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Confessions of a Crap Watcher
by Lucius Shepard
February 2001

Shortly before watching a video of The Sixth Day, based on a short story by the late Philip K. Dick, I attempted to contact the author's spirit by means of a ouija board. To my surprise, I succeeded. The planchette went swooping and darting across the board, moving so rapidly I had difficulty in recording its message.

Dick described the afterlife as "boring as a Kansas bus station," an area where souls waited for rebirth, most of them indulging in "obsessive regret and confusion." To kill time he had become a detective of sorts, specializing in investigating the deaths of those individuals who were troubled by and/or unclear as to the manner of their passing. The case he was currently looking at involved a woman murdered by . . . Well, I'll let him tell it in his own words (the capitals and punctuation are mine):

"TDEs. Trans-dimensional essences. Denizens of the meta-universe capable of drifting from plane to plane. They're mentioned in a fragment certain authorities attributed to Lucius Appuleus . . . I doubt they're right, I think it's considerably older than that. Whatever . . . the author describes TDEs as conglomerate beings, migratory soul villages, individual spirits who've bonded together in order to survive a cosmic disaster, perhaps the death of a universe, and in doing so have become corrupted, evil. They're invisible to most higher life forms." A Pause. "Ever watched a dog closely? They'll be sleeping or resting, and then they'll suddenly lift their head and appear to be tracking something through the air. Something you can't see. Chances are they've spotted a TDE. Once I was sitting next to a friend-of-mine's dog, and I let my eyes drift to the place he was staring at and I saw one. Just a glimpse, a split-second. It was round and flat, about the size of a dinner plate. Pale brown . . . almost a beige. Looked like a cross between a jellyfish and a big apple fritter." Another pause. "Of course I was seriously fucked-up at the time."

* * *

Dick asked what was happening back home. After giving the question due consideration, I briefed him on the Information Revolution, giving emphasis to the creation of the news channels, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, and so forth, and the subsequent evolution of the television journalist from reporter to an interface through which the events of history were filtered, and the emergent punditocracy whose neatly packaged opinions were bleated out non-stop until they produced a litany of responses from the viewers that echoed these opinions with sheeplike unanimity. This, along with the tsunami of Internet data and rumor and hallucination that washed over the public mind, served only to prove that it was at least as easy to obscure the truth, the actual workings of the world, by drowning people in facts as it was to do so by depriving them of same.

The planchette wrote, "The Veil of Maya."

"Thicker than ever," I replied

I was about to break contact and start the video, when Dick suggested that he wouldn't mind checking it out himself. I asked how this would be possible, and he instructed me to prop the ouija board on a chair facing the television.

"I can see through the O," he told me.

So, with this curious presence resting on my Barcalounger, I settled back to watch the movie.

* * *

Terrible things have been happening to dead science fiction writers in Hollywood, but none have suffered so badly as Philip K. Dick—if that is not absolutely true now, it soon will be, for it's impossible to find a Dick story or novel that is not currently under option. Bladerunner, for all its atmospheric and visual bravura, and despite several interesting supporting performances, reduced the source novel (a meditation on the first of Dick's major themes: What exactly defines a human being?) into an exercise in style and fully introduced us to Harrison Ford's leaden period. Total Recall, apart from a few moments that spoke to Dick's other major theme, the nature of reality, fell prey to director Paul Verhoeven's compulsive need to lampoon the violence of his adopted country and became merely another Schwarzenegger vehicle. Screamers took Dick's tale of machine-created humans (sympathetic creatures with authentic personalities, perhaps even souls) used as bombs and poozled it into Grade Z slumgullion flavored with the remnants of lead actor Peter Weller's career. And there looks to be worse in the offing. Imagine, if you will, the gag-inducing sentiment and trollish comic excesses that the hideous Roberto Benigni will bring to "The Short, Happy Life of the Brown Oxford," a story about a scientist who invents a machine that brings inanimate objects to life ("Hey! My shoe . . . It's a'talkin'! It'a wants an Odoreater!") And then we have Minority Report, a story concerning pre-cog crime fighters who detect murders before they occur, a notion that—word has it—Steven Spielberg has transformed into yet another timecop movie, this one starring America's frat boy, the engagingly talentless Tom Cruise. Toss in Imposters, Dick's account of a human scientist hunted by aliens, one of whom has usurped his place, a film that several A-list scriptwriters tried unsuccessfully to doctor and since has been yanked from distribution, and you will gather that Dick's immediate cinematic future is to consist of megablasts of brightly hued, hack-writer-generated meadow muffin, augmented by great glorioso dollops of Flatulaphonic sound, aimed at an undiscerning popcorn-feeding subspecies that can be found grazing the multiplexes with its young, living proof that Dick's first major theme still has relevance in contemporary society.

The sad thing about these movies, past, present, and future, is that they have lifted the external trappings of Dick's work, the settings and plots and quasi-scientific premises, yet contain (or promise to contain) little of its soul, none of the caustic black humor and enlightened-loser sensibility that inform the majority of his characters. The one film that manages this to any marked degree is Barjo, a French film loosely based on Dick's novel Confessions of a Crap Artist. Barjo is a borderline dysfunctional thirtyish man convinced that the world is coming to an end, an innocent whacko who nourishes himself by sniffing a plastic bag full of milk bottle caps as though they were oxygen. He spends much of his days cataloguing on tape and in notebooks the behavior of his beautiful, perversely unhappy, and equally erratic sister Fan-Fan. She is married to the prosperous owner of an aluminum factory, Charles, and amorously pursues Gwen and Michael, a young couple who live nearby. Her motives in this extramarital chase are less the product of desire than they are the natural outgrowth of a frustration at her own pointless existence and, subsequently, the instrument of a kind of psychological terrorism—she seems determined to drive Charles crazy, and Charles, a classic tight-ass who becomes enraged whenever Fan-fan asks him to pick up feminine hygiene products at the drugstore, eventually suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized. While in the hospital, Charles is visited by Barjo,who reads him sections of his file on Fan-Fan, complete with dialog samples, that testify to her infidelity. In his spare time, Barjo communes with a group of fellow nutballs who share his conviction about the impending apocalypse—they hold s�ances during which they attempt to communicate with the Superior Beings in their UFOs. Though clearly deluded, if not deranged, Barjo's friends and their preoccupations, their observances, are given credence by director Jerome Boivin, and this is faithful to Dick's contention that the mad focus upon things ignored by the sane and thus they may see more clearly—albeit infrequently—the secret orderings of the world.

I'm not sure that Barjo comes to much in the end. It's scarcely more than a slice of demented life, topped off by a climactic scene in which Charles returns home intending to kill Fan-Fan and instead slaughters the family pets—horse, dog, ducks, sheep, and so on—before succumbing to a second heart attack. Yet it serves to convey the quirky specificity and spirit of Dick's obsessions. His various paranoias, his belief in the general insanity of our species (in particular, the madness between men and women), the absurd configuration of even the most commonplace events, in themselves shadows of a vastly absurd but eminently vital divinity . . . all of Dick's tropes and archetypes are here fleshed out, and though there is not much of a framework to support them, they suffice on their own to create a fascinating ninety minutes. If the director of some future action movie based on Dick material would incorporate Barjo's weird humanity and soulfulness, we might have a pop-culture masterpiece on our hands. As things stand, what we do have is the new Schwarzenegger flick.

It's not that The Sixth Day is a bad movie . . . well, actually it is, but that's almost a given, considering the Schwarzenegger factor, and the real question one anticipates that viewing it will answer is whether it's a good bad movie, whether it's (A) the kind of junkfood entertainment that will persuade you to sit uncomplaining for a couple of hours, your mind disengaged and your eyes lit by dopey on-screen explosions, or (B) the sort of godawful mess that causes lovers of camp to switch on the VCR, toke up, and laugh sneeringly at, say, Geena Davis' ludicrous inappropriateness in the role of the pirate queen of Cutthroat Island, or any recent film featuring Kevin Costner. There is no doubt that Day rates a 10 on the Doltometer, being rife with fisticuffs, gunplay, chase scenes, and blow-up, and there are a number of outstanding unintentionally comic moments, notably Arnold's variant pronunciations of the name of his dog, Oliver ("Ah-lee-vur," "Ohl-vur," etc.), and the poignant moment when our hero's clone gazes wistfully into the camera and intones with Frankensteinesque stiffness, "Ahm I really human? Do I have a so-wul?" But sad to say, this is no Predator, no Terminator, films whose rawness and lack of pretension contrived to breed actual suspense. Day is a completely cynical example of moviemaking by the numbers, following a wearisome rhythm of chase explosion chase, chase chase bloodydeath, kick two three turn, kick two three turn, that goes a little something like this . . . 

In the near future ("Sooner than you think" cautions an introductory line of text—intending, I suppose, to evoke a shudder of dread from all us doomed terwilligers), genetic rebop has become such an everyday deal that a thriving business is done in cloning housepets. Human cloning, however, is illegal. Doing research into the subject is forbidden, carrying a forty-year prison term. But multi-billionaire yuppie scum Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) views the matter differently. He has coerced a scientist, Dr. Graham Weir (Robert Duvall), into cloning humans on a massive scale, allowing him to replace his security forces and even the star quarterback of his pro football team whenever they are killed or seriously injured (which is often, leading one to ask that if Drucker is such a poor judge of muscle, how in the hell did he become such a dominant captain of industry?). Drucker charters a heli-jet service to take him into the mountains for snowboarding and is there assassinated by a member of a fanatic anti-cloning organization. His pilot is also killed, and once Drucker's clone is brought to life—the work of a few hours—he orders the pilot cloned in order to cover up the incident. Trouble is, the place of the scheduled pilot, Adam Gibson (Schwarzenegger), has been taken by his partner (Michael Rappaport), and the wrong man is cloned, thus giving us a brace of mesomorphic Adam Gibsons: you'd think that somewhere along the line somebody might have noticed a slight discrepancy in size and shape between the men, but hey, logic has taken a two-hour holiday, and if you're going to start quibbling about this kind of thing, you won't make it through the first fifteen minutes.

And so begins the hunting, the chasing, the skull-busting, the bleeding, the exploding, eventually culminating in Drucker's downfall and the revelation that the point-of-view character is Adam Gibson's clone, and the man he thought was a clone is the real Adam Gibson, something that has been made obvious early on, the scriptwriters apparently being unable to distinguish between foreshadowing an event and telegraphing it. There are a few decent bits. Rodney Rowland is appropriately sullen and seedy as a bungling Drucker minion who keeps getting killed; Duvall, albeit underused, lends a touch of class; and Goldwyn is nastily self-absorbed and extremely hateable, though it would be nice if the apt but overdone practice of costuming villains in designer garb popular amongst Hollywood players—black shirts and slacks bearing fabulous Italian labels—would be put to rest.

Director Roger Spottiswoode has done entertaining action films before, and it's hard to tell if he just didn't care about this one, or if he was simply incapable of overcoming the handicaps presented by the script and the woeful performance of his leading man—whatever, Day has none of the amphetamine pacing that fueled his Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. There is, in fact, a tedious sameness and comical ineptitude to the violence, both in context of the genre and the film itself—sparking laser guns (straight out of Japanese trash sci-fi), neck breaking, screaming stunt falls. Considering the Schwarzeneggerian budget of the film, you'd expect at least one nifty variation on the theme of mayhem, but the best Spottiswoode can muster is a heli-jet blade chopping with the gore implied, not shown, this due to Le Gran Arnold's pompous and much publicized intent to make movies that won't cause American kiddies to wax murderous and sally forth to dice and slice innocent high school jocks with their own personal heli-jet blades. (Thanks, Big Guy. Perhaps a dose of good ol' Austrian morality, the same that inspired much of recent European history, will stave off our cultural decline.)

In Schwarzenegger's best action work, he has played an implacable, unstoppable force, and on two occasions (Twins and Kindergarten Cop), he has been somewhat effective at light comedy. His attempts at portraying your average family/working man 250 lb. muscle freak behemoth, such as his role in Total Recall, have been considerably less successful. Day establishes, if ever there was a doubt, that Arnold has the emotive ability of string cheese. His take on normal guyness is absolutely gruesome—the ferocious leer he displays after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake during a surprise party would give the Blair Witch the willies. But more significantly, he does not seem quite so unstoppable. Past fifty now, not long removed from heart surgery, he has the seamed, fatigued look of an old rhino forced to make a final charge. Given this, it's going to take Vincent Price's old make-up man to get Arnold ready for his part in the next Terminator movie, unless they're planning to call it T-3: The Rusting.

Okay . . . So. The villain dies, earth is saved (from what, it's unclear), Arnold and his clone become pals, then Mr. Olympia's cell brother heads off happily to a life of his own in South America—this is where the "Do I have a so-wul?" line comes in, the one simplistic Dickian note in two solid hours of was-that-fun-or-what brain sludge. I addressed the ouija board and asked Dick what he had thought. The planchette remained still. Doubtless he'd lost interest and returned to his gnostic investigations. I couldn't much blame him. Somewhat deflated, I returned to my own less elaborate investigations, to wit, the discerning of hidden messages, because you see I'm convinced that no matter how artless they may appear, these twelfth-of-a-day-long bright projections of flicker-flicker in our eyes are beaming the master's words, the mind-deadening syllables of light that coerce us into the acceptance of some unpleasant state of affairs. Even a merde-fest like the one just witnessed.

Day's message is both rudimentary and deceptive. Although on the surface the film appears to be saying that life is a sacred matter, cloning is wrong, there are things men are not meant to know blah blah blah, the happy survival of the Schwarzenclone caused me to realize that the actual message was another volley in the class war, stating an imperative of the near future: Cloning Is Wrong for You. "You" meaning everyone but the privileged and those they favor. Call me paranoid, but I have long been convinced that the power-mad little humbugs who rule the dummyverse are preparing us for the "sooner than you think" day when a trillion proles live out their mayfly spans in a dreary lower depth of slave-making drugs, on-the-fritz neon, hallucinatory marketing zones, soul-killing entertainments, and deadly pollution, while the wealthy, sustained by enzymes looted from Third World babies and backed up by a dozen or so spare bodies each, enjoy an ersatz immortality during which all human progress will come to a screeching halt except for subtle refinements in style, a world in which pampered, genetically enhanced dogs will learn to read but most humans will not, and university degrees will be offered in the disciplines of fashion sense and mockery.

The end credits rolled, and a characterless rock song blasted from the screen, designed to orchestrate a march of the zombies out of the theaters and into the night—though sitting in my living room, I felt the call of the music and went shuffling forth, seeking nourishment of a sort I could not name. I wandered for a while but soon found myself passing through the doors of a club whose decor was a mixture of film noir and high tech, a digital hell pulsing with dance noise, populated by guylike bug creatures with creepy tattoos and living flesh modules with little-girl breasts and big girl eyes, both displaying an excess of hair dye and lots of significant piercings. Speech was a communal howl, the bathroom door opened onto a hotly lit sidereal reality, and the bartender posed a cryptic shadow against what an unwitting soul might take for an illuminated mirror but was in truth an illusion cast by a malefic device of unguessable origin. None of this seemed in the least familiar. I ordered bourbon and ice at the bar. In the fraudulent mirror I saw eye contracts being made, hulking refugees from the lava moon disguised as bouncers, waitress vampires, packages of pure poison being passed from hand to hand. I began to suspect that Day had transmitted a more profound and transforming message than the one I had parsed, seeding me with a virulent paranoia, or perhaps that an accumulation of such movies had overloaded my program, shorted out my mental baffles, allowing me to see that the cautionary future was upon us. More likely, I thought, contact with Dick's disembodied relic had quickened me, established a resonance between our realities, because it was evident to me now that his spirit was moving through the land. We were living on the cusp of the teeming, malodorous time and place he had perceived from the vantage point of 1968. In the organ-harvesting, growing-criminal-underclass moment, in the Pandora's-box-opening, just barely pre-genetic-revolution Now. Dickworld. And it sucked every bit as much as he told us it would. On my right an attractively sleazy, bewigged woman wearing a few ounces of mascara, nine rings, and a funeral dress lit a cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke, an action that simultaneously destroyed a galaxy hidden in a dust mote suspended in the air above her and signaled her availability. To my left a sour-smelling, ragged shadow, its face obscured by dreadlocks, all except a glaring, jaundiced eye, reached out an obsidian talon to lift a silver droplet of something from the scarred wood of the countertop, then touched it to its lips and gave out with a glutinous hiss. I stared down into my drink, ice melting in a brown sea, and shivered. This was serious. I would have to write faster, I would have to get it all out, warn everyone. Black flowers bloomed in the creases on my forehead; the red wine in the bewigged woman's glass bubbled like a hot spring. A Great Inversion was at hand, and people needed to know this, they needed to know a good many things, including the one thing they all thought they knew but never truly accepted. There was no time to waste. At any moment a Terminator might appear.