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A Scanner Darkly 2006/09/03

Posted by Daddy Dave in nights out, Reviews.
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[Picture of A Scanner Darkly Advert]Finally! ‘The GFT’ was showing ‘A Scanner Darkly’ — a Hollywood Movie released 7th July 2006 and directed by Mr. Richard Linklater. We always have to wait for things to arrive from America. The cast is brilliant — Mr. Keanu Reeves plays the role of ‘Fred’/’Bob Arctor’ (his typecast ‘everyman-but-outsider’ role), Mr. Rory Cochrane plays ‘Freck’, Mr. Robert Downey Jr. plays ‘Barris’, Mr. Woody Harrelson plays ‘Luckman’, and Ms. Winona Ryder plays ‘Donna’.

Not only are each of these actors fabulous in their own right, but each one could draw upon their own personal drug related experiences to create performances that transcend the surreality of the film being treated by ‘interpolated rotoscoping’ (a painstaking process where live action is digitally painted to resemble animation).

But ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is also a 1970’s novel by Mr. Phillip K. Dick. For those of us who can recall the period, it’s a trip (pun intended) down memory lane. For those too young to know, this film might just communicate some important things about the period. I do hope so; I am fed up with the bad portrayals of what-has-to-be the most complex era in human history.

[Picture of A Scanner Darkly Film Poster]I might as well say that I liked this film on a whole lot of levels. I roared with laughter at the druggy banter between ‘Luckman’ and ‘Barris’, and remembered some of the details — the skinning up on the album cover, the crazy arguments and conversations. It was all-too-familiar. It seemed to me to get across a lot of the feel of the period in a way that has not been done before. It’s a very honest, complex but rewarding movie, even though there are loose ends and weird plot cul-de-sacs.

In this case, it is certainly worthwhile digging about a bit in the context of the time as it lends so much to the enjoyment of the film.

Phillip K Dick died in the early 1980s aged just 54, so he would have observed the American involvement in the second world war and the end of that great American enemy, Imperialism. He would then have witnessed the rise of the next American enemy — Communism, and the effects of ‘McCarythyism’ on writers and the creative professions. ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is certainly influenced by this type of state paranoia.

  • Mainly though, we get an insight into Mr. Dick’s life too — just like the anti-hero ‘Bob/Fred’ in ‘A Scanner Darkly’, Dick apparently once had a nice standard house and desk job, a wife and two kids, and like his anti-hero, he lost his family, but continued to live in the house — which he let run down and allowed a group of acquaintences to use drugs and hang out there.

The film and book are very druggy, and so very very Seventies. Dick would certainly have been very aware of ‘The Beat Generation’ — Mr. Allen Ginsberg, Mr. Norman Mailer, and Mr. Jack Kerouac, If you think of Mr. William S Burroughs‘s ‘Naked Lunch‘ — with the anti-hero, the drugs, the addiction, the paranoia — or of Mr. Anthony Burgess‘s ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ — with it’s sexually violent, bleak future setting, the Ludovico technique (the State’s solution being to surgically ‘correct’ behaviour), and even the fact that the American censor removed the novel’s true ending (and therefore controlled the work), then you begin to see where Dick ‘was coming from’ generally as a writer, and specifically with ‘A Scanner Darkly’.

The Sixties was all about experimentation. Experimenting with drugs and with promiscuity in ‘The Summer of Love’, let’s face it; promiscuity was possible because of a drug — in the form of the pill.

The Russians put a Man into Space then the Americans put a ‘Man on The Moon’ in ‘The Space Race’. ‘The Teenager’ — a concept that was invented in the 1950s to sell clothes and pop music was developed along with the new emancipated women. As a result there was a creative surge of comic books, magazines, pulp novels, gritty plays with regional accents, ‘Pop Art’, and modern architecture. The focus was folk-art, everyman, the ordinary common people.

In the UK, we broke with the long tradition of Liberal and Conservative governments, and gave the Labour Party their chance to govern. However, the Socialist experiment failed pretty quickly; we spent the decade creating experimental council-housing estates, Le Corbusier’s experimental high-rise ‘sky-scrapers’, motorways, and experimental nationalising of industry and transport. It was the end of ‘The British Empire’ which led to an unprecedented surge in immigration and emmigration from and to the former colonies. The past was erased in favour of experimentation with the ‘The Modern’ and ‘The Future’. And these were uncertain.

So by the end of the 1960s, we had ‘The Cold War’, inflation and unemployment, but most of all we had uncertainty. We were uncertain about the future’s prospects, we were uncertain about our past record, and we were uncertain about our own identity.

We were lost without a past and with an already failing future. The Americans lost a lot of confidence too — from the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jnr, with the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of the FBI and CIA, the Vietnam War (1965-1973) and then Watergate (1972-1975). Utopia had become dystopia.

We all truly believed that there was nothing to live for: caught between America and Russia, we faced certain annihilation from Nuclear Holocaust — and if that didn’t happen, then the oil would run out, or we faced starvation due to overpopulation, Nitrates from fertiliser leaching into the water from intensive farming methods, chemical pesticides on our fruit and vegetables, and genetic modification gone wrong.

Yeah, it was not a question of if, it was a question of when.

And it was all the fault of Governments.

This possibly redefined what ‘taking a risk’ meant for a couple of generations, which created a lot of hedonistic drug overdoses, suicides and misadventures, but also a lot of creativity. It was a subculture, — a subbaculture.

The escape from the fear and the bleak was not always by drugs, but drugs (and death) were never that far away from the creative crowd. You just have to look at the number of rock star drug related deaths to see that.

The ‘Fantasy’ genre was invented, being derived from Science Fiction, often in conjunction with graphic work, especially book covers and comic book formats that could get across ‘special effects’ and images needed.

While the 1950s and 60s had set up comic book heros such as ‘Superman’ (an alien) and ‘Spiderman’ (victim of radiation) , the 1970s developed comic books into a very sophisticated artform, delving ever deeper, dealing with mind-bending drugs, politics, humour, speculative and science fiction.

In that context, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ just has to be graphical; the ‘interpolated rotoscoping’ is entirely the right choice. It would have been wrong to use familar cinematic special effects, it would have been wrong to animate the film – even using the latest techniques.

The way it was animated somehow allowed the acting to really come through, more like a radio play, each word was heard, each meaning, each feeling came straight through the filter of the animation by virtue of great acting.

On the other hand, the comic book style also obscured ( a scanner darkly, as opposed to a scanner clearly), and provided a surreal, druggy feel to the whole thing. It was a better way (in my opinion) of handling the ‘scramble suits’, any other way of doing this would have been more fascinating than anything else going on!

Speculative Fiction was very much about a post-Nuclear society – ‘The Planet of The Apes‘ being a major popular work on that theme. By the end of the seventies, (this book was published in 1977) post-Holocaust Heavy Metal music, drugs and ‘Mad Max‘ were mainstream. For many people that time was about waiting to die, hanging about taking drugs and wasting a life away — dying slowly — as escape. Opting out of the mainstream. If you can’t win, then why play?

Phillip K Dick was writing about and during a bleak and hopeless time, for him personally, but also in a general sense; there was no confidence in the future, and Orwell’s1984‘ was looming without a sign of rebellion.

Space was still a possible future — some believed in an asteroid hitting earth (The End Is Nigh), others believed that we would be able to escape and colonise Mars or the moon, yet other thought there were aliens who would come to sort us out (rescue or destroy?).

People needed escape, and drugs were a part of that. This subculture developed art and music support systems, so Michael Moorcock’s novels were integrated with Hawkwind‘s music. Everything began to bleed into everything else — Cheech and Chong‘s comedy, Fat Freddie’s Cat comic books, The Furry Freak Brothers, Zig-Zag, Pink Floyd, Zappa, Album Cover artwork by Hipgnosis, Roger Dean, Mouse etc.

In the 1970s, music overlapped, there was fusion, rock with jazz, electronic jazz, folk, and country, fretless basses, slap bass, shredding guitars, bottlenecks, synthesisers, north drums, vocoders, moogs, mellotrons, German electronic dance music — Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk etc.

What Dick did was question ‘reality’ — he knew the mind could be altered by drugs, that reality or the perception of reality could be changed. He was a Gnostic, so he was aware of good-evil, yin-yang, a single God that could be good as well as evil. Dick had a twin sister, and knew schizophrenia and hypocrisy were not far from everyone’s everyday mental state. An actor (his anti-hero is called ‘Arctor’) is necessarily schizophrenic and hypocritical. The state has an official public face and a private or secret one too.

[Picture of the original book cover]Was ‘Bob Arctor’ a druggy working undercover to subvert the state, or was he ‘Agent Fred’ the undercover policeman of Orange County? The psycological tests found him to have competing sides of the brain (as a side effect of taking ‘Substance D’ or Death). Who is the ‘real’ ‘Arctor’?

A beautiful Dickish plot twist has ‘Agent Fred’ assigned to spy on ‘Bob Arctor’ (himself). How weird is that?

What if the state’s ‘War on drugs’ was a lie to justify the systematic erosion of personal freedoms? What if the state claimed to be fighting ‘The War on Drugs’ but was actually maintaining the existing order by subduing any possible radical factions?

Does this resemble the current ‘War on Terror’ and the claims of systematic erosion of personal freedoms (Traffic Surveillance, ID cards etc)? Does this resemble the big multi-National Drug companies and tobacco companies? What about claims that the oil companies buy up and hide inventions that do not suit their needs?

The small blue flowers that ‘Arctor’ was advised to give as a romantic gesture to ‘Donna’ turn out to be the origins of ‘Substance D’ itself — and blue flowers are themselves symbols of the anti-Enlightenment arts movement, called Romanticism. Dick’s treatment of his female lead is to make her the souce of the drug and unable to be touched. One is reminded here of ‘Rachel’ from ‘Bladerunner‘ and the realisation that Dick is not so hot on understanding the female, or rather he fails to write women very well. We never do find out what happened to ‘Arctor’s’ wife and children. Most of the females are used for the plot benefit of the actual characters and then are left to merely fade away.

As ‘A Scanner Darkly’ was published in 1977, Dick would have been unaware in the years of writing leading up to it’s publication, of the separate sociological strand in Europe, particularly in England, where people got angry enough to riot and rebel against drugs and hippy ways as well as against the establishment that brought all this upon us. This Punk movement refused to accept the Russia vs America Two-tribes rubbish, the Genesis, Yes, ELP escapist, druggy music, the fantasy novel and comic books. Punk was a shot of sobriety and realism. Punks declared themselves the ‘No Future Generation’ and pushed for anarchy. Eventually the Punks won the day. Proving Dick wrong, funnily enough![Picture of new cover of A Scanner darkly]

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