Two writers keep the A Scanner Darkly conversation going...
Keith: In some respects, all of Philip K. Dick’s books are autobiographical. In books like Ubik and Martian Time-Slip, to name just two, Dick mined his mental illness for science-fiction metaphor, then used both to explore larger philosophical questions. With Dick, it was always personal, which makes a book like VALIS, in which he literalizes a psychic break by dividing himself into two characters, tough to read. It’s the work of a man trying to keep himself together, and make sense of the world, through art.
But A Scanner Darkly is more autobiographical than most. For the 1977 novel, Dick drew on his early-’70s experiences hanging out with teenage drug addicts while his own addiction worsened. Like Richard Linklater’s film, it’s ostensibly set in the future, but it sometimes reads like a documentary portrait of post-hippie burnouts: the circular conversations, the paranoia, the sense that freedom had become kind of terrifying, and the drugs had stopped being fun. Linklater’s film keeps part of Dick’s poignant epilogue—one of the most remarkable, and least fantastic, passages in any of his books—in which he eulogizes those lost or damaged by drugs. And Barris, played in the film by Robert Downey Jr., aptly sums up the spirit of an age in which most of a generation decided to push the frontiers of chemical experimentation with no oversight: “We’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one.”
I had mixed feelings about the film when I saw it in 2006, and I’m still not sure it’s entirely successful. It’s better at sustaining a mood than telling a story. (That’s partly the result of it being pretty faithful to the novel.) But boy, that mood is powerful, and it’s tough to shake the sense of drugged-out exhaustion and the psychic toll it takes on those who linger in that world too long. Is that what connected most strongly with you too, Tasha?
Tasha: Frankly, no. For me, it was the animation—a much advanced version of the digitally assisted “interpolated rotoscoping” Linklater used five years earlier on Waking Life, thanks to software designed by animator Bob Sabiston. I’d been a Sabiston booster since I saw his ridiculous, fun short “Grinning Evil Death.” It was the promise of someone with a lot of ambition and an enjoyably sick sense of humor.
I first encountered “Grinning Evil Death” on MTV’s Liquid Television around 1991, and then Sabiston disappeared for me until he turned up in the Waking Life credits a decade later. His name wasn’t a surprise, though—it seemed logical that he’d go on to do something crazy and ambitious like invent a new form of computerized animation, creating a surreal effect never before seen in cinema. On Waking Life, Sabiston’s rotoscoping conveyed the dissociations of a dream: the sometimes purposefully vague faces or backgrounds, the objects mutating, the planes and parts of faces drifting apart like clouds, the general looseness and abstraction of the world. There’s some of that going on in Scanner Darkly to similarly suggest the protagonists’ drug-and-paranoia-addled mindsets, though the big winner for the effect is the scramble suits.
The production was troubled and Sabiston’s team was removed from the process because it was going over time and budget, but it was still accomplished with a more sophisticated version of his software, and the first time I saw the film, I was so caught up in his animation and its weird effects—like Donna’s hair seeming to separate into multiple planes, for instance—that the story only half-registered for me. Especially since so much of it operates in long, wandering conversations that seem as significant in their tone as in their specific content—a Linklater signature, on films from Slacker to Dazed And Confused to the Before Sunrise series to SubUrbia to Waking Life, all the way up to 2014’s Boyhood. As personal as this film is to Philip K. Dick, it also fits very comfortably into Linklater’s discursive, friends-just-endlessly-bullshitting wheelhouse, doesn’t it?
Keith: That’s true. There’s a sense of these characters thinking aloud, trying to figure out their world, their addictions, and the truth behind it all—to say nothing of where those blasted extra bike gears got to. That’s part of what makes Barris such a fascinating character. With rare exceptions, this kind of coffee-shop philosophizing is treated as a force for good in Linklater’s films, but Barris uses his spiel toward negative ends, offering one persuasive explanation after another that’s half truth, half conspiracy theory, and all designed to plunge whomever he’s talking to into despair. He’s like the nightmare flip side to Waking Life, and there’s really no one who could play him better than Robert Downey Jr.
Barris is the perfect villain for a film concerned with the dangers of getting lost in one’s own head, a process catalyzed by the chemicals everyone takes. Poor Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane, who played amiable stoner Ron Slater in Dazed And Confused) succumbs to just this fate, as does Robert Arctor in the film’s finale. Both lose the ability to tell reality from fantasy, a concern that also consumed Dick. A Scanner Darkly is a neat marriage of Linklater’s obsessions and Dick’s, and it’s a discomfitting one: I’m not sure Linklater’s ever made a darker film—maybe SubUrbia?—and it’s troubling to watch the kind of intellectual boundary-pushing his heroes do in other films lead to dead ends and dark corners here.
Here’s a question for you: Apart from the scramble suit, which is a hypnotic, wonderful visual, special effects aren’t really necessary for this film. Why was it necessary to put it into animation? I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear yours.
Tasha: Well, Linklater himself has offered a handful of explanations. One is that he wanted to push the effects in Waking Life further, to explore what else could be done with the technology. Another is that shooting the film the way he did—often without sets or surroundings, without makeup, without props, just getting the actors to run their lines in proximity to each other, and capturing the camera movement and the character movement—made the film much cheaper than it would have been as a full live-action feature. It was made for only $6 million, and he doubts he could have gotten much more of a budget than that.
And yet another is that he thinks the animation fits with Dick’s obsessions—as you mentioned, Dick’s books are so often fixated on what’s real and what isn’t. As we started this conversation, I picked up a Dick book that’s been sitting on my to-read pile for a while now—Lies, Inc.— and read it, and it’s like a meeting point between Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (the source material for Blade Runner) and his short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (source material for Total Recall). Androids focuses on what makes someone a real human being, and whether a perfect simulacrum of a person can have a soul. “Wholesale” features layers upon layers of professionally implanted fantasies, and plays around with which ones are real at any given point in the story. Lies Inc. is fantastically complicated for a 200-page novel, but just some of the which-reality-is-real material involves information being psychically implanted in people at a distance against their will; horrible alien dimensions overlapping ours that might or might not be the “real” world; individuals constantly changing identities, bodies, and species; books that describe reality as it happens, and alter it in the process; weaponized LSD that wipes out the victim’s ability to process or participate in reality (with the subsequent drug trip described in fantastical, loving detail for pages on end), and on and on. Amid all these different looks at the gap between any objective reality and any subjective experience, Linklater needed some way to distance viewers a little from the reality of a bunch of addled drug addicts sitting around a grubby apartment, arguing about conspiracies and bike gears. The animation helps suggest a subjective reality that’s a little slicker, looser, shinier, and more subjective than live-action would look.
But on top of that, A Scanner Darkly is heavily concerned with identity: Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is losing his under the influence of Substance D, while he tries to deduce the identity of the drug’s supplier. He falls into his own cover identity as druggie Fred, until Arctor becomes a second entity to him—an identity he’s been ordered to spy on as Detective Fred. He wonders about the disguised identity of his handler Hank, who turns out to be his love interest Donna (Winona Ryder), although even “Donna” is an assumed name. The circles of betrayal and false identity go around and around in their little circle of Substance D users, and it seems to me that the animation style—which turns Keanu Reeves, for instance, into a glossy series of substrates that wiggle over each other but add up into something Keanu Reeves-like but deeper and more lively than his familiar face—are another form of identity-removal and identity-complication. In a way, the animation functions like the scramble suits, covering familiar faces and making it easier to see the false identity rather than the known one. But you have thoughts on this yourself—let’s hear them!
Keith: You got them and then some, particularly the distancing effect the film brings to reality. (There’s also the fact that an animated version of people arguing in a grubby house is likely to be more visually compelling than the live-action version.) Not to dwell on the scramble suits too much, but part of what makes the effect so remarkable is the way Bob remains recognizably Bob (and recognizably Keanu Reeves) even beneath the ever-shifting suit and vocal distortion. I think the trick is keeping elements of the eyes consistent, even as they change shape.
So, tell me this: Even though you were more engaged by the animation than the conversation, what do you think of the way A Scanner Darkly handles the subject of drugs and addiction? It concludes with the grim revelation that New Path, the rehab facility (if that’s the right word) where Bob ends up is manufacturing Substance D, and thus creating the addicts that end up in the facility to farm drugs to create even more addicts. That’s an especially dark conclusion, even though the final moments suggest Bob will bring evidence back from his time there, and one that shows Dick understood that the addiction-and-rehab industry would be with us for years to come. This particular chemistry experiment had no end in sight when Dick wrote the book, and it still doesn’t. A Scanner Darkly treats it as a problem nobody is capable of solving: The addicts need drugs, but New Path needs addicts, and the police need something to pursue to justify the efforts they’ve poured into eliminating the drug program. It’s as cyclical and harmful as one of Barris’ spiels.
Tasha: I mostly see Dick’s take on drugs and addiction here as a mixture of terrible sadness—for his friends who died or were permanently physically or intellectually scarred by drugs—and bitter anger against a system he sees as victimizing them, or at least pushing them to a place where they victimize themselves. Dick was a longtime drug user himself, and his writing seems to suggest a mixed attitude toward substances like LSD as mind-openers but also mind-damagers. The film version certainly doesn’t glamourize drug use—not with that creeptastic opening featuring Charles Freck desperately trying to get the skittering bugs off his body, the bugs that are so prevelant and unrelentingly active that we know they aren’t real—meaning they aren’t going away no matter how manically he washes himself. What a horror. You said this movie didn’t need special effects, or to be animated, but the bugs sequence (and Freck’s hallucination of the many-eyed other-dimensional horror reciting his sins when he attempts suicide) suggests otherwise: It’d be hard to train real insects to race frantically around someone’s body, suggesting such a manic pace and a manic state of mind. I think there’s a hint of suggestion, though, that the real problem with Substance D isn’t that it’s an illicit state-of-consciousness-altering drug, but that it’s a co-opting of the good things about drugs by The Man, by inimical controlling forces who would prefer the turn-on-tune-in-drop-out crowd destroy their minds rather than expanding them.
Narratively, for me, the revelation about New Path is actually a relief, because it finally takes us entirely outside the claustrophobic, insular circles of Arctor’s police work and Fred’s druggie-buddy hangouts with the same group of crazy people. My biggest issue with A Scanner Darkly is how self-contained and circular it comes to feel, especially at the point where Donna reveals herself to the audience as Arctor’s boss Hank. In that moment, the circles collapse on each other, and what looked like a slightly wider world becomes even narrower. It’s a twist, but one that for me feels programmatic, driven by the surprise factor and narrative economy rather than story logic. And it’s just as cynical as the revelations about New Hope: The cops are spending an awful lot of time, manpower, and resources on basically monitoring and investigating each other’s fake identities, in a gesture that seems either calculatedly empty—cops monitoring cops monitoring cops aren’t going to have time to suss out the real deal behind Substance D—or just as paranoid and futile as the addicts’ terrified business about how a smouldering joint in their ashtray clearly means the walls are full of planted drug evidence, with the FBI on the way to arrest them, so they should quick-sell Fred’s house. There are things I really enjoy about the addicts’ interactions, particularly Fred’s improv-friendly “Yes, and” principle, where he rarely pushes back against anything Luckman and Barris suggest. Even though he’s theoretically the sane, sensible, straight one, he encourages anything they say, in a way that makes it unclear whether he’s egging them on as Bob Arctor, or falling into their madness as Fred. (Even he doesn’t know which it is.) That has its own form of humor in a story that’s often so caught up in its grimness and moralizing that the humor feels choked. Do you have any similar reservations or favorite things about the film you want to highlight?
Keith: It does start to feel small after a while, I guess, but I don’t really think that works against it. It’s why the dedication to the “comrades” works so well. (Though Linklater left out the book’s most chilling image from that passage: “They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed—run over, maimed, destroyed—but they continued to play anyhow.”) Ultimately, I think staying small works for the finale. It’s a film about the whole awful economy of drugs and addiction, but also about the personal toll that system exacts.
Before we wind this down, we should talk about the meta-ness of the casting. Woody Harrelson, Downey, and Ryder all have had extremely public and contrasting experiences with drugs, from happy advocacy of marijuana to career- and life-endangering addictions. When I interviewed Downey at the time, he said this didn’t come up in conversation, but it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t some awareness of it during the casting process. Did that play into how you saw the film?
Tasha: Oh, certainly—it wasn’t lost on critics and viewers at the time, any more than John Travolta’s re-emergence from obscurity to stardom was lost on people watching Pulp Fiction in the theaters, or Neil Patrick Harris’ squeaky-clean past as a child-prodigy doctor was lost on people watching him play “himself” as a debauched, foul-mouthed former child star. Or for that matter, any more than Gloria Swanson’s casting as an over-the-hill, forgotten former silent-movie actress in 1950’s Sunset Blvd. was lost on audiences who dimly remembered her heyday as a silent-movie actress in the 1910s and 1920s. I’m not sure how much it inherently adds to the film, apart from as a knowing gimmick, though. There’s something to be said for casting actors who’ve actually experienced drug abuse, and are playing from knowledge instead of speculation. There’s certainly some humor in casting Woody Harrelson in particular as a dim, excitable stoner, given how often he’s played to that role, on and off camera. And at the time, Ryder’s casting was a minor scandal, since she was still largely persona non grata in Hollywood after her 2001 shoplifting scandal and probation, and after the film, Linklater was somewhat regarded as rescuing her career.
Did it make a real difference to the film in terms of content, though? Does it even make a difference right now, when people are more inclined to think of Harrelson as the hard-edged cop in True Detective, Downey as motor-mouthed bazillionare Tony Stark, and Ryder as… well, I’m not sure what Ryder’s most known for these days, but her career certainly looks diverse and healthy. In the end, I think the casting just adds yet another crafty gloss of what-is-real? over a story that’s heavily invested in layers of illusion, identity, self-definition, and self-delusion. Even if it doesn’t ultimately matter, it was still a clever move.
Scott Tobias kicked us off with his Scanner Darkly Keynote looking at what the film does with animation that it couldn’t do in live action. And tune in Thursday for his interview with Bob Sabiston, about the movie’s groundbreaking visuals and difficult production.