Review of “Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth” (a documentary)

For all of you life-long Dick fans, this documentary (which chronicles Dick’s life and career) may be old news. But I was less familiar with his work before taking this course, and completely ignorant about most of his personal life, so I found this documentary particularly intriguing.

Here’s the link (the full documentary is available on Youtube):

If you haven’t seen it yet and have a spare hour and a half (…dead week), I highly recommend watching it. Dick’s close friends, colleagues, step child, girlfriends, and wives (3 out of 5, at least) give personal accounts of their relationships with him. We even see a few clips of Dick himself speaking at conferences. The film was originally made in 2007 for an Argentinian television program but was broadcast in the US soon after.

The whole film is pretty interesting, frankly, aside from the weird fictionalized investigation theme (complete with actors wearing suspenders, looking at files and pinning pictures on a bulletin board… The director of the documentary produced crime dramas in Argentina, so he apparently couldn’t help himself.) The narrator even addresses the audience in the beginning with, “Gentlemen, the future circulation of his work will be based on the results of your investigation.”

Despite the opener’s cheesiness and blatant sexism, it points to one of the most mystifying and formative experiences in PKD’s life: the events during March of 1974, which led Dick to claim that he was a kind of messiah who was chosen to interact directly with God. Dick had a vision that predicted his son’s hernia, and he claimed to interact with God in different ways for some time afterwards. Some of his more skeptical friends claim that these allegedly divine encounters were mere acid flashbacks, but others affirm that these experiences were of a divine nature (like Dick’s close friend and contemporary, Tim Powers.) Whether or not Dick was actually a messiah, this experience shaped some of his later works – including VALIS – and drew him further into his meditation on defining reality, which we know pervades most of his work.

Another interesting aspect about the film is its depiction of Dick’s relationships with women. His therapist claims that Dick’s life was “a tragedy of women”, and several of his friends discuss his attraction to emotionally vulnerable women or women who needed “rescuing.” The film implies that the root of Dick’s attraction to broken women is his guilt about the death of his twin sister, who died during their infancy. Each of Dick’s wives featured in the film discuss how deeply his sister’s death pervaded his life and work, and how his perception of what his sister would have been like affected how he formed his female characters.¬†

In a clip from a Science Fiction conference in France (where Dick was apparently hugely famous) he admits that many of his novels and stories feature a dark-haired female character who somehow distorts or muddles a central male character’s perception of what is real (Rachel in Androids fits this description.) Dick’s sister was dark-haired, as were most of his wives… perhaps his sister’s premature death prompted him to question the definition and existence of reality, which he then depicted in his work.

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5 Responses to Review of “Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth” (a documentary)

  1. Very cool. Will definitely give this a watch, hopefully next week. Could you explain the significance of the title, “The Penultimate Truth”? I’m assuming it has something to do with his sister and her untimely death, but do tell.
    With regard to Dick’s claim of being a Messiah figure, it is especially intriguing to consider this assertion, given the essay we read by Dick–“How to Build a Universe…” That essay functions in multiple ways. It suggests the author’s status as a sort of God, who tries to construct a convincing, functional universe. Moreover, in the essay, Dick speaks about his perception of a divine existence behind all things, as if events of Biblical times continue to influence and interact with the society in which we live. For Dick to then claim a unique relation to divinity, rather than a relation shared by all, is an interesting twist of storytelling, which complicates the assumptions he already layed out in the earlier essay.

    • elephantusk says:

      Thanks for asking, I forgot to mention the significance of the title in my post. It’s a reference to Dick’s novel of the same name, published in 1964. The documentary doesn’t discuss this novel in particular very much, but I assume that it’s a reference to his experiences in March of ’74… The film ends open-endedly with regards to the issue of Dick’s divine “delusions”; that is, it never makes a claim about whether his experiences were mere acid-fuelled hallucinations or actual divine intervention. It basically makes the claim that because Dick is no longer around to explain what happened, no one will ever know what really happened. So long story short I think the title could be a reappropriation of one of his novel’s titles to fit the central framework (“investigation”) of the film.

      But I think this is open to interpretation, and I hope to hear from anyone who has already seen it or watches it later what they think about the title. (Another possible significance: Dick’s novel “The Penultimate Truth” is about humans getting tricked to live in underground barracks during World War III. Dick’s anxiety about the existence of reality, and the definition of what is real, is evident in the novel (as in all of his work), so perhaps the title of the film is a nod to the fundamental question that Dick grappled with both in his personal life and in his writing.)

      And thank you for bringing up “How to Build a Universe…”, his construction of God in that speech totally applies to his complicated relationship to God and religion that’s depicted in the film. The documentary goes into this, so I won’t give too much away, but throughout his life Dick constantly changes his opinion about God’s inherent nature (i.e.: whether God is inherently good or inherently evil.)

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  3. Tim Powers says:

    A small point, but worth noting: Dick never believed he was any kind of Messiah. He never thought he had a message to convey about salvation or enlightenment; he was always looking for something like that, but never believed for more than a day or two that he had found one, and he was always skeptical, always the first to derisively dismiss whatever theory he had come up with. On Monday he’d be a Neo-Platonist Gnostic, on Wednesday a Christian, and on Friday a Jew. A “Messiah,” as he would have agreed himself, would need a good deal more conviction and consistency!

  4. writinginmy says:

    I haven’t watched the documentary yet but I find it interesting that there seems to be an alleged connection between the death of his sister and how he portrays female characters in his literature. What with his “dark haired” inclinations, we’re getting into some weird Freudian psychoanalysis territory here, and it’s personally something I like to avoid when trying to understand someone’s work – shouldn’t the text exist without the author? Shouldn’t we strive towards a kind of “death of the author” mindset to truly appreciate the text? I feel like this idea takes away from the worth of the female characters in his books, especially Rachael Rosen.

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