Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Cronenberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 2006. Animated science fiction/drama directed by Richard Linklater
Since the release of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner in 1982, Hollywood has repeatedly returned to the short stories and novels of Phillip K. Dick as a source, if not an inspiration for ideas. And for good reason. Dick was one of the world's most esteemed science fiction writers and his large body of work provides a wealth of original ideas from a unique and inspired imagination. Unfortunately, the majority of these films do not hold a candle to the original stories/novels that inspired them and in fact, some are downright awful. Most of the films inspired by his work seem only interested in the overall premise, and subsequently exploit it for a series of elaborate action sequences, rather than explore the human and social ramifications of the ideas presented. There have been exceptions - Minority Report and of course Bladerunner are very fine films in their own right, but even these films fail to capture the essence and voice of Dick's work (though Bladerunner came the closest). To be fair, they may not have cared to do so, which is filmmakers' right. Still, devotees of Dick's writing longed for a more faithful adaptation of one of his works. With Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, it finally arrived.
Based on the novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly tells the surrealistic story of Bob Arctor (aka Agent Fred) an undercover narcotics agent who must spy on his housemates and friends in order to gather information for the government's supposed war on drugs. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Arctor/Agent Fred has to not only hide his police identity from his fellow drug-users, but must conceal his undercover identity from his fellow police officers. In fact, officially, Arctor is simply another one of the targets of Agent Fred's investigation and ironically, over time, becomes the central focus of his own investigation. The dual nature of Arctor/Fred's professional and private life provide the perfect set-up to explore two of Dicks' most constant themes, those of identity and reality, and the shifting natures of both. More specifically, how reality is subjective and shaped by our own unique consciousness.
To complicate matters even further, Substance D, the (fictional) popular drug of choice, in addition to causing an assortment of cognitive impairments, hallucinations and delusions, has the unfortunate affect of causing a split between the two hemispheres of the brain. In time, Arctor/Fred begins to forget that he is both the investigator and the investigated. Eventually, he sees the two personas as completely separate individuals which gives rise to some of the more disturbingly funny scenes in the movie. When being Agent Fred, he spends countless hours reviewing videotape of Arctor, whom he has come to regard as a hapless victim. He makes mental notes that he (Arctor that is…yes, it gets confusing) must be warned. As Arctor, he becomes increasingly paranoid that he is being watched and begins to suspect his housemates when in fact many of his suspicions are the result of actions taken by Agent Fred. It is to director Richard Linklaters' credit that he has retained the bleak existential humor from the novel that is oddly (and sadly) missing from previous film adaptations of Dicks' work. Indeed many of the novel's scenes and dialogue are more or less faithfully rendered in the movie, including one tragicomic scene in which the drug-addled roommates debate how many gears there are on a purchased bicycle and another in which a character attempts an honorable overdose with horrible, yet equally hysterical consequences.
The performances in the film are all top-notch; notably Keanu Reeves (Arctor/Fred) and Robert Downey Jr. (Barris) are especially effective in their respective roles. Some readers may be wondering right now if the author of this piece has taken leave of his senses or is consumed by some reality-altering substance of his own. Great performances…what are you talking about? Isn't this an animated film? Indeed it is; however, the film employs the painstaking animation technique known as rotoscoping (the same technique was employed in Linklater's earlier film, Waking Life). In short, rotoscoping involves filming scenes first traditionally (live-action), then painting the completed work frame by frame. By utilizing this method, the actors input goes beyond the usual voice-over performances employed in traditional animated films. Subtlety of facial expressions, mannerisms and movement are all retained - even enhanced. The effect is one of a newly created world, of people and places that are somehow real yet unreal, familiar yet novel and strange. This, of course, makes the technique the perfect choice, given the film's thematic content of altered consciousness and duality.
While the film can and is categorized as science or speculative fiction, it can also be viewed as a period piece, a snapshot of the counter-culture that existed in the late 1960's. The original novel was semi-autobiographical in nature and based on Dicks' own life experiences within the hippie and drug communities. Both the novel and film employ the fashion and vernacular, as well as the general ambience of that period. More importantly, the themes of political persecution, fascistic law enforcement (characterized by unrestrained surveillance), disillusionment, paranoia, and drug-use that defined those times are presented with disturbing plausibility.
The movie ends on a devastatingly ironic, tragic note, and while I won't reveal any of the pleasures of the surprise plot twists, I will say that the film's conclusion stands as a cautionary harbinger for the potentially very real consequences of not only drug addiction, but a society that is intent on persecuting and exploiting those who are afflicted by it.