April 13, 2010

Scanning 'A Scanner Darkly'


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

In June 2005 Wired magazine held its second annual futuristic exhibit of over 100 leading edge experiments in exploration, entertainment, transportation, science and medicine in Chicago. It was called NextFest and was reviewed in The Wall St. Journal. Joel Henning's article noted that the most advanced robot on exhibition was a spitting image of Philip K. Dick. It had hardware by Hanson Technology, uncannily lifelike 'skin,' cameras in the eyes that could track faces, and 80 sensors behind its face to reproduce facial expressions. The language and speech processing and synthesis were developed by the Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis. The robot could recognize Dick's family and friends, and was set in a space replicating a room in which Dick wrote. The robot spoke to the WSJ reporter and said this:

"Over the years it seems to me that by subtle and real degrees the world has come to resemble a Philip K. Dick novel. Several freaks have even accused me of bringing on the modern world by my novels. My writing deals with hallucinated worlds, intoxicating and deluding drugs, and psychosis. But my writing acts as an antidote, a detoxifying, not intoxicating antidote."

In the early 1970s Phil Dick was living in a rented, ramshackle drug den in Santa Venetta, California, that was known in the community as "Hermit House." Biographer Lawrence Sutin says that Dick's daily diet of milkshakes and Amphetamines--Dexedrine, Benzedrine, Methedrine, and Stelazine among many others--was out of control. The house was a revolving door for speed freaks, drug dealers, runaways, science fiction devotees and admirers, and various young dark-haired women attracted by and to Phil.


Late in 1971 the house was burglarized and nearly everything of value was taken. A large, heavy floor safe that Dick had installed containing his most important possessions--from his manuscripts and pulp magazines to his tax and financial records--was blown open by plastic explosives and ransacked. The local police, who had little use for Dick and regarded him as a parasite, made a perfunctory investigation that never turned up the perpetrators. Sutin suggests that Dick believed it was drug addicts looking for stash or cash, and Sutin offers the further possibility that Dick himself may have blown the safe to keep government agents from examining his earnings and works-in-progress.

The most unbalanced and dangerous character in "A Scanner Darkly," Jim Barris, is baed on a hanger-on that Dick believed led the break-in. Barris, Jerry Fabin and several other dopers grow out of real-life addicts who lived in Hermit House with Phil and died in the 70s. A woman who Sutin refers to as "Donna" became Donna Hawthorne and turns up in two additional PKD novels, "Valis" (as Gloria) and "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer" (as Angel). The rehab center in the novel is based on X-Kay, in which Dick briefly was a patient after suffering permanent pancreatic damage. Many actions, episodes, scenes and dialogue in this work of fiction occurred in Phil Dick's life during this period. Phil wrote "A Scanner Darkly" in 1973; it was first published in 1977.


"I am not a character in this novel," Phil writes in a concluding Author's Note. "I am the novel."

For the first hundred pages or so of "A Scanner Darkly," you may think you're reading a cop-infiltrating-the-mob novel that seems to bear little relation to Dick's classic science fiction novels and stories like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," "Minority Report," "Paycheck," "Impostor," and "Total Recall." (The first became Ridley Scott's "'Blade Runner," the next three were filmed with the same title," and "Total Recall" was based on the story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." The language is crudely obscene, the humor is gross, and while Phil Dick obviously knows the drug culture of the 70s, you may get the feeling of been-there-done-that. William Burroughs' novels, Hunter Thompson's gonzo journalism, Al Pacino movies like "Serpico" and "Donnie Brasco," even plays like David Mamet's "Hurly-burly" and Tracy Leeds' "Bug" all contain variations of the same unsavory characters.


But "A Scanner Darkly" is both a futuristic novel of uncommon ingenuity as well as the one crime novel Dick wrote that uses narrative devices similar to Jim Thompson's split-narratives and interior monologues involving two sides of the same character. "A Scanner Darkly" is also opening July 7 in what promises to be an inventive and faithful movie executed as a graphic novel. Let us summarize the novelistic aspects and what we know of Richard Linklater's upcoming film.

The most remarkable and consistent futuristic element in the novel is the 'scramble suit' worn by the under-cover agent (Fred), whenever and wherever he appears with other law officers. It is used to disguise his actual identity even from other agents. The suit--a computerized 'shroud' composed of an infinite number of facial and body fragments--is seen as a fuzzy, unrecognizable blur, much as news shows sometimes blur real faces in hidden camera episodes. Fred's voice is also modified and disguised. Thus when Fred is examining hidden home videos of his drug counterpart (Bob Arctor) and other residents, in the presence of other police agents, they don't know Fred and Bob are the same person.


For a good portion of "A Scanner Darkly," this is the one plot device with a pulp heritage. But then other things start to happen that slowly and scarily turn a procedural into a mystery.

Bob Arctor's closest female drug buddy is the wasted addict, Donna. They are not lovers. One night Bob brings home and beds down a junkie named Corinne. In the semi-darkness of the bedroom, which also has a hidden video scanner in place, Bob turns over and Corinne dissolves into Donna...then back to Corinne. Is this a drug dream? Days later, Fred watches the infra-scan of himself in bed next to Corinne. And again Corinne seems to dissolve into Donna. What's going on here?

Fred freezes the hologram image. Then, because the scan is life-size and three-dimensional, he steps into the projection to examine more closely the woman's face. Donna's holo-printed face has been superimposed onto Corinne's. This suggests a manual edit by--someone. But then, later in the tape Fred watches, Bob wakes up, sees the woman is Donna, watches her change back to the familiar Corinne, and goes back to sleep. Spooky, very spooky.

As the novel plows on, Bob Arctor falls deeper into the rut of his addiction to Substance D, Dick's death drug which is never named but is equated with heroin. He hears a lot of talk about reality being reversed. Eventually Fred receives a pay cut for "willingly becoming an addict and not reporting it." This doesn't exactly track with Dick's disguising Bob so Bob and Fred are never the same person in any authority's eyes, but we have to assume that Fred-the-agent is also suffering visibly from Bob's massive drug intake.


Or maybe not. There is a quick, inexplicable moment, never developed, when a cop questions Donna away from Bob, looks at her ID and states "you're under-cover for the federal people." Donna tells the cop to pipe down and get lost--and the cop gets lost. Uh-oh. If Donna is an undercover agent like Fred, she could have filmed and edited her own image onto Corinne's. But why? The situation is planted by Phil Dick but never brought up again. Maybe it's a red herring. Maybe it's Dick having fun, or zoning out, or high as a kite. Later on, Bob Arctor/Fred is shifted from a conventional rehab to a safe farm in the desert, his mind gone. In his Author's Note, Phil lists the major characters except Donna in the novel, most of whom are dead or permanently disabled.

"A Scanner Darkly" is a touchy, funny/sad, mystifying novel. It shows that while Phil Dick wanted all his life to write a successful mainstream novel out of the shadow of science fiction/fantasy, such a book may not have been in him. Virtually all his attempts at conventional novels were unpublished. "A Scanner Darkly" may be the one that's going to hit it big, and the movie is the best hope for that happening.

Richard Linklater is the industry's 46-year-old counter-culture Texan. Linklater has demonstrated the unusual ability to work both within the system and apart from it, out on untested indy edges. "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset," like "School of Rock" and "Slacker," demonstrate his ability to make small, intensely likeable movies. "Tape," a 90-minute drug-laced memory film also with Ethan Hawke, is more of an experiment, played entirely in a cheap motel room. "Waking Life" (2001) is even more of an experiment, using reality-based animation to make the first feature-length philosophy lecture, an almost perfect film for college students who've taken an Intro to Philosophy. "A Scanner Darkly" uses what is billed as a more refined rotoscoping technique, developed by Linklater's Texas-based computer animation team.


Linklater is a Texas longhair in a tee-shirt. He and Philip K. Dick share striking stylistic similarities. Linklater could probably start clerking tomorrow in a used record store. just as Dick did. It's surely a good sign that he awarded the key role of Barris--the one deranged and truly dangerous addict in the book--to Robert Downey, Jr., an erratic and often brilliant actor whose real-life drug downfalls and comebacks mirror and even exceed those of Phil Dick. Downey is already the Dennis Hopper of the 21st century.

Keanu Reeves plays Fred/Bob and Winona Ryder is Donna. The film has the full endorsement of Phil Dick's three grown children--Laura, Isa and Chris who manage the Philip K. Dick trust--and their belief that "A Scanner Darkly" will be "the very first faithful adaptation" of a Dick work. They were a presence on the set, discussed roles with cast members, and are enthusiastic about all the key actors. They note that their father's "struggle with drug abuse is well documented, and he (and we) have witnessed many casualties." All of this adds up to a powerful going-in endorsement for the movie.


At the Madison Avenue Journal, we'd enjoy hearing from you regarding this and any other PKD novels/films you may be familiar with, as well as your reactions when the picture opens in July.

Ping me @ Kurt Brokaw


MACVIDEONY Creative Work

Hey Google, Save the Curbs

Next-Gen Mobile Carrier: Magee

Sarah Fay in wwwLand, Parts 1 thru 3.

Alan Chapell Goes Public on Privacy, Parts 1-3.

800 lb Gorilla Fandango Makes Noise at App Planet

Agency Rich Media Lovers Boogie as Palm Gets "Flash-y"

Churchill @ the Mobile UpFront

Google's Buzz Gets Stoned @ the WMC

Don't Go Into the Bathroom!