[Marxism] David Walsh Doesn't Get "A Scanner Darkly"

David Altman altman_d at hotmail.com
Tue Jul 18 16:23:31 MDT 2006

I often enjoy David Walsh's film reviews on the World Socialist Web Site, 
and heaven knows we need moreleftist arts critics, but for every time Walsh 
hits the mark, he writes another review that's simply clueless, a good 
example being the following.

For what it's worth, I just LOVED "A Scanner Darkly." It doesn't have 
pretensions of being a deep political staement;  it's just the best, and 
truest, adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story yet. I had my doubts about 
Richard Linklater's animation technique at first, but it's well-suited to 
the mood of the book. The sequences revolving around the paranoia and 
pontless chit-chat of the burned-out stoner characters are bitterly funny 
(Dick was writing from personal experience here.) Unfortunately, some stuff 
from the book had to be left out, including Dick's dead-on depiction of 
certain soul-destoying drug-rehabilitation techniques (the drug-rehab outfit 
New Path in the book and movie is modeled on Synanon, a sinister cultish 
organization that was big in the seventies and is still around).

Walsh also reviews "Strangers With Candy," which I haven't seen yet.  All I 
can say is that it's half as funny as the TV show, which aired for three 
years on Comedy Central, it's well worth your $10 or whatever you spend down 
at the local multiplex.

David Altman


WSWS : Arts Review : Film Reviews Glancing blows: A Scanner Darkly and 
Strangers with Candy By David Walsh
18 July 2006

A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by 
Philip K. Dick;
Strangers With Candy, directed by Paul Dinello, written by Dinello, Amy 
Sedaris and Stephen Colbert

In director Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, based on the 1977 science 
fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, a powerful drug—Substance D (as in 
Death)—has taken hold in the US “seven years from now.” Twenty percent of 
the population is addicted. The authorities are using the drug epidemic as 
an excuse to step up surveillance and control of the population. A giant 
corporation, New Path, seems to be manipulating the situation for profit.

Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves) lives in a household of drug users, including 
James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). 
Another cohort is Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), whose addiction has led to 
psychosis; Arctor’s dealer and “girl-friend,” Donna Hawthorne (Winona 
Ryder), has reached the point in her unraveling where she doesn’t like to be 

Arctor has another, competing identity, as an undercover policeman, “Officer 
Fred,” dressed in a “scramble suit” that conceals his identity, who gets 
assigned to spy on his own household in hope of finding the source of the 


The film has two central preoccupations, recreating the atmosphere of a 
certain type of drug-dominated community (Philip Dick, according to one 
commentator, lived “semi-communally with a rotating group of mostly teenaged 
drug users at his home in Marin County” in the early 1970s, during which 
time he became entirely dependent on amphetamines) and commenting on the 
growth of police powers and abilities to monitor people’s lives and 

In regard to the first concern, Linklater told an interviewer for Filmmaker 
magazine, “When I read Scanner, I intuitively felt that it was probably his 
[Dick’s] most personal work. It felt like he had lived this world, [the 
characters] felt like every roommate he had and half the roommates I had at 
a certain time in my life. It felt very familiar, the way you just sort of 
‘end up’ around people. You can see how that house became a kind of crash 
pad. One group moved out—his family—and another group, these ne’er-do-wells, 
move in. It’s fun for a while, but then it spins out of control.”

The question is, 20 or 30 years after the fact, why should this circumstance 
be of any great interest to anyone? The drug “counterculture,” despite its 
pretensions, never produced anything of insight or lasting value. It merely 
generated its own specific set of delusions and diversions. It was 
disturbing, and tedious, to observe in the 1970s and remains so some decades 
later. Why does Linklater insist on returning to this worn-out subject? 
Presumably, in some fashion, he remains a bit nostalgic for that earlier 
epoch. Even if the “scene” is treated in a critical, even unflattering 
fashion here, it remains a central theme.

As I noted several years ago about Linklater’s Waking Life, “These people 
simply do not impress in any shape or fashion. It all feels like something 
that might have been fresh and even daring in the latter days of the Reagan 
administration.” A good deal of water has flowed over the dam since then.

As for the filmmaker’s treatment of a vaguely authoritarian regime in power 
“in the near future,” he makes clear in interviews that this refers to the 
present situation in the US under Bush and company. Linklater told the same 
interviewer: “Dick wrote this paranoid future, and my premise with the movie 
was that we are living in science fiction now. This is the paranoid 
future.... There’s always a time to be a little paranoid about your 
government, but I think that’s hit another peak today. If you put a peak in 
a chart during the Nixon era, I think we’re at another little peak in the 
graph, a spike up, today in the Bush administration. What he was writing 
about, which we would term paranoia, well, you just wait a generation and 
paranoia becomes reality quite often.”

The hostility toward the Bush administration and its police-state ambitions 
is legitimate and no doubt deeply felt, but it is not particularly well 
developed in A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s concern with drugs, personality and 
paranoia feels dated; how does its inclusion help clarify our present 
reality? The drug question merely confuses the issue. Frankly, the 
activities of Arctor’s circle, their general disorientation and often 
downright nastiness, blunt the criticism of police spying. The film hardly 
rises to the level of a serious warning about the dangers of a police-state.


Animation, in my view, should be preserved for the genuinely outlandish and 
fantastic. Here it simply distracts and detracts. I would much prefer to see 
not the wavy outlines of the actors’ faces, but the faces themselves.

Linklater is a sincere and humane individual, but he continues to tread 
water, and not the most fascinating or freshest water at that. He needs to 
recognize: the radicalism and counterculture of the 1970s exhausted itself a 
good many years ago. It cannot be revived. Something different is needed 
today, something far more deep-going and complicated. In the first place, if 
the filmmaker turned his attention to a serious study of history and 
politics, in my opinion, it would help his art.


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