October 18, 2013

Watching A Scanner Darkly again

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006). “Seven years from now. Anaheim, California.” That makes this 2013. The moment that always gets me is Philip K Dick’s roll call of “a list of people punished entirely too much for what they did”. Death, brain damage, psychosis and so on. His drug buddies. He put himself on that list, reprinted verbatim from the book.
Apart from all that, though, it’s a counter-culture comedy and a triumph of casting. Keanu Reeves as the agent and addict who ends up investigating himself – Philip K Dick’s mythologised or paranoid explanation of his own condition. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr as the drug users who seem to be living in his house. Winona Ryder as … did you know Ryder was Timothy Leary’s god-daughter and had a connection to the author that way? Animated, the actors seem more like themselves than ever.
In 2006, a couple of months after first seeing this, I talked to Linklater by phone (this interview). He was promoting Fast Food Nation but I managed to get a few minutes on A Scanner Darkly:
“The entire project happened in the post-9/11 environment and it was pretty clear that the writing was on the wall, the way that government uses a tragedy like that to really clamp down on its own population. Once you’re at war, you can get away with anything.”
Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly in 1977, long before there was any official war on drugs, let alone a war on terror, but “he saw the darker underpinnings of all corporate and government power”.
 It starts in hallucinated bug paranoia – Dazed and Confused stoner Rory Cochrane scratching under his skin – and ends in drug-damaged burn-out. Will you ever be able to see clearly again? The undercover agent’s “scramble suit” becomes an image of wider distrust and uncertain or blurred selves, just as the animation onto digital video throws a veil over reality that is impossible to penetrate (an advanced version of the much looser, psychedelic animation in the more hopeful Waking Life). The main settings are institutional interiors and the permanent half-light of a drug house. And despite it being both 1977 and 2013, it really has been 2006 all along: the people with contracts to clean up after the war are the same people who profited from starting it.