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The Gospel According To Philip K. Dick (2002)
Director: Mark Steensland

review by Patrick Hudson

A documentary on PKD is a great idea - he's an important but overlooked writer, with a biography full of eccentricity and incident and plenty of interesting friends still alive to talk about him. Unfortunately, this cheaply produced movie will provide little of interest for the general viewer and only small nuggets for the PKD aficionado. It starts with a promising idea, mixing testimony of Dick's contemporaries with recordings of him speaking accompanied by a cartoon Phil, but a muddled thesis, cheap production and poor interviewing leave it dead in the water.
   The film takes as its starting point the break-in during 1971 around which PKD spun a variety of theories of varying degrees of paranoia - its was the FBI, or the CIA, or the KGB, or (more likely) drug addicts looking to steal some dope from the well-known hippie and drug user. The break-in and subsequent events lead eventually to Dick's psychedelic revelation in 1974, when either an orbiting intelligence beamed images into his mind, or (more likely) a combination of underlying mental illness, stress, and the vitamins and painkillers to which he was then addicted caused an hallucinatory seizure.
   From the testimony of those who were there, and from Dick's own words, the film builds up a picture of the circumstances surrounding the break-in and subsequent revelations. The director seems set on the mystical explanations of Dick's experience, wanting to turn it into something out of one of Dick's novels (Dick used the experience in VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth and The Divine Invasion), but it quickly becomes clear that no one around Dick felt there was anything supernatural or mysterious going on and that even Dick himself, who interrogated the experience obsessively through screeds of mystical writing over the 1970s, was very cautious about ascribing anything more to it than drug frenzy. In the end, it's all rather muddled and the filmmakers do not appear to be willing to let go of the supernatural hypothesis even in the face of contradictory testimony from all involved.
   Beyond this discord between thesis and results, the film is hampered by its own cheapness. The sound on all the interviews is bad, and you'll have to work hard to hear Dick's tape recorded comments (recorded for a Rolling Stone interview rather than for broadcast). The computer animation is absolutely awful, almost like a sketch of what they wanted that never got finished. The intent (presumably) is South Park-style simplicity, but it just looks drab and uninteresting. Combined with the bad sound, this turns what should be the films highlight into its chief frustration.
   With a couple of exceptions, the interviewees are hardly worth bothering with. The ex-girlfriend and the academic are quite interesting but everyone else, including a well past his prime Robert Anton Wilson, doesn't seem to have a lot to say beyond "Yeah, I knew Phil and he was a whacky guy." I don't blame the interviewees, most of who look like they do have something to say, but the interviewers do not seem to have been able to draw the interesting stories out. Cinematically, the film doesn't go anywhere past the talking head, and there is no attempt as a visual interpretation of Dick's experiences or his fiction. The recent Pynchon documentary Journey Into The Mind Of P, which is very similar in intent (looking at Pynchon's life around the time he wrote V) shows how a film like this can illuminate a writer and his work, and The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick just does not measure up.
   If you're a dedicated Dickhead, you won't want to miss this if only to hear Phil's voice. With a little more work (and perhaps cash) this could have been a witty little film about many-faceted reality in Dick's life and work. Dick's reputation for weirdness is - like H.P. Lovecraft's - highly exaggerated and - again like Lovecraft's - threatens to overshadow his real contributions to fiction. This film does nothing to ameliorate the former, or to examine the latter.

Related items:
tZ  Cantata-140 by Philip K. Dick - book review
tZ  Minority Report by Philip K. Dick - book review

The Gospel According To Philip K. Dick

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