Drawn Together: A Scanner Darkly, The War Tapes
By Fernando F. Croce

First, a clarification: A Scanner Darkly, all evidence to the contrary, is neither futuristic (set "seven years from now") nor counterculture-retro. No, Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 mindfuck novel paints (or rotoscopes, rather) the here-and-now of Gen-X fizz, a lament for imploded generational potential dressed in the shifting skin of sci-fi paranoia. The first character seen is a jittery burnout scratching imaginary crawlies, jumping in the shower and rushing out to score more drugs, horrified of getting pulled over and blithely blown away by the police -- the "culture of addiction" has its newest substance ("D"), the government sees and records everything, but the hophead is Rory Cochrane, the hangover of pothead Ron Slater, from Dazed and Confused, plunked amid the dystopia of Minority Report. The first of various hallucinatory jags drawing on the shape-shifting style developed in Waking Life to take advantage of the genre's own disorientation of reality; thought-balloons pop up while insectoid torsos sprout human heads, but where in the earlier movie the woozy cartoon surfaces posited a drifting consciousness swelling through the vigor of thought, here the characters are reined in both by their heavy outlines and by the authorities overlooking their lives and activities, to say nothing of their own existential ennui. Just as Before Sunset wondered if the idealism of Before Sunrise could have survived the passage of time, A Scanner Darkly ponders the inherent doom of Slacker transgressors.

The plot solidifies around the computerized splotchy colors: Brains get quickly fried under the influence of Substance D, suspicion and betrayal proliferate, government agents infiltrate the deadbeat community of Orange County. Keanu Reeves is one of the narcs, previously a comfortably middle-class family man whose disenchantment with his existence has led him to drop out; now, performing as both the scruffy addict and the agent spying on himself, he has become a non-entity, the absurdist situation illustrated by the literally identity-morphing "scramble suit" inside which he regularly finds himself. "Keep on keeping on" hangs on a wall of the stoners' flat; the other shaggy dwellers include Robert Downey, Jr. turning motor-mouthed cartwheels in the grand hipster tradition, Woody Harrelson seeing the madness and asking not to blame the drugs, and Winona Ryder shrugging off physical contact as a cokehead "D" dealer, later emerging as a changing image in Reeves' bed, and in his mind. Like Waking Life, a film of ideas: druggy skits (the number of gears in a stolen bicycle, gunshots amplified by a homemade silencer) follow into the abyss of despair, a protester shocked and thrown into the back of a police car while the hero, cerebrally short-circuited, becomes lost less in the Dickian labyrinth than in the maze of his generation's own failed potential for change. "We're all dreaming," Reeves says to Ryder at one point; Linklater's movie, arguably his darkest yet, creates a tangible nightmare of the Now. One of art's goals is to wake people up.

*

Vivid, messy, and unsatisfying, The War Tapes is meant as another type of wake-up service. Edited down from a hill of handheld footage, Deborah Scranton's documentary literally seeks a grunt's eye view of the U.S. forces in Iraq, with the DV cameras given to the soldiers to be propped on guns or helmets for maximum present-tense immediacy. Members of the New Hampshire National Guard are equipped with video diaries, and Scranton focuses on three soldiers off to a 16-month stay overseas at Camp Anaconda in the Sunni Triangle -- Michael Moriarty, a family man in his mid-30s, volunteers as a reaction to 9/11; Steve Pink, a 24-year-old aspiring writer, looks for college tuition and the "test" of the self; Lebanese-born Zack Bazzi, also 24, has already been stationed in Kosovo and Bosnia, loves the military and speaks Arabic. Sudden insurgent gunfire and explosions are common around the base, though the place also sports a Burger King and a video store; responsibilities are centered on escorting the convoys through narrow roads, bellowing at locals to make way for trucks full of cheese. The goodies within belong to Kellogg, Brown & (of course) Root/Halliburton, but the men are too busy dodging bullets and hoping to come home to give the link more than a tag of confused irritation ("the war for cheese"); glimpses of combat are caught in green night-vision, the families back in the U.S. worry and support the boys in Eye-Rack.

Like last year's Gunner Palace, The War Tapes aims to give voice to human beings caught in an impossible situation, a digital journal on the daily danger of the area and the taxing nebulousness of the mission. The charred remains of a car-bomb, a mandatory scorpion-spider duel, "Size does matter" painted on the barrel of a tank -- the feeling of "raw truth" inherent in grainy images is a persistent fallacy, for, despite its amorphous tone, the film is seen through as many reality-bending layers as A Scanner Darkly. The editing table is where documentary filmmakers reveal themselves, and Scranton structures the tidily apolitical arc: Moriarty voices bellicose patriotism ("Support or shut up"), Bazzi is a bit more inquisitive ("Love your country, be suspicious of your government"), while Pink is the cynical wedge between the two, wise to the role of oil and still boasting of faith in the conflict. What The War Tapes reveals most is the guardsmen's gung-ho isolation, utterly disdainful for the most part of the culture they are "freeing" (armed and sporting shades, Moriarty watches Iraqi kids playing in a backyard and wonders when they're going to "turn bad"), unable to relate to locals until they're dead -- whether gleefully filming the bodies of insurgents or weeping over the corpse of a mangled pedestrian. Intentionally or not, the movie locates a strain of ignorance to go along with the bravery, the feeling of a lack of awareness that, like carpal tunnel and nightmares, follows the men home and no amount of confetti and "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary" can dispel.

*

Back to slackers. After Old School, Starsky & Hutch, Wedding Crashers and the Wes Anderson thingies, the Wilson jig should have been up, but noooo -- the brothers are still going strong, further soiling the name of Gen-Xers everywhere with each new comic turd hitting the screen. Both have new pictures out this week, Owen (the one with the 1978 surfer shag and the pulped nose) in You, Me and Dupree, and Luke (the one with the brown stubble and the blank forehead) in My Super Ex-Girlfriend -- toxic sludge, both, although You, Me and Dupree at least serves to illustrate their role within the wider blackhole that's current American comedy. Wilson is Dupree, natch, loopy layabout and Zen smartass, couch-crashing at pal Matt Dillon's home; the rest is Wilson walking in on snuggling Dillon and Kate Hudson to take a dump in their bathroom, Wilson being too cool for the jobs he interviews for, Wilson showing that wacky hair is no substitute for personality, and so on. Not a single laugh here, only chilling evidence of the stunted narcissism that has spread over the Wilson-Vaughn-Stiller-Ferrell school of comic actors like a fungus (it's appropriate that Anthony and Joe Russo, the directing tag-team, cut their teeth on TV's Arrested Development). With these guys lauded for their "edginess," spurious frat-boy romps like this fry more brain cells than any futuristic illegal substance. Just say no.


Reviewed July 20, 2006.

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