Monday, June 24, 2013
The Cronenberg Series Part 5: Smooth Sailing
I'm focusing, for the moment, on this scene, because for one thing in writing about Scanners you can't not, but also because Louis Del Grande gives one of my favorite performances in the film. He's not in it much, he only has the one scene, but in his few minutes he gets across solid, slightly bored, slightly impatient, but not rude, professionalism, as he attempts to conduct a kind of seminar on and demonstration of the telepathic abilities of the titular "scanners," as well as, following his key mistake of selecting as a volunteer a man named Darryl Revok who looks uncomfortably like the intense character actor Michael Ironside (Michael Ironside), confusion that quickly changes to fear that quickly changes to terror that is quickly washed away by a kind of pain and loss of bodily control that we can't even imagine, particularly when we see where it leads. What must it feel like just before that happens? I'm not saying Del Grande's performance makes it possible for us to know, but it does make it possible for us to think about it. It's all brought about by Revok, of course, and forget about his casually half-assed "I didn't do it," a claim whose believability doesn't seem to concern him even as the ConSec agents who swarm around him just seconds after First Scanner is shown across take him into custody. We'll learn soon enough why Darryl Revok doesn't give a shit who does or doesn't believe him.
This summary, which gave me no pleasure to write, does nevertheless illustrate what the whole thing is with Scanners, which is that it's practically an action movie. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Chris Rodley says it's the closes Cronenberg has ever come to science fiction -- this, if I may say so, is hogwash. Science fiction is a strong element to almost every film Cronenberg made up to M. Butterfly and Crash, which are the last two films covered in Rodley's book. As I've said before, his first two, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, are quite pure examples of a certain type of science fiction, and science fiction is as important to Shivers and Rabid and The Brood as it is to Scanners -- it's just that Scanners has more computers in it. But it's built in a fairly typical way: innocent but unique man is recruited by powerful organization to track down and defeat a renegade version of himself. The formulaic nature of Scanners may or may not contribute to a very curious facet of my relationship with the film, which is that I've now seen it three or four times, yet going into this last viewing I clearly remembered only two things about it -- the exploding head, and the blown out eyes that feature later in the film. Ordinarily when this happens, the actual rewatching of a film that has dropped through a hole in my memory will spark some amount of recollection, as happened when I recently rewatched The Brood. Nothing really came back to me with Scanners, so my third or fourth viewing, which occurred yesterday, might as well have been my first. I remembered nothing about the plot, or the characters, or the relationships between them; I recalled only a couple of the show-stopping effects, and not even many of those (Scanners racks up perhaps the biggest body count of any of Cronenberg's movies). I find this very curious, though you may not find it very interesting, and why should you? But I'm still left wondering why this happens with Scanners.
I’d remarried; I’d had another kid, and was feeling much more optimistic about things in general. I was exploding heads just like any other young, normal North American boy.
So Scanners is the kind of movie you make to celebrate moving past the unpleasant experiences that led to The Brood. Fair enough, I’d say. But there’s a personal, individual aspect that’s missing from Scanners. This isn’t to suggest that an artist needs to be in the throes of misery in order to do great work, because that’s stupid, but I am left grasping for the kind of intangible quality, the mysterious element that is so commonly a part of Cronenberg’s work. As I said in the last installment of this series, The Brood works within a formula as well, but in that case the formula is inextricably bound up with the strangeness and the emotional punch that help make it so interesting, and so great. In Scanners, the formula is not so intimately tied with anything else. In a sense, I suppose The Brood and Scanners are similarly hitched to their formulas, but the difference is that Scanners carries nothing else along with.
All of which sounds very negative, and also puts me in the unusual-for-me position of seeming to rag on the concept of formula. As much as I loathe the phrase, and the thinking that leads to it, writing about Scanners has made it slightly (slightly!) easier to understand how someone can find themselves writing the words “It transcends its genre.” But please note, I haven’t said that, and if I ever do you have my permission to shoot me dead. It’s just that, and I suppose this should be obvious, all things being equal, “formula” is usually not as good as “formula plus something else.” And ultimately, Scanners doesn’t distinguish itself, in terms of concept, from similar films and novels that preceded it, like The Fury or Firestarter.
And of course we know this not only because of that Revok/Vale showdown, during which both men had to pull out every ounce of their power in the face of something at least as strong and dangerous as themselves, but also because, way back near the beginning, First Scanner, a man we can only assume had the ability to look at us funny and thereby cause us to hemorrhage, sat down to do what he believed was a routine task, thinking that later on he’d head on back to ConSec and file a report and maybe get lunch. But instead Darryl Revok sat down next to him, and caused him very brief but unspeakable anguish, before releasing him. If there’s something intriguing and mysterious to Scanners, it can be found in the head of First Scanner. For a few moments, anyhow.