Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Scanner Darkly w/ Richard Linklater, Keanu, etc.

Tonight, I finally got to see one of my most anticipated films of 2006, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. Linklater's one of the best filmmakers working today, and Philip K. Dick is my favorite prose author ever, so I was justifiably excited about the fusion of these two creative masters. And, in attendance at the screening tonight were Richard himself, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick's daughter, Isa. It's a big post, first I'm going to do a quick non-spoiler summary of my thoughts on the film, then go into spoilers, and after cover the talk, without spoilers. So, if you haven't seen the film, just skip the middle part.

So, quick summary. The film is very close to Dick's book, and better captures the essence of how I imagine the world of PKD than any other film, even Blade Runner. I always imagined his books taking place in a fusion of the future and the 70s, a look that this film captures nicely. There's some innovative uses of animation, notably the scrambler suit, but I felt slightly distanced from the characters due to the animation. It doesn't work as well for this story as it did for Waking Life.

Right now, I'd say it was a good film, possibly great. I need a review to better assess, but my first impressions are that some of the middle dragged a bit, but the ending, both of the film and the coda after, were fantastic and very powerful. I'll definitely give it another look in the next couple of weeks when it's out in the theater. With films that I've been waiting for for so long, the first viewing is usually difficult because the real film doesn't quite match the expectations I had for it. So, another viewing is needed.

On to spoilers...

The film's opening, with the bugs, is right out of the book, and it's also the broadest moment. I think it does an effective job of setting up the danger of Substance D, but it's a bit too over the top next to the darker rest of the film. I think the subsequent scene, with Freck and the policeman, was much closer to the humor of the rest of the film, and much more affecting.

I was expecting the film to be a fusion of Dick's themes and Linklater's conversational style, and to a large extent that's true. The lengthy conversation about leaving the apartment door unlocked was both funny and thematically right on target. The diner scene with Frenk and Barris was right out of Waking Life.

The most Dickian scenes were the scenes with Arctor and the doctors. That was really mind bending, crazy stuff, particularly the exchange about the cards. The basic conceit of the film is great, undercover cop work is right on target with PKD's favorite themes, because it's all about multiple levels of identity. You're an actor in real life and inevitably, as in Arctor's case, the charade starts to become real and the reality fades away. Arctor is playing an addict, but in playing an addict, he becomes one, and then he's no different from the people that he was working to stop.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film was the flashback to Arctor's family life. It's a brutal condemnation of complacent suburban lifestyle, and just how these addicts are going to keep doing the same thing everyday, so do ordinary people. They may not have the vices, but they too have routine, and after a while, the dose they need to get through the day increases. Arctor has developed too much of a tolerance to his everyday life, what worked once doesn't do it anymore and he has to leave. I like how he still talks about his family at the police job because it ties in to the mixed up identities. As Fred, Arctor is presenting this front of a cop, he's "posing as a narc," as he says. By this point in the story, Arctor the addict is the real person and the man in the scramber suit is the construction. This is what the opening speech scene is about, he can't keep towing the party line.

My biggest issue with the film has to do with the animation. I'm not a big fan of animation usually, I think an actor's face in live action can do more than an animator can ever capture. I can certainly understand why the film was animated, and aesthetically it looked great, but I felt a slight distance from the characters. In Waking Life the animation was fine because that was basically a talking head film, and the animation gave it some visual pazazz. Here, I liked the flourishes they did, like the dream sequences in the beginning, but I think it would have been easier to relate to the characters as real people if it was in live action.

Of course, one of the reasons for the animation was to create a hazy, dreamlike world, and in that respect it succeeded. I actually found myself wishing there were more moments of surrealism, like those dream sequences, because the film was on the whole constructed in a very traditional way. I also feel like the score could have done a lot more, the strings sounded very Waking Life, but I would have liked something a bit more prominent.

But, even through the animation, the actors all turned in great performances. This is a perfect role for Keanu, who can do any character, as long as it's a variation on a California surfer. He was great here, and his conversations with Downey and Harrelson sounded exactly like what high people sound like, full of lengthy debates over ridiculous minutiae.

The film has some pacing issues, but it's largely redeemed by a fantastic finale. Arctor is sent into Newpath and we see him in a very aloof state. He seems totally gone, but he still picks up the flower and the film ends with a wonderful shot of all the flowers and the thought that they might eventually be able to bring down Newpath. This was a fantastic ending, abetted by some nice Keanu voiceover.

So, I was definitely up on the film at that point, and then the final coda pushes things even further. The film ends with the afterword from the book, where Dick lists the people he knew that inspired the book, and wound up messed up by drugs. It's a very powerful anti-drug statement and a fantastic tribute to PKD.

Watching that coda made me think about the film's stance on drugs. It definitely indulges in humor surrounding the characters' addiction, but it ultimately comes down pretty clearly in the negative. All the users in the film are paranoid and clearly on the road to mental damage. However, the brief scene of middle class life is equally oppressive. So, what is Linklater suggesting is a better way to live?

With the revelation that Newpath is growing Substance D, and is in league with the government, Linklater seems to be indicting society as a whole, implying that we're complicit in our own imprisonment, be it in boring middle class life or in the squalor of drug addiction. It's generally pessimistic, but there is some hope there in the final moments.

So, this film has a lot that really works, but some issues that hold it back from the greatness that Linklater reached with Waking Life or Before Sunset. The biggest issue may be the fact that he is so faithful to the book. It's cool to have a film that is close, but Linklater is such a great filmmaker, it could have been interesting to see him claim the material for his own. Still, it's the best film of the year so far, and full of interesting thematic issues to ponder. I'll need another viewing before I give it a definitive assessment.


So, about the Q&A. Before the film, Keanu and Downey went up to introduce it, at that point Richard Linklater was not there, his flight was delayed. So, they did some funny banter, then headed into the audience and Keanu ends up sitting two seats down from me. It was cool to see him watch the movie, he was having some popcorn and seemed to be really enjoying it, always a big smile on his face.

After the film, all five people went up on the stage for a Q&A with some good stuff, but a few too many stock questions. I think I'm skewed being from New York, but Linklater talked at a really slow pace, and seemed a bit unsure of himself. But, I hear they take things slower out in Texas. Downey was a joker, his best comment was when he admitted he still wasn't sure what happened with the end of the film.

I've always been a Keanu defender, so I was glad to see that he was actually quite intellectual. He was the one always bringing the book to set, and had a lot of interesting stuff to say about his character, even if he did drift off into uncertain rambling occasionally. Still, he seemed to really engage with the film's ideas.

Linklater talked about how he had read 'Valis' a while back and shortly after Waking Life, decided to do a PKD adaptation as his next animated project. He actually ended up asking a bunch of questions to Isa about how her father worked, and what his life was like in the A Scanner Darkly era. She talked about how PKD rarely did revisions on his books, he would generally just plow through and finish them. He's someone who has so many ideas, it feels like he's just got to get them down on the page as fast as possible.

Most of the stories they told were stuff I'd read in interviews before, how Linklater got the rights to the book, the different approach in shooting for animation, the process of animating it, etc. However, there were enough interesting comments to make it worth it. This was a case where the focus was more on PKD's vision than on Linklater's, and considering how much of an autobiographical work this was for him, it's appropriate that the film be something of a tribute.

After the Q&A, I asked Isa why it was such a struggle for Linklater to get the rights to this book, but there's a ton of crappy movies based off PKD short stories. She said that they consider some of his stuff 'Philip K. Dick light,' and that's what gets turned into a bad action movie, but they keep a closer guard on his more personal stuff. So, don't worry about seeing John Woo's 'Valis.'

If nothing else, seeing this film and Q&A definitely made me want to check out some more PKD books. I've read a lot of his stuff, but I've still got some major works left to check out.

Related Posts
Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology (12/7/2004)
Dazed and Confused (3/23/2005)
Richard Linklater Day (7/22/2005)


yodahome said...

Hi! That's a really interesting review of the movie, I've been exspecting it for a while and it will take some more waiting until it comes to Germany so it's cool to hear that it's probably worth the waiting. I'll probably set up a short -translated- summary of your post on the German Blade Runner Blog during the day. Just to let you know. Have a nice day!

Patrick said...

Cool to hear the piece is going into German. Thanks for reading!