The Two-for-One Meal

Richard Linklater chews on 'Fast Food Nation' and 'A Scanner Darkly'

Richard Linklater's stunning double feature this year—A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation—represents not the 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?

Let's hear it for the vague blur:  The animated Linklater
Warner Independent Pictures
Let's hear it for the vague blur: The animated Linklater

"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 in mid-May, 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 mindset."

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"). Then in August, after another hour of equivocating talk by phone (the transcript below has been assembled from all three conversations), it seems even clearer to me that this American iconoclast defies his nation's monotonously assertive cinema by playfully shrugging at the dialectic, the disconnect, the evocative paradox. He's also very funny.

City Pages: You knew from reading Fast Food Nation that there's "shit in the meat." But did making the movie enlighten you even further? Or depress you even further?

Richard Linklater: Yeah, it did. You can read about the kind of systematic cruelty that goes on every day, but it's something else to actually see it. The only thing that is going to change things is consumer awareness—or caring in the first place. People naturally care about their health, but there are other issues, too. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle a hundred years ago, he felt the book was going to make people outraged at the conditions of the workers. But what people were most worried about was the crap in their food. So the FDA and other government agencies grew out of that. It's probably similar nowadays: People care about their health and their loved ones' health; they care almost nothing about the workers and the environment and the animals. It is depressing. But at the same time, I have faith in the individual—not at the top of the food chain, so to speak, but the dissatisfied employee underneath. Even at McDonald's.

CP: Do you think the movie can hurt the profits of fast food corporations?

Linklater: I don't know, but their profits definitely went down around the time that the book came out [in 2001]; that was a real low point for fast food as an industry. Now they're back up again big time. All they've done is shifted their market emphasis. The window dressing is that they have more healthy things on their menu—salads and whatnot. So they can say, We're for choice, for consumer freedom. Aren't you for freedom? But of course the salads are not where they make the real money. Whenever middle- and upper-class people become educated about any product and its ill effects—it used to be cigarettes, now it's shitty food—then the corporations start target-marketing poor people and people in other countries who don't have the time or money to be as educated about their health. So there's the 99-cent menu—the dollar cheeseburgers, the cheap stuff. It's amazing that you could get a cheeseburger for a dollar. And that's where the marketing dollars are going. That's the way the tobacco industry went. That's actually the history of a lot of these issues: It's middle-class elites who are telling workers what's best for them and starting revolutions. Lenin wasn't proletariat himself. Most working people are kind of conservative.

CP: So is it weird to have premiered the movie at Cannes or just appropriate?

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