All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)

Despite surface appearances (particularly the distinctive animation style of Bob Sabiston), Scanner has very little in common with Waking Life, the last Linklater / Sabiston collaboration. I'm of the opinion that this is very good news; I found Waking Life's smug commitment to adolescent, what-if-what-I-call-green-is-what-you-see-as-blue philosophizing insufferable. And though I admired aspects of Sabiston's approach, he was just a little too in-sync with Linklater's text, frequently departing from surface realism in silly ways in order to underscore the discombobulated, groove-tube consciousness of Wiley Wiggins' dreamer character. In short, it was like trying to light a cashed-out bowl. (In fact, the sour taste Waking Life left in my mouth was tenacious enough to prejudice me against Sabiston's work with Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions. To me, it really was just a "crap cartoon.") Thankfully, with A Scanner Darkly the pair have gotten it right. Instead of free associating his way into the ether, Linklater adheres to Philip K. Dick's basic narrative structure, one which thrives on methodical reversals and cleavages. Positioned seven years in the future, the world of Scanner finds the exponential expansion of drug addiction, government surveillance, and a privatized penal system, a set of pernicious linkages structured less like a Foucaultian disciplinary state and more like a Deleuzian rhizome of late capitalist cronyism. This is Empire: one tentacle washes the other, and naturally sticks.


There are two major reasons why Scanner's formal logic compels throughout. One is that, unlike Waking Life's bulges, fizzles, and insistent squash-and-stretch, Scanner plays it straight. A relatively normal sci-fi film, with standard shot coverage and editing patterns, is washed over with a layer of painterly interference. Not only does this allow Sabiston's imagery to perform purely formal disruptions. (Unremarkable edits often end up unleashing the jarring power of Eisensteinian collisions, simply because we're watching two highly mediated paint-images back to back. This is especially true in the scenes around Bob Arctor's house.) It also coats Scanner's world in a lacquer of phenomenological uncertainty. In part, Linklater and Sabiston have reinfused the photographic image with the indistinct, selective character of natural perception, since background information tends to resolve into outlines and gestures. This, pace the Bazinian worldview, is how we actually see. (There's a Wheaties box on the table, and since you know what it is at a glance, you don't exactly see it.) But in addition to this general quality of mediated perception, Scanner is also providing a glimpse at a totally-administered sensual world, wherein even the drug-haze and its eventual termite-damage to the human hard drive is a long-range designer effect. (Late capitalist America and whatever real corporation occupies the position that New-Path holds in the film will, of course, sell you the gun, the bullet, a copy of Final Exit, and, if you miss, will patch you up at the hospital, for a price.) With a theoretical acuity that recalls the best work of Atom Egoyan, Scanner depicts a world ensnared in a global representational system. And, unlike the floppy ideas made popular in The Matrix (a film Linklater clearly means to cross-reference by casting Keanu Reeves), Scanner identifies the reason for this negative convergence of cognition. It's drugs.


And this is the film's second significant achievement. Linklater doesn't buy into the third-act revelations and script-doctor charlatanry so popular these days (although hopefully on the wane, following Shyamalan's ongoing career suicide). Yes, the terms of the world of Bob Arctor, his friends, and his numerous other identities, are all shifting continually. Revelations pile up, although one can never really attain a firm outside perspective for determining which through-line is "real." But just like Linklater's upcoming Fast Food Nation has been described as a multi-character mosaic that "fails" to bring it all together, Scanner is a paranoid intrigue plot that withholds the "aha!" moment. Part of this is that the logic of addiction is to always suspect everyone endlessly -- there's no end to the permutations of malice and betrayal. But also, Scanner's universe is one in which addiction is the dominant mode of engagement. And again, this speaks truth to power about our rhizomatic-dystopian present. Traditional political thinking believes that eventually you can unmask the evildoers, when in fact the real axis of evil is more like a Gordian knot. Drug addiction may have particular causes and effects, but in the end it has become an all-encompassing epistemology. And accordingly, Linklater's narrative origami goes way past the point of simplicity, resulting an a multi-sided polygon indistinguishable from a balled-up communique destined for File 13.


And yet, despite its global reach, the story of A Scanner Darkly maintains a firm grip on the individual toll of drug addiction, the unique sorrow of every lost soul. Dick's final, private dedication bears witness to the human cost of narco-terror and the institutional callousness that sustains it. Miles from the sneering self-righteousness of Requiem for a Dream, Linklater has delivered a leftist elegy for the addicted, nearly equal in power to Vincent Gallo's conservative anti-drug tone poem. The Brown Bunny was much angrier, and that anger turned into accusation, as it probably had to. Instead, Linklater provides a technocratic fever dream that pushes past dehumanization and into tentative hope.




A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)

After going from (relatively minor) strength to strength in recent years, Altman stumbles, but only just a bit. Companion is a film about death, as Altman has pointedly remarked in every promotional interview he's given in support of the film. He needn't have worried; the theme could scarcely be more evident if he'd paid ushers nationwide to strangle a patron or two. By the time [MINOR SPOILER] an elderly country singer dies backstage, just after bidding his audience and the world a tearful adieu, I started to blanch a bit at the brazen funereal ambiance, complete with Virginia Madsen as the angel of death. Signature Altman moves, like his roving / zooming camerawork, are deployed with a moroseness bordering on exhaustion. Even the intended laughs in comic bits in the "Prairie Home" program are undercut by the slowest pans of Altman's career. Likewise, we almost never get more than two layers of sound (usually onstage and backstage), as if to imply that after all the din of this bustling existence, there's really only this life and the next. ("Thanks, Plato.") Despite Altman's uncharacteristically heavy hand, there's a great deal of beauty in Companion, much of it emanating from the wings. Like other recent efforts, Companion makes Altman's working style the formal container itself, letting the community of performers gel into a presence so unique as to obviate the need for much else. Now, I must confess, I've never been a fan of Keillor's show or its homespun ethos. (To paraphrase Bamboozled's Pierre Delacroix, after Companion I don't want to see anything "white" for at least a week. I mean, Keillor goes so far as to have the only African-American performer sing about the seductive qualities of "black coffee." It's wink-wink NPRism at its worst.) But on its own terms, "Companion" the show-within-the-show serves as a fine exemplar of something whose time may well have passed. Keillor's show lives on, of course, and is popular as ever. But what it seems to sell -- the myth of an America that's benevolent, white and Protestant -- is fortunately receding. As for the individual performances, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly make a terrific comedy team, I didn't know Meryl Streep could sing gospel so convincingly, Lindsay Lohan is actually pretty okay, Lily Tomlin is rather miscast, and Kevin Kline may as well be in a different movie altogether. And Keillor's just Keillor, the guy with a baritone like a warm cup of Earl Grey and a face, as they say, for radio.




-Princesas (Fernando León de Aranoa, Spain)

A 5, yes, but Mr. de Aranoa's game is a lot closer than the score would indicate. The review in Variety called it "Loachian," and that's about right. It's a social-conscience piece about the plight of callgirls in Madrid, playing lower-middle-class local girl Caye (Candela Peña) against undocumented Dominican immigrant Zulema (Micaela Nevárez), the juxtaposition serving to dramatize the plight of non-Europeans trying to subsist so as to send money back home. We've got a beauty parlor where Caye and her cohort wait to be paged, sit around talking a la Barbershop, and exchange bits of pointedly ignorant received wisdom about the "scum" outside, hustling for cut-rate tricks and damaging the national economy. In short, just like several the Loach / Laverty projects I've seen, Princesas adopts an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall "realism" in order to drive very deliberate political points home; the film gestures toward the unpredictability of real life while operating within a highly deterministic, rhetorical structure. Nevertheless, de Aranoa, like Loach, manages to allow little bursts of spontaneity and gritty street-poetry to emerge from the margins of his position-paper. While Nevárez lets little shine through apart from his noble-victim status (and the part as written -- a virtual blank slate -- does the actress no favors), Peña's performance is an awkward gem. De Aranoa, perhaps trying within the limits of his talent to provide his protagonist with the appropriately "humanist" cinematic generosity, puts into Caye's mouth some of the silliest, most nonsensical pearls of wisdom imaginable. The effect, intentional or not, is that Princesas focuses on a somewhat unlikable, misguided heroine, someone choosing a self-destructive path because it looks like a shortcut. (The intended use for the money she socks away makes her seem all the more idiotic.) So, while Princesas doesn't come close to a film like Lizzie Borden's Working Girls, which actually has something original to say about the sociology of sex work, it does turn conventional social realism on its head, refusing to valorize its putative subject. (Even Zulema makes bad and even reprehensible decisions, although de Aranoa's clearly more on her side.) All the same, this weirdness may be accidental. This is, after all, a film with bumper-music ballads that lay any and all subtext right on the table. ("Caye" is a homophone for "calle," meaning "street." "They call me street," the song goes. I mean jesus.) Anyhow, this is the type of conspicuously "honorable" film that tends to make a certain stripe of cinephile turn up his nose, and I guess I'm saying, not so fast. It's not "good," exactly, but it's definitely different. [Princesas opens / hits VOD as part of IFC First Take on August 23.]