Directed by Richard Linklater (2006)
by Nikkolas Nelson
"Why the things we find beautiful undermine power?"
-El-P, “Deep Space 9mm”, Fantastic Damage
Philip K. Dick may be the most accurate science fiction writer that ever lived – at least in the sense of predicting the relationship between advanced technology and law enforcement and the impact that relationship would have on our culture. A lot of science fiction relies on, especially when compared to PKD, a naive optimism around technological advancement – the idea that humanity will live freer lives in the future thanks to teleportation and meals in pill form, etc. But PKD knew the truth. The first cultural entity that would harness the capability would be our government and their intentions would not be altruistic.
PKD paints this terrifyingly accurate vision in his novel, A Scanner Darkly, thoughtfully adapted into film by Richard Linklater. Linklater as director intrigues me. I find that many of his films like Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! all carry that naive optimism about the future that is uncharacteristic of PKD. To this day, when I rewatch Dazed and Confused, all I can think about is 'Fast forward twenty years. Slater OD'd in some backalley fridge box the night Reagan was re-elected to his second term. Pink is fifty pounds overweight, lost a foot to diabetes, and uses his disability checks to feed his painkiller addiction. Don died from AIDS in 1990.' And so on. That may sound incredibly bleak but when I remember my parents came from that generation, their fates, and the continuous fates of their friends? I don’t think it’s far off.
So, Linklater helming this truth of existence that follows the lies of youth is very intriguing to me. Add to that, the film continues to be prophecy unfolding.
Surveillance. The world of A Scanner Darkly is one in which everyone is scanned and monitored. Followed. A field of business-attired office drones authorize arrests at the push of a button. Due process in ten seconds flat.
Our guide through this world is Fred, aka Robert 'Bob' Arctor, who introduces himself in a prepared speech to what we assume are a group of politicians – a law enforcement tapdance to the tune of potential funding increases, perhaps? Fred stumbles in the middle of the bullshit and falls into a bramblebush of truth, "Like, if you were a diabetic and you didn't have money for insulin? Would you steal to get the money or just die?" The room recoils. HQ recommends casually returning to the prepared text. "You know why I have a block against this shit?” Bob asks. “Because this is what gets people on drugs."
And here we arrive at the tragic irony that shackles our characters (and maybe ourselves, amirite?): Drug use has allowed Bob to see the truth of the world, how, simultaneously, innocent people buy the poison only to be sold the cure by the company that manufactures both.
"I have to sort of tip my hat to any entity that can bring so much integrity to evil. Imagine this seemingly voluntary privatized gulag just managed to eliminate the meddling middlemen of public accountability and free will and wrap it up in a little bow and give it to the public like a gift...awe inspiring stuff.” Seriously, how perfect was a just-clean, pre-Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. for the role of Barris?
Law enforcement feeds this gulag-beast that demands sacrifice. When I think about it, it's so tragically beautiful this relationship, because in the end they are doing what they can, and in a roundabout way what they’re supposed to do: protect most of us at the price of some of us. Heavily armed harbingers of the coinflip chaos to which we’re all held mercy.
A shaman once told me about mushrooms, "You giggle for the first hour because it's illegal. After that, you're terrified because it's illegal."
Bob (played by Keanu Reeves), as both a cop and a user, essentially spends the film on a stakeout, building a case for his own arrest. It's like Heat but if Al Pacino was both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The attempted reconciliation of this reality splits Bob’s brain in twain. The drugs as a culprit are just a red herring, "Yeah, dude, don't blame the drugs." – Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Huh. I just got that. Luck Man. Avoids choking to death and, as far as we know, is the only central character that escapes a horrible fate (I consider Donna's guilt a horrible fate).
Anywho, the way Bob has to build a case against himself is through surveillance and we arrive at one of the most poignant and challenging aspects of this world beautifully articulated by the titular question, "What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly or darkly?"
A scan is inherently a lie. It doesn't exist until a person watches it and gives it meaning, gives it "truth.” But this is impossible. The best anyone can give it is interpretation and what is interpretation, ultimately, except lies of various consequence? Sometimes good. Sometimes evil. Sometimes infinite pieces of both blinking in and out on the sleeves of a scramble suit.
If the film has any optimism, it’s a very cautious moment at its conclusion when Bob's new husk, Bruce, in an act of love, picks a flower for his friends.
I can’t think of a better summary of the spirit of the sixties. And isn't this the optimism that we all cling to? That somehow, someday, love will prevail?
PKD waited with that question until the day he died. And now, I suppose, we wait in his place. And that most painful of existential anticipations is heartbreakingly captured in the closing credits:
"This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. I loved them all. Here is a list, to whom I dedicate my love (if I may, add my own to the list):
(And if I may also share the following sentiment in their memory):
These were comrades whom I had; There are no better. They remain in my mind and the enemy will never be forgiven. The ‘enemy’ was their mistake in playing. Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy." - Philip K. Dick (and me too)
For Schlock: Johnny Mnemonic
For Awe: Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
To Round Things Out: The Conversation
Announcing the winner of MJ's Show Us Your Mask Contest!
Congrats, Liz Locke - you're our April contest winner! We'll be in touch about your prize (and something fun is coming for all who entered!)