Altering Reality on a Shoestring Budget: PBS’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

By Michael Grasso / February 1, 2018

We had a very limited budget, and we were moving into science fiction … and let’s face it, some of Ursula’s ideas were pretty big. I mean, how the hell do we possibly even begin to portray the attack of aliens or the wiping out of billions of people with the plague? What it came down to was, we had to find metaphors. We had to find things that didn’t cost that much money and still led to maybe the same kind of emotional impact.

—Fred Barzyk, Interview with Scifi.com, 2000

In the wake of the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin last week, I took the opportunity to revisit one of the more fascinating products of her life and career: the 1980 television-movie adaptation of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven. Produced by station WNET in New York City, the film is the summation of nearly a decade of technological and artistic experimentation in public television. It depicts a vision of the future firmly and perhaps unavoidably grounded in its present. But much like the timelines dreamed out of reality by the story’s protagonist, George Orr, The Lathe of Heaven would disappear from all but its viewers’ memories for nearly two decades. It thus became very much a haunted (and hauntological) work before its re-release in 2000, and for good reason. The Lathe of Heaven television movie used a memorable series of simple cinematographic tricks, cues from contemporary video art, canny set decoration, and monumental late-Brutalist and early-postmodernist architecture to convey a near future constantly riven by shifts in reality. In doing so without the use of many special effects, The Lathe of Heaven became a unique televisual object that stands as a testament to what American public broadcasting was able to produce on a bare-bones budget.

The directorial team at the head of The Lathe of Heaven were David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, who met at WGBH (Boston’s public television station) in 1968, where experiments in video art had already drawn esteemed video artist Nam June Paik. Loxton went on to found TV Lab at WNET in New York in 1972, and Barzyk the New Television Workshop at WGBH in 1974. The two collaborated frequently over the course of the ’70s. One of their earliest projects, a 1972 TV adaptation of various Kurt Vonnegut stories titled Between Time and Timbuktu, foreshadowed their work with Le Guin. In fact, this project led to a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to WNET and the TV Lab to create a series of adaptations of stories from contemporary science fiction authors; The Lathe of Heaven was proposed as a first installment. In this detailed interview with Scifi.com back in 2000, when the film was finally re-released on DVD (ironically, that DVD itself is now incredibly rare; used copies sell for over $100 today), Barzyk explained the challenges of working on a short timeframe with a budget of only about a quarter million dollars. Not wanting to cut corners, Barzyk and Loxton had to use a combination of simple production tricks, stylistic decisions, and a little bit of the video technology pioneered in public television.

Much of the power of The Lathe of Heaven is found in its ability to create a compelling and distinctive mise-en-scène. At the beginning of the story, George Orr (played by Bruce Davison) trods among seeming throngs of fellow near-future Portlanders, the rain (admittedly unconvincing special video effects) constantly coming down in sheets. He and the extras wear dull grey rain smocks, the buildings and exteriors cloaked in shadows. Much of the first 15 to 20 minutes of the film is intentionally very hard to see on screen. George knows he has the ability to “effectively dream,” to change reality with his subconscious desires, and he goes to Dr. William Haber (and his dream-enhancing “Augmentor”) as part of his government-mandated treatment for drug-seeking behavior. Haber tests Orr’s abilities, first with a simple dream about a horse. This dream doesn’t take the form of the lush green fields of escapist fantasies like Winston Smith’s Golden Country in the film version of 1984, or Rick Deckard’s or Sam Lowry’s equally verdant bucolic fantasy landscapes in Blade Runner (1982) or Brazil (1985), respectively. George’s horse dream is surprisingly monotone, with lots of greys, whites, blacks, and earth tones (the horse is shown running through snowy mountains; on a ranch in winter). It is only when Haber asks Orr to change Portland, Oregon’s omnipresent rain to sun that the film finally allows real light, brightness, and color into its palette. The citizens shed their grey rain smocks (or, more accurately, they have suddenly not worn the garments in years) and display bare flesh and brightly-colored clothing. Even Haber’s office goes from a shadowy, dark-paneled, neo-noir lair to a bright and open space.

Dr. Haber’s office before and after George’s effective dream meant to make Portland sunny. With just some simple changes in lighting, the directors imply a much larger change.

George’s dream sequences, as noted, offer an opportunity to “show not tell” about the vast changes Haber asked George to dream into existence. Barzyk mentions in his interview that part of the way they decided to convey the vast changes  in the film’s world was through symbolic representation in George’s dreams. Probably the most famous of these is the “dinner banquet” sequence where George, Haber, and George’s advocate, Health, Education and Welfare lawyer Heather LeLache (Margaret Avery), are the only three guests who do not eventually retreat into death, decay, and dessication. What happens in the waking world is that Haber, asking Orr to solve overpopulation, has had Orr kill billions in a plague that happened a few years ago. Showing that kind of mass pandemic in a literal fashion would require, at the very least, convincing stock footage, fake media reports, and other elements that would be difficult for the production. (Barzyk would later use fake news reports mixed with dramatic narrative to great effect in 1984’s nuclear thriller Countdown to Looking Glass.) But, in 1979, Barzyk and Loxton had no such budget; as Barzyk says in the interview, “we had to find metaphors.” As a result, these haunting, dream-like sequences end up living on in memory far more effectively than the alternative might have.

Two of The Lathe of Heaven‘s dream sequences: the banquet of the dead, which implies a worldwide plague and stock footage of sea turtles, which leads into George’s dreaming up an invasion by aliens, who happen to have large imposing shells.

Equally important as the dream sequences are the small touches—props and interiors—in the waking world. Haber’s Augmentor machine begins as a bunch of analog equipment—oscilloscopes, TV screens (some of which seem to be displaying video art of a brain to represent the machine’s brain scans), LED counters, and a plastic dome and later simple metal bracket to set over George’s head. (Interestingly, these technological objects are some of the only sources of bright color in the first part of the film). As Haber has Orr dream him a prestigious institute (reminiscent of the many sinister “self-help” organizations in David Cronenberg’s 1970s oeuvre), the Augmentor gets more and more outrageous visually. It soon becomes a giant machine reminiscent of a supercomputer, with huge computer banks and cryptic controls and buttons. As Haber steals Orr’s ability to effectively dream, the Augmentor becomes a monolith of geometry, glowing white, like some kind of futuristic idol. Likewise, the other incidental elements of the film’s sets—crowded and cheap-looking interiors, including George’s apartment, during the time when reality is burdened with global warming and overpopulation; desolate and abandoned after George has dreamed away billions—are cannily deployed to give the intimation of a larger world outside the lens of the camera.

The evolution of Dr. Haber’s Augmentor. Top left, original Augmentor with oscilloscopes, LED displays, and video animation of George’s brain. Top right, the supercomputer Augmentor at Haber’s dreamed-up “Institute of Oneirology.” Bottom left, the cryptic control panel for the Institute’s Augmentor. Bottom right, the final phase of the Augmentor in Haber’s “Palace of Dreams.”

And, speaking of the larger world, architecture and location choice play an integral role in conveying not just The Lathe of Heaven‘s baseline near-future setting, but also the vast changes transforming the world outside. As mentioned, Dr. Haber dreams himself a vast institute of “oneirology.” In the montage that introduces Haber’s institute, Loxton and Barzyk edit together a series of shots of Brutalist architecture to a soundtrack of thunderous and portentous synth music. (The Lathe of Heaven‘s score was composed by Michael Small, a composer responsible for the music in classic ’70s paranoid thrillers like 1974’s The Parallax View, 1975’s The Stepford Wives, and 1976’s Marathon Man). As the Augmentor turns from hand-assembled, kit-bashed technology to essentially a magical talisman, Haber’s institute eventually becomes a so-called “Palace of Dreams.” Barzyk mentions that the Palace of Dreams segments were shot at the Tandy Center in Dallas, headquarters of the Tandy Corporation/RadioShack, one of Texas’s many rising computer and tech companies in this era. The Tandy Center had its own private subway system, a shopping mall, and other amenities. Its ambitious architecture and design was indicative of the hopes and symbols of the corporatized, high-tech, so-called “New South” in the 1970s (futuristic architecture in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was also used to great effect in 1976’s Logan’s Run, including the Dallas Market Center Apparel Mart which doubled as the underground city). The combined effect of these forward-looking structures is to create a sense of slight unease and unfamiliarity in the viewer. Barzyk described it as “not a futuristic world; it was recognizably our world, with just some touches of the future. Of course it cost a lot less that way!”

The past inside the present, or, perhaps more accurately, the past inside the near future: the Portland skyline featuring bell towers and tower blocks, and the uncanny alien handing George a 45 rpm single.

It’s that combination of old and new that I think makes The Lathe of Heaven such a profoundly hauntological work. In the very first parts of the film, the viewer joins George as he awakens in his tiny, white-paneled, cubbyhole-strewn near-future apartment. He wakes to the sound of an old church steeple bell, and, in the cut outside to Portland exterior, we see a church bell tower contrasted with blocky, Brutalist apartment buildings. This reminds us that even in the future, remnants of the past will remain. This juxtaposition unconsciously recapitulates George Orr’s effective dreaming; faint elements of the dreamed-away past stubbornly remain in the landscape. Much later in the film, as George attempts to find his bearings after he imagines into being an alien invasion to bring the world together in peace, he finds himself in an antique shop, where the detritus of the twentieth century languishes, forgotten—but it turns out that the shop is run by one of those very aliens! When the alien gives “Jorrjorr” a 45 rpm single of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” it helps unlock his memories of Heather, with whom George has fallen in love and who, as a black woman, has disappeared in this new reality where racism has been “conquered” by making everyone “gray.” (This inclusion of the Beatles, an expensive if not impossible music licensing “get” under the best of circumstances, was, ironically, one of the reasons why The Lathe of Heaven was infrequently re-aired in the early ’80s and made into such an object of intrigue and half-forgotten memory.) This object, this artifact, this piece of the now-old held out by a strikingly alien creature puts things right, at least for a little while. Heather reappears in George’s next dream thanks to the song and the memories they shared. But after Haber overreaches with the Dream Palace’s Augmentor, reality comes crashing back down. Heather loses all but faint memories of George; but her arrival at the antique store, where George now works, seems to trigger some recognition in her.

It’s difficult to avoid seeing the bold dreams of George Orr (as directed by Dr. Haber) as a metacommentary on public television’s mandate to heal and educate a nation riven by a decade in which meaning and truth seemed to dissolve before the polity’s eyes. This juxtaposition of old and new found in the film—architecture, technology, all the objects that make up our daily reality—is public television in a nutshell. Public television used an established piece of the American psychic landscape—the television—in new and innovative ways: to show off experimental video art, or to put on low-budget adaptations of classic science fiction with cerebral topics that might turn off the Star Wars-loving public in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Lathe of Heaven, like a shard of an alternate timeline left over after a particularly profound reality quake, endures in memory. It has now become the object out of place, the weird intruder on our timeline, as it reminds us that our world and our views of the future were, at one time, very different.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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2 thoughts on “Altering Reality on a Shoestring Budget: PBS’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

  1. Pingback: New Age Nebraska: ‘Entourage: A Ceremony of Dreams’, 1977

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