Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: Scanners (1981)

My apologies for the lack of stills in this post, but it turns out I don't actually have a copy of the film sitting around. It was stolen along with a bunch of other DVDs and Gamecube games a few years ago, and I guess I never got around to replacing it.

As a rung on the ladder of David Cronenberg's progression as a filmmaker, Scanners was both a big step up and a bit of an odd duck. It was his first big hit since the now practically forgotten Shivers, the very first publicly funded Canadian film to make a profit, and kick-started his '80s genre glory days. Also, thanks to one memorably gruesome shot, the film arguably has the biggest cultural footprint of his entire oeuvre. On the other hand it is literally his only film (ignoring the non-genre, tax shelter funded, race car oddity, Fast Company) without any sort of creepy psycho-sexual themes. There is nary a stomach vagina or scene of implied spine-hole fucking in sight; not even disturbingly intense marital sex.

Basically, Scanners is a breezy corporate espionage thriller with some Cronenbergian window dressing. Canadian Neo-Expressionist painter Stephen Lack (as in Lack-ing thespian talents, yuk-yuk) plays Cameron Vale, a remarkably well groomed hobo doomed to a life of misery by his uncontrollable ability to "scan" the thoughts of others. He is brought under the tutelage of Patrick McGoohan (the esteemed #6 and all around badass) to control his powers for use in combating evil scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, also pretty badass). Mysteries are solved, double crosses are uncovered, and secret labs are repeatedly snuck into.It's all pretty standard spy stuff, only with a psi-twist that, while common today (especially in video games), was relatively unexplored at the time. Cronenberg's interest in the mind's fictional (unless you're a new-age weirdo) power over the body and physical world fits neatly within the film's sci-fi secret agent framework, but the film would have probably been long forgotten if not for the director's trademark use of unpleasant viscera. Scanners don't just passively read thoughts, they physically affect nervous systems, and with enough power, they can overwhelm a victim with enough intensity to detonate his or her skull.

Yup, this is essentially the shot that put Cronenberg on the map. People may not remember much about the film's lose storytelling or its lead's somnambulant performance, but they sure as hell remember "when that dude's head exploded." It's just one of the many ways the film makes the idea of people killing with their minds visually interesting, and it is excellent cultural shorthand for painful headaches and wishing ill towards your boss/spouse/annoying guy on the bus. Personally, whenever I'm stuck in a long boring meeting I make a concerted effort to mentally explode the head of whoever is currently talking. It's never going to happen, but at least I look like I'm paying attention.

Even though Scanners is an extremely important film in Cronenberg's history, it's still probably his worst film. (That's assuming you ignore Fast Company and grade his early works on a curve.) The ideas are there, but the story is oddly paced and completely free of emotional gravity. The script, which had to be completed over the course of filming due to draconian scheduling, takes some of the blame, but the majority is shouldered by poor Stephen Lack. He manages to pull off the various pained expressions and intense staring required of his psychic character, but nearly every time he opens his mouth it's an embarrassment. Yes, his character is supposed to have a "poorly developed sense of self" due to the lifetime of listening to other's thoughts in place of his own, but for the most part he doesn't seem to be trying for Keanu Reeves in A Scanner Darkly style introversion. When he proclaims "You murdered the future!" to his arch-enemy/long lost brother in the climactic scene, there is a clear attempt at angry inflection, even though it ends up being spread arbitrarily throughout the line. Also, in one of Lack's rare performances outside of Scanners, a brief cameo in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, he is just as cringeworthy. Clearly the dude just can't read dialog to save his life, but at least he can do this:

No comments:

Post a Comment