This week’s short was a lengthy (~20 minute) animated piece called In Absentia, directed by the brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay.  Through a series of dark imagery accompanied by bizarre and incomprehesible spectral voices, it depicts a woman on the upper floors of an insane asylum scribbling nonsense letters and depositing them in a grandfather clock.  She breaks a lot of pencil leads.


The film does not have a resolution — it’s more of a snapshot than a story.

The feature presentation was A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater.  This is the second film to be featured at Cinema 1544 that was based on a novel by Philip K . Dick.  One of the most interesting aspects of the film was the rotoscoping animation technique used for the final look of the film.  The actors and sets were filmed digitally, and then each frame was converted to an animation using both human animators and computer assistance.  According to Wikipedia (which never lies) a minute of finished required 350 hours of animation time.  The results look like this:

Dude, where's my boss?

Dude, where's my boss?

I should mention that this effect of large, flat areas of uniform color with a reduced color pallette is quite reminiscent of a subtle effect on my vision I experience when in a 3T scanner.  (That would be a scanner magnetically.)

The film is set in a dystopian future only seven years from now, where the government is busily losing a war on drugs that is directed at a new addictive and debilitating hallucinogen Substance D, which is refined from a small, blue flower.  Above we see Keanu Reeves as our hero Bob Arctor, former middle-class father who has fallen into unemployment and drug abuse.  Bob, however, has a secret identity as “Fred”, a narc working for the government.  Bob seems to think he’s playing both sides (and some of that is caused by a personality-splintering effect of Substance D abuse) but I should just reveal now that it is in fact Bob who is being played by the government.

A true Everyman

A true Everyman

All government narcs make use of a technology known as the “scramble suit” to hide their identities while on official business.  The suit shifts the wearer’s appearance several times a second — clothes change, faces change, and the voice is disguised.  In fact, much of the time, a scramble suit depicts portions of multiple faces and outfits simultaneously, creating a strange and jarring effect.  This effect alone, in my opinion, justifies the use of the rotoscoping technique — in animation it is plausible, but in a CGI special effect, it might be both too difficult and too disorienting for the viewer.

One of the reasons that the narcs wear scramble suits is that many of them are drug addicts themselves, so the suit prevents their exposure as informants.  Of course, the fact that the narcs’ identities are (apparently) hidden even from their direct supervisors can result in some uncomfortable situations.  Take, for instance, when “Fred” is assigned to run surveillance on Bob Arctor, who is suspected of being involved in a Substance D distribution ring.  Arctor knows he’s no supplier, but at the same time, he (as Arctor) is trying to purchase large quantities of Substance D from his quasi-girlfriend, the frigid Donna, in an attempt to get her to eventually give up the identity of her supplier.

Robert Downey Jr. spent YEARS preparing for this part

Robert Downey Jr. spent YEARS preparing for this part

The whole situation is surreal, and as Arctor slips deeper and deeper into Substance D abuse, he (and girlfriend Donna) are simultaneously being set up as fictional members of a terrorist outfit by Arctor’s paranoid addict roommate Barris.

Have you ever considered joining a cult?

Have you ever considered joining a cult?

Finally the whole situation comes to a head as first the doctors claim Arctor’s (Fred’s) Substance D abuse is too great to allow him to continue in his capacity as a narc, and Barris comes in bringing phony evidence to the about-to-be-fired Fred and his boss “Hank” of Arctor and Donna’s terrorist ties.  Hank knows the evidence to be phony and has Barris arrested, then reveals to Fred that he has (by process of elimination) determined that Fred is in fact Arctor.  What Hank does not reveal to Arctor (but does to the audience) is that “he” is none other than Donna herself, or, more properly that “Hank” and “Donna” are both aliases for government employee Audrey.

This is where you realize that Arctor’s been way more set up than you thought, and he and his fried brain are sent for rehabilitation at New Path, a cult-like entity that is on its surface intended to help abusers of Substance D, but which the government suspects of being the major distributor of the product.  Arctor is fried enough that he’s sent off by New Path to be a mindless agricultural worker on one of their compounds — the compounds where they do in fact grow the little blue flower from which Substance D is refined.  Though he can barely function, Arctor secrets away one of the flowers, which he hopes to somehow deliver to the government on his next holiday — just the evidence they have sacrificed him to addiction and permanent mental disability in hopes of getting.  And there the film ends.

Altogether fantastic.  It gives you a lot to think about while watching it, and then a whole new set of themes to explore once the whole of the plot is revealed.  Highly recommended.


One Response to “A Scanner Darkly”

  1. Flowers Says:

    You seems to be a very creative person. Enjoyed going through your blog. Keep it up the good work. Cheers 🙂

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