The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.2 (Spring 2007)
Art and Society
A Scanner Darkly. 100 minutes, 2006, directed by Richard Linklater, script by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. Keanu Reeves (Fred/Bob Arctor), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne), Rory Cochrane (Freck), Robert Downey, Jr. (Barris), Woody Harrelson (Luckman).
A Film Review by Mark Wegierski
It should be stated at the outset that this is a recently animated-over version of a live-action movie or television special that was almost certainly released several years ago. A number of scenes in the movie (especially the end-scene) seemed instantly familiar to the reviewer. That one of the central tropes of the movie is the U.S. Government’s “War on Drugs” would point to its earlier provenance. One could suppose that the attempt to portray the film as “new” is a sort of “Phildickian” joke on the audience, supported by the film’s publicity efforts, which many major media outlets and websites have been going along with.
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) is one of the most prolific and interesting American science-fiction writers, and a number of his novels and short stories have been turned into big-budget Hollywood movies, most prominently Blade Runner (based on his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, is one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made. Against the backdrop of an ecologically wasted, dark-future cityscape of almost perpetual black rain in Los Angeles, a down-on-his-luck policeman has to take one last assignment to eliminate an escaped group of “replicants”, who are very human-like biological constructs of superior physical powers and high intelligence, and whose built-in lifespan is four years. As he wanders through the hypermodern wasteland to carry out his grisly assignment, significant questions are raised about what constitutes the human and the natural in an environment where life can be artificially created and where nature has virtually disappeared from the Earth.
It is an interesting question why Philip K. Dick’s writings have struck such a chord with the audiences of the current-day period, and have been so eagerly adapted by Hollywood. Although PKD could certainly be seen as some kind of spiritual seeker, his religious views were extremely heterodox. (He was nominally an Episcopalian.) Hence he doesn’t have the current-day pop-cultural disadvantage of being seen as an orthodox Christian. Secondly, many of his writings could be seen as conducive to a kind of generalized paranoia about the nature of American society. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was usually seen as a critique emanating from the left or far left. Thirdly, because of his heavy involvement in illicit drug use (most prominently of LSD and amphetamines), he is seen as a “counter-cultural” figure of the 1960s.
While certain left-wingers in America have often accused right-wingers of “paranoia”, some people on the left also tend toward exaggerated views. For example, there is a definite undercurrent of left-wing opinion that Bush had prior knowledge of the 9-11 plot, and deliberately let it go ahead because it would confer such enormous political advantages to him.
In the 1950s to 1960s, deep suspicions about everyday American society probably served as a motor for revolutionary left fervor and “counter-cultural” activism. It should also be noted that PKD ’s elaborate sense of suspicion of “normal American society” never strayed into themes that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or racist, which would have made things far more difficult for the friendly reception of his writings into the popular culture.
PKD ’s view of reality could be seen as somewhat Gnostic. In his mind-bending fiction such as Ubik, PKD seemed to be saying that the actual physical world is utterly corrupt and is in fact prone to play out all kinds of “tricks” or “ensnarements” on the hapless individual. The inspiration for the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix movies is clearly “Phildickian”.
Christians considered orthodox have actually not been as alienated from the physical world and the body as is imagined by some of their current-day critics. It is little understood today that some of the early Gnostics were decidedly more “anti-material” than orthodox Christians. Ironically, the world that has been created in the wake of the Sixties’ revolutions in America itself seems rather dystopic to the authentic traditionalist or conservative. Traditional views which were considered just “commonsense” a few decades ago now often have the aura, for their adherents, of being based on some kind of “special insight” accessible to very few human beings—seemingly requiring a virtually superhuman, “Gnostic” perception. They certainly see no affirmation of them in “the mainstream media”, the academic world, the business world, or most workplaces. In some social contexts, the situation has reached surreal dimensions. In certain sectors of America today, one gains far greater social standing from being seen as an avowed homosexual than being seen as a critic of homosexuality. To suggest that having children out of wedlock should perhaps be seen as slightly socially disreputable is now itself considered a disreputable notion in some quarters. It could be argued that we are living in an environment characterized by the full-throated roar of the “transvaluation of all values”. Hence, especially for the more reflective traditionalist—who cannot simply disappear into the bliss of “unconscious” living—the degree of alienation from society and of suspicion of “the system” may itself be approaching “Phildickian” levels.
Some of the left today cleaves to the view of Bush as a virtual “fascist”—almost morally equivalent to Osama bin Laden—who is on the verge of creating an American “theocracy”. If America today is really living in a “new Dark Age”, it is clear that the real social contours and troubles of this incipient dystopia are indeed much different than some on the far left imagine.
A Scanner Darkly raises many important themes. For example, there is the issue of the extent to which a given individual may have to undergo extreme or considerable suffering in order to give the hope of creating a better society in the future. For a traditionalist critic of the system today, that could be an extremely poignant theme—especially since “the future” is conventionally said to belong to “progressives”: i.e., it will be—from the traditionalist standpoint—“more of the same—only worse.” The movie is certainly directed toward adult sensibilities, but its drug and sexual content is not overbearing.
The movie is said to be set “seven years from now”—when “America has lost the War on Drugs.” It cannot be doubted that illicit drug use is a terrible plague upon American society. However, the left rarely considers that it was something that was largely unleashed upon America in the aftermath of the Sixties’ ferment, typified, of course, by figures such as Timothy Leary. The rationalizations and justifications for illicit drug use have been rolling through American society for decades now. What is also not often considered by the left is that illicit drug use can as readily arise from too much affluence, rather than dire poverty. The reviewer thinks that the perception of a meaningless life (which can just as easily occur among very wealthy as less wealthy people) is one of the motors propelling illicit drug use. Ironically, American society today is so consumerist and consumptionist that living a life that was once perceived as reasonably adequate is now seen as unbearably stifling and boring. The explosion of “crystal meth” use in the American heartland is a very bad portent. Instead of finding some kind of meaning in their lives by something as simple as, for example, reading for pleasure, many young people in rural areas find their lives as irredeemably boring.
As far as the use of illicit drugs by some artists and writers, the vast majority of illicit drug users clearly have no special artistic or writing talents. Many artists and writers are existentially troubled, hence sometimes prone to illicit drug use (or, for that matter, to alcohol abuse). However, the central source of their talent is certainly not in the alcohol or illicit drugs.
There has certainly been criticism of the large pharmaceutical companies as also “pushing” the selling of mood-modifying drugs, such as Ritalin and Prozac. Nevertheless, there are without doubt major differences between drugs whose main purpose appears to be calming and such substances as are narcotic, hallucinogenic, or agitating. And the left’s rage against Big Tobacco sometimes appears excessive.
In the reviewer’s opinion, it’s rather questionable to implicate the American corporations in the rise of the illicit drug culture—which is one the main themes of A Scanner Darkly. The criticism can only be made insofar as the corporations contribute to a materially driven, alienated social environment of limitless demand for “instant gratification”. Ironically, it is the Hollywood entertainment conglomerates and the rock- and rap-music industries which have, to a considerable extent, glamorized illicit drug use. However, when typical left-wingers are criticizing American corporations and “Corporate America”, they’re not usually thinking of Hollywood, which is clearly so hospitable to them. If they think of Hollywood at all, they will usually accuse it of being too “whitebread”—of not being “edgy” enough!
It may be surmised that America’s drug problems will continue as long as society is pervaded by the anomic crisis of meaninglessness. The prospects of some kind of major social and cultural restoration, which would lessen the aching existential emptiness that breeds illicit drug use, appear rather dim today.