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'Geek Love' author takes a bite out of 'Minority Report'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

The popcorn-scented hall is crammed with humanity, a big, babbling Exodus of movie-goers, all surging across the theater lobby and out to the street beyond. Author Katherine Dunn--never one to be caught up in the movements of the masses--snakes her way out of the crowd and over to a cluster of plastic benches. As we wait here for the crowds to subside, Dunn takes the opportunity to deftly roll herself a little cigarette for future use.

"Well . . . I must admit I've been very, very curious about that movie," Dunn remarks as she works, shooting a glance at the swinging blue doors behind which we have just seen Minority Report (That would be Steven Spielberg's creepshow featuring Tom Cruise as a drug-using cop in the not-too-distant future, using aquatic psychics to bust bad guys before they commit their crimes).

Dunn almost liked it.

"It's easily the most adult film, and the most complex film, that Spielberg has ever done--of those that I've seen," Dunn suggests, "but the ending was so mawkish and so cliché and so Ladies Home Journal, that all I can say is, Stevie? You just went and fucked up another movie."

Dunn--57, a longtime resident of Oregon--is best-known as the author of the wicked underground classic Geek Love (Vintage, 1989, $13.00), about a circus owner and his chicken-chomping wife, who deliberately breed their own family of freaks, and the phenomenal dismemberment cult that rises up around the figure of Arturo the Aqua Boy, the couple's four-flippered first-born. Clearly attracted to what you might call edgy material, Dunn was predictably primed for a movie like Minority Report, with its philosophically rich depictions of mutant detectives, Future Crime departments, icky eye-swapping surgeries, and vast Detainment Units packed with electronically lobotomized prisoners. That latter notion--a warehouse full of convicts eternally locked in neural slumber--is of particular interest to my guest. By the time we've reached the theater exit, had a quick smoke, settled ourselves in a nearby bar and ordered up a couple of coffees, Dunn has dispensed with her entire list of critical judgments: thumbs up to mechanical spiders, the shots of dribbling snot, and the pizzazzy fire-escape fight scene between Cruise and four cops on flying jet packs--"it was Buck Rogers meets Jackie Chan," says Dunn--and thumbs down to the "sappy, heart-tugging holographs" of Cruise's missing son. With such observations out of the way, Dunn can sink her teeth into the meatier issues explored by Minority Report.

"I must admit that years ago I sort of played with the idea of cryogenics as a more versatile solution to the problem of the death penalty," Dunn laughs. "I began thinking that, should we make cryogenics a reality, then simply turning our convicted felons into thugcicles might be the best way to go."

"Thugcicles?" I repeat. "Like, popsicles with a rap sheet?"

"Exactly," she smiles. "The problem with the death penalty, of course, is that it's so final--but thugcicles could be thawed out if necessary and when proper. They could be stored in relatively inexpensive ways, on the various Poles of the earth or on some of our chillier planets and moons. I even toyed with the idea of giving individual citizens tax rebates in exchange for storing one or two thugcicles in their basement freezer. Though if there were ever a power failure," she adds, making a face, "you'd have problems, wouldn't you? The thugs would thaw out--and then where would we be?"

"Up to our ankles in dribbling snot?"

"Exactly."

The central idea of Minority Report--based on a story by the depressing visionary Philip K. Dick--is that crime could be eliminated, in the future, by arresting violent criminals who have yet to be violent. Sounds good until you consider things like the American Constitution--and human nature. Still, Dunn believes that an anti-violent society is already blossoming into reality.

"I think the argument could be made that most of the First World really is moving toward a very nonviolent social stance," she says. "Things have changed dramatically just in my lifetime. When I was a small child, it was absolutely acceptable to whip and spank your children. Now you'd go to jail for it. When I was a small child, boxing was one of the biggest sports in America, and now boxing is considered vulgar and barbaric. It's all moving toward a kind of nonviolent representation of human activity, in which violence is increasingly seen as unacceptable."

I remind Dunn of a certain scene in Minority Report, in which a middle-aged guy--he's got a vaguely postal-worker vibe--enters a Holograph Lounge, where folks go to have tailor-made virtual experiences, and nervously requests the experience of murdering his boss. It is clear from everyone's reaction that such a fantasy is strictly illegal. That scene makes her think of a fiction class she once taught for seniors and grad students at a university in Oregon.

"It began with a simple assignment," she explains. "To pick a person they'd really like to kill, and then find a way to do it. And step by step, they'd plan these murders, and write it all out. My students had a wonderful time, planning the murders of their parents, their roommates, their teachers, and all kinds of people who were subjected, on paper, to some very hellish fates. But I could never teach that class today. Every single one of my students, and I, would be hauled off to jail."

An event that would certainly leave Dunn's devoted readers-and-fans up to their ankles in dribbling snot. But her story brings up another issue, one that runs all the way through Minority Point: How can a civilized America eliminate violent action without eliminating violent thoughts, and how can a society control its citizens' thoughts without damaging the society's collective imagination and the ability to create something better?

Dunn's answer: It can't.

"One of the things that alarms me the most is the failure of imagination in this country," she says. "That's what limits us the most. And it's ironic, because I think this nation is a dream country, that we are founded on the dreams of extraordinary dreamers. So it is our job--not just to go on dreaming--but to bellyache loudly at every opportunity, every time the dream fails.

"America is never going to be perfect, because--as Philip K. Dick might point out himself--America is human. But the dream is always there. I only hope it's still alive in the not-too-distant future."

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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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