7/10/2006

a scanner darkly

This is an ostensibly anti-drug movie you should do drugs before, during, and after seeing, if possible. Otherwise you'll get nothing out of it but a few laughs, a numb bum, and a pounding headache. It's trying for something dark (thus the title), but in the end it's a cartoon: the medium itself defies the message. The best moments are the most cartoonish ones, which are straight-up, old-school, three-stooges-style slapstick, not the maudlin, emotional bits that try to tug at your heart-strings.

That said, I enjoyed all the performances here, except for the bland Winona Ryder's (she may be an old hand at stealing sweaters from Saks, but she can't steal a scene to save her life). She is reunited in "A Scanner Darkly" with the bland Keanu Reeves, of course, but although I have generally been as unimpressed by him as her, I had a revelation about him in this role: he is his generation's Clint Eastwood. But rather than become a denizen of spaghetti westerns he's carved out his own specific subgenre of surreal kung-fu-inflected martyrological IT-guy sci-fi.

Also, as an animated character here he is more animated than in any of his live-action roles.

Robert Downey, Jr., who chews up the scenery as a motor-mouthed stool pigeon , and Woody Harrelson as an old-school stoner, are both terrific, too, but the real gem is Rory Cochrane, whom you'd never know was cute as a button in real life, since here he's twitching and foaming at the mouth most of the time.

That's because, like I said, the movie is about drugs. More specifically, about those addicted to them. The problem with this is that addicts are boring. The only people who can stand hanging out with people on drugs are other people on drugs (which is why I recommend taking some beforehand).

The addicts are only half the story, but you have to get to the other half through them, and, again, I think drugs are the only way. According to the press kit, “‘A Scanner Darkly’ tells the darkly comedic, caustic, but deeply tragic tale of drug use in the modern world.’ I would omit “deeply tragic,” myself, as I think it vastly overstates the case. The characters here are not tragic. They're comic. Yet another case of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-to-ism. You cannot have darkly comedic and deeply tragic. You have to choose. A vague sense of existential dread in someone with two synapses in his fried brain firing hardly makes an Oedipus Rex. Sorry.

But the movie is also about “America’s endless and futile war on drugs.” OK. Fine. But this is another thing you sort of need to take drugs to get too exercised over. I remember caring about it a good deal when I was in college, but not so much anymore.

The problem for the rest of us, those who aren’t currently on drugs, is that, storywise, once you take the plunge into that paranoid demimonde of drugs, you no longer have sympathetic, and more importantly, reliable characters or a sympathetic, or more importantly, reliable narrator. One of the things that most drugs eventually do is radically isolate people in their own subjectivities, precisely through the promise (and sometimes even the delivery) of a radical objectivity. They are emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually unreachable, and it is futile to try to get there from here.

Don't get me wrong, we are all more or less emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually in our own locked rooms. Some have been locked in by someone else, some have locked themselves in, some have merely misplaced the key, others have swallowed it. But occasionally we escape, or venture out when the weather's nice, and find others who have ventured out as well. On drugs, it's hopeless. You can't remember where you are, would need a map to find the door, and all your energy to get to it, have pissed yourself and have nothing else to wear if you did go out, and anyway you're face down in your own puke and and can't seem to recall which way is up, or even that there is an up. You can't even remember how to roll over, never mind that key in your hip pocket.

So the second half of “A Scanner Darkly”s equation—the big conspiracy theory—could as easily be a paranoid fantasy as a reality, which doesn’t make it less engrossing, if that’s your thing, but isn’t all that ominous and scary, either. You pretty much know where the whole thing’s going anyway.

There are some neat things to muse over, though. Could evil scientists develop a drug that is universally, instantly addictive, even to those without the “addict gene”? And then could the evil government co-opt it and start fucking with everyone for no reason?

Break out the bong, dude, and let's talk about it!

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