Pazar, Temmuz 16, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Richard Linklater

After a quarter century of cinematic adaptations, they finally got Philip K. Dick right.

The first came out just after Phil's death, in 1982 (I'll refer to Mr. Dick as Phil, as most of his fans do--you read enough of his novels, which are so similar and so autobiographical, that you feel you know him); deeply sad, given that he spent his entire life struggling for some kind of monetary success. That film was Blade Runner. Based on 1968's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel about a police detective assigned to hunt down runaway androids--he tests them by using a device that detects the subject's ability to empathize, although his morals are complicated when he begins an affair with one of them--the film was about 25% Phil, 75% Ridley Scott. As a Ridley Scott film, it's eye-popping and mesmerizing, and certainly one of the most intelligent science fiction films ever made. It's not exactly Philip K. Dick, though. Early scenes mimic the book's dialogue directly, but key elements are omitted (electric sheep, the martyr Mercer on television), and the resolution, while it works for the film, draws an opposing conclusion about the difference between the human and the machine: Phil thought there was a concrete and important difference, Blade Runner blurs the line. The philosophical divide isn't detrimental to the adaptation, just interesting--but it's certainly not Phil.

The Schwarzenegger/Verhoeven action film Total Recall began a disturbing trend in Hollywood to adapt Phil's short stories rather than his novels, and by doing so, to pull just an idea of Dick's and then turn it into something more mainstream, less interesting. While Total Recall (from "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), when placed against the rest of Schwarzenegger's films, comes across like a David Mamet game of cons--whatever you think is real, isn't--and thus compares pretty favorably, you can't get around the fact that Phil never would have written a story with someone like the Governor of California as his protagonist. His heroes were middle-aged, divorced, out of shape, pill-popping schlubs not too dissimilar from himself. To keep the Mamet idea going, William H. Macy would be a much better PKD hero than Schwarzie. And a PKD hero wouldn't even know how to use a gun, though he might have some pointed at him.

1992's Barjo, a French film directed by Jerome Boivin, is actually based on one of my favorite PKD novels, Confessions of a Crap Artist (and Phil, while he lived, was always appreciated more in France than his home country). Crap Artist was the rare Phil "mainstream" novel (i.e., no science fiction elements) that actually got published in his lifetime. He always wanted acceptance outside of the SF genre "gutter," but publishers weren't interested. In many cases, the publishers were right: novels like UBIK, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and The Man in the High Castle are a lot more interesting than his studies of failed marriages, The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, Mary and the Giant, and Puttering About in a Small Land. But Confessions of a Crap Artist is fascinating and deserved to be set apart; adapted into a film, I'm not so sure. Barjo is fairly faithful, but struggles to emphasize that the source material was by a science fiction author, and so deliberately inserts fantasy elements toward the end. It would have been more interesting directed by Cassavetes. It's a forgettable film.

So is Screamers, based on one of the more popular Phil short stories, "Second Variety." A somewhat faithful adaptation, Screamers, starring Peter Weller, is a B-movie set in a war-ravaged world where machines of war are disguised as innocuous things--little girls, teddy bears--in attempt to lull the soldiers into a false sense of security. The machines attempting to adapt to the sympathies and emotional vulnerabilities of the soldiers is the key satirical element of the story, and it's here, but all awash in macho Aliens-inspired nonsense. Three more adaptations of PKD short stories shortly followed: Impostor with Gary Sinise, which began as a short film for an aborted anthology, then unwisely padded to full-length; Paycheck with Ben Affleck, directed by John Woo, who, in an interview, said he wanted to adapt Philip K. Dick because he really liked Philip K. Dick movies like Blade Runner and Total Recall (I think he also called Impostor a "novel"), which should tell you everything you want to know about this flop; and Minority Report, the most distinguished Phil adaptation since Blade Runner, and a pretty smart Steven Spielberg film...still, the film, to this viewer, seemed more like Spielberg's attempt to show how hard-edged he could be to refute all his A.I. critics, and it really had nothing to do with Phil's story, which was pretty minor PKD anyway.

Now, finally, we have another adaptation of a novel, with Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Phil's novels were so often miles ahead of his short fiction--the bulk of the latter written in the 1950's, as Phil tried to figure out how to handle the science fiction genre. His novels, such as Time Out of Joint, Martian Time-Slip, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and the VALIS trilogy, are considered landmark novels that, with Heinlein and Bradbury, validated science fiction as a potential forum for great literature. (I don't enjoy Heinlein, but I'm just quoting the consensus.) A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977 but intensely written and revised for several years prior, is the beginning of the final phase of Phil's career, as he deliberately attempted to fuse his literary aspirations with SF. Phil's novels were so trippy and featured so many (fictional) drugs that fans often assumed he was a drug-advocating prophet like Timothy Leary; indeed, for a while in the late 60's, his life was not unlike that of the characters in Scanner--which must contain many autobiographical elements--as he lived with people half his age in Berkeley, pursued unobtainable dark-haired girls, and popped pills to keep himself writing through the night, because an advance from a publisher meant he could eat for another week. When he died in 1982 it was from a heart attack, but it's likely he would have lived much longer if he hadn't worn himself ragged with the drugs he consumed during the 60's, and Scanner is like a self-aware, self-written obit a few years before the fact. (In the epilogue, which is copied in the ending credits of this film, Phil includes himself in a list of drug casualties: "Phil, permanent pancreatic damage.")

Richard Linklater is best known for Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. His career is one of mainstream, crowd-pleasing films (such as the remake of The Bad News Bears) produced in order to fund smaller, riskier films (such as this one). The direct predecessor of Scanner is his film Waking Life, which was filmed entirely in live action with actor Wiley Wiggens (from Dazed) and a large cast of professional and non-professional actors--and some professors who were not acting at all, but simply lecturing--then animated the entirety in a computer using a rotoscoping process ("rotoscoping" is animating directly over live action, and dates back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Each section of the episodic film, constructed to resemble a dream in which the protagonist is slowly becoming conscious, was animated by a different animator, giving each scene a distinctive character. I was lucky enough to see Waking Life at its premiere at Sundance in 2001. Linklater, visibly nervous, if not terrified, introduced the film by stating that those in the audience on drugs might appreciate it more than the sober ones. He revealed later that he had only seen the film in its finished state just before the screening at the Eccles theater; it was a last-minute deal and he was afraid it would be a fiasco. It received a standing ovation, and he seemed relieved when it was over.

At one point in Waking Life, Linklater himself appears, to recount a strange story of Philip K. Dick's--not one that Phil had written, but one that had supposedly happened to him. I saw this scene just a few minutes after thinking, "This movie is really like a Philip K. Dick novel." Then I knew that if Linklater ever adapted PKD, he'd be one of the few to get him right; he was tapped into the sensibility already, and had just announced himself as an admirer. I was sick of miserable film adaptations of forgettable short stories, and wanted something that really captured the semi-comic, paranoid flavor of PKD. It was announced a few years later that he would be doing A Scanner Darkly, and what I saw last night, when the film came to Madison, was almost exactly what I knew the film would be. The animation process of Waking Life, which has threatened to become a cliche given its mundane use in investment banking commercials, is a perfect fit for Scanner, giving everything a subjectively trippy, floating look, and underlining the fact that what you are seeing might not be real, because you're seeing it through a drug addict's eyes. The casting is perfect: you may not think much of Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Robert Downey Jr., but they are perfect for these wasted, conspiracy-minded stoners.

I should back up: A Scanner Darkly is a novel about drug addiction, and the science fiction elements are few but essential. Narc "Fred" goes undercover as Bob Arctor, living with two unhinged addicts, Barris (Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Harrelson), while dating the frigid Donna (Ryder). Thing is, only the highest in the chain of command know that Fred is Bob Arctor; while in the office he wears a "scramble suit" which projects a kaleidoscope of different features, disguising himself from his fellow agents. And as a result, most of his fellow agents are convinced that Bob Arctor is the chief supplier of Substance D and the central target of their investigation. As an undercover agent, Fred/Arctor pops pills of Substance D (or "Death"), which slowly splits the brain into two hemispheres and turns them against each other. Eventually, Fred begins to forget that he's really Arctor, and as he reviews tapes of himself with Donna, Barris, and Luckman, he begins to forget that he's spying on himself. The final act of the film depicts a chilling deterioration, and, typical of PKD, characters that were seemingly helpless suddenly prove to be in command, if not directly puppeteering the protagonist.

Linklater's film is one of the most faithful book-to-film adapations ever made. If any criticism can be levelled, it's that it's not faithful enough, as absurd as that sounds. To those who haven't read the book, it might not quite come across that Fred is beginning to forget that he's Bob Arctor, and this moment occupies so little screen time that it lacks some of the impact it should have. (When you're reading a novel, you're constantly informed of a character's inner thoughts, which makes a book about split personalities so tricky to adapt.) But what's here is amazing. He captures the conspiratorial, inane, funny but unnerving conversations among the mentally unhinged, almost word for word from the book. (My wife just read it, so with the book fresh in her mind, she was able to confirm this.) Phil, like his characters, had a way of super-analyzing a moment or an idea beyond reason, until it either fell apart or turned against itself, and I've never seen that captured in a film as it is in A Scanner Darkly. The animation eerily looks like live action most of the time--Reeves looks like Reeves, etc.--and although it justifies the medium less often than Waking Life did (the scramble suit being the most spectacular use of animation), the overall queasy look of the film is essential to the point of view of Agent Fred/Bob Arctor. In fact, this is probably not a film you want to watch when you're sick; it could only exacerbate the problem.

While Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) wrote a screenplay based on Scanner, I don't regret his absence from this film. As much as I admire his work, Kaufman would be better suited for any other Phil novel--put him on VALIS, please. And according to a recent interview, Scanner was not Linklater's first choice, but wanted to adapt something else by PKD. In fact, he's perfectly suited for the material. Scanner, the book, does have some traits in common with Linklater's films Slacker and Dazed and Confused; they both have minimal action and quite a lot of talking about nothing. Linklater understands the SoCal world of the lethargic addicts, hanging out on sofas talking about bicycle gears, or testing out homemade silencers in the backyard. Kaufman is almost too anxious for material like this. He would speed everything up, cut it to pieces and reassemble it in a different order. That's why he's better suited for VALIS, a novel in which Phil was doing that to his own life, and inserting science fiction into the mix in attempt to make sense of it all.

Watching this with an audience was deja-vu; it was like watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on its opening day. Terry Gilliam's film was another adaptation of a book that was supposed to be impossible to adapt, and he took a similar approach: be rigorously faithful. Both films and books focus on hallucinating, paranoid narrators you cannot trust to tell the straight story. And both audiences were baffled, kind of turned-off for the most part--except for a few who knew they were witnessing the birth of a cult film, and something they'd need to watch repeatedly to better appreciate it. Give Scanner a few years, and watch the audience multiply like imaginary aphids.

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