Part Two: Scanning "A Scanner Darkly"
By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor
The movie posters are pasted up on walls and building scaffolding all over Manhattan, and the posters get it right. They're massive, individual closeups in Richard Linklater's graphic-novel format of Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey, Jr. Their expressions register panic, hilarity and suspicion--the vacant-but-calculating stares of true dopers.
The only content on the posters is the themeline, "Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay," and that gets it right, too. As in Phil Dick's tortured life (he was 53 when he died in 1983 of a stroke probably brought on by pancreatic cancer and massive daily intakes of five kinds of speed washed down by rivers of wine), everything was rarely okay. The guiding principle of "A Scanner Darkly" is that few get out alive, and Linklater's stunning new movie honors that desperate principle as though the filmmaker's life depended on it.
The fact that the picture opened July 7 in Manhattan on only two screens means everything may or may not be okay. Warner Independent, the releasing studio, clearly believes in the picture because they've let Linklater faithfully dramatize every ugly, fascinating moment of the novel, with the full backing of Phil Dick's three grown children. Warner's strategy may be to break the film slowly through word-of-mouth, positive reviews, and the paperback reissue as a movie tie-in. They want the film to grow "legs," a little each day. This has worked with quirky, offbeat indy items, mostly comedies, but it's a risky strategy in an era when virtually all movies have an ever-shrinking window in which to build awareness and an audience.
You've seen the graphic-novel execution of "A Scanner Darkly." Linklater used it five years ago in his philosophical meditation, "Waking Life," though the live-action-with-an-animation-coating is now far more accomplished and realistic. Even if you didn't catch "Waking Life" chances are you've seen the current Charles Schwab commercials that appropriate the same technique--talking heads played by actors who take on a curious, comic-book-character feel. Linklater calls this process 'digital rotoscoping,' though rotoscoping is actually an old special effects technique that goes back to the 1950s and 60s work of George Pal and Ray Harryhausen.
Whatever you name it, it's a new strain of virtual reality that lets Linklater capture the fantasy elements of Dick's largely straightforward and autobiographical drug novel. The technique has no meaning or purpose in the Schwab spots--it's a steal because Madison Avenue always likes playing with new technical toys, whether they fit the product or not. You can bet Schwab will change executions in a New York minute if this movie with its deranged zombies and eerie Radiohead soundtrack starts to take off.
The movie faithfully captures 99% of the novel, just as the novel renders 99% of a period of Dick's life with clinical precision. (For a detailed perspective of the book, see the first MAJ "Scanner Darkly" article posted 6/19.) The book's concept takes Phil Dick's earlier 50s invention of the android/replicant--a mechanical construct of a human---and bends it here to a federal undercover agent trying to bust drug suppliers by posing as an addict living with speed freaks and low-level sellers. Dick's innovation is that both the agent and the addict (well played by Keanu Reeves) eventually find themselves powerless and their lives unmanageable from the drugs. The human becomes the replicant. Cool, huh?
Richard Linklater has never worked this much magic on the screen. In the novel, the undercover agent wears a 'scramble suit' which blurs his features so other agents never know his identity when he's monitoring his addict counterpart. In the movie, the agent's face is divided into four sections that constantly shape-shift into an endless assembly of facial quarters. This is bold artistry and you can't take your eyes off the screen. It's surely one reason why the planned release of the film got pushed back so many months while a huge team of technicians down in Linklater's Austin headquarters did the lab work.
In the book, the one really dangerous psychopathic dope field is Jim Baris, a whacked-out junkie who in real life may have plotted the blowing of Phil Dick's private safe containing his collections of pulp magazines and unpublished manuscripts. Baris is mean and smart and crazy, and Linklater has Robert Downey, Jr. playing him--what a hoot.
Perhaps sensing that letting Downey push Baris over the top would have been too much for any film to bear, Linklater pulls him back. He tasks Woody Harrelson and a paranoia expert named Rory Cochrane to play the vicious and uncontrolled housemates. Baris becomes the comic relief figure in the drug den, but even at lower volume Downey is brilliant. He's rambling a mile a minute and his movements are erratic and jerky, and he's crafty and shifty and extremely funny—every dope dealer's nightmare. Downey is standing on the shoulders of Dennis Hopper and Klaus Kinsky, to be sure, but he's nailing the title of 2lst Century Freak faster than any other actor in world cinema.
The scene in the book in which the nude Donna (Winona Ryder) dissolves in the agent's bed into a different nude female junkie, becomes another memorable set piece in the movie. This is where Reeves realizes he's starting to lose it, no matter which identity he's playing. And there's another, initially hidden agenda working here that's only hinted at in the book. It concerns Donna's identity, and Linklater takes a different path that works and perhaps gives the film's conclusion a balancing kind of closure. The other key change from the novel concerns the recovery center and safe house where the undercover agent, his mind finally rotted out from the drugs, spends what may be his last innings. It's a change you'll want to discover for yourself, and decide whether it's a correct or dubious artistic/social choice by the screenwriter.
"A Scanner Darkly" was given a public preview in Manhattan the night before its opening, and Richard Linklater spoke at some length after the screening. He's pictured above right with the reporter. He's modest and forthcoming, and like John Sayles and Sam Shepherd, he seems to be following his muse wherever it takes him, alternating big commercial hits like "School of Rock" with thoughtful, sweet items like the "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset" romances and the more experimental venues of "Waking Life" and"A Scanner Darkly." At 46, his influences extend from David Lynch's "Eraserhead" back through Hitchcock. He has a lot of projects he'd like to get made, and his documentary of "Fast Food Nation" is done and prepping for release. He tells us he still has problems getting stuff greenlighted, and that he's interested in another Philip K. Dick novel, "Ubik."
One can hope Richard Linklater stays on a roll. Just as the Deadheads of the world will go to see most any serious rock movie, the Dickheads of the world--and they are legion--will quickly line up for "A Scanner Darkly" and celebrate the director's vision. So will any active or recovering addict, cross-addicted alcoholic or garden-variety drunk. So will most movie-lovers with a taste for the bizarre. So should most teens, college and post-college gals and guys, and Radiohead fans who think getting high is just the coolest thing. Maybe this isn't such a small audience potential, after all. Maybe it's a lot of the Big Apple, which can still look, sound and feel like the Stoned Apple on any given night in 2006.
Dick got it right 40 years ago, and now Linklater's gotten it right, too. Phil's kids should be very proud.