IAWL on TV before writing "A Glass Of Darkness" or very early in his writing career. As far as I know, IAWL was never cited by Phil as an influence. He did cite Fredric Brown's 1949 novel What Mad Universe? as an influence on his writing which doesn't seem to interest or influence anyone.

"Whether or not PKD was consciously influenced by Capra's film or the short story it was based upon is irrelevant." assumes he saw the film or read the story and in context assumes he did so before 1952. Correctness of this assumption is certainly relevant.
What proof or evidence is there that he saw the movie, read the story, listened to the radio play or even read or heard about it? Admittedly, I'm be surprised to learn he had absolutely no knowledge of the movie before he began his writing career though not so surprised as if I learned he had no knowlege of Dicken's A Christmas Carol or Melville's Moby Dick --". . . to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." Well, there are thematically better examples but I wanted to use that line of Ahab's. ;)

In the year or so since the debate over whether Phil was influenced by IAWL began I don't remember anyone offering any convincing evidence that Phil saw or was influenced by IAWL.
Asserting Phil was influenced by IAWL without proof or strong evidence he was even exposed to it is logically flawed. Magic 8 Ball scholarship.

My impression is that our blog host, Umberto and Frasca Gabriele feel such a strong emotional resonance that it's temporarily occluded their abilities to view this analiticly.
Perhaps they feel I'm blind and dumb as dirt.
I'll sign off with something that we may all be able to agree on. I'm much too sleepy to keep rambing on or to think I've make sense if I continue writing now.


Ragle Gumm said...

I certainly appreciate the concerns you raise here. The reason I say that whether PKD was consciously influenced by It's A Wonderful Life or not is irrelevant is because even if he never saw the film, the film is still a powerful tool with which to examine Dick's themes.

Perhaps, rather than directing PKD's fiction, the film may merely reflect the same zeitgeist PKD was drawing upon in his fiction.

Two of PKD's ex-wives, Anne Dick, and Kleo Mini, feel like you do, that PKD wasn't influenced by the movie; they say it was too sentimental for him. So you're right, it may be a stretch to say that all PKD's fiction emerges as the result of exposure to the film. On the other hand, it's also a stretch to say that unless we can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that PKD saw the film, that there is no additional insight we can gain into PKD's work from the film.

By the way, neither Umberto or Frasca have anything to do with this blog.

Murfyn said...

I don't agree. Re: similarities between the movie and PKD novels; there are cars in the movie and in some of the books, that doesn't mean anything. And on a side note; what of the people in Pottersville? When George decides to live, what happens to them? Do they all go out like candles that have never been lit? I could go on, but will close by saying that a Capra-directed version of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" would have been awesome.

Umberto Rossi said...

Said David K: "Without looking it up I'd suggest that the theatrical showings of IAWL were during a period when Phil would have generally avoided going to public places such as movie theaters (the Sutin and Rickman biographies should have info concerning this)"

Answered Umberto R.:
"Neither Sutin nor Rickman confirm your unsupported hypothesis, David. Read them before attacking me. And remember that I HAVE CHECKED THEM."