Film, Went There



To mark the Criterion Collection’s release this week of SCANNERS on Blu-ray — notable, among other reasons, for the inclusion of Cronenberg’s first feature film, STEREO (1969), which establishes a more direct link between telepathy and sexuality than the one hinted at in SCANNERS — I’ve drafted a selection of scattered observations about the film. They could be more coherent, but they aren’t. In any event, here, you can have them:

The apple rarely falls far from the tree, they say (cliche-mongers that they are), and if it contains any bad seeds, well, it won’t be the first time that the sins of the fathers have been visited upon the sons. When we cut through the muck of idle, fevered, undergrad-level pontification that SCANNERS (like every Cronenberg film) invites and all but secretes — which I enjoy as much as the next paranoid nerd, I promise — what we find is a family drama: an agon involving a pair of brothers and their father. For all of the ways in which SCANNERS anticipates VIDEODROME (1982), it can also be seen as a kind of paternally oriented companion piece to THE BROOD‘s nightmare of metastatic motherhood. That 1979 film was “body horror” at its most abject, grue-rich and gynomaniacal. SCANNERS is, putatively at least, a film about the mind — about, in fact, mentalists. But its ultimate concerns relate once again to the legacies of systems of control, and their tendency to engender their own antitheses. Fathers, sons and brothers, among other dead ringers.

The story of how the scanners came to be combines aspects of two of the 20th century’s key pharmacological accidents: first, the synthesis of LSD by Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz corporation and the military’s subsequent experiments in the drug’s possible weaponization, and second, the notoriously disastrous prescription of the hypnotic sedative Thalidomide to combat morning sickness in pregnant women in the 1950s, which resulted in the birth of thousands of deformed children. Cronenberg has his mad idealist patriarch/therapist Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGooohan) — this a few years before the pint-sized sexologist sprite of the same name attained celebrity — invent Ephemerol for the same reason and around the same time, and it, too, has severe side effects on the children whose mothers were prescribed it, but rather than deform their limbs, it alters their minds: it turns them into flaming telepaths. Or at least into telepaths with a predilection for bursting into flame.

Being a scanner is not entirely unlike being a wizard — you probably won’t know you are one until a recruitment officer tracks you down and escorts you to Hogwarts, for instance, or else, if you’re less lucky, to a deserted factory in which you’ll be trained by Dr. Ruth to use your telepathic powers to do battle with renegade scanners determined to use theirs to explode people’s heads and pad other people’s bottom lines. Not entirely unlike doing battle with renegade wizards who do the same things while putting on extravagant airs. Every magic has its dark side, after all, and scanning is finally more magic than science.

Dr. Ruth feels certain that he “has a way with these creatures.” He represents a patronizing, patriarchal vision of scientist-guided, scanner-aided human progress: a glorious new order — depending on your definition of glory, or order. Darryl Revok’s disgust with a society that has produced and discarded demented rejects such as himself has inspired a counter-vision of scanner terror cells, supported by corporate cynicism. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), recruited in a somewhat more bullying version of the manner described above, isn’t sure what’s going on or where his sympathies should lie. The audience scans the scanners through his eyes.

But what does a scanner do when it scans? Well, it’s hard to say exactly, but we know that scanners are capable, as we learn late in the film, not only of inducing severe facial tics that culminate in cranial kablooie, but also of such hypnotherapeutic tricks as triggering flashbacks of childhood trauma. It’s a versatile skill-set, but one that comes at a high price. There’s some forgivably loose talk about nervous systems “connecting” to other nervous systems (including those in computers, which allegedly have them), but it seems safe to say that a scanner reads information in the brains of others, and that it records this information in such a way that it can be processed and repurposed in real-time, lag-free, with more or less immediate effects on the subjects of their scans — but also on themselves. Scanners are biohackers, you might say, and it’s a risky trade. There is always some danger of self-harm, because every scan requires a partial sacrifice of the self at its moment of nexus with other minds — and yes, this is one of the places where Cronenberg’s fixation on sexuality, seemingly absent for so much of the film, rears its head, or at least peeks out a little — so the trick is to allow yourself to be transformed, even as you remain yourself.

Sex is present, too, in the look on Revok’s face as he appears to submit to — and then radically subverts, in the film’s signature image of cartoonish ultraviolence — a demonstration of scanning put on by ConSec’s only official scanner. (ConSec is the corporation to which our Cain and Abel’s father, Dr. Ruth, sold his Ephemerol start-up years before. It now deals chiefly in “weaponry and private armies.”) Michael Ironside, whose acting is at least as stiff and hammy as the rest of the cast’s, nevertheless manages to convincingly combine a sadistic sneer with squirming contortions that caricature orgasmic ecstasy, thus producing a look that says “touch me, I’m sick” while forming a quivering bridge to a very messy eruption. Pleasure principle, meet death drive. Crash.

But perhaps, all the same, some room can be carved out for a kind of scanner counterculture, a community of benevolent freaks interested in developing their abilities in a mystical, ego-dissolving, psychedelic direction? Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) certainly thinks so. The leader of an inchoate hippie-Jedi-scanner underground, Obrist and her consciousness-raising friends are New Age adepts high on the light side of the scan. Unfortunately, they are also sitting ducks for Darryl Revok’s nihilo-capitalist commandos. “We were the dream, and he’s the nightmare,” says Obrist, and her commune’s bloody fate confirms her fears.

As he did in his earlier films through a different prism — namely the most downbeat extrapolation imaginable of the consequences of the sexual revolution — Cronenberg once again recapitulates the death of the 1960s in its Woodstock Nation iteration, itself famously a clash of generations in which the would-be new boss came to look curiously identical to the old boss.

We’ll bring the world of normals to their knees.”

There’s a hint of Star Wars here — speaking of dark sides — as Revok reveals to Vale their blood relation and attempts to seduce him into an invincible sinister partnership, succeeding only in triggering a final battle to determine who can twist his face into the most ridiculously grotesque rictus. The contest is a close one; the effects get very special indeed. But Revok is not Vale’s Vader, he’s his brother; and one suspects that, more than anything else, it is his kid sibling’s accusation that his world domination fantasies sound just like dad’s that undermines Revok’s will to win, thereby enabling Vale to survive by appropriating his skin.

It’s a strange victory, and a singed one. But these two were only ever the opening experiment, a pair of prototypes, really, and at least they know who their father is. Subsequent scanners are strictly misfits, mutants, freaks of nature and fiends of nurture, orphans before the fact and homeless by default. Children formed in the petri dish of Biocarbon Amalgamate, they are each a weaponized army of one, adrift in a wilderness of nervous systems screaming for someone’s attention.

Rated R for language and brains.

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