A Scanner Darkly

Richard Linklater lives in Austin, Texas. Winters there pass in soft afternoons and grey from the Gulf of Mexico. At Christmas, leaves are everywhere – in the trees and on the ground – and the season is a half-commitment to expectations. The impression one gets is of waiting and it is a nice space to occupy when coloured lights frame the city’s homes.

Time is Richard Linklater’s great interest. While high-school kids lament their static existences at the last party before summer (in Dazed and Confused, 1993), Linklater’s camera quietly keeps tabs on the ageing night, until it is morning and another school year over. Slacker (1991) begins at dawn, with Linklater himself dreaming on a bus. Its wandering conversations ease eventually into evening, then night and dawn again, where the movie ends.

Waking Life (2001) concludes as Wiley Wiggins wakes from a lucid dream and tries the front door at a house in a quiet neighbourhood. On the lawn lie scattered leaves. A crape myrtle is bare and in the distance a Spanish oak gloats in full bloom. Wiggins wears a short-sleeve shirt; anywhere else it might be September, but here it is Travis County, Texas, and early winter, and as Wiggins begins to float, and then ominously ascends, one’s last thoughts are for such details as seasons, or place, and that is how Linklater begins to be great.

A Scanner Darkly (2006) is a disappointment as a film about drug addiction and paranoia – as an adaptation, even, of Philip K. Dick’s novel. The addiction is superficial – suburban breadwinner, loneliness, boredom – and the paranoia too recognizable today to be instructive. But “love at first sight” is a measure of time and time moderates Darkly’s remarkable, unheralded love story, buried in a brief and unfulfilled relationship, played out in loss and sadness.

In fact, the romance ends in such a crashing admission of deceit that only afterwards, on a second viewing, is the scope of both commitment and betrayal made clear. Bob Arctor (alternately known as Fred and Bruce, played by Keanu Reeves) is an undercover officer manipulated towards addiction and the unconscious infiltration of a well-kept government secret. Donna (alternately Hank, Bob’s superior at the force, and Audrey, herself an agent, played by Winona Ryder) is the woman Bob loves. Bob fronts the dupe, the sucker, the sap. Because they are Bob and Donna in the moments of tenderness they share, and not Fred and Hank, or Bruce and Audrey, Bob and Donna are the names I use. Donna is the architect of Bob’s every confusion, his every mistake and each particular of his long decline.

But for a few brief instants, the last security of an addict increasingly lost from the world and his own identity is in her company. He loves her. So the film is less a preoccupation with “dropout culture”, as Andrea Gronvall observed in the Chicago Reader (1), than the most critical, physical manifestation of a conscious “instant” in Linklater’s work: how we loved at our last, worst moment.

“I had one of those personalities where, for better or worse, whatever was going on around me always seemed bigger”, Linklater told Brian Raftery in an interview for the online journal Salon. “It was a metaphor for something else.” (2) Instead of reading out from the love story towards addiction, I read back, so that time and memories – the addict’s slights – reconstruct the unexpected lift in Donna asking Bob to take her to a concert at Anaheim Stadium.

Bob says, “Yes”, surprised. He has a hard time getting through to her. “What the hell is Donna’s deal?”, Bob asks two doctors in an earlier scene, testing the waters of his nascent abuse. “How do you make it with that kind of sweet, unique, stubborn little chick?”

A Scanner Darkly

“You could buy her flowers”, one says. Donna is the woman with the porch full of Christmas lights. She wears soft blouses, carries muddled smiles. Her room is red in an opiate way, her brown hair loose and easy. Physically, A Scanner Darkly is a beautiful film, painted in dark gradations of tint and hue that mirror Bob’s recitation of Philip K. Dick’s most eloquent passages.

“Now in the dark world where I dwell,” Bob says, “ugly things and surprising things and sometimes little wondrous things spill out at me constantly, and I can count on nothing.”

In Waking Life, Speed Levitch stands on the Brooklyn Bridge at night and grins. “Remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting”, he says – but only so far as remembering is possible and only to a degree that self-awareness prompts progress or change. A Scanner Darkly, increasingly, dissolves memory; the moment – “now” – is paramount.

What more certain hallmark of a Richard Linklater film is there than that? In Dazed and Confused, Linklater “wanted to tell a story about what I remembered of being a teen, which was driving around and looking for something to do” (3). In other words, passing the time – the proactive inaction of Slacker.

The Newton Boys (1998), a criminal adventure for four Depression-era Texas brothers,

is five years in the life of Willis Newton [Matthew McConaughey]. It begins with him coming out of prison, and it ends with him going back, but in the little interim, he really caught a groove. And found the love of his life. (4)

That idea of motion again: a groove, a pace, speed. Much of the film takes place in a gaol or a courtroom, after a series of high-profile bank robberies. The guilty brothers are caught, one by one; incarcerated and abused, none will talk about the others. They buy time to help kin.

Even SubUrbia (1996), which Linklater did not write, contains some suggestion that time is a second-by-second guarantee. A memory changes or goes flat. “Each moment can be just what it is”, says Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi). “Complicated or not, life moves on.” Like Tape (2001), SubUrbia was first a play, an experiment in a passing performance.

Of course, both Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) transpire within carefully established narrative frameworks. Each is a collection of hours in the lives of two people, filmed ten years apart. At the outset of the second film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) fields a question about his new book. “It’s obvious to him that time is a lie”, he says of his protagonist. “It’s all happening all the time.”

Finally, all of Waking Life is dreams, slipping towards night and an unsure resolution – a philosophic wander around time’s passive sway. Time takes shape as infinite possibility, marked by consistent physical changes. In the last scene, one imagines perhaps that the technical experiment behind the entire film – the slight swaying of porches, streetlamps and faces – suspends disbelief just enough to free Wiley Wiggins and let him float away, up into the blue and unbound sky.

Richard Linklater and Wiley Wiggins in Waking Life

Richard Linklater has a cameo in Waking Life. He plays pinball and talks to Wiggins about Philip K. Dick. Time was an illusion, Dick suggested, created by a demiurge to “make us forget that Christ was about to return and that the kingdom of God was about to arrive […] That’s what all of history is, this kind of continuous, you know, daydream or distraction.” But Linklater modifies the terms of the demon’s feint, and says there is

only one instant, and it’s right now. And it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question. And that question is, basically, ‘Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘No thank you. Not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying no to God’s invitation […] There’s just this one instant, and that’s what we’re always in.

That’s A Scanner Darkly, kin to Jorge Luis Borges and Jean-Luc Godard. “It was fun to be in the realm of science fiction”, Linklater told Gavin Smith in an interview for Film Comment in the summer of 2006, “but my jumping-off point was more Alphaville[: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, Godard, 1965] than anything else. People always think science fiction is about the future, but I always thought, ‘No, we’re going to play it just like it is right now.’” (5) With the exception of scramble suits and holo-scanners (objects the day-to-day characters of A Scanner Darkly never see), the Orange County of Dick’s near-future is the California of today.

“No one has lived in the past and no one will live in the future”, the narrator of Alphaville confirms. “The present is the form of all life.”

“Have I slept long?”, asks Natacha Von Braum (Anna Karina).

“No”, replies Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). “The space of an instant.” It isn’t just the nearness of Alphaville that Linklater replicates, but the romance, too. Natacha remembers snow in New York. Her “pretty sphinx voice” has cadence, like Bob’s description of dark-eyed Donna.

“Whatever it is that’s watching”, Bob says in voice-over,

it’s not human. Unlike little dark-eyed Donna, it doesn’t ever blink […] What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself.

The scanner doesn’t blink. Donna does. What better physical manifestation of an instant than that? The bat of an eye?

This is not the heart-worn dedication to Dick’s own circle of friends and abusers that brings up the lights at the movie’s end. Donna and Bob. Audrey and Fred. Because Bob Arctor is the hero, because he is betrayed, he has our sympathy. The turn in the film is Donna’s rejection one night at her apartment. Until then, she has appeared only in the context of a drug deal, in the company of Bob’s housemates – never alone. Alone with Donna, Bob asks to put his arms around her and she rejects him, pleading the obscurity of her own self-awareness, devastated by too much coke, afraid to get close for the abuse it might, in retrospect, entail.

In retrospect, her entire personality is in jeopardy. At first, her paranoia seems confusing because it also so convincing. When Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) falls into her on accident, she screams. “Get off me!”, Donna shouts. She’s groggy when Bob surprises her at home, dopey when she talks about cats in her apartment. But we never see Donna using drugs; she never does. That night in her room, Bob snaps – his frustration is clear, his anger immediate.

“That’s fucking lame”, he tells her. “I gotta go.” He storms out; she follows him. He warns her about himself.

A Scanner Darkly

“I think it’s starting to get bad”, he says, never knowing she’s the reason. Bob warns her. He sees her as his salvation – his way out.

“You know what I want to do some day, Bob?”, she asks him. “I want to move north, live on a farm near the mountains. A cabin.”

“Can I go with you?”, Bob asks.

“I hope so. I hope so.” Donna knows, of course, what she is doing to him; if it is to her credit that she cannot lie completely in that instant – that she feels compelled to console him – hers is the barest commendation. As Hank, she condemns Bob for his inevitable addiction and plants the confusion of split identities. As Donna, she installs surveillance, gets Bob high, sells him Substance D. As Audrey, at a restaurant with her undercover contact inside New Path, she wonders aloud if she should get out – quit the scene, leave what she’s undone behind her.

“No”, the agent says. “A brief mention with no list of the fallen”, he tells her optimistically. Future generations “will never truly know this awful time that we have gone through”, because he and Audrey and Bob will have saved them from it. But Donna is right when she says “sacrifice”. Love is the altar where Bob’s fantasies die.

Early in Waking Life, Wiggins makes eye contact with a girl at a train station as he’s leaving a message with a friend. Later, he is stopped at an entrance to the subway. Does he recognize the woman from their encounter at the station? “I don’t remember that being you”, he says, although he remembers the event – the phone, the floors, looking at a pretty girl.

Elsewhere, Celine (Julie Delpy) lies in bed, speaking to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) about instincts. A memory species like man, she says, has a billion years of memory to draw on. Perhaps “reincarnation is just a poetic expression of what collective memory really is”. These are all ideas of responsibility: saying no to God, or yes to a stranger’s claim of some connection.

“It’s always our decision who we are”, says the Philosophy Professor (Robert C. Solomon), defending existentialism to a class. Time becomes our chance for action, though action is no guard against regret or failure. Twice a person in authority tells Bob Arctor about blue flowers in the spring. First the psychologist, then Donna, both in the context of romance, both specific to size and time of year. Spring, romance, action. Love buries him.

Against such a task, it is no wonder – as Kent Jones points out in an essay here – that so many of Linklater’s films begin with the protagonist’s head against the window of a moving car or train. Linklater sleeps on a bus in Slacker and in the taxi away from the station thinks he might have met a girl had he only stuck around. Along some other plane of existence, he says, perhaps he did and that is a kind of lonely comfort.

In the end, too, something might be said for Richard Linklater’s innocence. It is no coincidence to me that in a movie built on visual invention – as Waking Life is – the most beautiful image is a pinball machine mid-game. Or that pinball is played in Linklater’s films all the time, but not in A Scanner Darkly.

The movies have an easy time with love at first sight; hooked once, and you keep falling. It explains, in its way, why Celine – Linklater’s great heroine – is herself a pretty French woman, and why she ends up on the set of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) in Before Sunrise, kissing an American boy in the Harry Limes (Orson Welles) cabin of a Ferris wheel. In The Third Man, we sympathize with Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) as Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) walks right past him. When Linklater films a horse-drawn carriage or the bright sparks off a streetcar’s circuit cables in Vienna, he reminds us of that.

The cost of watching a movie, of course, is lost time, and so, like François Truffaut, Linklater seems gracious in his interviews. If A Scanner Darkly doesn’t work, it fails on execution, not intentions. “People think drama drives story, but I thought comedy was really the heart and soul.” (6) But Dick’s sense of humour in the mouths of “personalities” becomes shtick: Robert Downey Jr. as himself, Woody Harrelson as Woody Harrelson. They’re dated the moment they’re on screen. (7)

Still, Dick’s laugh is half bite. When Bob, in a moment of panic, criticizes the psychologists’ intentions, they giggle. “You know, Fred,” one says, “if you keep your sense of humor like you do, you just might make it after all.”

“Make it”, says Bob, channelling his best Keanu Reeves. “Make what? The team? The girl? Make good? Make due? Make out? Make sense? Make money? Make time?”

A Scanner Darkly

But time is the endless circle. After Donna’s rejection, Bob brings home a girl named Connie (Lisa Marie Newmyer). He wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks he sees Donna sleeping beside him. He’s wrong. The next day he reviews Fred’s surveillance tapes and the moment repeats itself. Connie becomes Donna, Donna becomes Connie. Is it the drugs? Connie returns and Bob turns back the dial. Donna again.

In that sad scene, he brings Donna back: watches the image, watches her sleep. At the end of the movie, of course, he can’t. He’s lost her, with no indication she was ever in his life; to his guard, he can only say how much he wants to see his friends from rehab at Thanksgiving. The people at New Path do not include Donna and, on his night with Connie, it is nice to see a photograph of Bob and Donna over Bob’s bed.

So Alphaville returns, the climbing and descending arcs of future and past. “Look at her and me, there’s your answer”, Lemmy Caution tells his villain. “We’re happiness, and we’re heading towards it.” Early in A Scanner Darkly, James Barris (Downey Jr.) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) plot to conjure cocaine from household junk. In the security-camera equivalent of a whip-pan, the two addicts speed to a convenience store, jump through the aisles, to the register, out the door. Blink of an eye.

For the director who so often slows things down, the rush feels dismissive, uncertain. But the effect isn’t drugs. It’s stagnation. The cocaine Barris tries to manufacture is a gift for Freck, to in turn get Substance D from Donna and maybe try a complacent seduction. Linklater doesn’t have the patience; next to the heartbreak – Bob and Donna – it’s just a waste of time.


  1. Andrea Gronvall, “A Slacker Darkly”, The Chicago Reader, 7 July 2006.
  2. Brian Raftery, “Slacker: 15 Years Later”, Salon.com, 5 July 2006.
  3. John Spong, “The Spirit of ’76”, Texas Monthly, October 2003, p. 162.
  4. Patrick Beach, “Adult Movie Maker”, Esquire, April 1998, p. 23.
  5. Gavin Smith, “Lost In America”, Film Comment, Vol. 42, No. 4, July-August 2006, p. 29.
  6. Noel Murray, “Richard Linklater”, The Onion A.V. Club, 14 June 2006.
  7. In Linklater’s defence, on timeliness (or timelessness), from Noel Murray’s Onion interview: “I’d be fine to make movies and have them never come out.”

About The Author

Nathan Kosub is a contributing writer for Stop Smiling magazine. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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