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Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006
Delusions that open the doorway to truth
Special to The Japan Times
They called it "science fiction" when it came out, like the rest of author Philip K. Dick's books, yet "A Scanner Darkly" was anything but. A deeply personal novel, "Scanner" was rooted in the most troubled period of Dick's own life: In August 1970, his fourth wife, Nancy, walked out on him, triggering a downward spiral from which he almost didn't recover.
Despairing, Dick turned to drugs, and his California home became a crash pad for all sorts of sketchy druggies and furry freaks. Dick had always been paranoid -- likely a result of the amphetamines he had long been prescribed for his agoraphobia, or being investigated by the FBI for his opposition to the Vietnam War -- but the presence of illegal drugs in his home drove this to new heights. At one point, Dick was reportedly hiring hit-men to protect his friends from irate dealers. A mysterious break-in at his home in November '71, in which nothing of value was stolen except for files and documents, sent Dick over the top; explanations for the burglary ran from the cops to drug dealers, but many people suspected Dick himself.
All this fear and head-tripping passed almost undiluted onto the pages of "A Scanner Darkly," which, except for a thin veneer of sci-fi high-tech, seemed to be set in the present. Dick peopled his novel with amusing burn-outs, sinister paranoid heads, and a great central conceit: an undercover narcotics agent who is assigned to spy on himself.
"Scanner" passes to the big screen in the capable hands of director Richard Linklater, who obviously reveres Dick's novel -- much of it, indeed entire passages, make it to the screen unchanged.
The main creative license he allows himself is stylistic: The entire film is animated in a rotoscoping style, with the animators drawing over actual filmed performances of the cast. This style had been used before in Linklater's surreal "Waking Life." This time round he employs it in a less impressionistic and more concrete way, but this crucial line of distance from "reality" allows the film to move fluidly into the more hallucinatory parts of the novel. It's also the closest a movie has gotten to the feel of a graphic novel.
Linklater opens the film, set "seven years from now," with the same disturbingly insane yet bleakly funny scene as the book: A guy named Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) spends an entire day trying to get bugs (aphids) off his body. He calls his friend Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) for help, and Barris tells him to nab a few bugs, trap them in a jar and bring them over for closer examination. When Barris gets the jar from Freck he finds . . . nothing.
Freck, you see, has been hitting the Substance D, a designer drug also known as "Slow Death" that's highly addictive and, apparently, brain-damaging. As Barris puts it, "There are no weekend warriors on the D, either you're on it, or you haven't tried it."
Both Barris and Freck are friends of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), whose trashed Southern California suburban home is where everyone goes to get high. Other dazed denizens of Bob's living room include Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), a gentle burn-out, and Donna (Winona Ryder), a small-time dealer and girlfriend at arm's length from Bob.
What nobody knows is that Arctor is a narc, informing on drug users and the Substance D network to the police. Even the cops don't know this, as he reports to them wearing a "scramble suit," which masks his actual identity under a shifting composite blur derived from thousands of other faces (the animation handles this difficult concept well).
But somebody must know, for things start happening -- suspicious accidents, burglaries -- that suggest someone's out to get Arctor. Or maybe the D has fried his brain, too, and his fears -- of hidden conspiracies, and that maybe the shifty Barris, with his interest in guns and home-brew cocaine, is out to get him -- are all just paranoia. Who knows? Maybe Bob is out to get Arctor.
Anyone who's ever known a stoner will know that dope produces a certain mind-set, a proclivity to arcane theories and multiple readings of any situation. Simple things seem to become endlessly complex and fascinating -- and sometimes cripplingly confusing, which is the downside Dick/Linklater capture so well in "Scanner." Some scenes are hilarious, like the hapless Freck's belief that we're living in a fascist police state, because if a cop asks you your name, you're expected to be sober enough to reply. Barris' madcap schemes are equally amusing examples of fried-synapse logic. But the toll that Substance D takes on these people -- Arctor, more than anyone -- is tragic to watch, resulting in a dark and oh-so-cynical finale.
All along the way Linklater underscores Dick's recurring themes: reality as an illusory, shifting force; the paranoia of cops and criminals, friends and enemies, self and other all being one and the same; and a disgust with consumerist society, whether it's the loop of "the same McDonaldburger place, over and over," or that of drugs -- the ultimate seller's item -- where an addict becomes "a closed loop of tape, repeating one sentence again and again."
Linklater is a perfect choice for the job. His going-nuts-in-a-motel-room movie "Tape" shows he understands the dynamics of messing with someone's head, while both "Slackers" and "Suburbia" dealt with the kind of drop-out subculture described in Dick's book. Indeed, Freck could be the same Rory Cochrane character from "Dazed and Confused" after another decade or two of partying too hard.
It may be ironic that a director who made a stoners' cult classic with that film -- advertised upon release as "the movie that everyone's toking about" -- has created such a frightening view of drug consumption here. Then again, this is exactly the sort of thing that Dick -- who died in 1982 at age 53 -- was famous for, jumping to one side of an argument and then the other; he would certainly approve. It's through such cognitive dissonance that we are shown the doorway to truth.
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