A SCANNER DARKLY (Richard Linklater, 2006)

Richard Linklater began his career auspiciously, in terms of the attention he drew, but his first two feature films, Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), couldn’t have been thinner or more grotesque. The latter in particular eluded all connection to reality—something unusual for (what I presume is at least in part) an autobiographical film. Linklater then shifted gears to romance, but I at least found Before Sunrise (1995) only the slightest improvement. I stopped watching his films altogether after that and would not have returned except that Before Sunrise spawned a belated sequel: Before Sunset (2004). I decided to catch up with Celine and Jesse, who were this time meeting in Paris rather than Vienna, and this time were scripted by the actors themselves, wonderful Julie Delpy and a not-so-bad Ethan Hawke. Perhaps it had been wrong to stay away; this new film, charming and poignant, captured the fragile essence of a missed opportunity for love.

It is possible, after all, for a filmmaker to grow. Linklater is no longer a hot-shot “kid” in his early thirties. In his mid-40s, he is middle-aged. Before Sunset evidences a deepened mortal awareness, a calmer, kindlier spirit, a desire to shed cleverness and pursue instead a truth about frayed human feelings amidst the steady passage of time. Before Sunrise trips along an intermittently pleasant surface; Before Sunset dips a little deeper into the stream of life.

Better doesn’t necessarily mean good, much less more than that. Before Sunset is by no means a great work. A Scanner Darkly, Linklater’s most recent film, may be.

The film is set in the O.C. sometime in the future. At the outset let me admit I was unprepared for the trenchant nature of the film’s core material: the pernicious grip of debilitating drugs in our culture; the wasted humanity, the blighted lives, in this grip. I have seen many, many films in an identical or similar vein; but none of them so steadily pierces the viewer’s mind and soul as this one does. Whereas too many other films exploit the suffering of drug addicts, rationalized by a self-aggrandizing liberalism that insists on the filmmakers’ enlightenment and righteousness, this one disturbs and moves us by bringing this (hopefully alien) suffering into our lives. By making a dramatic show of human suffering, so many films actually separate an audience from the suffering they purport to disclose. This film works differently. Its distancing techniques unite us with the pain, anguish and heartbreak by eliminating manipulativeness and sentimental gestures.

Moreover, the film challenges familiar social interpretations of habitual drug use and the status quo by presenting a holistic view in which users, entities that manufacture the substances and move them illicitly into society, and law enforcement (the “war on drugs”) all work to reinforce one another in what can be described as an unwitting conspiracy. With each element undercutting the right to exist of the rest, the result is a Darwinian culture of suspicion, betrayal and almost inconceivable cruelty. The protagonist of Linklater’s film is an undercover law enforcement officer—for the time being, let’s call him “Fred”—who has become part of a cell of druggies, one of whose members is the subject of an official investigation. But in reality the operation is vaster and more complicated than it first appears, and the ultimate target is the agricultural/manufacturing concern that has introduced “Substance D” into U.S. streets. The operative is unaware of the farthest reaches of the law enforcement plot with himself at the center. For the sake of his cover his own addiction to Substance D—Death, it is called on the street—has been mandated; but this is only the tip of the continent of the heartlessly crafted sacrifice of this individual, the connection between whose left and right parts of the brain has been demolished through the drug use, and whose capacity for self-determination has likewise been eradicated, all in an effort to maneuver him into a geographic position, a place of ostensible rehabilitation, from which he might be able to accomplish, without his consent or even knowledge, what law enforcement—in effect, society—regards as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It is there—where the protagonist ends up—that the pretty blue flowers from which Substance D is taken are grown and harvested. In a sense, it is a visual translation of this idea: the nurturing of demand. But it becomes frighteningly clear that the effort to oppose this is at war with the bureaucracy’s requirement to perpetuate itself and its righteous struggle; in effect, the political and police forces that oppose the demand for drugs by those who are scapegoated as “criminals” are themselves “criminal,” for this “establishment” itself nurtures the nurturing of demand. This interconnection of individual and social elements presumably derives from the novel by Philip K. Dick upon which Linklater’s jaw-dropping film is based.

I have not read the book. I know that Dick himself, who died of heart failure when he was 53 years old, was a user, and therefore I presume that the book provides inside testimony of what it is like to be under the influence and to experience the dissolution of the boundary between reality and drug-induced fantasies. Another aspect of the film’s authenticity that likely derives from the book is its credible rendering of the small circle of druggies on which the film focuses, including their paranoia and stewed and often hilarious banter. (The hilarity of this film makes it all the more heartrending.) But all of this authenticity might have produced no better result on film than did David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), based on the novel by druggie extraordinaire William S. Burroughs. Linklater’s literary source can scarcely explain in full the stunning quality of his film, its scarring, deeply humane nature.

In his 2001 film Waking Life, which I have not seen, Linklater employed a visual technique—there, given, I believe, limited application—called rotoscoping. In Wired (February 2001 issue), Richard Baimbridge summarized the process this way: “animators trace over live-action [digital video] footage.” In A Scanner Darkly the actors cartoonish versions of whom we see on screen actually played the scenes that we are watching, and it is their performances—physical and emotive as well as vocal—that we see and hear. But the entire film appears as an animated piece—not one for which the actors provided models so that an animated film might be based on their actions, but one in which those actions have been transformed into a different representation of reality by animators using computer software. A fuller definition of the process, from Whatis.com, follows:

. . . rotoscoping is the rotated projection of a sequence of usually photographed action image frames so that the artist can trace from the frame or create an image to superimpose on it. It can be thought of as “painting on movies” efficiently. Prior to computers, an animation stand called a Rotoscope was used to project a sequence of action frames against a surface so that a set of animation frames could be traced or created. The same work can now be done with digital images and special computer software.

In Linklater’s film, the divide between the rotoscoped representation of reality and a traditional one serves as a constant metaphor for the drug-induced division between the film’s users and “reality,” including one another, and another sort of “division”: official duplicity that manipulates people’s lives, undercutting the capacity of these victims to practice self-determination. Some might even argue that the intoxicating beauty of the visual aspect of Linklater’s film provides the viewer with a sense of what perception through the prism of drugs might be—although the “unreal” quality achieved by the rotoscoping adds sore irony to the result. In any case, the rotoscoping in this instance isn’t a clever bit of mannered novelty. Rather, it is an essential part of the film’s thematic unity.

The distancing that Linklater’s employment of the technique provides more or less kills the possibility of a sentimental reaction to material that is far too serious and sad to warrant such a reaction. Instead, we attend to the ideas of the film and the human tragedy that the film gradually and steadily reveals, in ever widening points of reference and interrelatedness of individual and social elements. Moreover, the technique yields some useful peripheral results. For instance, whereas closeups of the characters are richly detailed, oftentimes when one of the druggies is situated in the background of a shot he or she appears featureless—another index of the cost of the drug use and society’s efforts to rob individuals of their humanity.

But the principal source of the film’s power is the performance given by Keanu Reeves as “Fred,” who is known to the two other addicts with whom he lives in a small, messy house as Bob Arctor—his undercover identity. His brain is so discombobulated that Fred/Bob/Who Knows Who Else (Bruce, I believe, is the other name that pops up) has come to accept as reality the “past” he may have been given to mask his identity: the wife and two daughters he is supposed to have abandoned. At work and in public speeches, like his co-workers (including Hank, his ambiguous higher-up), Bob wears a “scramble suit”—a garment that covers all, including his face, consigning his entire appearance to a state of flux. The sum of these shifts is the degree to which Fred/Bob is perpetually lost to himself. The earlier part of Reeves’s performance is built around the idea of Bob’s enforcement of a kind of behavioral gravity in order to counter the whirlwind of sensations into which his existence has been cast. As Bob’s drug crisis deepens, Reeves finds another foundation: Bob’s increasing inability to exert this enforcement. Bob’s descent into a kind of nothingness constitutes the most adventurous acting that Reeves has done since his phenomenal Harry in The Last Time I Committed Suicide (Stephen Kay, 1997)—and here, too, it bespeaks a terrible reality, a broken humanity. Linklater has said that he cast the actor for his “bigheartedness.”* Reeves’s middle name is Charles; however, the tremendous compassion that Reeves generates for Fred/Bob’s predicament, and for all that it represents in our society, suggests his middle name could be Kindred—like Dick’s.

Another beautiful performance in the film comes from an unexpected source—an actress, as far as I know, who has never before given a good performance. Winona Ryder plays Donna Hawthorne, Bob’s drug-addicted “girlfriend,” who won’t allow Bob to touch her—itself a painfully moving circumstance for us. Ryder’s final scene is shattering. Something else needs to be noted. Ryder for a long time was her generation’s principal on-screen androgyne—Natalie Wood’s heir. In this film, however, she is most believably a woman. At last, it appears, she has allowed herself to grow up.

In truth, all the film’s performances are excellent. Although his necessarily is a dead-end role, with what virtuosity Robert Downey Jr. strikes with different pressure the single key of his James Barris, one of Bob’s housemates. Woody Harrelson, an actor I normally cannot tolerate, is as unnuanced as ever as Ernie Luckman, the other housemate; but he is also funny for a change. Better than both Downey and Harrelson, perhaps, is Rory Cochrane as Charles Freck, whose junkie eyes dart every which way with paranoia.

I have seen two other films based on (again, futuristic) works by Dick: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), a soulless stylistic exercise with a surfeit of sickly green, and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), with a better color scheme—greenless blue and steel-gray, evoking the film’s sense of loss and abandonment—but otherwise uninteresting, uninspired mise-en-scène. A Scanner Darkly stands head and shoulders—and heart—above these earlier movies.

* Linklater apparently did not cast Reeves for his golden complexion. The animators have replaced Reeves’s gorgeous hue with the same beige that all the other actors sport. Pity.

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