By D.K. Holm
June 16, 2006
[nota bene: The following column, by necessity, contains some spoilers! If you don't want to know the ending of the movies mentioned, don't read on.]
Taking the Red Pill
A SCANNER DARKLY
Keanu Reeves is taking the pill again. Over the past several years, Reeves has evolved into the premiere sci-fi film anchor, the guy whose presence gets the film made. He alternates these parts with roles in romantic comedies (House by the Lake is opening near-simultaneously) which probably pay the bills that allow him to appear in Constantine, the Matrix movies, and Johnny Mnemonic (though now Reeves is moving into the crime film genre). One wonders if the long gestating A Scanner Darkly, based on the cult Philip K. Dick novel that many people have tried to film over the past two decades, would have gotten off the ground without Reeves's presence.
The result is that Richard Linklater's film is about 25 per cent science fiction, 50 per cent stoner tale, 100 per cent animated and 100 per cent live action (because of the rotoscoping process, which requires live action footage that is then drawn over frame by frame at a cost of what is broadcast as 500 person hours per frame). I was curious to see if the rotoscoping process was even necessary to the story, but yes, it is, as it allows fantastical moments to be seamlessly installed into the narrative, moments such as various hallucinations and the bizarre technology that Dick imagined, such as the electronic suit that undercover cops use to cloud their identity, and which allows the key characters to shift personas.
Dick's source novel is ambitious, flawed, heartfelt, and paranoid all at once and the movie is a reasonably accurate adaptation of the source text. It concerns Bob Arctor (Reeves), one of Dick's characteristically jangly named characters (Anderton?). Bob lives in a suburban ranch house in southern California, which he shares with a few other stoners, Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), in an exquisite performance), and Luckman (the cleverly cast Woody Harrelson). "Stoners" is probably not the proper term, as they take a speed like drug. A frequent visitor is Freck (Rory Cochrane), the very definition of an addict, with hyperactive eyes and mobile hair that hides and reveals his face like a curtain. But Bob is also known as Fred, to the police surveillance team he works for, We first meet Fred, really a cloaked Bob, giving a talk to a business group about the problems of undercover life and the evils of drugs, especially a deadly new drug called Substance D, nicknamed simply Death. It reminds me of the Red Death drug in Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, but is really the speed that Dick and numerous friends were taking back in the 1970s, though Dick anticipated the current Meth crisis. Bob eventually ends up as "Bruce," working the fields that create Substance D for the corporation, New Path, which rules the whole endless cycle of abuse, from addition to recovery to supply and back again. Meanwhile, Bob loves Donna (Winona Ryder), a fellow addict whom he wrestles internally over betraying, and who is sexually frigid, though that proves to be associated with her own secret life.
Dick's vision of corporate criminality, one basically of fascism in its true definition, in which business and government join hands, is a product of the paranoid 1970s, just like the films Parallax View The Conversation, and Blow Out, but no less plausible for that. After a long series of directors attached to A Scanner Darkly over the decades (including, Terry Gilliam and, I think, Brian De Palma), Linklater, it turns out, proves to be the perfect helmer for the project (the film is co-produced by Steven Soderbergh, who, given his affection for '70s cinema, might also been a good choice). Linklater is also a child of the 1970s and feels the paranoia in his bones. He also simply knows drug culture, at least cinematically. With three perfectly cast actors at the heart of the film, who each represent in their own way aspects of popular drug culture, real or imagined, this is a film that feels true, observed, prescient and retrospective at the same time. Despite, or maybe because of, the rotoscoping shield, the actors give their best performances in years.
The trailer says the film is set seven years in the future, but it feels like "now," and the '70s at the same time. Surely we have all been to a house like Bob's. Dirty, cramped, cluttered, where the couch is the center of activity, where food scraps in the kitchen age like archeological finds, and no one seems to have any visible means of support. The non-stop "party" gravitates from couch to back yard and back depending on the weather, the light, and the underlying sociological rules of engagement. The urge is to be always "on" but without the confidence that anyone is listening and almost always in slow motion, and occasionally someone will marshal their resources and come out with a speculative riff that has everyone howling with laughter, and which, if you're lucky, you remember enough to put into a novel or screenplay later. Linklater, under the influence of Dick, captures this quality of life perfectly, along with its subsidiary settings, the broad bright streets of suburban arteries that serve malls and the diner. These characters have no background, no past, no future. They are collections of base animal needs augmented with intellectual pretensions.
A home away from home the car, and it is curious to see how car-oriented the movie is (I didn't get that sense from the book). The automobile represents vitality, man's god-given right to go where he chooses. It's an emblem of social and financial success. But like almost everything else in the film, the car is ultimately unreliable, even though all you really need it for is to go get more drugs. The car is there to suggest that, in this drug culture, mobility doesn't matter much, and the car grows literally and figuratively etiolated as the drug users slump deeper into inactivity. (Animals and cats is another theme or visual motif of the film.)
An important component of both Dick and Linklater's Scanner is the "vision of the future" in which we are all monitored at all times, a state of being that doesn't seem so "future." Bob goes to "work" where he sits in from of a console of monitors that show his own life passing before his eyes, via the numerous cameras hidden in his house, and he also sees what goes on when he isn't there, such as the odd drug overdose. Science fiction that was yet plausible when the book was published, this now feels like "reality," and it is difficult to conceive of this kind of monitoring lessening. All that saves us from complete 1984-style observation is the X factor, the human element, i.e., the kind of incompetence that we see at airports and in military strikes and police stings.
On the one hand the sci-fi elements have a Cronenberg-level viscosity, but on another broad level A Scanner Darkly is really just another movie about the workaday world, like Clockwatchers, American Beauty or Office Space (I call this genre, if it is one, Heroic Alienation). Bob is a guy doing a job, stuck with friends who don't work and drain him of his resources, and with a girl friend who won't fuck him We finally get to see Ryder's rack on screen, by the way; it's just that it's rendered as a cartoon. But that is also the point of the rotoscoping. It puts you another step away from the characters, which allows you to view them "objectively," while paradoxically making them seem cozier, the way that cartoons appeal to the kid in us. I think that this is a film that people will be watching over and over in years to come, because they characters feel familiar and the setting is so real (and also because of Downey's performance).
Linklater had the remarkable, Soderberghian happenstance of having two films at Cannes this year. Though he didn't win anything, the fact symbolized his progress since Slackers. It's a prolific career but also one like Michael Winterbottom's (or indeed Soderbergh's) in which you never know what kind of film he's going to make next. That's because, like these other two directors, Linklater has a big appetite: for films of all kinds, for knowledge, for people of all kinds.
And incidentally, if you are interested in KILL BILL, you might find my new book, KILL BILL: AN UNOFFICIAL CASEBOOK useful. It is now available in fine bookstores everywhere, or from Amazon.
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COMING SOON: Oscar winners on DVD, Louis Malle, Val Lewton, a package of Hitchcock movies and TV shows, REMINGTON STEEL and other TV mystery shows, many STAR TREKS, the third annual DVD Tray of Horror part 2, and more!
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