You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood.
–Philip K. Dick
Back in the mid-1950s, Philip K. Dick dashed off ”The Minority Report,“ a clever, ungainly short story about a future America in which people are arrested for crimes they haven‘t yet committed but that psychic mutants have determined they’re going to. Almost half a century later, Steven Spielberg has expanded this small, paranoid tale into Minority Report, a lavish, extravagantly imagined action picture starring Tom Cruise. (See Ella Taylor‘s review, page 34.) It’s a strange pairing, Spielberg and Dick, for if any two artists embody the archetypal oppositions of American pop culture — fame vs. neglect, sunny professionalism vs. lunar inspiration — it‘s the greatest corporate artist who ever lived and the reigning cult novelist of the last 50 years.
At 55, Spielberg has been around for so long that it has become easy to take his brilliance for granted. He entered the world as a filmmaking natural who, at an age when most kids are drinking Jell-O shots in the dorm, had begun directing TV for Universal. Before hitting 30, he’d already made Jaws, the blockbuster that transformed the Hollywood film industry (not for the better) and propelled him toward becoming the most commercially successful director of all time. No filmmaker has matched Spielberg‘s ability to reach the mass audience, and it’s easy to see why: His work is kinetically alive, astonishingly vivid. I‘ve seen all his films and can effortlessly remember large patches from each of them, even such flops as the mirth-challenged comedy 1941 and the unexpectedly heartfelt Always.
Talk about stamina. Film history is littered with great directors who’ve run out of gas or lost their way — Sturges, Welles, Godard, Bertolucci, Coppola . . . Yet for nearly 30 years, Spielberg has managed to sustain an extraordinarily high level of ambition and skill. (A.I. may have been a failure, but it wasn‘t lazy.) Where all those easy riders and raging bulls of the ’70s raged against Hollywood — frittering away their talents with sex, drugs and self-indulgent belief in their own genius — Spielberg has always felt at home in the industry whose big-budget machinery is necessary to his success. He‘s kept his nose clean and held it to the grindstone, turning out movies with admirable regularity. (Indeed, his next picture, Catch Me If You Can, starring Tom Hanks, comes out later this year.) This disciplined work ethic has produced one of the great runs in screen history, one worthy of such fabled marathoners as Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock.
Although Spielberg is a good Hollywood liberal, his early successes meshed perfectly with the cultural values that flowered during the Reagan years. His work was, one might say, a Silent Majority report suffused with a vision of a wondrous America, at once suburban and nostalgic, generous and tough. There may be no purer cultural expression of Reaganism than when that dark-skinned Third Worlder pulled out his scimitar and wry Indiana Jones shot him dead — as a laugh line. Take that, Khomeini!
Yet even as Spielberg’s penchant for moral simplicities made him preposterously rich, he seemed haunted by the criticism that his work was too light, that he was incapable of handling adult themes. And so, he began reaching for the dark — too literally, at first, with The Color Purple. But his command of ”serious“ subjects has always been shaky (while parts of Empire of the Sun are magnificent, others play like a POW camp musical), perhaps because these films feel more dutiful than inspired. Even Schindler‘s List was less an original artistic vision of the Holocaust than a deliberately brutal re-enactment of what most of us already knew. For all his gifts, Spielberg has one major artistic limitation — a conventional mind.
Philip K. Dick’s mind, on the other hand, was so unconventional it nearly did him in. If Spielberg is forever dipping his toes in the darkness, Dick often lived like a man caught in a collapsed mine and struggling to catch a glimpse of light. He was always a loner, at least in his head, which is the only place it matters. Coming of age in the WWII America that Spielberg romanticized, he worked at unglamorous jobs, had messy romantic entanglements, gobbled amphetamines like M&Ms, churned out ingenious paperbacks for insulting money, remained largely ignored by the cultural establishment and died at age 53, shortly before the 1982 release of Blade Runner (based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), which, in the very year of E.T., offered the definitive dystopian mirror image of Reaganite America.
Dick‘s fiction inhabits the same pulp universe as Jim Thompson’s or Sam Fuller‘s — both of whom also charted the nethermost curlicues of the psyche — which is to say that he’s not a great writer in any normal sense. From page to page his prose ranges from lucid to lousy, and his storytelling inclines to the slipshod. After you read the first 15 or 20 of his books, their details start to melt into one hallucinatory jumble. Of course, you don‘t go to Dick — who once called himself a ”schizoid effective,“ meaning he was nuts but he could function — for polished fiction. You go for his speed-freak intuitions, his intellectual leaps. The guy could riff — he wrote 140 pages of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said in 48 hours — and ideas flew from his skull the way fireworks shoot from a pinwheel. Ideas about God and the nature of reality. Ideas about time slips and alternative histories. Ideas about corporate control and peeping-Tom governments. Ideas about the tortuous bonds between men and women. Ideas about the self as the ultimate mirage. If Dick had written The Bourne Identity, its poor hero would have never found out who he really was.
Back when Spielberg was a kid in the suburbs, Dick was already conjuring up worlds in which individuals are surrounded by political, psychological and cosmic forces that threaten to devour them. One of Minority Report’s pleasures is its Dick-like portrait of a 2054 Washington, D.C., that looks like an eerie extension of present-day America in its domination by corporations, in its inescapable invasions of privacy and, most urgently, in its idea of a squad of Pre-Crime fighters devoted to arresting criminals before they‘ve done anything. This is the sort of idea that would delight John Ashcroft, whose self-righteous, loose-cannon behavior, the Washington Post recently reported, has even begun to spook the White House. Fifty years ago, Dick had the guy pegged.
But unlike his source, Spielberg is no radical. The other night at the Minority Report premiere, he told Channel 5 News that what happens in his movie is also happening in life: ”We’re giving up some of our freedom so that the government can protect us.“ He didn‘t sound particularly torn up about it, but that’s hardly surprising. For just as A.I. found the crowd-pleasing Spielberg out of sync with the forebodingly icy Stanley Kubrick, watching Minority Report, we feel the conflict between the cult novelist‘s subversive interiority and the DreamWorker’s embrace of Hollywood spectacle. Where Dick‘s work crackles with paranoia and a desire for freedom, Spielberg is far more excited about showing off his futuristic world — vertical freeways, mechanical spiders that scan eyeballs during ID checks. He finds this stuff cool. This, too, separates him from Dick, who was profoundly skeptical about technology and big-budget entertainment. I imagine him howling when Tom Cruise’s character walks down a runway lined with holographic ads for Lexus and American Express. As one whose work is about shuffling levels of reality, Dick could only shudderingly admire Spielberg‘s deftness in using a satirical depiction of advertising in 2054 to plug present-day products.
In the world according to Dick, people struggle to transcend shadowy forces they can never really escape. In the world of Spielberg, they can and do escape. By turning Dick’s ironic little story into a gargantuan thriller celebrating free choice, Spielberg has been true to his character: He‘s transformed something dark and scary into something softer and more comfortable. And while this might suggest that Spielberg has triumphed over Dick, because more people will see the movie than will ever read any of the books, this seeming triumph gives Dick the last laugh: Minority Report is actually more fun than the original story — Spielberg will always report to the majority — but Dick’s minority reports have the authority of a lonely human voice crying out in our high-tech wilderness. We live in his world now.
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