Sunday, February 13, 2011


After re-watching SCANNERS this week, I almost decided not to write about it. Let's be honest: This is not David Cronenberg's best work. It lacks the intelligence of THE BROOD, the daring of VIDEODROME, the humanity of THE FLY, and the sheer brilliance of DEAD RINGERS. The plot is meandering, the lead actor (Stephen Lack) is hopelessly uncharismatic, and genre fans can't possibly escape the feeling that we've seen it all before. That was true even in 1982, when reviewers noted strong similarities to Brian DePalma's film THE FURY, based on a novel by John Farris (which had already gone on to inspire Stephen King's "Carrie" and "Firestarter"). There are also, I think, shades of Jeff Lieberman's bad acid freakfest BLUE SUNSHINE.

The origins of SCANNERS can be tracked back much further, to Theodore Sturgeon's 1953 novel "More Than Human." The novel begins with a 25-year-old manchild who is living as a primitive because he can't control an overwhelming natural ability that the author describes as "an inner thing... which received and recorded... without words." Sturgeon sets up his character (initially known only as "the idiot") as follows:

"Men turned away from him, women would not look, children stopped and watched him. It did not seem to matter to the idiot. He expected nothing from any of them. When the white lightning struck, he was fed. He fed himself when he could, he went without when he could. When he could do neither of these things he was fed by the first person who came face to face with him. The idiot never knew why, and never wondered. He did not beg. He would simply stand and wait. When someone met his eyes there would be a coin in his hand, a piece of bread, a fruit. He would eat and his benefactor would hurry away, disturbed, not understanding. Sometimes, nervously, they would speak to him; they would speak about him to each other. The idiot heard the sounds but they had no meaning for him. He lived inside somewhere, apart, and the little link between word and significance hung broken."

Cameron Vale, the hero of SCANNERS, exists in a similar state at the beginning of Cronenberg's film. He is a vagabond with a very limited sense of self, who digs his next meal out of the trash at a local mall. When a pair of women begin hatefully talking about him, Vale's sixth sense forces him to focus on them. That focus nearly kills one of the women. ("Scanning" - or "bleshing" or "pushing" or whatever you want to call it - obviously has some pretty severe side effects, including nausea, internal hemorrhaging, spontaneous combustion and even spontaneous head explosions.) In the following scene, Cronenberg gives us an illustration of Vale's gift/curse that echoes Sturgeon's sentiments about the need for focus in daily life:

"Everywhere we go, everything we do, we're surrounded by symbols, by things so familiar we don't ever look at them or don't see them if we do look. If anyone could report to you exactly what we saw and thought while walking ten feet down the street, you'd get the most twisted, clouded, partial picture you ever ran across. And nobody ever looks at what's around him with any kind of attention until he gets into a place like this. The fact that he's looking at past events doesn't matter; what counts is that he's seeing clearer than he ever could before, just because, for once, he's trying."

As soon as Vale learns to focus his ability (thanks to a scientifically-engineered drug called Ephemerol), he becomes an unwitting soldier in a complicated war between the military-industrial complex and an underground army of so-called "scanners" (who are not unlike X-Men villains). Eventually, Vale falls in with a group of peacenik scanners who aspire to a different kind of power. Behind closed doors, they link to each other telepathically and vibe on the flow of energy from person to person. (Cronenberg's film defines telepathy as the "direct linking of two nervous systems separated by space.") The psychic love-in doesn't last, but this scene is a brief glimpse of the main philosophical idea in "More Than Human" - the idea that the next stage in human evolution will be a gestalt life-form. Sturgeon explains:

"You got mind-readers. You got people can move things with their mind. You got people can move themselves with their mind. You got people can figure anything out if you just think to ask them. What you ain't got is the one kind of person who can pull 'em all together, like a brain pulls together the parts that press and pull and feel heat and walk and think and all the other things."

This goes one step further than Cronenberg's film does. Nevertheless "More Than Human," THE FURY and SCANNERS all have very similar third acts. In the end of each story, there is a struggle for control of the evolved being(s). (STOP READING NOW IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS) In THE FURY, Robin (Andrew Stevens) transmits his gift to Gillian (Amy Irving) before he dies. As a result, Gillian evolves further than either of them could have alone. The same sort of thing happens in SCANNERS when Cameron Vale transmits his mind into Daryl Revok's body. (The details of how this is accomplished by the "direct linking of two nervous systems" are very fuzzy... but that's true for much of the pseudo-science in SCANNERS.)

In "More Than Human," there is a similar showdown between the Evolved Being that despises humanity and a human adversary whose strongest weapon is his morality. Sturgeon describes his Evolved Being as follows: "He had wide round eyes, just the color and luminescence of a black-and-white television screen. The irises showed the whites all the way around; they were perfectly round and they looked as if they were just about to spin." One look into those spinning eyes, Sturgeon warns us, can burn out a man's brain in seconds...

Cronenberg expands on this imagery in the final scene of SCANNERS - the one scene that, for my money, beats THE FURY at its own game. Robin's climactic suicide in THE FURY is utterly ridiculous. The guy can levitate, but he can't survive a jump from a two-story window? Kirk Douglas's subsequent suicide simply adds insult to injury, and this badly undercuts the explosive finale in which Gillian simultaneously displays her newfound powers and her apparent loss of human decency.

In SCANNERS, Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok engage in much more satisfying Old West-style Cain-and-Abel duel using their minds instead of guns. Revok throws down the gauntlet by saying, "We're going to do it the scanner way... I'm going to suck your brain dry." Because Michael Ironside is perfectly menacing, we know: it's on. Cronenberg, aided mightily by effects master Dick Smith, doesn't disappoint.

The battle sequence only lasts a few minutes, but it is captivating from beginning to end. The two scanners literally erode and explode each other's bodies from the inside out. The results convey the startling resilience of the human body - a system of parts that can function independently of each other - in a way that climactic shootouts never do. (I'm reminded of Hitchcock's extended fight scene in TORN CURTAIN... The director wanted to show that killing a man takes a long time and is therefore very difficult to watch.) This is Cronenberg doing what he does best: mixing beauty and horror with such hypnotic fury that we lose the ability to distinguish between beauty and horror. I've seen this sequence dozens of times, and I still can't look away - can't even blink - until that final shot when Daryl Revok, his eyes gleaming white, unleashes a guttural cry that signifies a resolution beyond the viewer's casual imagination.

For me, the aftermath hints at the deeper ideas that aren't explored within the relatively conventional storyline of SCANNERS. We see that Revok's body has survived the duel... then realize that he has Vale's eyes and speaks in Vale's voice. When he says, "We won," the results remain unclear. What does he mean by "we"? This lingering question is the reason I love the film.

One belongs to the Others oneself and enhances their power. "The Others" whom one thus designates in order to cover up the fact of one’s belonging to them essentially oneself, are those who proximally and for the most part "are there" in everyday Being-with-one-another. The "who" is not this one, not that one, not oneself, not some people, and not the sum of them all. The "who" is the neuter, the "they”.

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