Friday, December 04, 2015

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime pilot, directed by David Semel, Daniel Percival, written by Frank Spotnitz)

Bless my homeland forever

Frank Spotnitz's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's classic alternate-history dystopia The Man in the High Castle is alternately ballsy and flawed, but does get this much right: it opens with Jeanette Olsson's tender rendition of "Edelweiss," the song's thick longing turned sour by off-kilter music, the recording apparently defective as it skips forward a few times. This is nostalgia curdling gradually into nightmare: we see images of American monuments, maps of the country, flags, war footage. Eventually (like a creeping pestilence) we see swastikas here, there--hints of the state of the world as it exists in the series.

"Edelweiss" of course was written by Oscar Hammerstein with music by Richard Rogers for the 1959 musical The Sound of Music. It's about as Austrian as french fries are French.  

Don't feel too bad if you were taken in--Theodore Bikel who played Captain Von Trapp on Broadway recalls people from Austria walking up to him and expressing delight at hearing him sing this old folk tune again.

Aside from the pleasure of watching this insufferably saccharine number being corrupted on the small high-definition screen we have the pleasure of seeing the perfect distillation of a major Dickian theme, the always slippery question of authenticity--what's real, what's not, how to determine the difference (in short: not easy). Our hero the secretly Jewish Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) is seen working in a factory that produces forged Civil War weapons; later a newsreel canister titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy surfaces, containing images of Germany and Japan losing the Second World War. Is the footage authentic or staged, brilliant special effects or cold sober reality?

It's a backhanded forehanded highhanded tribute to the power of illusion, of surface appearance: if your spell is strong enough and convincing enough--if it becomes indistinguishable from reality--who's to say it isn't reality? Every time you develop a narrative who's to say you're not developing your own world complete with history and consequences? 'Moral relativism' is the term some people slap on this style of thinking; 'a slippery slope,' others like to call it. To Dick I suspect it's hardly a slope--more like an endless frictionless plain on which it is impossible to find one's footing, or the necessary leverage to raise oneself up off the ground.  

O, and on the Nazis losing the war--failed to mention the series' big hook: the story is set in a world where the Axis powers have divided the United States between them, with the Nazis controlling the Eastern Coast, Japan the West (Frink and his girlfriend Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) live in San Francisco); a nuclear weapon has been deployed to end the war, not on Hiroshima but Washington DC.

The rest of the pilot doesn't display the same level of understanding of the novel, much less of Dick. The Atlantic's Noah Berlatsky neatly outlines the more obvious problems: the racism neatly parceled out to the bad guys, good guys largely exempted (Juliana in the novel sneers at Frank for liking 'Japs' and having 'a large nose'); a failure to link the Nazis' 'will to domination' to the West's.

There's also a bit of sexual whitewashing: in the novel Martin Bormann heads the Reich, as Hitler has been crippled by a long-simmering bout of syphilis; in the pilot Hitler is dying of Parkinson's (because syphilis has an uglier ring to it?). In the novel Frank and Juliana were once married now divorced; in the pilot they're only co-habitatingallowing Juliana the freedom to travel east, deliver the mysterious newsreel, perhaps meet someone new (i.e. trucker Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), driving west from New York City). Where Juliana in the novel is a willful force of nature who chooses and leaves her lovers freely Juliana on the small screen is a kinder gentler woman who loves Frank but is willing to put aside that love for a noble quest. The immediate effect is to erase any trace of--can't think of a better word--unseemliness from the protagonist's character: a wife even an ex (the writers seem to say) shouldn't be sleeping around even by suggestion. You lose your audience's sympathy that way.

In Dick's novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy isn't a newsreel but a book by Hawthorne Abendsen, the eponymous man in his lofty abode. Turning him from writer to underground filmmaker--the pilot's biggest change--is in some ways an inspired move: a newsreel is visually more charismatic than a book (once in a while a reel can even be projected); a filmmaker more readily evokes the romantic figure of the rebel artist who creates and distributes his works outside the system (I imagine directors Semel and Percival inspired to emulate Abendsen in that they believe they're producing something subversive, dangerous, world-changing).

The pilot however fails to include a crucial detail from the novel (skip the rest of this and the next three paragraphs if you plan to read or watch either show or novel): the world Abendsen described is not our own but yet another alternate reality, where Roosevelt retires in the 1940s while the British and the Soviet Union link up to fight Germany. By war's end the United States and British Empire are the only superpowers left standing, locked in yet another Cold War stalemate.

We haven't even mentioned the third reality Deputy Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) stumbles into, where yes the Japanese still lose but the Embarcadero Freeway dominates the San Francisco skyline (of the three this one most closely resembles our own--at least until 1989, when the freeway was destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake). There the deputy minister demands service, to which he gets the immediate derogatory response: "Watch it, Tojo."

Dick always had a few realities tucked up his sleeve, played a more complicated game than just pitting one against another, assuming the first to be superior to the next (the Japanese-controlled territories for example have eliminated urban pollution by investing in electric cars and dirigibles--in some ways their San Francisco is cleaner, safer, more culturally enlightened than our own). One wonders why he set most of the novel in the relatively well-run Pacific States rather than the more inherently dramatic German States till one realizes that Dick had opted for the more difficult challenge: to depict not a harrowing alternate hell but an unsettlingly familiar (if not downright seductive) dystopia where you need to pierce through the maya, the shell of illusion covering the world, to realize the actual state of things.

There's also the suggestion that for Dick all realities will at one point have superpowers--doesn't matter which ones--locked in a deadly cold war stalemate, that governments will always consider oppression a viable option, and that racism will rear its ugly head no matter what. 

But it's early days yet, and the pilot does have a few pleasures to offer: stylishly noir photography; a handsome production design despite the low budget (Times Square with a swastika against Coca-Cola red instead of the familiar logo is a memorable touch); a neat cast of characters including Rufus Sewell as the charismatically unkillable Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, Joel de la Fuente as the quietly sinister Kempeitai inquisitor Kido, and Davalos' more subdued yet more easily appealing Juliana Crain (name changed from the novel's Juliana Frink).

Then there's the ending which I won't give away but will say this: for all its melodrama it does evoke the Dickian themes of authenticity versus illusion (the 'real' newsreel smuggler is caught). Two lines of dialogue in particular manage to capture some of the complex flavor of Dick's moral worldview: the first, uttered mid-story ("Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill"), is a casually dropped little stunner that suggests how much folks have accepted the status quo; the second ("I'm not a monster") implies an even more disturbing idea--that the most horrifying acts are often committed not by heavy-breathing monsters but by bland-faced bureaucrats, not incapable of the occasional misstep or regretful act of mercy. People very much like us, in other words.  

Not the best Dick adaptation I've ever seen (that I submit would be David Cronenberg's Videodrome, with its portrait of psychic horror as pathological manifestations) not even the best Dick I've seen on TV (that would be Rainer Werner Fassbinder's deadpan bizarre World on a Wire, with its multiple reflective surfaces suggesting multiple levels of reality). But as far as above-average television fare tailored for today's American audiences goes this is dark daring stuff; at the very least it piques one's appetite enough to want to view the other episodes.  

First published in Businessworld, 11.27.15

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