Originally posted on October 21, 2006
"Scanner Darkly", the latest film by Richard Linklater, based on a Philip K. Dick story, finally appeared in our backwater last night. It's more graphic novel (filmed, then drawn over) than animated feature (think "Sin City".) The audience was a mix of very young college students and old hippies; and it's definitely not a date movie.
There is a plot of sorts, having to do with an undercover narcotics officer, Bob Arctor, who becomes addicted to the drug he is supposed to be eliminating; but the story is about the disintegration of a personality through mental illness, whether organic or simulated by drugs. Most of the movie is taken up with a long sequence in and around the house inhabited by three addicts, forcing us to spend enough time with them to be able to see past their amusing and idiotic buffoonery and to begin to recognize, and care about them, as real people. And it stops being funny.
At the beginning the officer has a nice bourgeoise life in a middle class suburb. A pretty house, a pretty wife, and two pretty little daughters; everything according to the "American Dream". One day he hits his head, and suddenly decides that his life is utterly predictable and will never change. And what he craves is a life that cannot be planned and that contains the possibility of the utterly unexpected. The path from the one life to the other is not shown, but he remains in the house, now filthy, strewn with trash, and inhabited by barely functional addicts that he has taken in. He reflects, in a lucid moment, on how awful it is; but it does hold that promise of the unexpected.
Despite the updated setting, the mental attitude seems very sixties to me. There was a romanticizing, starting with the "Beats" of the fifties, of drugs as paths out of the ordinary. In the sixties, with the legal presence of LSD, there was a feeling that the mind could be reordered into something quite new and very exciting; that we were about to witness an evolutionary surge, a new kind of human. At the same time, at the leading edge of the baby boom, a large number of somewhat sheltered middle class young people were moving out of their bourgeoise parents' houses into a world of seemingly limitless possibilities. The combination led to a kind of idealization of drug-taking and of the mentally ill that Bob Dylan mocked in "Like A Rolling Stone"; an utter un-awareness of what the mentally ill were suffering, and what the physical and mental consequences were of long-term drug use.
Perhaps there is a remnant of that romanticizing today among the young and arty set; I don't really know. I do know that Dick himself used amphetamines and suffered mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, and many of his stories concern mental illness, as seen from the inside. And in that way the story is timeless.
Due to the disguise that the undercover agents wear, Bob (called "Agent Fred") does not know his immediate superior's identity, and who also does not know his. He winds up being assigned to scan the video bugging of his own house, suspected of being a drug dealing center.
Police doctors discover his condition, but he is allowed to continue to work. They warn him that there will be "cross chatter" between the hemispheres of his brain -- he will hear voices -- and of other effects of the drug, called "D", that he is taking. No longer sure what is real and what is not, or whether he is the addict or the officer, and spending his days monitoring himself, he wonders who else is monitoring and what is it that they -- or he -- is seeing.
At the end the plot kicks back in, about Bad Corporations Doing Badness, and also about betrayal and the cruelty of doing things "for the greater good"; but it's not all that interesting (except that the final scenes were clearly filmed in the desert area near the location of Manzanar!) The real reason for the movie is the story of a man loosing himself, "a punishment too great for the crime." The film ends with a list from the book of PKD's friends dead or horribly damaged by drug use.
The title comes from Corinthians --"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. ... " Agent Fred has a soliloquy thinking about himself watching himself watch himself on the scanner -- "Through a mirror, a darkened mirror, a darkened scanner." In his drugged mind, everything is backward, and reality is either undiscernible or irrelevant.