Yesterday I dusted off some work from the archives of my laptop and gave it a new, backup home on the world wide web in the humble dwelling that is Mrtsblog. Today I’ll continue the trend with a more academic piece. This essay was the fruit of a summer of reading science fiction, histories of the Cold War and comparisons between the American and Russian ways of life. Originally I also intended to write about Ray Bradbury’s works. Whilst I did enjoy The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 immensely, and they really are beautifully written with fantastic ideas, I could not accommodate his writing with my theme. Perhaps it was better I left Ray’s work alone and in the drawer of pure enjoyment in my brain.
Anyway in the end my essay, for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-Level, became a comparison of the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick. Looking back on it now there are things I wish I had done better and it’s not as well as written or argued as I hope to be in future. But I do miss the satisfaction of both academic study and essay writing now and again, so these posts will remind me that I am capable of it.
The first post (this one) will be the introduction, with the two parts on Huxley and Dick to follow. I really enjoyed marring my interests in literature and history with this essay, and as it was primarily written for English sizeable chunks about American history had to be removed. Unfortunately it’s still quite a drawn out read, with as I say, a lot of weaknesses despite a good mark. I don’t really expect any readers to consume the whole thing, but as I say, will add it to my online archive of work regardless.
So here we go:
Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?
Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick can both be loosely linked under the banner of “science fiction” writers. However the two men have extraordinarily different backgrounds and influences. Huxley was an English intellectual living in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Dick was an anti-establishment Californian who came of age as the Second World War ended. The literary outputs of the two men are also poles apart in a number of ways. Huxley wrote satires of the English upper classes but Dick’s mainstream successes were realistic portrayals of the average American dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Huxley’s most celebrated work, Brave New World, is regarded as a “novel of ideas” and Huxley himself admitted that he struggled to find the balance between plot and information. Dick did not have Huxley’s scientific heritage, but approached writing fiction with a strong knowledge of philosophy, psychology and Eastern Religion. These influences are all evident in Dick’s most highly regarded novel, The Man in the High Castle, along with an excellent original premise and believable characterisation. Whatever their differences however, both men continually challenged accepted thinking in their writings and in particular questioned the reality of the Cold War world. Both men are also best known for cautionary messages that prompted readers to remain vigilant about threats to their humanity from any source, totalitarian or otherwise.
Huxley and Dick were both rightly influenced by the division of a post-war world into two separate ideological camps. Huxley was deeply concerned by the methods of totalitarians and the worrying susceptibility of the masses to their tactics. Dick was amongst the first to recognise the destructive potential of two nuclear armed adversaries and the implications of impending doom on human existence. However what sets them apart from the rest is their refusal to allow their thinking to be consumed by the scale of the Cold War and the evil of the Communist threat.
Both men had the awareness to keep one eye turned inward on the frailties of the Western world, at a time when democratic governments were getting an easy ride on a wave of unity against the tyranny of the Reds. Neither man succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying the world around them into a good vs. evil struggle. They equally recognised the potential for right and wrong in each individual human being. A Communist was still a person capable of good, just as an American had the potential for bad. Both men touched on this theme in their work, Huxley with his “Savage” outsider and Dick more specifically with his almost – human androids.
The underlying warning was that a capitalist citizen could be as easily exploited as a Communist drone if they neglected their freedom to think and question. In life both Huxley and Dick were determined never to do so. Huxley fretted about ignorant modern lives, lived to purely satisfy the senses. He questioned the very idea of progress, warning against unnecessary and deceptive changes. Dick led a tortured life, lurching between periods of depression, paranoia and addiction. Through it all he maintained an intellectual curiosity with the abuse of power and perceived reality. There was hope for both of them in freedom of expression.
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Ideally I like to write my reviews shortly after I’ve watched a film, as I’m doing now. First impressions are important right? I think recording that instant reaction can be valuable, especially for readers dithering over whether to see something. Of course taking more time to chew over the substance of a movie can also have its advantages. It might help me to get my head round it and make some more insightful points. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get my head round Memento.
The protagonist of Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce), certainly couldn’t make it as a film reviewer. And I’m not saying that because it’s a particularly difficult task with insurmountable challenges. In fact normally I’d take the view that anyone could do it and that’s what makes cinema so engaging in the first place. But Leonard is not just anyone. For him remembering the plot of the most transparent Hugh Grant picture would indeed be an insurmountable challenge. There’s an advertising slogan that reads “Impossible is nothing”: this is literally true in Memento. It would be impossible for Leonard to write a review because he would remember nothing about the film. Not even Hugh alternating between “gosh” and “golly”.
Leonard suffers from a rare condition which basically means he can’t form new memories. I say “basically” but if you watch Memento it’s rapidly clear that his day to day existence is not a simple matter. Repeatedly Leonard tells us, via voiceover or mysterious conversation, that through his mastery of routine, instinct and a system of writing down “facts” as they happen, he has conquered his inability to save memories to the mainframe of his brain. But as the story progresses things that seemed certain prove to be far from it. Leonard’s quest to find his wife’s killer, and the man who whacked the talent of remembering from his skull, gives even the most ordinary encounter life and death importance. If Leonard draws the wrong conclusion from something and writes it down for future reference, he could end up on a path that causes him to kill the wrong man.
With last year’s hit Inception, Christopher Nolan reminded us that before his skilled reinvention of Batman for the mainstream he had a reputation as an experimental narrative trickster. Inception was his first film since The Prestige, which had twists and turns aplenty in the plot, to tell a daring story free of the Gotham city universe. The hype for the “dream heist” thriller was hysterically huge. I and countless others positively salivated at the sound of the concept. The possibilities of such an idea were endless. Sadly the film is one of the most overrated of recent times. Whilst good it did not compete with the whirring of imaginations kick-started into life by the premise.
Memento is much better than Inception when it comes to realising a tantalising idea. This is despite the fact that Nolan’s relative inexperience as a director is evident in a handful of lacklustre shots; one drab and overlong focus of Pearce strutting away into a building stands out. The acting isn’t always brilliant either, with what seems like half the cast of The Matrix on show and in hit and miss form. The script however is superb, bouncing themes and tension around the scattered narrative structure. I was never bored. And I never knew what was going on.
As well as being extremely gripping and exciting, Memento has its other strong points. Leonard as a character is an engrossing figure, complete with those striking memories in tattoo form (which Steven Moffat recently adapted in Doctor Who for the monsters you forget when you look away). He is trying to make sense of his life, in one sense with nothing to go on but also with endless notes and information he’s amassed for himself. We’re all trying to settle on a purpose and the excess of notes could be an interesting symbol for information overload in the modern age. Clearly Memento has its insights on memory given the driving force of the story but it also comments on the nature of fact and perhaps the notion of history. Leonard insists he only collects facts and this ensures no one takes advantage of him. But his “facts” are manipulated. And what’s the point in revenge if he can’t remember it? Is it enough that “the world still exists when I close my eyes”, as he says?
Memento gave me a headache. I may have had one before sitting down to watch but after having the pieces inside my head jumbled about until my brain moaned in pain, it didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. The overwhelming strength of the film is its originality. The execution was certainly there, which is why this was Nolan’s breakthrough picture. But the real genius lies with the idea behind the story. And the script was based on a short story by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan. Perhaps he is the real mastermind behind the family’s success and the endless plaudits should be more evenly shared.
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