CANNES, FRANCE—Richard Linklater’s stunning double feature at Cannes this year—A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation—represented not the international supersizing of this always prolific and political American director so much as the ideal opportunity for his audience to engage in another Linklaterian game of comparative pop: positioning same-but-different philosophies opposite one another like facing mirrors, their reflections multiplying to the point of both dizzying revelation and what Scanner vividly defines as the “vague blur.” Double vision abounds on this bill as both films are adaptations: Scanner of the like-titled sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick, the fictional Fast Food of Eric Schlosser’s Big Mac–is-murder exposé. And both mark returns to somewhat familiar terrain within the Linklater universe: Scanner to Waking Life‘s surreally pulsing world of rotoscope animation, and Fast Food, with its narrative track around the periphery of the meat (or “meat”) industry, to the roving cyclicality of Slacker, his 1991 debut.
So if the dystopian Scanner equals something like Life plus Dick, what do you get when you drop that tab after having choked down an order of Fast Food‘s Schlosser-plus-Slacker?
“Ooh,” says Linklater excitedly. “You get a pretty creepy vision of our country right now.” The nation’s other frightening Texan, 45 going on 24, is sitting poolside at his trés chic Cannes hotel, comfortably clad in last year’s National League Championship jersey and chuckling at the thought of his two line drives to the center of the corporate American void. “Scanner,” he says, “is set ‘seven years from now,’ but that really means right now—the post– 9-11 world of surveillance. It’s tragic on an individual level, whereas Fast Food is the tragedy of a system or a mind-set.”
Never merely dark (or any other single thing), these movies work by shifting in shape and tone—not unlike the kaleidoscopic “scramble suit” that Scanner‘s junkie narc cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) wears at the office. The director is something of a shape-shifter himself. After two separate chats with him in Cannes, one ostensibly for each movie (but who could keep them apart?), I find that Linklater can’t really be pegged except as someone who lives to blur the lines (Dick would call it “bilateral dysfunction”). This American filmmaker in France defies his monotonously assertive national cinema by playfully shrugging at the dialectic, the disconnect, the evocative paradox.
“This is going to sound like an American cliché, but despite everything that’s fucked-up about the U.S., I feel kind of optimistic in some abstract-ass way,” he says. “At some point in the future, hopefully, we’ll look back and not be able to believe what a rough time it was. That’s actually what Dick was saying in the ’70s, but it resonates today. The characters of A Scanner Darkly are fighting their own war against this big, oppressive, quasi-governmental corporation. There are no bad guys in either movie—it’s just the world we’re living in.”
Fast Food‘s putative protagonist (Greg Kinnear) is a Mickey’s marketing exec who’s only half outraged to discover that his bosses are literally selling shitty food. Hardly bucking the system when he learns that the meatpacking plant’s “gut table” conveyor is making for some especially unhappy meals, Kinnear’s Don Henderson simply disappears from his investigation and from the movie— becoming, Linklater says, a representative of our collective absence from activism.
“Don is like most of us who incorporate disturbing facts into our psyches and then carry on with business as usual,” Linklater says. “I think we all battle against living in some kind of elitist or cynical denial. I mean, I agree that Guantánamo was horrific, but I didn’t take to the streets. I’m busy. I got mouths to feed. I’m ‘fighting the good fight.’ I’m guilty of torture, in a way.”
The question of Arctor’s culpability within his own culture of addiction is even trickier: A paranoid with enemies, both cop-out and cop, Dick’s “ultimate everyman” begins the Scanner movie at least three times removed from his authentic self, then undergoes psychosis and brain damage with the help of a habit-forming substance even crappier than Mickey’s Big Ones. In the end, our hero is ignorant—perhaps blissfully, perhaps forgivably, and maybe not.
If Linklater leaves the big questions of his movies to their audiences, how does he think they’ll respond when Scanner opens in July and Fast Food in the fall? “You can never prove or predict the cause and effect of anything, whatever its purpose,” he says. “When The Jungle was published a hundred years ago, they enacted the FDA. But in today’s world, we’re more likely to see legislation enacted to prevent us from criticizing the way things are. In Texas, it’s against the law to criticize an agricultural product—even though this [fast food] industry is potentially harming us. I guess Fast Food Nation would be immune to this law for being ‘fiction.’ Or would it? Kind of interesting, isn’t it? I mean, can Fox Searchlight enact legislation to prevent you from writing a bad review of my movie?”