Scribbling in the Dark

Some of my favorite movies are not good movies. I’m not talking about the movies that are so bad, they somehow get declared good. You, no doubt, have a friend who tries too hard to be interesting to inflict those on you. No, I’m referring to movies that have loads of flaws but enough heart for me to still care. That’s what we have in the first corner, this week on VS.

In the second corner, there’s a movie that I can’t even be sure I like, but I’d happily watch again.

We’re looking at “A Scanner Darkly” vs “The Scribbler”. Two films no one really remembers, pitted against one another until the final, inevitable outcome. That outcome being, as always, that they both deserve some attention. Maybe not your attention, but someone’s.

Never heard of “The Scribbler”? I hadn’t either. I came across it on Netflix a couple years back. Its memory stayed with me like the discovery of an unexpectedly delicious sandwich, or a weekend romance. The kind where you’re both in the same town for a minute but live on opposite world. You choose. I’m going with the sandwich.

Want a brief summary? I’ll try. A woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (which some movies STILL call multiple personality disorder. Thanks Scribbler for not doing that) has gotten far enough along in her therapy to be transferred to a miserable halfway house. That therapy consists of a machine that burns away her alternate personalities, one treatment at a time. Her doctor has given her a convenient portable version to use in her miserable new home.

If that’s not a Philip K. Dick setup I don’t know what is.

Well, “A Scanner Darkly” is, I guess. It’s based on a book of the same name by PKD. It sticks pretty closely to the novel, which is almost never true for poor Philip. (A moment of silent acknowledgement for all who read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” expecting “Bladerunner”. Hmm, I feel a blog post coming on.)

In “A Scanner Darkly”, the movie and the book, a cop, so deeply undercover that he’s been ordered to investigate himself, is stuck living with that friend of yours who tries too hard to be interesting. The story welds the 1970’s onto a near future “things continue to suck” kind of world. The police are super concerned about “Substance D”, a psychoactive, super addictive, mind melting drug that’s making a mess of things. (Really. That’s what they’re calling the mega-drug of the not too distant future. Clearly, the drug lords of tomorrow lack the marketing panache of our current criminal element.) Undercover cops, when in cop form, wear special suits that scramble their images and voices for all scanners, eyeballs and what have you to maintain absolutely secret identities. Not even their bosses know who they are under the suits. Tragically, sort of, our…er…hero?..I guess…has followed his deep cover identity a little too deeply. He is addicted to the dread Substance D, and his brain, is clearly melting.

Oh, one cool thing I forgot to mention, the movie is rotoscoped, making the whole thing look a bit like a wobbly hallucination, appropriate to a protagonist with a melting brain.

(Today’s parenthetical observation. The Philip K. Dick recipe for success.

1.      One absurd piece of tech

2.      One healthy dose of distrust in reality

3.      People in authority do morally questionable things

Getting back to “The Scribbler”. “The Scribbler” is an adaptation of a graphic novel by the not terribly well known write/artist Daniel Schaffer, whose comic, “Dogwitch”, I enjoyed greatly fifteen years back. Funny thing is, I’d never heard of “The Scribbler” until I saw his name in the credits.  Still haven’t tracked down a copy of the book, either. Now you know what to get me for Christmas.

It’s a low budget movie. Sets are bare bones, (most) special effects encourage you to embrace the power of your imagination, fight scenes, well, you’ve seen Star Trek the original series? Better than that. They’re about the level of one of the CW Superhero shows, which is maybe a little appropriate. The star here is Katie Cassidy, aka Black Canary on the CW show, Arrow, playing Suki/The Scribbler and a few other un-named alters.

I did not recognize her even a little. Thank you IMDB.

The movie opens with Suki showing up at the halfway house. It’s a twenty-story tower that looks like a hotel, if old buildings got cancer. Since it’s tall, and filled with the unbalanced and miserable, it’s pretty much raining people around the place. Occupants are jumping out windows daily if not hourly. No one cares, because that’s the kind of world it is. “It’s the future and no one cares…still”.

Of course, she’s curious about all the suicides, and of course, there’s a small cast of neighbors inhabiting the home for the socially maladjusted and intriguingly attractive. Also, there’s a talking dog. This gives us loads of situations for Suki to scratch her head over.

Then there’s the Scribbler, Suki’s most powerful personality. She has cool hair, fills walls with crazy talk written backwards, and stands on the sides of buildings in a way normally only scene in Exorcist rip offs. (Or, now that I think of it, like that one scene in Superman (1977) when he catches the cat burglar. Looks more Exorcist than Superman though.) The special effects budget goes mostly into Scribbler when she manifests, and it’s a damn well spend fifty bucks. Really, it looks great, and for a movie dealing with the limitations this one obviously faced, it’s spectacular. Let that be a lesson to you directors! If you don’t have money for everything, pick the most important thing and trust the audience to fill in the rest.

Scribbler knows something’s not right in the house of emo fashion statements. She writes messages and modifies the personality erasing machine to do…something else. I’m not going to tell you what, but in the end, Suki/Scribbler has to step up to save the world, or, you know, the halfway house. Mostly she just saves this one guy. He’s nice, though and reminds me of my friend Bobby.

Keep in mind the world has been so crappy to Suki that she’s had to manifest forty-six other personalities to get through the day. She can barely save herself, but she’s going to face certain death to help a bunch of fellow outcasts.

That’s a hero’s journey! I love Hero’s Journey movies!

Another nice thing about “the Scribbler” is all the familiar faces. One of the tiny joys in my life is discovering what TV actors are up to in the off season or between shows. Two Buffy alums, Michelle Trachtenberg and Eliza Dushku, and the always welcome Garret Dillahunt, of the Mindy Project and The Gifted, are featured heavily. Also, of note, Gina Gershon, Sasha Grey and Kunal Nayyar.

“Scanner Darkly” is all familiar faces, too, but they’re movie faces slumming it sio they can still pretend it’s all about…The Craft. One of them is Winona Ryder though, so I call that a win.

There’s a sense in both movies that everyone involved is having fun. They all have regular gigs of some kind, or giant blockbusters where they can keep their laurels resting. They don’t have to be doing these strange little movies. It’s good to watch people have fun. It’s like having fun myself, but I don’t have to get up and move around.

In the end, I’m a sucker for the hero’s journey. If a movie has a good solid hero’s journey, I’m in. I forgive a lot. For example, if the dialog in the final act suddenly swerves into wincingly bad territory, I rewrite it in my head. Also, if, perchance, the filming of that same final portion seems sloppy, I’ll just accept that they probably only had the camera rented for another hour and a half, and the director couldn’t risk losing their deposit. It’s all fine.

All a movie really has to do is make me care.  “The Scribbler” pulls that off with characters who are sympathetic, simple and likable. Also….heroes journey.

“Scanner Darkly” does not do that. It’s kind of the opposite. No one in it has the capacity for heroism. It’s about kind of rotten people, being kind of rotten to each other, in the name of maybe saving a world that’s kind of rotten. I think a good chunk of why I’m writing about this movie is its last five minutes. The movie is brave, even if the characters aren’t.

Also, rotoscoping. Who doesn’t like rotoscoping?

If there’s one thing other than a Hero’s Journey movie I like, it’s the “reality can’t be trusted” movie. As our protagonist’s brain melts, played all too convincingly by Keanu Reeves, reality gets shifty. He isn’t always sure of who he’s looking at, even when he’s watching surveillance footage of himself.  In fact, if anything links these movies for me its that both protagonists can’t trust their own perception. They know they don’t have the whole picture and that is a terrifying experience to live through. It makes me just a little more sympathetic to Keanu’s undercover detective whose name I don’t remember. (Watch the movie. You won’t remember it either. You’ll think of him as “the jerk Keanu Reeves played”). Also, both really treat mental illness respectfully, which is tough to pull off when you’re also trying to make it a super-power.

So, there you have it. Hero’s journey comic book of a movie that is “The Scribbler” vs realistically rotten cartoon people in “A Scanner Darkly”. Everybody wins!