Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Mind and Body

The first month that it was on HBO, I think I watched Scanners (1981, directed by David Cronenberg) six times. This wasn't easy to do, because in those days, HBO was hesitant to show anything rated a hard "R" any earlier than 9 pm. Scanners was a movie that often showed up at 3 am or later. I remember dawn breaking during one viewing, right as Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok engaged in a telepathic duel to the death. It's a film I've been living with for a long time. I used to think that it was relatively minor in Cronenberg's canon when you set it next to The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly among the films that constitute "early Cronenberg," but I've come around to a different point of view on that these days.

The story follows one Cameron Vale, a homeless drifter who hears voices in his head. He's picked up from the food court of a shopping mall after a woman near him has a seizure--apparently at the telepathic urging of Vale--and taken into the custody of Doctor Paul Ruth, who has developed a drug to treat telepaths. He calls them "scanners." Meanwhile, Ruth's company is targeted by a telepathic assassin who causes the head of one of his other scanners to explode during a demonstration of the process. This is Daryl Revok, who is organizing an underground of scanners to take down the current order of the world. Ruth trains Vale to take on Revok and his organization, and to hopefully recruit unaffiliated scanners. Unfortunately, Ruth's company has a highly placed mole working for Revok, who dogs Vale at every turn, at first in the workshop of the scanner artist, Pierce, then to the gestalt of telepaths associated with Kim Obrist, who escapes the massacre with Vale. She joins him to investigate what Revok's true intentions are, but Vale begins to uncover unpleasant truths about his mentor, and his own relationship with Revok...

I've written about Scanners before, and I don't really have a lot to add to that writing except to note that the new Criterion version of the film is absolutely lovely. It's the presentation the film has deserved for years and never received. I should also note that this is the first of the director's films about brothers. The Cain and Abel story haunts this film (even though Cronenberg is an avowed atheist), and it filters down from Scanners into Dead Ringers, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises. In any case, here's my old writing on the film:

The opening sequences of this murky Cronenberg thriller about warring telepaths are so vivid and unforgettably nasty that the rest of the film almost seems like an anti-climax. Almost. This is the most visually accomplished film of Cronenberg's early career even if the film reverts to the narrative sprawl of his first two features. Purely in terms of narrative, the film is a mess. In terms of imagery and ideas, the film is interesting as all get out.

All of the director's pet themes are woven into Scanners: abnormal pregnancy, the mind/body conflict expressed through biological abberation, psychic invasion, medical technology run amok, what have you. The film mates these themes to images so ferocious that, at times, they are overwhelmed. Case in point, the film's most notorious sequence: at a demonstration of "scanning" as a potential weapon, the presenter at a symposium gets more than he bargains for in Daryl Revok, the film's villain. Revok is much more powerful than the presenter and after a brief psychic duel, the presenter's head explodes. The image is repulsive, true, but almost beautiful, too. This scene comes not ten minutes into the movie. The film stages an even more elaborate psychic duel at the end of the film, in which our hero, Cameron Vale, overpowers Revok's mind even as Revok overpowers Vale's body. It's a strange ending that takes some thinking to fully understand. In between these duels are a number of other sequences that act as a baroque sort of styling: The conversation between Vale and Benjamin Pierce, the scanner artist, inside a sculpture of his own head; the gun battle in which a van opens up for a broadside like a Spanish galleon; the scanning of the computer at ConSec; and so on. While none of these has the sheer visceral punch of the psychic duels that bracket them, all of them are indicative of a film that is spinning off ideas like an out of control reactor spins off protons. Unusual for Cronenberg's early work, this has a kind of happy ending, and the film's vision of a telepathic gestalt rather than the domination of a psychic superman is almost hopeful.

Scanners is also indicative of a director who never throws away his ideas. This film revisits one of Cronenberg's early short films, Stereo, also about psychics. Daryl Revok, like one of the characters in Stereo, has drilled a hole in his forehead to "let the voices out."

I used to think that Cronenberg didn't have a sense of humor, or not much of one, anyway. Lately, I've been paying closer attention to how he names his characters. Scanners contains a terrific pun of a name. The gallery owner is named "Arno Crostic" or "A. Crostic." Given that his sole function in the film is to have his mind read at a key point in the plot, the name of the character becomes something of a joke. A pretty funny one, at that. Given the impression left by the film's key sequences, I get the feeling that this sort of witticism is lost on most audiences.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 1

First Time Viewings: -

Around the Web:

Friend of the blog, Jose, over at Riding the Nightmare gets the month underway with a look at American Mary.

Longtime challenge participant Eric at Expelled Grey Matter kicks things off with Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet. And well begun is half done...

Meanwhile, our longtime bestie, Anna, at Bemused and Nonplussed just couldn't help themselves and started early with a couple of films out of competition.

Things are only now getting underway, so look for more participants to come.

Patreon Logo
I'm trying out Patreon as a means of funding my blogs. They don't have a widget yet, so this link will just have to do. If you like my writing and art and if you'd like to support Krell Laboratories and Christianne's Art and Comics, please come on over and pledge. Thanks.

No comments: