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A true Texan, he takes aim with both barrels

Richard Linklater tackles fast food and America's war on drugs in two films filled with pungent social criticism.

July 02, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

IN the closing credits of Richard Linklater's hallucinogenic animated film "A Scanner Darkly," an unusual list of names scrolls upward. It's a roster of the lost: friends and acquaintances of the late sci-fi author Philip K. Dick who died of overdoses or had their lives devastated by drugs. Their names were taken from Dick's book, on which the film is based.

"Between alcohol and drugs, I'd say all of us involved in the film have our own list," says Linklater. "It's like, 'You know that guy who was here last week? He OD'ed.' 'Really? I didn't even know he was on drugs.' 'You know that guy who was always drunk? Well, he just dropped dead because he drank himself to death.' "

"A Scanner Darkly," which opens Friday, is a darkly comedic and ultimately tragic journey through the world of drugs and paranoia, as much a critique of America's war on drugs as it is a cautionary tale of ruined lives. It tells the story of an undercover cop only seven years in the future who reluctantly follows orders to start spying on his friends as they wrestle with their demons.

"That's the future world Philip K. Dick imagined, that it would be easy to set people against themselves," says Linklater, who, with a pair of topical films coming soon to theaters, finds himself talking frequently these days about the intersection of life, art and politics. "In a situation where you have all-pervasive surveillance, everyone's a suspect. That's what he envisioned in a drug war kind of way, even before there was a drug war. He wrote all this stuff 30 years ago."

In a post-9/11 climate, Linklater notes, it isn't hard to imagine the same mind-set amplified by America's seemingly unending war on terror.

"What would happen if the war on drugs were to be over? Or the war on terror were to be over?" he asks. "Nothing. You can't declare victory in a war like that. So by calling it that, you've just enslaved all of us for a really endless Orwellian ideal .... If you look at the war on drugs, from the time it started, all that has happened is that the prison population has quadrupled. So that's good for business. That's good for politicians seeking reelection saying they're tough on crime."

Prisons, he says, are "really full of petty drug offenders who aren't out to hurt anyone and haven't often hurt anyone but themselves. They are kind of pawns in a bigger power game. So there are lots of things to be paranoid about, I think."

He cycles through the themes of power, paranoia and the costs of feeding America's hungers in a much different way in "Fast Food Nation." The film, which opens this fall, shines an unflattering spotlight on America's fast food industry, from immigrant-staffed slaughterhouses and teeming feedlots to contaminated meat supplies and the dreams of low-wage help working behind the counters of fast food restaurants.

Although it is fictional, the film is based on the 2001 bestseller by Eric Schlosser, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. It features an ensemble cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Kris Kristofferson and Patricia Arquette. (Be forewarned: "Fast Food Nation" includes graphic footage of what happens to cattle inside the killing room of an actual meatpacking plant. It isn't pretty.)

The films debuted this year at Cannes, and Linklater -- who describes himself as a graduate of the "Stanley Kubrick school of filmmaking: you buy a camera and you make a movie" -- is believed to be the only director to have had two movies officially entered in the festival at the same time, with "Fast Food Nation" in the competition and "A Scanner Darkly" on the out-of-competition program.

"I make the joke that I'm like that British bus," he says. "You wait forever and then two show up at the same time."

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Into the limelight

FOR a kid from East Texas who once put in 12-hour shifts wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the memory of being nattily attired in a tux and walking up the paparazzi-lined red carpet in Cannes seems a bit jarring.

"It was pretty crazy," Linklater admits, noting that he much prefers movie premieres in the U.S., where the media obsess about glamorous celebrities rather than directors.

"But there, on the red carpet, you've got the camera following you to your seat," he says, shaking his head in amazement. "Two thousand people get up and do this" -- he claps his hands. "The camera follows you -- the director -- and they say 'auteur.' It's like being on center court at Wimbledon."

While the Cannes jury would bestow the Palme d'Or for best picture on British director Ken Loach for his Irish-themed drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," few directors at this year's festival received more attention than the boyishly handsome 45-year-old Texan who was raised in Huntsville, where his stepfather once worked as a guard at the state penitentiary.

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