Friday, July 5, 2013
SHEEP, SANS ELECTRICITY
Having finished my reread of Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS and judged it subcombative in terms of its narrative values, I promptly launched into a reread of Philip K. Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, which like the Heinlein book had been adapted into a film very much in the combative mode. Going on memories of previous readings I suspected that the Dick book would also prove to be subcombative, and I was correct, but for the opposite reason. Most of the book avoids much in the way of direct combat, pursuing instead the internal conflict of android hunter Rick Deckard as he agonizes about the interrelationships of humans and their android creations. Only at the very end does Dick include a "shoot-out" in approved Old West fashion, even though opponents Deckard and his foe, rogue android Roy Batty, are both armed with "laser tubes." However, Dick's approach to the fight eschews anything like the spectacle one might expect in such a duel. Thus ANDROIDS possesses the narrative value of the combative mode-- but not the significant value. It's not enough that there should be two megadynamic forces that appear within the same film. In my NECESSITY OF SPECTACLE essays, here and here, I stated that "the spectacular mode of violence" was "necessary for the manifestation of combative sublimity." But in Dick's ANDROIDS, the violence is purely in the functional mode, even if the combatants are dueling with laser tubes. It's rare to find megadynamic forces handled in a humdrum functional manner, though Dick's motive for so doing may somewhat akin to Heinlein's reason for not winding up STARSHIP TROOPERS with a big colorful battle. In both cases, however different their themes, the authors sought to make their protagonists seem more "ordinary" despite their marvelous surroundings and/or resources.
Having made that determination, I ask: what about Philip K. Dick's anxiety-filled, vaguely schizophrenic works has made them so amenable to adaptation into huge, spectacular SF-adventure thrillers? I also recently reread Dick's short story "Minority Report," and though I have yet to rescreen the Tom Cruise adaptation, it's my recollection that the Cruise film, like Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER, amps up the presence of spectacular violence by a factor of 12. Indeed, the only violence in the short story is one man shooting another, albeit with a ray-weapon. In future I'll probably reread the source stories for TOTAL RECALL, PAYCHECK and SCREAMERS, and see how the original prose pieces stack up against their cinematic manifestations.
So what makes Dick so attractive? I don't get the impression that most Dick-derived films, aside from the original TOTAL RECALL, have been box-office winners-- and the first RECALL was also an Ahnold film during the height of his popularity. BLADE RUNNER lost money on its first screening, though eventually it may have become profitable through the home-rental market, due to its fully deserved status as a "cult film." Dick may also impress filmmakers because of the fecundity of his ideas, or because BLADE RUNNER offers them a much-admired template to follow. But in the end, the word I used earlier-- "anxiety-filled"-- may hold the key. Dick himself, who was attempting to focus on the dramatic interactions of his characters, only used violence in a functional way, to punctuate crises in the lives of those characters. But filmmakers-- who are known for resorting to all manners of spectacle to attract butts to stay in seats-- are able to use the paranoiac scenarios Dick invented, and then simply "add violence as needed."
That said, I want to reiterate, as I said in NECESSITY OF SPECTACLE, that the difference is not one of mere degree; it's one of narrative function. A work in the subcombative mode, whose violence is merely functional, doesn't just change into a combative one purely through the injection of spectacular violence. The spectacular violence is not epiphenomenal; it becomes part of the diegesis as soon as it's included, and it changes the nature of the narrative. This distinction is comparable to a similar observation by Rudolf Otto. He opposes the idea that religious awe was simply different from ordinary fear in "degree." For him it was clearly a difference "in kind."
Thus, in NECESSITY OF SPECTACLE PART 2, I compare two monster-movies of roughly the same period: 1957's DEADLY MANTIS and 1961's REPTILICUS. Both films include giant monsters that get shot at by soldiers, and even suffer attack by flamethrowers. But the guns and flamethrower in MANTIS are different in "kind" from those in REPTILICUS, because of the way the filmmakers of each respective movie treats these human resources. In REPTILICUS these naturalistic weapons become spectacular, megadynamic forces, but in MANTIS they remain functional and mundane because MANTIS as a film is less interested in sheer spectacle for its own sake.