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Thread: Richard Linklater: A Scanner Darkly (2006)

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    Richard Linklater: A Scanner Darkly (2006)

    Richard Linklater: [color=sea-green] A Scanner Darkly[/color]

    Serious play: brilliant result


    Review by Chris Knipp

    This most faithful rendition on film of a Philip K. Dick story (of eight so far), adapted at an earlier stage by the brilliant Charlie Kaufman, is both Richard Linklater's homage to Dick and Dick's homage to himself, his wife, and his friends who were brought down by drugs. Sporting a fine cast whose members themselves have excellent drug credentials, A Scanner Darkly moves from the sheer wonder or tsk-tsking of tales like Jonas Åkerlund's Spun or Arnovsky's Requiem for a Dream toward the supply-demand-punishment nexus relentlessly limned by William S. Burroughs.

    Burroughs' sexually outrageous phantasmagorias have seemed unfilmable (though Cronenberg gave Naked Lunch a good try), but his ideas are clear: the future moves toward totalitarianism, and drugs are an excellent way of controlling masses of people. If they're addicted, they're your slaves; you've got their minds, and you've got their money. If you've got them hooked on something illegal, you've got a nation of outlaws, and hence a police state. But as Burroughs said, it's covert -- though America's huge prison population is increasingly visible. The world becomes one big sting operation. In A Scanner Darkly, the rulers conceal and rip up identities at will and in the end nobody's safe, but everybody's too wacked-out to care. Except we care, and the movie is trippy, funny -- but also sad.

    Linklater ingeniously uses rotoscoping (found also in the director's Waking Life and a segment of Von Trier's Five Obstructions), a complicated computer imaging technique that gives filmed people an overlay of shaky hand-drawn-looking animation -- or, in this case, a crazy web of drug-induced (or governmentally imposed) illusion hovering on the surface of everybody's appearance.

    Darkly's set seven years in the future, but the images are rich sunbleached-drab Seventies Orange County grunge. Dick's story is as much rueful reflection as sci-fi. It's also comedy, as drug stories often are are, the manic nuttiness embodied in Rory Cochrane as Freck, who imagines himself covered with bugs (rotoscoped all over him); Robert Downey, Jr. (who surely knows whereof he speaks) as the motor-mouthed, jumpy, manipulative hophead Barris; and goofy loose canon Luckman (Woody Harrelson), who might get violent or pass out any minute, you don't know which. These represent Dick's immediate circle of trusted friends. Or they were trusted. Now addiction to big red pills of an amphetamine-like super drug called Substance D (evidently produced by the same encompassing structure of exploiters that hunts down its sellers and users, whom it infiltrates) has turned them manic and paranoid. The system is eating its tail: the war on drugs is part of the drug business. "The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer," Bill Burroughs said, "he sells the consumer to the product." The matrix feeds equally well in all directions. People are bugs stuck in the honey-pot.

    Exploiter and victim at the center is Matrix alumnus Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor -- friend, doper, and covert agent for the company -- whom however the company is seeking to destroy. He hangs out with his friends and then goes to work and watches scanner images of himself with them. No wonder he knows less and less who he is. Even the corporation he works for doesn't know, though it increasingly suspects, which one of the household he's watching on the scanner he is. Agents of the corporate system that binds the nexus together, such as Arctor, "Fred" to the company, wear a shape-shifting "scramble suit" coating when meeting with their bosses that hides their identity from everyone by making them assume dozens of fractional identities every minute, changing outfit, face, and sex with the flickerings of the rotoscope images. But the flickerings on the people all the time show their heightened but fragmented perception and the splitting of their identities. They're pretending to be who they don't know they are. Luckman tells about a famous impostor who decided the best scam would be to pretend to be a famous impostor. The world of Scanner Darkly is like your mind on drugs such as marijuana: you struggle to grasp an idea and when you've almost got it, you forget what it was you were struggling to grasp. The movie captures that -- more than once.

    Its look is trippy, and though less spectacular than some, this is one of the greatest drug movies, not only because of the intense visuals but because the Dick of this story and Linklater himself are both master delineators of drug thought and drug talk. As in Spun, linear logic or tidy structure would be inappropriate. The movie is episodic and just ends. Highlights are Barris'/Downey's conversation and the friends argumentative analysis of situations when a bike is found, or a car breaks down on the highway. Dick and Linklater capture the hilarity of drugged friends comically bonding at cross purposes with each other, their bicker/banter. But, not atypically for far-along druggies, there's no sex: Donna (Winona Ryder) can't bear for her boyfriend Arctor to touch her -- even though Reeves has never looksed so handsome as he does unshaven and rotoscoped. "Fred" (Arctor) is periodically hauled in for testing. They know he's addicted to the stuff he's supposed to be investigating and can see the two hemispheres of his brain aren't working properly any more. It may be Arctor signifies a man at war with his inner Addict.

    Some reviewers complained about press screening walkouts or inability to follow, but the San Francisco third day audience was warmly appreciative. Dangling abrupt ending? Perhaps, but the key to the treasure is the treasure: getting there is half the fun. Linklater fans, of whom I'm one, must not miss this movie, and it's not just idle play. Nor is it coincidental this came out at Cannes with his other film, Fast Food Nation. Both are calls to arms that speak to twenty-first-century America. The food industry, the war on drugs, the war on terror are all means of exploitation and repression. Dick's nonsensical word play and Linklater's current filmmaking are dead serious, and world-class American art.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-16-2006 at 01:23 PM.

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    Excellence Chris.

    "world-class American art"- that sounds like a bang-on decription of Linklater.
    He IS a modern American artist and I look very forward to this film.

    Thanks for another awesome review.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    "world-class American art"-
    I was thinking of you, Johann. Thank you.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    This most faithful rendition on film of a Philip K. Dick story (of eight so far), adapted by the brilliant Charlie Kaufman

    Kaufman is brilliant but was not involved in the making of this movie. Linklater gets sole credit for the script. Tom Pallota, one of the producers and a rabid Dick fan by his own admission, was present at the screening I attended. He confirms that "nothing was changed" in the process of adaptation but agreed that certain casting choices establish strong connections with Linklater's past films. Linklater said from the beginning than "only Rory Cochrane could play Freck", who seems like a future projection of the perpetually stoned Slater from Dazed and Confused. The protester with a bullhorn who gets Taser-gunned and arrested is the same guy who played a conspiracy theorist in Waking Life. The irony is that he no longer sounds like a nut. I'm convinced future viewings will reveal more "Linklater touches", personal bits which don't detract from the overall fidelity to Dick's text.

    Richard Linklater's homage to Dick and Dick's homage to himself, his wife, and his friends who were brought down by drugs.

    The closing roll-call of friends of Dick killed or maimed by drugs leaves a sublime, elegiac aftertaste. The film is a cautionary tale that refrains from judging its characters harshly. There's a certain compassion even during the funny interludes. Unlike most films by the Coen brothers, for instance, you don't get the sense that the filmmaker is having fun at the expense of the characters, or that they are beneath him, so to speak. This is why "we care" and why A Scanner Darkly is "funny-but also sad", as you've described it.

    The system is eating its tail: the war on drugs is part of the drug business. "The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer," Bill Burroughs said, "he sells the consumer to the product." The matrix feeds equally well in all directions. People are bugs stuck in the honey-pot.

    At least two critics (Variety, Seattle Post) have wished that the story's inherent political messages were made more explicit. I think they're clear enough as is. Films that make their points too explicitly fall too easily into didacticism and tendentiousness, I'd say. Maybe the world hasn't changed much in the 29 years since the book was published, but Dick seems quite prescient to me ("cursed with prophetic sight" wrote J. Hoberman). I'm mostly referring to the illegal surveillance and erosion of civil liberties depicted. On the other hand, going by this story, he envisioned an America in which the government sends users and addicts to rehab farms (seemingly monopolized by a corporation called New Path). What would Dick think about present-day America, where possession almost invariably leads to mandatory jail terms, especially if you're black or brown?

    Exploiter and victim at the center is Matrix alumnus Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor

    Both a "narc" and an "actor" since he's working undercover. Clever, uh?

    Some reviewers complained about press screening walkouts or inability to follow, but the San Francisco third day audience was warmly appreciative.

    That would describe "my" audience too. Are you referring to walkouts at Cannes? Sometimes I think that audiences are smarter and more sophisticated than distributors and publications realize.

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    Kaufman is brilliant but was not involved in the making of this movie.
    No, he wasn't, or at least not ultimately, that I know of. He was the first to write a screenplay adaptation though, and I think it's relevant that such a convoluted mind would take to the book, but when Linklater took over the production, Kaufman's version was not the one used. I should make that more clear. I am adding the phrase, "at an earlier stage " to my reference to Kaufman's text. We can read the Kaufman adaptation of A Scanner Darkly in a PDF file online, which may be of interest to you, or to other fans of Dick and Kaufman. Incidentally, I am interested in learning more about the history of Linklater's production, including "troubled story" of the post-production process referred to in a Wired piece by Robert La Franco.
    Unlike most films by the Coen brothers, for instance, you don't get the sense that the filmmaker is having fun at the expense of the characters, or that they are beneath him, so to speak.
    Heavens no. The Coens are mean-spirited dorks. They and I parted company quite a while ago, precisely becasue of their condescension toward their characters.
    At least two critics (Variety, Seattle Post) have wished that the story's inherent political messages were made more explicit. I think they're clear enough as is.
    I wholly agree with you. These complaints are naive. The story needs no "updating."

    Are you referring to walkouts at Cannes?
    Yes I was referring mainly to the Variety article from Cannes--though I think some other reviewers have claimed to have witnessed poor audience responses stateside. Some reviews have been unappreciative, or, more accurately, simply clueless. They don't get it, or they don't choose to get it. And if you don't get it, you're not going to like it. This is going to be one of the year's best that will not appeal to masses of the mainstream audience. As the name tells you, it's dark.

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    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    No, he wasn't, or at least not ultimately, that I know of. He was the first to write a screenplay adaptation though, and I think it's relevant that such a convoluted mind would take to the book, but when Linklater took over the production, Kaufman's version was not the one used. I should make that more clear. I am adding the phrase, "at an earlier stage " to my reference to Kaufman's text.

    Yes, I think adding that phrase was necessary. Kaufman wrote a script in 1997, five years before Clooney and Soderbergh (through their Section 8 Ltd. company) bought the rights for a quarter million. I couldn't find anything concrete indicating they ever considered using Kaufman's script. It's great having access to it; seems fairly faithful to the source also, based on the parts of it I read. Freck's paranoid hallucinations involving a cop are less bizarre than in the film, but the differences are minor.

    I am interested in learning more about the history of Linklater's production, including "troubled story" of the post-production process referred to in a Wired piece by Robert La Franco.

    Interesting. Going by the article, the producer present at my screening , Tommy Pallota, was quite instrumental in "saving" the film at the post-production stage, while Linklater was working in other projects.

    I think some other reviewers have claimed to have witnessed poor audience responses stateside.

    Most reviewers watch films at press screenings. Thus, I find comments regarding poor audience responses suspect.

    Some reviews have been unappreciative, or, more accurately, simply clueless.

    Some reviews but a minority of them, let's make that clear. The common complaint of the negative reviews I found (Hollywood Reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer, Entertainment Weekly) concerns "too much stoner talk leading nowhere".

    This is going to be one of the year's best that will not appeal to masses of the mainstream audience.

    Perhaps I'm being too naive or optimistic, but I think the film has the potential to be embraced by suburban youth if it were properly marketed. My kids report no trailers on MTV, which is one indication that perhaps the geniuses at Warner Independent Pictures don't agree with me.

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    Yes it's good that we have Kaufman's screenplay available online and it would be unlikely that Clooney and Soderbergh didn't see it and think about it, regardless of what its ultimate fate was.

    Post-Cannes I should have said reviewers were anticipating audience responses rather than describing them; even Harrelson said he couldn't tell what was going on and read the book, and just got more confused. I think when we look at critical response we tend to look at the best critics, and I'm glad to say they seem to like Scanner Darkly very much indeed. Dredging through the bland sludge of the general run of print reviews is a different matter and can be dispiriting work. There are other reviews, and really not just a tiny minority, that emphasize the alienation and confusion. They find the rotoscoping alienating, the stoner talk alienating, the dark world-view alienating (even though reportedly it's not as dark as the view of Dick's novel). I am interested in these statements not because I think they are artistically valid. They aren't even interesting. But they are predictors of how the movie's going to be received by the public. (My comments are based on a good long look at the newspaper reviews, which are a better reflection of the mainstream. And a lot of them are surprisingly mediocre. There are a few thrilling exceptions like Joe Williams in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "With its puzzlebox plotting, bravura performances and mind-blowing visuals, this immersive experience is the richest, most rewarding film of the year." Yay!)

    The rotoscoping it essential to the "stoned" feel of the movie that's so successfully sustained, but a number are put off by it and think straight photography would have been better. A shortsighted view, since Linklater couldn't have afforded the special effects requrired to do the scrable suits, the overlays of imagined bugs, etc. (which plenty of writers realized). Be that as it may, it does sound like Linklater goofed in picking friends or locals to do the rotoscope processing when he needed pros who knew the computer programs and that caused a lot of delays. But the end result's what counts and that's successful. Nonetheless I think we should recognize that rotoscoping is a limitation. For some it will emphasize even more their feeling that the movie is just talk (as Waking LIfe was).

    With cool understatement much more British than American, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian gives a view that's both balanced and reflective of aspects of majority (newspaper) opinion:
    The movie itself is often startling and engrossing, but the question of what the heck is going on, and why, is never entirely absent from your mind.

    The answer, when it comes, provides an effective, existential chill, though without entirely dispelling the bafflement. Not a triumph, but a clever rendering of the subversive spirit of Philip K Dick.

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    Brilliant. Just brilliant. It's films like this that spark ample discussion and emotion that I really look for on major occasion.

    A Scanner Darkly is about the effect of drugs on individuals, social groups, and the whole of society itself. On one hand, it's a poignant look at how the casual response to drugs is a decision that affects one's lifestyle in a large way. In another way, it's about how society's response to the issue can be detrimental.

    Like before seeing Waking Life, I pondered as to how rotoscoping could fuel the story in any facet. As I left, I thought "Man, they couldn't have done it any other way."

    Sorry this is brief, but sometimes with films like this I have a hard time picking coherent statements out of the amalgamation of thoughts in my head.
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    I agree with you especially about the rotoscoping. If you think of anything else to say, please come back.

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    I'm going to catch it again tomorrow, so hopefully I'll have established more.
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    I'm glad you liked the film, Tree. Your comments are right on.

    Originally posted by Chris Knipp
    Dredging through the bland sludge of the general run of print reviews is a different matter and can be dispiriting work.

    Bland sludge is precisely right. Let's face it, many mainstream reviews are written by glorified entertainment reporters with no knowledge of cinema and no passion for it. Anything outside their comfort zone, in either form or content, repels them. They don't like to be challenged by a film, which is what truly original and groundbreaking art often does.

    I am interested in these statements not because I think they are artistically valid. They aren't even interesting. But they are predictors of how the movie's going to be received by the public.

    Film writing in mainstream publications has descended to the level of the least sophisticated segment of the film audience. Rather than help guide the viewer towards a greater appreciation of movies as a medium with the potential to exalt and edify, movies are treated solely as disposable escapism. There are exceptions of course. I agree with your statement I quoted above but I believe there's great potential for larger audiences for films like A Scanner Darkly. I was impressed that the film was #4 at the box office in "per-screen take" this week, because WIP has chosen to spend relatively little money marketing it.

    Nonetheless I think we should recognize that rotoscoping is a limitation. For some it will emphasize even more their feeling that the movie is just talk (as Waking LIfe was).

    Philip Lopate wrote an excellent essay on film for the book "Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture". A section of the essay is dedicated to a devolution in American cinema characterized by step-by-step formulaic screenwriting, aversion to anything that sounds remotely literary, dialogue as a series of one-liners and wisecracks, and shorter scenes.

    "I watch an old movie and luxuriate in the ripening exchange, at the same time sensing the exact moment, like an internalized wince, when the same scene would have been chopped off in a contemporary movie. I can almost hear the producer saying, CUT! TOO MUCH TALK!"

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    Layperson's Opinion

    While I understand the intellectual stew of delight of the more densely and covert film plot, it's really a judgment balance in terms of the intended audience and their satisfaction. For less astute audience members, this movie is likely be to ponderous and somewhat boring. However, I realize that such dumbing down of a movie would eliminate the more elegant Phillip K. Dicks' essential moodiness of his writings.

    The biggest problem I had with this movie was the use of well-known actors and the obvious actor-driven idiosyncrasies that focused attention more on the stars covered up by animated gimmickry that I thought detracted from the main thrust of the storyline.

    But the end of the movie and the delivery of the abrupt ending, A Scanner Darkly did provide one of the best adaptations of Phillip K. Dick's writings along with Bladerunner. The paranoid and artsy approach to the movie was a great tribute to the sci fi author.

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    When I said the rotoscoping meant a limitation and could make the movie look more like "just talk," I wasn't thinking of "dumbing down." Of course in a sense the characters in A Scanner Darkly are "dumbed down", but their messed up minds are intellectually challenging for us to follow. Lopate is maybe speaking of one segment of American filmdom but I don't see the value of such head-shaking. The snappy talk in old movies was sometimes nonsensical, and they had violence to punctuate it. A Scanner Darkly is doing respectably it seems, and Oscar may get his wish of a surge in the suburb with youth. I'm more concerned that An Inconvenient Truth should do well this summer---and it is still doing very respectably, ranked 12th this weekend after 8 weeks, which looks pretty good. Artistically Scanner is one of the most satisfying American films of the year. It's at 10th, just starting.. I also think
    The Road to Guantanamo should be required viewing. It's way below, at 63, but is still there. I wish it were at more theaters. Try to find it if you can.

    tabuno is supporting what I have said, which is that Scanner Darkly is for a limited audience. On the other hand I would counter his complaint about famous actors that the rotoscoping and the scramble suits mean they're working in deep cover so their recognizablity is trippy but not distracting, like if you were high and thought your girlfriend had turned into Winona Ryder. Oscar is saying that limited audience may be dedicated and motivated and I think that may be true. Some writers have said this is an obvious candidate for cult status, and that means the audience for it, while small and specialized, won't ever go away.

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    My bringing up Lopate's excellent essay referred specifically to the seeming aversion on the part of reviewers who haven't liked the film partly because they find it "too talky". CK's comment that the rotoscoping will emphasize for some "their feeling that the movie is just talk" is interesting and probably right. Lopate, based on his essay, would see this critical response as a manifestation of the dumbing-down of American Cinema that's been taking place over the past couple of decades. It's a convincing, well-researched essay I recommend to everyone.

    Yes, A Scanner Darkly is "one of the most satisfying American films of the year". As a matter of fact, the only 2006 film in English I liked more is a short: My Dad is 100 Years Old, a tribute to Roberto Rossellini from his daughter Isabella, directed by the wonderful Guy Maddin. Ms. Rossellini plays the following roles in the film: herself as an adult, herself as a child (voice only), Roberto Rossellini (voice only, someone else plays Roberto but all you see is his rotund belly), her mom Ingrid Bergman, producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, and Charlie Chaplin!

    Back to A Scanner Darkly. I don't know how much the film would have to make to call it a box office success. Two and a half million after two weeks sounds good for an $8 million-budget movie. Waking Life didn't reach $3 million.

    Tabuno's point about using well-known actors is valid. There's no doubt that actors create associations in the viewer's mind from roles they've played in past films and from what's said about them on TV and mags. Directors have been quite concerned about this for decades. Directors from the Italin Neo-realism liked to cast "fresh faces", Godard resisted but eventually agreed to cast la Bardot in Contempt, it may be argued that Bresson "hated" actors and Mexican enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas seems to feel the same way. On the other hand, there are times when these associations brought by stars and well-known actors are welcome because they can enrich (and complicate) a performance. For instance, I think Downey's character and perf are made more interesting by what we known of his personal life.

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    Well known actors come with known credentials and that's why I commented that the cast of Scanner Darkly had good drug credentials, speaking loosely--some are drug, some are outsider, some are misbehavior creds, and some are all of the above.

    That remark of Lopate's gives me a pain and doesn't make me want to read his pretentious-sounding, and depressing-sounding essay. I'm always susp;icous of those social critics who tell us everything is going downhill. Dumbing-down is a term I would use sparingly. There've always been smart movies and dumb movies, i.e. good and bad ones. I'm surprised you are linking talkiness with quality, I thought you liked films to be pure visual poetry, story line and talk be damned.

    The question of limited audience has little to do with box office receipts. These are two different ways of looking at a film.

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