Dick-ed Over

Yesterday I rented the film version of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly after having just finished the book. My basic feeling about this one is that I enjoyed seeing how Linklater and Co. interpreted Dick's vision, but I don't think it's a great artwork on its own. In other words, if I hadn't read -- and loved -- the novel, I think I would've lost patience with the movie pretty quickly.

Honorable mention to Robert Downey Jr. I'm a huge fan of his and am always pleased to watch him in whatever. The role he plays here, Jim Barris, is totally perfect for him, as is any role that affords the potential for dry condescension. In this case, that vibe is spiked with weird drugged-out technobabble and shifty conspiratorial doublespeak.

Obviously the big question w/ this one is "Ooh, what'd you think of the visuals?" I'm not sure exactly what you call the technique that's used, but I'm pretty sure it's that dealie that was used in Waking Life (never saw it -- was it good?) where they film the movie live and then somehow give those images an animation-type feel. Anyway, it did look very, very cool in places, but it felt a bit gimmicky overall and made it a little harder to get to the heart of what is a very tragic tale (or maybe that was just the wooden acting by Keanu and Winona in two integral roles).

Speaking of gimmickry, there was also this sense that Linklater was sort of playing fast and loose with the book. Some characters were conflated, scenes excised and plot points massaged, some of which actually did help move the story along, but sometimes the parts that were included just felt anecdotal, or slight or something. Watching each of the little scenes, I recalled them from the book and sort of chuckled in recognition, but I never really felt I was being told a story so much as listening to someone quote their favorite parts of a text. The movie lacked the context and muscle to be a real storytelling force on its own and thus I'd find it really hard to recommend it to anyone who hadn't read the book.

One thing I was really happy about though was that the credits included a portion of Dick's author's note, which follows the text of the novel. My basic feeling on the author's note is that it's extremely heavy; it takes what's essentially a very vivid sci-fi book and brings it crashing into reality. All metaphor is removed and Dick simply comes out with his feelings on the hazards of drugs:

"This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed -- run over, maimed, destroyed -- but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it."

I'm not sure that I've ever read a more potent cultural eulogy. People talk about the fall from grace at the end of the '60s and all that (Altamont, etc.), but this really captures that tragedy in a very serious way, a way that even the book itself does not. It makes me wonder if Dick ever wrote any more autobiographical philosophy of this sort; this author's note is just so raw and exquisite.

I can't get past that part about "sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time," just that idea of fun morphing imperceptibly into tragedy. (I'm tempted to toss out a Tipping Point metaphor since I just started reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, but I don't think it really applies....) There are a few scenes in the movie that capture that, like the one where Keanu and Winona are just sort of getting high and cuddling together and then she freaks out when he tries to make a move on her. Anyone who's ever had a trip go south knows that feeling: when the visions turn scary and you want to get off the ride. In a way, as Dick says, that's a metaphor for the overall arc of drug abuse and addiction, that dichotomy between fun and fear.

Anyway, read A Scanner Darkly, and if you don't have time, go find it in a bookstore and at least read the author's note. You won't believe the roll call of the fallen: "To Ray / deceased; To Kathy / permanent brain damage," etc. There's even an entry for Dick himself: "To Phil / permanent pancreatic damage." As Barris says in the book (yeah, I know; I've been recycling this quote like mad, but it bears repeating): "Life... is only heavy and none else."