You Better Listen To the Radio

In other movie news, last week I went to a screening of Radio Free Albemuth, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, at the opening of the Gotham Screen International Film Festival.

I went through a bit of a Dick phase in my youth, and read half a dozen or so of his novels – classics like The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as well as lesser-known works like The Simulacra and Radio Free Albemuth. Albemuth occupies a peculiar place in the Dick canon. It is the first novel that Dick wrote after experiencing what could be described either as a theophany or as a psychotic break. Dick became convinced that an alien intelligence called V.A.L.I.S. (“Vast Active Living Intelligent System”) in orbit around the earth was communicating with him using beams of coherent pink light, and that this alien being was benevolent, massively powerful, and functionally equivalent to God. Dick wrote several subsequent books about V.A.L.I.S. pondering the meaning of its intervention in human affairs, but Albemuth was his first effort to make sense of his experience, and it is kind of a bridge work, partaking in some ways of more traditional Dick obsessions (the rise of an American fascism, alternative presents and futures, the unreliability of our apparently normal state of consciousness) and in other ways being more similar to his late, religious works.

Albemuth tells the story of two characters, Nicholas Brady, a record store clerk, and Philip K. Dick, his best friend, a science fiction writer. The setting is California in an alternate-world 1980s in which America has drifted gently into a fascist dictatorship ruled by President Ferris F. Fremont. Brady has much the same experience that Dick had in real life: he becomes suddenly convinced that he is being communicated with by V.A.L.I.S., who instructs him on what he is to do, ultimately leading him to join a subversive organization of other people also being communicated with by V.A.L.I.S. aiming to undermine and ultimately overthrow the Fremont regime. Phil observes this change in his friend, and needs to decide whether he thinks this experience is real or a kind of insanity.

Dick’s works have frequently been adapted for the screen, but generally the adaptation involves taking some key conceit from one of his novels and then building a rather different story around it – good examples are “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report.” The movie, “Radio Free Albemuth” is a rarity that actually tries to bring a Dick novel faithfully to the screen – and does so successfully. (The only other one to have tried to do so, and also succeeded, is “A Scanner Darkly.”) The film is very well acted all around; among the leads, Shea Wigham, as Phil, stood out, but the supporting cast in general was exceptionally good, particularly for an indie film. The mood, the setting, even the color palate rang very true to the novel. Although the book deals with matters of cosmic significance, it’s very intimate in its way, keeping us very close to a small cast of characters, and this intimacy is very much carried over to the film. And Dick’s vision of creeping fascism – a fascism that is almost undetectable in everyday life – is similarly very effecively brought to life on the screen, where only subtle details let you know that we are not living in the world we know. (Or are we?) And the changes that were made – simplifying the story, making the character of the wife more sympathetic – struck me as all to the good. This is a very well-made film by a writer-director who believes deeply in the work and wants to get it right. And he does.

The thing that remained most unsatisfying – to me, at least – was something I found to be a problem in the original book and that really could not be changed. I felt then and still feel now that once we meet other people who have been contacted by V.A.L.I.S., and therefore we know, objectively, that Nicholas Brady is not crazy, and that V.A.L.I.S. is real, something is lost. Because, let’s be frank, the whole idea is nuts. Phil is the character we are “with” through the book and the movie – the guy who doesn’t have the religious experience, but who nonetheless becomes convinced that it is real. And it just feels false to the reality of Phil’s experience for him to get such unequivocal confirmation that this crazy story is true. I kind of wish that we only knew about these others from Brady’s reports of them, rather than directly.

The other big problem I had with the story in the book was, I felt, substantially fixed in the movie – indeed, I think the movie helped me understand something about the book that I didn’t get from the book itself. Towards the end of the story, Nicholas Brady, now a record company executive, is working on a plan to embed subliminal anti-regime messages in a new song. The idea is that people will listen to the subliminal messages and grow distrustful of the regime, and eventually rise up against it.

Now, this is a truly idiotic plan. (Moreover, there’s kind of a big irony in trying to free people by brainwashing them.) And in the novel, I remember feeling: that’s it? That’s the big plan? But the movie did two things that, I thought, made this actually work. First, the song is a terrible song. I felt that way in the novel, but on screen it’s just plain as day. And the band that Brady hires to play the song knows it’s horrible – they say so! And Brady seems to think so, too. All of which reassures me enormously that we’re in a “real” world however insane its rules are. I can suspend my disbelief about the reality of V.A.L.I.S., but I’m not forced to suspend my disbelief about the crappiness of the song.

Or the plan. Brady himself laughs at the plan before he goes to execute it. The forces of authority, as in the novel, are way ahead of the revolutionaries. But for whatever reason, in the movie more than in the book I understood that the pathetic nature of the plan wasn’t important. The mere fact that people were resisting was all that really mattered. We’re told repeatedly that V.A.L.I.S. is playing a very long game – has been at this since the days of ancient Rome – but the movie did, I thought, a better job than the novel did of bringing to life the idea of these people who have heard from V.A.L.I.S. as analogous to the early Christians, unconcerned with whether they achieve any worldly success, convinced that the final victory belongs to them regardless.

I feel this way partly because the final sequence in the movie, set in the outdoor prison camp to which Phil has been confined, is so well-done. We’ve seen signs earlier in the film that this story is, in fact, being written by Phil on scraps of paper, and now we understand why: he’s writing surreptitiously, and hiding both his pencil and his work in the hollow tubes of his cot each night. The whole sequence is wonderfully done – particularly the interaction with an imprisoned former preacher who interrogates Phil on whether Brady’s whole program was religious or political in nature. That, after all, is the core question we have to ask as observers of this crazy drama – is a belief in human freedom and its inevitable triumph, and the determination to risk one’s life to speed the day of that triumph, as insane as believing that a benevolent alien talks to you with pink lasers; and, if it is, so what? With the people who actually received the revelation out of the way, we’re back in the world of those who have to will to believe – and our experience instantly becomes more real, and their situation pathetic in the best sense.

The movie is a must-see for anybody who is already a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work. I’d also recommend it for people who loved “Blade Runner” or other movies adapted from Dick’s work, because it’s a much purer translation than most Dick adaptations are. And if I met somebody who didn’t know anything about Dick, I’d probably recommend reading The Man in the High Castle and seeing this movie; between them, I think you’d get a very good introduction to what Dick is all about, and honestly a better one than you’d get by reading Radio Free Albemuth. And for everyone, I’d recommend the movie for its excellent acting, particularly in the supporting roles, and as a master class in adaptating a quite tricky novel to the screen.

UPDATES: First, the movie isn’t in general release, so if you want to find out how to see it, best place to start looking is probably the official website, which is here

Second: In other Dick news, apparently the Riddley Scott and the BBC are producing a miniseries based on The Man In The High Castle. That’s one of Dick’s strongest novels qua novels, so very good news indeed for Dick fans.