Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick was a hack but an odd sort of hack. People love him and people love Ubik. Filmmakers love him, guys in bars love him, graduate students love him. He has a pulpy genre quality combined with the kind of broad and flat philosophical high concept where you can’t figure out whether it’s profound or not, it’s like a cheap pickup line that someone else finds irresistible so who are we to say? If you looked for a closest cousin you’d find Kurt Vonnegut.

Ubik starts as a hardboiled corporate bust-up between psychics and anti-psychics (“inertials”) in a seedy warped 1992 future of lunar colonies and a cryogenic half-life for the newly dead. A sexy new psychic appears, with the ability to retroactively alter the timeline, and from there the timeline goes sideways then sidways again. Following an assassination attempt, the protagonists flee through a world where objects age, strange messages appear, people waste away and die without warning.

The bite of it isn’t in the corporate gang war. Sex and violence make their cameos but the heart of it is in the perverse care and detail given to the horror of death and dying, languor and decay. The heroes try to make sense of a world that withers away selectively; energy and youth mean life and survival; age and weariness are death. Everything else is trivia.

Ubik itself is a crux. The word appears as a brand name in satirical advertisements at the head of each chapter, 1950s-era jingles. But when it appears in the text - there, it’s a sparkling life-giving elixir in an aerosol can, administered by an angelic presence. So what is Ubik? Consumerist fluff or authentic life force? 

From what the text gives us, maybe they’re the same? The living fight and have sex and betray; the dead watch and consume; and meanwhile beauty is beauty and desire is desire and they’re on the side of life.

Fire Walk With Me, written and directed by David Lynch, starring Sheryl Lee

I went into this movie with no expectations except for how the critics described it, as an unfortunate lapse, a shapeless orgy of violence. “It’s not the worst movie ever made, it just seems to be.” The critics are wrong; this is a brilliant film that complements and redeems the unevenness of the two-season television show. Anyone who expected comic mystery hijinks deserved the confusion they endured.

I had never watched Twin Peaks until a few weeks ago; I only knew it from the fans of its quirky details - the Log Lady, pie, etc ec. The quirk and whimsy and stylized performances that sat exactly where it needed to in the early 1990s. It’s a different series than I thought it was. It shocked from its opening moments, the intrusion of one dead and one battered teenager into the quiet Pacific Northwest logging town. 

The half-comic stiffness bothered me until the meaning sank in. When horror goes unacknowledged, we are living in a world that is not quite real. If you’re going to pretend you live in a world without hidden violence you might as well talk to a log for all the sense it makes.

Fire Walk With Me is the prequel and it has an R rating which allows us to walk through the membrane. We follow Laura Palmer through the real life people winked and hinted at on television. Confused sex, drugs, terror, incest, and rape. Sheryl Lee’s performance is edge-of-seat daring and unforgettable; she knows what’s happening to her, she’s fascinated by it and terrified; she's a person all too recognizably daring herself forward and downward. Her friend Donna wants to share the contagion and Laura almost lets her and then panics when she sees the reality. In the end we see her walk to her fate.

It’s a film with the supernatural in it but there are almost no special effects. We see people appear and disappear and behave in odd and terrifying ways. Which, for anyone paying attention, is not supernatural at all.

"Wildest Dreams," a song performed by Taylor Swift, co-written with Max Martin and Shellback

Taylor Swift’s best song and best (if problematic) video. Why?

A story of a film actress shooting a film in Africa and caught up in a love affair. She fell in love on the shoot, he moved on.  It sits naturally next to her public posture, the misty lack of distinction between a pose and a social self. She’s always as much of an actress as a singer and there’s little fuss made about a distinction or any postmodern implications following therefrom. They dyed her hair black. 

What succeeds? The vulnerability of the acting. The articulate direction, hitting impressions moment to moment but no slush and weirdly without cliche. The tiny character bits - the hapless director, the camera woman. It’s a perfect miniature. The warm summery color, the then the blue-orange of New York. 

The direction is pretty much perfect It’s all a sequence of shots, five seconds at the most - visual tweets. She’s always been rather extraordinary as an actress at that length - a glance, a snarl, a tantrum, punctuated moments where context would be beside the point. The aesthetic is pinup - it’s almost one Vargas after another.

Part of it is the songwriting, the theme repeated at first tentatively then, chorus by chorus, swells to an avalanche of feeling sweeping you away, if you want to give yourself up to it. There’s the repeated hiccup in the writing - “standing in a nice dress” - which to me is a poignant lack of imagination in the speaker. She can’t think of anything better to task for.

Why do people hate it as much as they do? Because they really do hate it. There’s the race thing - it’s an Africa without Africans which even for a 1940s film shoot is a bit much. It’s a flaw, a missed opportunity and a signal failure of representation.

And there’s Swift’s bland barbie-doll planetary ideal physique which is almost too obvious to mention. And her egotism - she doesn’t sing about anyone but herself. I just don’t see a huge meanness in that - she’s the show, and it would be forgiven in a man. And yes she’s the willowy blonde sexpot icon. She just seems too boring to be that mean or significant. Her self-enclosure seems to say, “invest in me if you want, I’m available for that or not.” 

She doesn’t really have positions and I suppose that’s a failing too. But that’s not the same as not standing for something. She stands, functionally, for the right to feel and for the lyric “I,” for self-assertion, for voice. For those who choose it, there if you need it.