July 19th, 2006

V for Vendetta

Now that we're all catching up with Philip K Dick ...

Where was I, before a heat wave with its resulting disrupted sleep and constant 35dB humming started rotting my brain? Oh yeah ... A Scanner Darkly. I went to see it for the first time a couple of nights ago, and I love it. That's why I say "for the first time," because I guarantee you I'm going to want to see this one a couple of more times. One one level, I'm having exactly the same reaction to this movie that I had to the Sin City movie. In that case, what we had was what producer/director Rodriguez called an entirely faithful frame-by-frame adaptation of a series of books that I just couldn't get into. It turned out not to be frame-by-frame line-by-line faithful; Rodriguez had shown an almost eerie skill at cutting out the redundant, boring parts that I kept bogging down in in the Miller originals. In this case, what we have is a movie based on (to my taste) the least interesting, least readable book by an author that I'm more than a little fond of. It's being pitched as the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel that's ever been made, and that's just as true of this movie as it was of Sin City. And just like in that movie, what Richard Linklater has done is trimmed out the more redundant, self-pitying, and/or boring of the endless internal monologues of that book. Not all of them, thank Prime. It wouldn't be worth reading (or watching) Dick if it weren't for the ruminations about the relationships between reality, identity, consciousness, society, and repressive government. But no, Linklater's genius here in his best movie since Slackers is that he has managed to keep exactly the right ones.

The result is a movie of almost Zen-like perfect contradiction. The greatest "drug movie" of all time is also the greatest anti-drug movie ever made. The movie, even more than the book, manages to capture a specific long-ago time, best summed up by a throw-away remark of the late Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson thought of himself as a sports, political, and features journalist who wasn't afraid to admit that he was on drugs during the events he was chronicling; this lead to intense pressure from his editors and readers to report more and more about his own drug experiences, for him to become something he never wanted to be, namely America's primary reporter on the internals of the Drug Scene. When he'd finally had enough of that and announced he wouldn't be doing it any more, he gave an interview to a national magazine (I forget which one) where the reporter's first, clueless question was, "What's new in the drug culture?" Thompson's pitch-perfect answer was, "There is no drug culture any more. It's just an increasingly big, increasingly dirty business."

From when white hipsters first began to discover marijuana through the Jazz clubs of the 1920s, through the informal distribution of LSD among the extended friends network of east cost intellectuals and west coast writers in the 1960s, there were no real "drug kingpins." The wealthiest drug dealers in America were barely making enough money to pay the mortgage and utilities on a small house in a declining neighborhood, with barely enough money left over for groceries for themselves and one or two friends. How could it be otherwise? Supply was ubiquitous, and demand low because drugs really were, back then, only something used by a fairly small number of bohemians and drop-outs. Even when the Mafia stepped into the heroin trade during the 1950s (over the corpses of the older generation of mafiosi who wouldn't touch the business) in hopes of regaining the wealth their parents had made during alcohol Prohibition, the wealthiest "drug kingpins" in the world were barely living a comfortable middle class lifestyle. No, it wasn't until marijuana, then cocaine, became fashionable in the 1970s that the market for illegal drugs had enough money in it to make anybody rich. Before that, there was no reason for anybody to become a drug dealer except for the same reason that some people start model railroad shops, or comic book shops, or independent book stores or coffee houses -- to make a bare minimum living doing something that doesn't involve working for other people, where you get to work with stuff that you like and sell to customers who you mostly like because they're just like you.

But as the market expanded beyond the initial core of creative drop-outs, upper middle class dilettantes, and their loser friends, the government became obsessed with finding the "wealthy drug kingpins" who they reasoned (based on their experience with alcohol Prohibition) must be somewhere out there, at the top of things. They set out to do this the way they still do, to this day -- by surveilling, then blackmailing users to find their friends who have a connection that can get them the drugs, hoping to work their way up the chain to the ultimate sources. And Dick was not the first, nor the last, author to write about the specific paranoia that comes from living in a subculture that's under heavy government surveillance and wondering who among your friends is really secret police in disguise. The life and fragile sanity of the narc, of the man or woman who has to live a double life and who makes a living making friends and then betraying them, is sufficiently compelling that it's been an inspiration for hundreds of books and movies.

A Scanner Darkly, like virtually all of Dick's books, takes that experience and makes it science fiction by taking early 1970s politics, whether the Cold War or Watergate or organized crime or the War on Drugs, and taking it to the reductio ad absurdam level. But that makes this the perfect time to make A Scanner Darkly into a movie. Because right now, the overlapping nature of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, and the culture of corporate corruption most famously reflected in the Enron, Worldcom, and Arthur Andersen scandals (not to mention ongoing corrupt war profiteering from the war in Iraq), manage to make Dick's paranoid vision of a world where guys like Dick Nixon were given every power they fantasized about and it tore the country apart are suddenly not so hard to imagine. When East Germany fell, we got a look into the records of a society where half of the population was living double lives, on the payroll of the secret police and reporting on each other and the other half of the population. Networks of sensors and cameras set up by private individuals and businesses for their own purposes aren't quite networkable to the point where the police can track somebody all the way across town by switching in real time from traffic signal camera to ATM camera to police surveillance camera to the webcams on their computers and secretly planted government microphones and cameras placed under secret "War on Terror" sealed warrants and secret courts. Not in real time, anyway -- but the NSA spying scandals suggest that the technology for this isn't that far off, certainly not any farther out than the "7 years in the future" that Linklater (unlike Dick) specifies. So for both historical and current political reasons, there couldn't be a better movie to make right now, and Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly perfectly fulfills both needs.

The movie itself is a work of art. I'm not even vaguely a fan of Keanu Reeves, but I have to agree with the critics that he is the perfect actor to voice the lead in this movie; no matter what role he's played, Reeves has always sounded like he was vaguely disconnected from the reality around him, like he wasn't really all there and wasn't really firing on all cylinders, and that's exactly what was needed for a character whose brain is literally falling apart under the weight of the drugs he has to take to do his job. Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, and Woody Harrelson have all had their own famous breakdowns, which makes them the ideal actors to voice the mentally-fragile slackers who all hang out with and do drugs with our lead character. Rory Cochrane does a great job of playing a guy that, you sense, they let hang around them even though he's as dumb as a post and way, way too far gone into personality disintegration and insanity, because he used to be a friend of theirs and used to be cool. And in fact, if you've ever had any friends who were really into drugs, you've known all five of these characters. (I'm mightily resisting the urge to tease an old friend of mine the way his wife teased me about Marv in Sin City, by pointing to Downey's character and saying, "Look, they made a movie about you!") I'm never crazy about rotoscoping as an animation technology, but here it exactly captures the right mood for the movie. Everything looks real, and unreal, at the same time, with perceptible flickering as if you were seeing tracers or having trouble focusing your burnt-out eyes.

No, I'm definitely going to be seeing this one again, and I'll be first in line for the DVD.