Sunday, December 30, 2007
Gazing through 'A Scanner Darkly'
'A Scanner Darkly' commences with a scene from a nightmare. Insects cover a man, crawling all over his body while he frantically attempts to shake them off. Ultimately, he resorts to insect spray, dosing himself with toxic clouds of insecticide. Finding them on his dog as well as himself, he spends long hours in the shower with the animal to no avail.
When a friend asks him what he is doing in the shower with the dog, he confides in his friend and begs him to help catch samples of the insects so he can take them to a laboratory for analysis. His friend brings him an empty mayonnaise jar and they proceed to fill jars with the invading insects.
'Within half an hour, they had three jars full of the bugs. Charles, although new at it, found some of the largest.'
The insects are imaginary and yet they cause unspeakable torment to the victim. In Philip Dick's world, it is not surprising that the friend is able to see the imaginary insects and participate fully in the paranoid delusion, even finding 'some of the largest' of the imaginary insects to take to a scientist for analysis.
Far from my rather low expectations, Richard Linklater's animated interpretation of Philip K. Dick's masterpiece, 'A Scanner Darkly' fully satisfies intellectually and visually. It manages to capture Philip Dick's quarky humour while encapsulating the horrors of paranoia and the corruption of law enforcement and government.
With the enactment of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security Acts in the United States, the old social paranoia of the 1960s and 1970s achieved new relevancy. The 'war against drugs' always has been a morally bankrupt affair but society in general is reluctant to scrutinise the facts, domestically or internationally, whether because of general personal indifference or a fundamental prejudice against drug users.
Nonetheless, despite the important political issues raised in 'A Scanner Darkly' and its stark depiction of a world where 'plastic' identity creates a new definition of 'haves and have nots', it is Philip Dick's preoccupation with the nature of reality that transcends plot and creates a work of philosophical genius.
In 'Burnt Norton', T.S. Eliot declared that 'human kind cannot bear very much reality.' Maupassant wrote: 'how childish it is, anyway, to rely on reality when each of us carries his own in his mind and body.'
For Philip Dick, twin preoccupations of personal paranoia and an almost desperate spiritual quest for the Divine suffused all his work. Although 'A Scanner Darkly'
is more of a dark comedy than a rambling spiritual dissertation like 'Valis', the book nonetheless poses all of the same questions that reverberate through Dick's writing.
Dick once commented: 'If I knew what a hallucination was I would know what reality was' and gave his definition of reality as a shared vision when he said: 'If two people dream the same dream it ceases to be an illusion; the basic test that distinguishes reality from hallucination is the consensus gentium, that one other or several others see it too.'
The hallucinations and delusions of the characters in 'A Scanner Darkly' are interwoven through shared experience and their common addiction to 'Substance D'. Although ostensibly containing an anti-drug message, the true villains in the book are not the drugs but the government and corporate greed. Bob Arctor and S.A. Fred both may be living a lie to some extent but ultimately, both are shown to be innocent pawns in a ruthless government operation.
When a friend enters into the paranoid delusion of Jerry's 'aphid invasion', reality itself shifts. The aphids are invested with a temporary reality when the hallucination is shared. The friend later recounts: 'I was up two nights and two days counting bugs. Counting them and putting them in bottles. And finally when we crashed and got up and got ready the next morning to put the bottles in the car to take to the doctor to show him, there was nothing in the bottles. Empty.'
This is the epiphany that drives the original victim of the 'aphids' to seek 'rehabilitation' in a clinic that ultimately is unmasqued as the true villain in the book.
Paranoia and its effects on the nature of reality and questions of identity is a constant theme in Philip K. Dick's novels.
Most of the best scenes in the book are depicted faithfully in the film. Charles Freck, the friend who helped Jerry collect the illusory insects, drives in a drug-fueled state of paranoia while 'fantasy numbers' unroll in his head.
'A black-and-white evidently had noticed something in Charles Freck's driving he hadn't noticed; it had taken off from its parking spot and was moving along behind him in traffic, so far without lights or siren, but...
'Maybe I'm weaving or something, he thought...
'COP: 'All right, what's your name?'
'My name?' (CAN'T THINK OF NAME.)
'You don't know your own name?' Cop signals to other cop in prowl car. 'This guy is really spaced.'
'Don't shoot me here.' Charles Freck in his horror-fantasy number induced by the sight of the black-and-white pacing him. 'At least take me to the station house and shoot me there, out of sight.'
'To survive in this fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That's the first sign they look for that you're wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are...'
Identity is a fundamental issue in 'A Scanner Darkly' where an undercover agent in his law enforcement capacity is assigned the task of mounting surveillance on himself in his 'doper' persona.
In an ever-fluctuating state of perception, the writer, if not the characters themselves struggle to find some underlying spiritual touchstone.
Philip Dick himself attempted to believe in an ultimate spiritual truth that transcended ordinary realities. His spiritual quest surfaces somehow in each and every one of his stories and novels.
Luckman in 'A Scanner Darkly' poses the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin:
'He to whom it is given to see Christ more real than any other reality in the World, Christ everywhere present and everywhere growing more great, Christ the final determination and plasmatic Principle of the Universe, that man indeed lives in a zone where no multiplicity can distress him and which is nevertheless the most active workshop of universal fulfilment.'
For de Chardin, reality was defined by the intersection between two different systems. The first was an organic system of classification of ideas and forms, embracing both scientific thought and religious philosophy. The second considered reality in terms of its appearance in history, its position in time and space. The manifestation in the second system is given its reason and definition by the first.
Beyond this, however, de Chardin's philosophy dealt with the interconnection of form and energy. Absolute reality or Being emerges as truth in the discovery of the movement of the phenomena towards a maximum of unity or order. The multiple phenomena in time and space is held together physically by an organic interdependence of forces of convergence and attraction. For de Chardin, energy constitutes the internal structure of beings and is both tangential and radial. Tangential energy is spiritual and internal, an energy that moves towards arrangement and unification. Radial energy is mechanical and external, moving towards maximum disorder in the form of inertia, repetition and death. Reality therefore is manifested by the juxtaposition and constant flux of the forces of order and chaos. Multiplicity is a manifestation of the forces of disorder, and it multiplicity is a theme that occurs again and again in 'A Scanner Darkly'.
A certain wistfulness can be discerned in Philip Dick's spiritual quest. Tormented himself by 'multiplicity', paranoia and a certain degree of schizophrenia, a vision of that sort of ultimate spiritual trust and acceptance always remained slightly out of reach.
There always has been a kinship between madness and genius, between spiritual vision and hallucination. Great courage is required by any one seeking to embrace the truth through exploration of 'other realities'. Philip K. Dick was plagued by his unquenchable hunger for the truth and his knowledge of his own mental instability.
In 'A Scanner Darkly', he wrote: 'strange how paranoia can link up with reality, now and then'. In another work, he noted that 'there's a relationship between the telepathic faculty and paranoia'. He himself pushed his vision across the boundaries constantly, seeking some ultimate truth.
The irony, of course, is that singularity of vision is associated in Philip Dick's works with the 'sheep mentality' of the masses. It is in multiplicity that the novelist revels, in multiplicity that the seeker finds the faint threads of light that lead ultimately to a vision of the Divine. Those who do not engage the forces of creative disorder, whether drug-induced or otherwise conjured into being, never can embark upon the ultimate quest. One may wish for the peace of the incurious on occasion, but the author as well as his creations never acknowledge any real value in the lifes of those who fail to take that first step towards the descent into hell, to move through the forces of disorder towards the light.
Amazingly, the cinematic version of 'A Scanner Darkly' manages to be both profound and darkly hilarious, touching upon Philip Dick's philosophy and visions in his own words. Richard Linklater worked closely under the auspices of the author's daughters and was determined to do justice to the original work and its devoted fans.
Visually, it is an incredibly rich tour de force of animation, with the quality of a classical comic book, thus attaining an almost mythic character. The methods by which the artists transformed real acting into animation are fascinating. The amount of time, energy and talent that was poured into the project is staggering.
The process of the creation of this film from traditional 'live' acting into animation is symbolic in a way of the association between reality and perception. Animation by its very nature is 'unreal' and yet, this particular film was founded, scene by scene, on real acting. Its transformation from live action to animation in a sense places it in another sphere of being. In animated form, it attains the quality of myth. Human actors become characters outlined and coloured by the hand of an artist or many artists. The perception of the viewer is altered by the choice to convert human enactments in the form of theatre into visual art in the form of animation.
The book is a classic and the film soon will be recognised as one as well I think, in the same way that Peter Jackson's cinematic rendition of 'Lord of the Rings' now forever will be connected to Tolkien's work. I had expected a rather facile if clever film at best but Linklater's 'A Scanner Darkly' is a masterpiece. It is unlike anything else I have seen. Like Philip Dick's own work, it cannot be categorised easily. It is neither science fiction nor political commentary. It is a profound exploration of the nature of reality.