Sunday, February 7, 2010

Anaheim Acid Trip: A Scanner Darkly

Valentine's Day is just over a week off. It's no secret that in my quarter-century occupying space on this planet, I've grown into more than a little of a cynic on matters of the commercialized emotion said holiday celebrates. Only in dollar signs can your affections be quantified! Last year, I spent the week leading up to the holiday doing marathon blog posts on worthwhile cinema centered around the subject of this particular emotion - this "love." (This is the part of the post where you imagine me making one of those finger-pyramids supervillains always do when speaking of things they find distasteful.) For ease of access to the interested, those posts and films were as follows:
As of now, nearly nine and a half months have passed since my last film blog post. Clearly, I'm behind on that sort of content. Those who've missed my pop culture rambling, get ready for another week of love-themed cinematic discussion in Film for Lovers 2010!

That gets going on Monday morning, of course. But to warm up for more movie writing, it's time to kick off my 2010 film posts with a third look at a Richard Linklater film (He wrote and directed both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.)- his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's trippy, drug-fueled A Scanner Darkly!

Obviously, the first thing that stands out from the trailer (Which features the beginning of one of my favorite M83 songs.) is the film's visual style. And your impressions are right - it's both live action and animation at the same time. Like Linklater's previous film with a similar style - Waking Life - A Scanner Darkly was shot entirely on digital film and then animated over through an interpolated rotoscope technique. Waking Life was notable in all the different types of animation styles it used - giving it an even trippier feel - while A Scanner Darkly focused more on telling a narrative story (As opposed to Waking Life's focus on philosophical monologues.) through a consistent visual style.

A Scanner Darkly adapts the 1977 novel of the same name by celebrated science fiction Philip K. Dick. (Other adaptations of his works include the iconic Blade Runner, hilariously terrible Total Recall, and surprisingly watchable for a Tom Cruise film Minority Report.) Written as a response to the damage done by drug abuse to his own life and the rampant destruction hard drugs wreaked upon dear friends, the film takes place "seven years in the future" and tells the tale of a world where, having lost the "war on drugs," America has become a paranoid, high-surveillance police state.

Set in a low-income southern Californian neighborhood, the film begins with an aphid infestation. Everywhere the severely burnt out Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) looks, aphids are crawling all over everything. All over his apartment, all over himself, all over his dog. Bug spray doesn't work, and at his wit's end, he calls a friend, James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.). The two meet at a local diner and discuss the state of the world, each hallucinating throughout the exchange. These men are addicted to Substance D - a powerful psychoactive drug that much of society has become addicted to, and the film's central analogue to hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth amphetamines. Freck and Barris discuss their mutual friend, Barris's roommate Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), and his frigid girlfriend, Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Donna also being a Substance D dealer and cocaine addict, Barris concludes that Freck could get her to lower her prices for him if he supplied her with some coke and the conversation turned to household cocaine manufacturing methods.

From there, the story shifts to Arctor, himself an undercover drug agent assigned to infiltrate the underworld and disrupt a Substance D supply chain. Like all the other undercover agents, Arctor had to wear a scramble suit at work - a special suit that constantly changes the wearer's appearance, making them look like they're no more than small fragments of tens to hundreds of different people each second - in order to protect his identity. The particular side of the drug scene Arctor monitored was his own house, shared with James Barris and fellow exuberant Substance D addict Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Day to day life there was full of drug-addled humor and semi-philosophical musings. Together, their life was one altogether separate from the clean, sober world. The police were convinced something sinister was going on within the house, and his own identity as a cop protected, even Arctor was a suspect.

As the film progresses, Arctor begins to develop basic cognition problems as his addiction disrupts communication between the two hemispheres of his brain and he loses sight of who he's supposed to be and what he's supposed to do. From there, major revelations are made about the natures of other characters, as well as the morally dark water the police now trod in pursuit of bringing down the drug underworld. Questions are asked of what we give up in pulling out all the stops - and civil liberties - in fighting a war on drugs, as well as what it is that we give up in throwing our lives away on substance addiction, looking at the lasting effects of hard drug abuse. While written around the genesis of American society's war on drugs, the story and film are just as relevant today as we ask ourselves what the price of freedom is, far too often compromising that which we fight for in the name of security. Likewise, our prison system is broken, dangerous, and overflowing to bursting with minor drug convictions over things as comparatively innocuous as marijuana when we would be better serving ourselves as both people and a functioning society by focusing on fighting hard drugs and seeking to help and rehabilitate addicts rather than casting sympathy to the wind, labeling them all criminals, and locking them up. Society cannot lock up its problems, and even speaking as someone who doesn't use and has no interest in using, steps toward decriminalizing marijuana entirely should absolutely be part of our future.

A Scanner Darkly tells a surreal, elaborate, and deeply personal story. Dick watched much of his generation fry their brains on hard drugs, and even gave himself pancreatic damage from a meth addiction. A Scanner Darkly was his first novel written off the stuff. Linklater echoes previous films, using Waking Life's rotoscoping to create an appropriately complementary trippy atmosphere, and giving us the stoned goofy warmth and humanity of Dazed and Confused, but with something more threatening beneath these characters that unites them - their assured self-destruction on account of their Substance D addictions. For its style, humanity, and the complex and compelling messages at the core of its narrative, A Scanner Darkly is easily one of the best and most interesting science fiction films of the past ten years.

Next up? Film for Lovers 2010 kicks off in less than 24 hours! (Look forward to more embedded video, now that I've got that figured out.)


*T-Abby* said...

Really liked that movie and the book too! You're a great writer. I couldn't have explained the movie nearly that well.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Glad to hear it. :) I still need to check the book out myself. The only of Dick's works I've gotten around to picking up is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and I only got about a third of a way through that before other things distracted me in college. I need to properly read that the whole way through.

And many thanks! I try to articulate everything as best I can. Kind of an important skill as an someone wanting to be a professional full-time writer. This isn't exactly an easy one to explain either, but writing about it is a nice challenge.

I should do one of these posts on Synecdoche, New York sometime, just to see if I can get through that without my head exploding.