Through a Glass … Drugged
A SCANNER DARKLY (Richard Linklater, USA, 2006, 5)
I didn’t much care for Linklater’s previous film made in this “rotoscoping” style of animation — an undisciplined (if interesting to look at) mess from 2001 called WAKING LIFE, chalking it up to the content. The particulars are very different here, but basically, I have the same complaint. The script holds neither water nor my interest.
But that animation style. THAT is style. You root for SCANNER to be good because you want this “rotoscoping” technique to succeed, as it doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen. From my memory of interviewing Linklater for WAKING LIFE, it involves shooting the scenes live-action quick-and-dirty, then using computer animation to “trace” around the images to create digital shapes that can be reworked freely and recombined as whole entities into an all-animated framework. It produces images that look kinda real but sketchy, like a painter’s pencil drafts of his work (with the painting taken as the real-life master text). But it can be used much more impressionistically than real live-action. Here’s a page of images that gives you a general sense of the results. It also reminded me some of the more “realistic” non-cartoony boys comics I had as a wee lad — Hotspur and Warlord and Hornet rather than the Beano and Beezer; or, within the Dandy, Black Bob rather than Desperate Dan. But here the computer images are liberated from all space and perspective, and so can float, fade in and out, and otherwise be endlessly manipulated.
Now this is put to an appropriate thematic use in SCANNER — in fact the film resembles nothing so much as one of those Doonesbury strips where Duke (the Hunter S. Thompson character) is all messed up on he-doesn’t-remember-what-all. Told from Duke’s POV though. SCANNER takes place in a world where much of the populace (I think 20 percent) is hooked on this mythical drug Substance D, which produces an addiction that can’t be kicked. There’s a problem, though. However effectively this state is portrayed in SCANNER, being all drugged out is not a state that I particularly enjoy being in or a state that I dislike for a reason I find interesting or insightful — just say no if you don’t like your mind being all mashed-up. I didn’t much care for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM either, which also tried to get inside your head a bit too much; I tend to like my drug movies from a more-detached perspective, even that of someone onscreen — LESS THAN ZERO or JESUS SON say. Like WAKING LIFE, I “got” what the film was trying to do; I just didn’t like either existential state — a college dorm bull-session OR strung-out on mescaline, shrooms or Substance D.
Maybe part of it also is my coldness to most sci-fi — SCANNER being based on a Philip K. Dick dystopia of universal surveillance, set seven years in the future. SCANNER starts out like a meditation on identity, with Keanu Reeves muttering “this is terrible” inside a “scramble” suit while the suit is being boosted at a fraternal lodge-like meeting. The suit makes him anonymous for his anti-drug undercover work by having his appearance perpetually morph in and out of milions of permutations — think the Godley & Creme video of “Cry” only over the whole body rather than just the face. Except wouldn’t this actually BLOW your cover cuz you’d be the one morphing perpetually, rather than having one stable identity? But it isn’t sustained or followed through, unless your “work self” being made to spy on your “nonwork self” counts, which is what the greater part of the plot in the film’s body follows — Keanu-in-the-suit-so-nobody-knows-who-he-is gets assigned to surveil his circle of junkie friends, as part of an investigation of who is producing Substance D. (There are two twists at the end that are pretty jejune IMHO.) We also get a short sequence of bourgeois discontent, that also is dropped, until we get an equally short shard of discontent with the slacker-hippie lifestyle. There’s also a bit of lumpy metaphor in a speech about warring hemispheres of the brain. Obviously rotoscoping allows this state of fragmentation to be represented. But too well, if anything — the potential themes and threads fade in and out like the identities on the scramble suit.
There is quite a bit to like in SCANNER, though, even apart from the bravura style. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. play the “character” roles — Downey as a superficially-brilliant-sounding paranoiac, Harrelson as “recent” Woody (not the “Cheers” bartender) — and they’re both brilliant. They figure in most of the scenes I found entertaining, playing humorously drugged-out clowns. They play like adult versions of Beavis and Butt-head — one short sequence played like a riff off the B&B “Choke” episode. Downey also goes through the most elaborately convoluted suicide plan ever. It’s like a TRISTRAM SHANDY game of perpetual procrastination and aside-dropping before getting “a fine wine — a Merlot” (cue chuckles from everyone who saw SIDEWAYS) and he winds up tied to his bed having a thousand-eyed beast spend eternity reading him his sins (another riff off a classic Beavis & Butthead short, “The Final Judgment of Beavis,” right down to the “and then you discovered masturbation” joke). One scene reminded me of Stephen Wright’s joke that burglars had broken in, stolen everything in his apartment and replaced it with an exact duplicate. Downey and Harrelson come back from a short trip, fear that the place has been burgled and convince themselves into total paralysis. It’s the fun side of the drug lifestyle, I guess, but at least it IS kinda fun. Those two are great stuff, unfortunately, SCANNER leaves them behind for it’s last half-hour without apparent explanation — imagine a hypothetical “King Lear” in which The Fool was the most-interesting character.
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