Mythical stories of psychonautical schizoid breaks from reality aside, Philip K. Dick’s drug of choice was amphetamine. Considering his blistering pace, this shouldn’t be too surprising, given he produced novel after novel in addition to his prolific short story writing. Dude wrote a lot and, by his own admission, mostly in days-long binges followed by the inevitable crash. In interviews Dick related that, at the “height” of his amphetamine addiction, he was producing 68 pages of finalized copy in a day. To use some specialized writerly jargon, that’s fucking bonkers.
I bring it up because some people want to cast PKD as an acid-steeped poète maudit, a biochemical shaman whose explorations were fueled by illicit pharmacology. Don’t get me wrong, Dick was definitely into drugs and definitely into introspective self-psychologizing, but he didn’t actually take acid until the late 70s, and his trippiest books were written before then. In grappling with his imagery and themes, a lot of people end up grabbing onto his interest in artificially-produced altered states of consciousness, thinking they’ve plumbed the depths of Dick’s work and found the source of his “paranoia.” Similarly, a lot of folks overemphasize the druggy parts of A Scanner Darkly, a mistake exemplified by Linklater’s 2006 film of the same name. If all you focus on is the drugs, you miss out on Dick’s larger concerns about capitalism.
The chemistry at the center of both PKD’s book and Linklater’s adaptation is “Substance D,” a highly-addictive psychoactive drug refined from a plant that eventually produces persistent neurocognitive defects in users. In the book, Substance D is derived from a poppy-like flower with the ham-fisted (and dubiously conjugated) Linnaean binomen Mors ontologica: ontological death, a double death of both body and the experiences, memories, and relationships that make up our existence. Nobody could ever accuse PKD of being too subtle in his allusions.
Linklater decides to change the name of the flower to Clerodendron ugandens, a fictional species of a real (and poisonous) genus of flowering plant native to Africa. That name, by the way, is ALSO incorrectly conjugated, and would not have gotten past the International Committee on Botanical Nomenclature. Movie-makers: throw a bone to the poor, harried academics out there, and call up your local university’s taxonomic biologist and give ’em a “consulting scientist” credit. They eat that shit up.
The differences in the flower names is indicative of the changes that Linklater hath wrought on PKD’s work. Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is much more concerned with the War on Drugs and the corruption inherent in the Patriot Act-abetted surveillance state that America became in the mid-2000s. To him, “Substance D” is a plot-driving MacGuffin whose importance is as the purely chemical hub of a conspiratorial wheel. But for PKD, Mors ontologica represents a commodity in the truest sense of the word, an economic entity embedded in a poisonous commercial landscape where individual identities struggle against the homogenizing effects of consumerism.
The plot revolves around poor Bob Arctor, a drug cop living undercover in a drug house. In his professional life, he’s Agent Fred, anonymized behind a scramble suit that hides his features and identity to both his drug-using roommates as well as his police superiors. This leads to Arctor being tasked with investigating himself, which is actually justified since he’s become addicted to Substance D in the course of his work. Arctor’s slow unraveling, and the parellel unraveling of his social circle, make up the bulk of the story.
In the California of PKD’s book, gated malls allow access only to those whose credit checks out; folks without the means are forced to do business in the separate and unequal strip. Economic attenuation pervades society at all levels, including basic functions of infrastructure, services, and policing, a strict stratification related directly to one’s buying power. Reinforcing the economic symbolism is scene after scene that takes place in convenience stores, parking lots, and depressed urban corridors, coloring everything with a constant, oppressive atmosphere of economic inequality and consumerist dependency.
The twist — that the New Path rehabilitation clinic that a burnt-out Arctor has been exiled to is in fact secretly growing the blue flowers and producing Substance D — is a pretty fundamental critique of consumerism, producing garbage, manufacturing need, and profiting on dependency. Rather than celebrating drug culture or railing against suppression efforts, Dick is writing about the systematic predation on society’s “losers” – marginalized people punished as scapegoats for the sins of consumerism and rampant capitalism. The paranoia inherent in Dick’s work, and in this book particularly, comes from observing how market economies inherently collude in the destruction of the individual, requiring no coordination or guidance. People getting crushed in the gears of industry isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
Linklater, who hopefully has some sort of capture-and-recycling system for the many gallons of bong water he must produce, gets mired in the shallow end of PKD’s pool. His film is largely faithful to the letter of Dick’s work, but doesn’t really capture the spirit of it. He’s just too preoccupied by stoners to really want to dig into the complexities of the work, relying too much on the visual weirdness of rotoscoping to get across the oddity in Dick’s writing. In fact, I’m struck by how concrete everything is in the book, both plotting and description. Dick doesn’t try to take you on a magical mystery tour – he’s on a fact finding mission, and wants everything sharp and clear and unambiguous.
Linklater’s movie also suffers from the casting. Keanu is basically a cartoon in real life, and cartooning him up doesn’t help much. Robert Downey the Younger is, unsurprisingly, pretty good at playing a drugged-out asshole. The bright spot is Winona Rider who ably captures the role of Donna, one of a meager handful of women in Dick’s work that actually has some depth and character.
Of course, the REAL reason to watch Linklater’s movie is for the rotoscoped Alex Jones cameo. Jones, a goofball conspiracy theorist and fellow Austinite, is your standard gold-hording and gun-loving Libertarian radio personality. I guess Linklater finds him funny, probably listening to his show and reading his Infowars website while vaping dank nugs, or whatever it is you kids are into these days. The scene is great, because he gets tased the fuck out, so that’s fun. If I try hard enough, I can ALMOST pretend that it is revenge for the gross “male virility” supplement that he’s shilling for, which has infected my online ads now that I’ve googled “Alex Jones Tasered.”