Monday, June 24, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 5: Smooth Sailing

The man, or the character, pictured above is known only as either "ConSec Scanner," or, in an even greater blow to his humanity, "First Scanner." He's played by Louis Del Grande, though not in the still offered here -- Del Grande would not have been needed for that take. To give credit where it's due, which is sort of where I'm going here, and to put a face to a name, here's First Scanner in happier times:
These two versions of First Scanner, and Louis Del Grande, combine to form the central image, not only of Scanners, the film in which they appear, but arguably of David Cronenberg's entire career, and his is a career absolutely stuffed with defining imagery. Scanners, the filmmaker's follow-up to 1979's The Brood, was released in 1981, and was based on a concept, though not quite script, he'd previously called The Sensitives, and which had been floating around in his head for a long time. Scanners would go on to become Cronenberg's first major hit, of which there haven't been a great many, and I think it's reasonable to say that what put asses in seats was that exploding head. There had been exploding heads in films before, and not even long before -- Tom Savini blew up a zombie's head in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead from 1978, and he blew up his own head in 1980's Maniac, directed by William Lustig. The difference, I suppose, apart from distribution issues (which probably has more to do with the impact at the time of the Scanners scene than anything I'm about to say), is the fact that in the Romero and Lustig films, the bursting head arrives either in the midst of other violent mayhem, or follows several such moments, so that you already know what kind of film you're dealing with. The explosion, on the other hand, of First Scanners' head is the point in Scanners where you realize what you're in for.

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.
Some narrative context is probably in order here, but please, not too much: Darryl Revok is a "scanner," a telepath of immense power -- though the level of power is not equal among scanners -- who is tracking down other scanners across Canada in order to recruit them for his underground army. If they say no, we learn, he murders them. Most of this happens off stage, though, as the film focuses on Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), an apparently homeless man who we first meet stealing food from treys in a mall food court. Vale is also a scanner, but doesn't know or understand any of this -- as far as he knows, he's just crazy, though the negative physical impact his thoughts can have on others must, at a certain point, have gone beyond mere coincidence in his mind, but he couldn't tell you any more than that. That is until he meets Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the man who knows more about scanners than anybody else (we will also learn, without shock, that he's the person behind this phenomenon, having developed a drug called Ephemerol, whose use and impact recall the thalidomide tragedy), and whose corporation, ConSec, has designs on scanners, and Vale in particular, that while hardly selfless -- the word "weaponized" makes an early appearance, though less is made of this than you might expect -- is at least gentler and less globally destructive than what Revok has in mind. The gist of the plot, its structure, is that Vale, a scanner whose powers we gather are at least on par with Revok's, at Ruth and ConSec's bidding, goes on a journey to track down Revok and stop him creating a scanner army powerful enough to take the world over from "normals." Us, in other words.

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.
In any case, it’s a strange thing, as Scanners is both good and memorable, or you’d think it would be, anyway. Yet there’s still something standard-issue about it. Of his state of mind while making the film, Cronenberg tells Rodley:

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.
Still, enough with the negativity. It’s a good film. Cronenberg brought together a mostly fine cast, with Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside providing wonderful presence and menace – McGoohan, with whom Cronenberg had a somewhat fraught working relationship, is the kind of actor who only needed to show up to get the job done (Cronenberg is fond of the actor’s beard in this role, and he’s right to be), and Ironside, nice guy though I’m sure he is, was blessed or cursed with the face of a villain. But Ironside-as-villain was not the cliché in 1981 as it would eventually become, and Darryl Revok is not merely the slimy, ruthless, arrogant kind of villain Ironside would eventually play again and again. Revok certainly is ruthless and arrogant, but he also goes into terrifying rages that help bring home the threat at the root of Scanners -- this would be an Apocalypse film, if things worked out somewhat differently.
Which, okay, might as well get into it now, brings up the idea of Scanners being an optimistic film. Cronenberg implies it in the above quote, and Rodley says explicitly that Scanners is more optimistic than one is used to from his films. However, the frankly insane, horribly brutal showdown between Vale and Revok at the end – the Apocalypse in miniature – does not signal any kind of lightness of mood with which the viewer can leave the film. Even when Jennifer O’Neill, as a good-hearted scanner Vale eventually joins up with, stumbles upon the aftermath, and finds that the skin-flaying, fiery, blood-spattering battle turned out slightly better for Vale than we’d believed, and the defeat of Revok was of a rather different nature than we’d assumed, you still have…well, okay, spoilers, what happens is, somehow or another in Vale’s bloody defeat of Revok – and the two, we’ve learned, are brothers – the mind of Vale, or the consciousness, was transplanted, or transported, to the bod of Revok. Neither man’s physical body, you’d think, would have survived the battle in a state conducive to things like “standing up” or “breathing,” but that’s how it worked out – the film takes enough of an awed view of the powers wielded by Vale and Revok that this is easy enough to go along with. But the thing is that the last image we have is of Michael Ironside as Vale/Revok, revealing himself from under a coat, having been in a corner huddled under this, wide-eyed and saying something like “We won” before the screen goes to white. And this is Ironside saying this. There’s more than a tinge of “…Yay?” in one’s, or my, reaction to this. The worst part of Revok may have died, and the best part of Vale may have survived, but the person telling us this looks insane, and his capacity for destruction we know to be enormous.

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.


John said...

I'm pretty sure I had the exact same experience as you last time I watched this, Bill. Knew that I had sat through it at least once or twice before (a long time before, true), but none of it felt familiar to me at all, except for the obvious parts.

My overall opinion of it is pretty well the same, too. It's a movie that would be easy to write off as a couple of nasty gore scenes spaced out over some fairly standard sci-fi intrigue, but I think you do it justice here. Because the sheer, undiluted, agonizing physical horror of the violence inflicted, willingly or otherwise, by these "scanner" powers is what powers the movie and gives these imaginary concepts some weight, some connection to a real world where good and evil are sometimes a little hazy, but inescapable physical torment and madness are always an all too real possibility.

bill r. said...

Yes, and plus that climactic showdown is *really* something. I don't think I gave it enough credit here.

Bob The Wordless said...

Stephen Lack's performance was *ahem* lacking something. I found Vale somewhat boring,dull, insipid. Was that deliberate? Did Cronenberg want us to believe the character of Vale was so sleep inducing,uninteresting,invisible almost in fact, that when he won the scanner battle ( an amazing SFX tour de force),we are surprised,nay, flabbergasted? Or,was Lack's acting not up to par with Ironside, and, McGoohan? Lovin the Cronenberg posts. The Brood, one of my favorite Cronenberg movies,even has a somewhat boring leading man. maybe his leading men do not lead, but, somehow, survive. Looking forward to the next chapter.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Mr. The Wordless. I had intended to include something about Lack's fairly awful performance, but after a certain point I'd have been fitting it in just to prove I noticed, so I didn't bother. I don't however believe there was any sly motive in casting him. I just think Cronenberg at this point was still somewhat limited by who he could actually get.

That said, I actually thought Art Hindle in THE BROOD was pretty good.