The Two-for-One Meal
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?
"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?
Linklater: It's both! I walked into a theater with 2,000 people in black tie, which is pretty antithetical to our movie. But I enjoy the disconnect. And I have to see the trajectory of my own life in it. I was that teenage girl [the character of Amber in the movie] who worked at shitty restaurants and didn't know much of anything. And I was an offshore oil worker for two and a half years: I know what it's like to put on the hardhat and the steel-toe boots and be at the absolute bottom of the food chain of a big industry—the expendable labor of an industry.
CP: Do you also identify with Don, the marketing executive [played by Greg Kinnear]?
Linklater: I'm probably closer to him, yeah. Don is like most of us who incorporate disturbing facts into our psyches and then carry on with business as usual. I think we all battle against living in some kind of elitist or cynical denial. I mean, I agree that Guantanamo 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.
CP: Was there pressure from the financers of the movie to have Don "take to the streets" in some way? Or did you feel that pressure yourself?
Linklater: To have Don become radicalized wouldn't seem too real to me. The standard Hollywood narrative is the inspiring tale of a guy who made a difference; that's what the Hollywood narrative is for, and we've all seen it a million times. We wanted to say no to that. In fact, this film doesn't carry through on almost any of its setups [laughs]. That seemed like the right thing to do with this. If the hero in your movie does something to make things better, then you as an audience member feel like you don't have to do anything, you know? Don isn't a hero. He disappears from the narrative altogether; he kind of overstays his welcome. His story is replaced by Amber's story—her coming of age, her new awareness.
CP: Do you think kids have a greater capacity for change?
Linklater: Yeah, they're less attached. But they've got the least means. They don't own media, they can't run ads. They've got all the energy and correct thinking to a large degree, but they don't have any power.
CP: At a lot of schools, they have the choice between McDonald's and Pizza Hut.
Linklater: It's there from the very beginning. All a kid has to do is watch a little bit of TV, drive by a McDonald's, and he's asking for a Happy Meal—with the little toy and all that. It's hard to combat. It's our culture.
CP: Do you think it's possible to break up this insidious, incestuous relationship between public schools and the fast food corporations that get huge contracts to pump this crap into kids nationwide?
Linklater: I don't know. A lot of schools are starting to ban sodas; it has been proven that all the sugar is no good for kids, that it's a big part of the obesity epidemic and diabetes among children. People have demonstrated that there are healthier alternatives—and that those alternatives don't even cost more money. But in the same way that it's convenient for schools to have contracts with KFC or McDonald's or whoever, it's easier for us as consumers not to think about it. I was a kid once—I couldn't wait to get to junior high so I wouldn't have to eat the plate lunches. I could just get my own lunch with a Coke and a Ding-Dong, maybe a sandwich, you know, some white bread and a piece of ham, maybe, and a dessert, some kind of ice cream.
CP: It's funny to consider that you got through it—despite the Ho-Ho and Coke diet. I ate the same way as a kid and I'm, you know, maybe a little damaged, but I'm doing all right.
Linklater: I guess I could say the same: I'm doing okay. But I was a pretty crappy student who was tired all the time, wasn't thinking well, had no sense of priorities. I don't know. I guess you survive. Is it a personality thing? Do some people realize at some point that they're being lied to and want to look for alternatives, whereas other people just go along and toe the party line?
CP: What seems hardest to fight is the convenience of fast food.
Linklater: Yeah, but it's a myth! The only efficient step in that whole chain is your actual purchase. At the drive-thru window—boom—you can have a hamburger in your mouth in two minutes, for 99 cents. But once you fully realize that that's the only efficient element, and you realize that everything else associated with it is kind of a disaster, that it's subsidized by our government and everyone is ignorant of it, then you can have a change. [Fast food] is horrible for the environment; it's certainly horrible for the animals, for the workers, and, ultimately, for you. It's not good for your body.
CP: In different ways, Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly are both about the culture of exploitation and addiction: Fast Food is more about the suppliers, and Scanner is more about the consumer.
Linklater: We're all addicted, aren't we? I'm addicted to various things—to cinema, for example. I don't think those things are going to kill me—or at least not as quickly. Addiction is part of what it means to be human—whether it's addiction to love or sex or travel or whatever. But consumer addiction is something else. Drug or alcohol addiction is the most moving, in a way, because you're trying to transcend something—body chemistry is a huge element of it—but you're trapped in your own body, your own psyche.
CP: Both films have their funny moments for sure, but they're profoundly sad. That kind of duality is the essence of your work: the disconnect, the dialectic, the honest contradiction, the irony. Two truths facing each other without resolution: Maybe it's this, maybe it's that.
Linklater: I go through life with that disconnect. Like, Wow, life is wonderful, beautiful. And then you look again and it's so fucking tragic. Those two can coexist in the same thought; it's not like there are two different genres in the human brain. At the end of Scanner, Bob Arctor is a burnt-out husk [laughs]. It's completely tragic; he's more or less dead. Or maybe he could come back and be a normal person again. I guess it's never over until it's completely over. It might take more than one viewing to figure it out. Hopefully the first time has its rewards, but on a second viewing I know it gets deeper—you see a lot more connections. Right? That's what the human brain does: It makes connections. I'm still finding things [in Scanner], believe it or not, and no one could be closer to it than I am. That's what we do here: We try to make sense of everything that fundamentally doesn't make sense.
CP: American films generally require the filmmaker to be very decisive and clear—no ambiguity allowed.
Linklater: You're supposed to pick a tone and maintain it for audience-satisfying purposes. It's great—it's tonally consistent! It's like we're looking for the kind of consistency in our art that is totally nonexistent in the real world. But if art can ever really reflect the world in all its layers, then that should be the goal. Different works require different things. In terms of Scanner, I just know I shared Dick's "bilateral dysfunction" [laughs]. That was always in his work: the humor along with the darker, tragic elements.
CP: The printed epilogue—which you take pretty much directly from the book—is so poignant, so heartbreaking. You can see that Dick was seeking happiness and couldn't achieve it.
Linklater: In his community, the drug subculture, there can be an exuberant camaraderie. Like he says [in the book], it was fun for a while—but it can turn dark, paranoid, and tragic really fast. He wrote about the toll: The price that he and his friends paid was so much greater than the crime. I thought it was important to include that list of drug casualties in the epilogue because it makes you go, Okay—wow. These are real people. This really happened. When I met with [Dick's] daughters about doing a movie of A Scanner Darkly, one of the things they said is that they didn't want us to be cavalier about the drug use. They said their dad would still be alive today—that he'd still be writing—if it wasn't for drugs.
CP: Do you think happiness is elusive?
Linklater: I just read this thing about happiness. It said that three of the biggest keys to happiness for most people are: first, an occupation that satisfies you in some way; second, a sense of community, not being alienated and sitting in your room; and third, a satisfying sex life—everyone is on [his or her] own there [laughs].
CP: On a larger scale, do you find yourself thinking that things actually need to get worse before they can get better?
Linklater: It has gotten worse [laughs]. It has been this way for a while now: Just when you think it can't get any worse in the United States, it kinda does. Or does it? What are the effects? I mean, do you know anyone who has disappeared without legal rights? That would be the next step, I think—when white, middle-class people with dissenting opinions start disappearing, then we really will be in Soviet Russia or the Nixonian era times x, the combination of those two. I think people are just looking at their watches and saying, Okay, we've got two more years.
CP: There are many ways of disappearing people with dissenting opinions, don't you think?
Linklater: You could say that we're kind of living in a Soviet model now—of media and government being together on one level. But I don't know. Everyone bitches about the media, but we're not quite [in a totalitarian state] yet. The government definitely has its mouthpiece, though. In terms of Fast Food Nation, I came out of the whole experience really admiring the bravery and the sacrifice of a whole lot of people who dedicate their lives to fact-finding and investigative journalism. I really felt a sense of how important that is for the health of our collective human body. Because that's the only check and balance on unopposed power, on a government that owns it all and an industry that owns it all. If they can do away with all criticism or feedback, then they can pursue their agenda further and more efficiently. Their goal is to have no feedback, no accountability. Or if there is accountability, they can label it as "anti-American" or "socialist." The founding fathers were very leery of unchecked power; they went out of their way to check it.
CP: What would you like the Fast Food Nation movie to achieve?
Linklater: You can never prove or predict the cause and effect of anything, whatever its purpose. 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?
CP: Uh [laughs]...
Linklater: The times we're living in make for an interesting disconnect. We know that the free market of ideas is sort of under attack, we know there's this orientation of our leaders toward war, toward the corporatization of culture, that there's all this legislation to support it, to harm the environment. We know that corporate culture is at the root of so much of this—but there it sits on the books. And yet you look up the food chain of Fox and you've got Rupert [Murdoch], you've got the Fox Network, and you've got Harper-Collins, which published [Schlosser's] book—so it's an interesting world. The industry is very fluid in a way. At the same time, things are starting to come out about the campaign against [Schlosser's] new book, Chew on This, which is Fast Food Nation for kids: It's being leafleted and picketed by firms that have been hired by the fast food industry. These firms always have names like "The Center for Consumer Freedom." Sounds like such a good idea.
A Scanner Darkly will be released on DVD in December; Fast Food Nation starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.
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