Cronenberg: Scanners (1981)


One of the most perfectly realised of Cronenberg’s first wave of horror films, Scanners spawned two sequels, two spin-offs and has been in development as a television series since 2011, while its images and ideas have continued to percolate in horror and science-fiction cinema far beyond the original franchise. In part, that’s because it elaborates one of those rare conceits that not only seemed to encapsulate all the fears and anxieties of a particular era but to prophecy how those fears and anxieties would intensify and evolve in the future as well. As in Cronenberg’s previous string of films, we’re presented with a unique combination of body horror and science fiction whereby an experimental medical procedure brings a certain kind of post-human identity into existence – in this case, the “scanners,” a tiny group of people (less than three hundred worldwide) who are capable of telepathy, telekinesis and mind control due to a botched pregnancy drug delivered in the 1950s. Although they’ve had their powers ever since, the scanners are only known to themselves and to a small group of technocrats at ConSec, a security and surveillance corporation that is interested in harvesting and harnessing their peculiar abilities with the assistance of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) and his protégé Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), who set out to counteract a renegade “scanner underground” headed by scanner activist Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane). As might be expected, however, once Vale actually comes into contact with the underground – and forms a friendship with one of its ambivalent affiliates, Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) – he’s forced to question some of his assumptions about what it means to be a scanner, as well as the rights of scanners themselves.

From almost the first scene, it’s clear that Scanners represents a sharp refinement of Cronenberg’s style, paving the way for Videodrome and his string of big-budget pictures in the 1980s. On the one hand, Cronenberg’s tendency towards medical and surgical discursion is elegantly condensed to a series of expository monologues – mostly spoken by Dr. Ruth – that replace his earlier, somewhat tortured efforts to generate plausibility with something closer to a plausibility effect. Whereas, in his previous films, it could feel as if Cronenberg was trying to craft something quite close to hard science fiction, here there’s almost no pretense to actual scientific credibility, which allows Scanners to embrace the peculiar campiness of the B-movie in a new way, but also imbues the spaces and vistas of the film with a new kind of plausibility as well, if only because the insularity and self-sufficiency of Dr. Ruth’s baroque ruminations take so much of the burden of implausibility on their shoulders that they effective contain and cushion it from the rest of the film, which plays out as a corporate espionage thriller more than straight horror or science-fiction. More immediately, by finding a single place to put most of his exposition, Cronenberg also frees up the rest of the film to proceed more or less silently, giving him full rein to explore his unique visual sensibility in ways that frequently seem to hark back to his first two features, Stereo and Crimes Of The Future, which were shot as silent films and only then adumbrated with a voiceover not all that different from the role that Dr. Ruth plays here.

In fact, at its strongest, Scanners seems prescient that the best medium for a film about telepathy is silent cinema, with the most brutal and visceral scenes tending to simply involve two people staring intently at each other. When a scanner “scans” a regular person, the result is generally instant capitulation, but when two scanners compete for each other’s minds, a more extended combat ensues. One of the other main ways in which Cronenberg refines his style in this film is by dissociating viscera from actual gore in the name of a new flesh – distributed, synthetic, inimical to metaphors of inside and outside – that makes these stare-offs almost unbearable to watch, and much more shocking and confronting than the iconic exploding head that has become something of a synecdoche for the film’s prosthetic achievements. In part, that’s because these stare-offs tend to make regular flesh feel prosthetic – or to confound all differences between flesh and prosthesis – as viscera seems to rise until it’s barely repressed by the surface of the skin, and every organ seems to pulse out from beneath the contours of the face. Like watching someone in the midst of a stroke, a seizure, or a tumour, it’s a testament to Cronenberg’s unique capacity to direct the body in pain, as his camera appears to conduct a kind of surgical intervention upon his actors’ faces and bodies simply by watching them. It’s no surprise, then, that the final sequence is a climactic stare-off, not that it charts a seamless and extended movement from flesh to prosthesis that feels like the very moment at which Cronenberg really comes into his own as a realist, or a hyperrealist, even if the object of his realism hasn’t itself quite come to fruition at this particular moment in time.

As a film that is effectively composed of intensive, insulated and prosthetic stares – often between men – there’s a kind overdetermination to Scanners that allows it to function as an allegory for all kinds of interrelated and topical situations, most of which intersect in some way with the role of cinema itself within Cronenberg’s particular worldview. At one level, there’s a sense in which scanning plays a role akin to Fredric Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping, with many of the most spectacular scanning sequences taking place amongst discordant fragments of gleaming postmodern architecture, framed with weird, angular perspectives discorrelated from any plausible or even possible point of view, as if to suggest the emergence of some totally new spatial configuration whose fringes can only just be glimpsed when scanning or being scanned. At the same time, the scanners are frequently identified with the surveillance equipment that oversee these spaces, begging the question of whether they’re mapping or monitoring their environments, or whether there’s even any difference anymore, with Cronenberg’s mise-en-scenes often seeming to envisage a world in the very process of navigating space has started to require a competitive advantage or sensory augmentation. Of course, such a world immediately suggests the possibilities of loitering, cruising or aimless wandering as a form of resistance, but the scanners often seem to have contained this possibility as well, adopting the prehensile gaze of cruising in particular to turn each scan into a kind of miniature or momentary version of what Eve Kosofsky Segdwick described as paranoid gothic romance – stories or situations in which men are brought into a claustrophobic homosexual proximity, only to disavow it by way of the paranoid overreach of gothic tropes that are such a hallmark of Cronenberg’s style. In most of Cronenberg’s previous films, the new flesh is figured as a slightly different iteration of queerness, and as a formative moment in his second wave of body horror, Scanners emphatically recapitulates this pattern of the post-homosexual seguing into the post-human.

For me, personally, what makes the film so rich is the way that Cronenberg draws on all these disparate tendencies to – quite prophetically – envisage corporate technocracy as direct nervous stimulation, with the film beautifully sketching out a cityscape that is entirely driven by multilateral corporate interests on the other hand, and experimental sensory modulations on the other, to the point where every corporate technology is simultaneously a medical technology, and every moment of corporate exploitation is an act of body horror. For all the acclaim surrounding his use of prosthetics and horror effects, one of Cronenberg’s greatest gifts is his ability to evoke the sheer anonymity of this emergent techno-corporate environment, which, for all the occasional dashes of flamboyant postmodern architecture, is ultimately more akin to the deadening anonymity of a giant pharmaceutical business park that employs everyone and everything in the film, whether they know it or not. As that might suggest, beneath the speculative futurism, there is a more banal vision buried here of a world in which all corporate interests have converged on pharmaceutics, creating a kind of perfected police state in which police are no longer even required, a crushing and oppressive sense of manufactured conformity that precludes any kind of collectivity, curiousity or creativity – unless, of course, you happen to be imbued with some kind of heightened nervous capacity. In one of the greatest twists of the film, though, even the scanners’ special attributes are demonstrated to be totally continuous with this world, as Dr. Ruth reveals quite late in the piece that it’s just as possible to scan a computer as it is to scan another person’s brain, and so just as possible – conversely – for the scanner to be co-opted by this omniscient corporate nervous system in turn, which is just what transpires in one of the most chilling and stunning set pieces.

In that sense, there’s quite an organic connection between Scanners and Cronenberg’s later work, in which bodily disfigurement, enhancement and augmentation still play a central role, but are no longer capable of transcending his business park aesthetic in the same way as they did in his earlier body horror features. In the same way that post-continuity cinema is not about consciously violating so much as casually disregarding classical continuity principles, so Cronenberg’s later films don’t exactly revise or subvert his earlier aesthetic so much as immerse themselves in a world in which the kinds of bodily prosthesis that were once so singularly transcendent have become somewhat unremarkable, not necessarily because they have been literally fulfilled, but because the prosthetic quality of mobile digital culture has internalised, normalised and neutralised them. In part of a round table discussion on “Post-Cinematic Affect: Post-Continuity, The Irrational Camera and 3D,” Shane Denson posits a new kind of post-cinematic camera which “no longer frames actions, emotions and events in a given world but instead provides the color, look and feel of the film qua material component or aspect of  the world” and there is a sense in which Cronenberg’s confrontation between camera and body horror has shifted in this direction too, with his late cameras refraining from sustained depictions of bodily augmentation to instead offer themselves as a kind of augmentative prosthesis that arguably draws us into even greater communion with the bodies depicted on the screen, but also displaces their spectacular imperative in a similar way to Scanners, which finally feels more futuristic than both Videodrome and The Fly in the way that it envisages a kind of unremarkable horizon to even the most remarkable bodily augmentations, modulations and manipulations. Watching it, I can’t help but think of Steven Shaviro’s recent observation on Twitter – or about Twitter – that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from everyday banality,” and the technologies in Scanners often seem to be right at that cusp of advancement, which of course makes banality imminent but also makes the peculiar sublimity of the scanners themselves all the more precious, breathtaking and cinematic.

In that sense, the film is very much driven by the awareness that these cinematic moments, for all their beauty, can’t be allowed to continue, if only because the ultimate analogy for scanning – “the direct linking of two nervous systems separated by space” – is cinema itself. Body horror, in particular, is largely driven by this effort to create a an affective, nervous, embodied connection between spectator and screen – a direct physiological intervention – and yet that very fact is what also makes body horror the ultimate corporate technology as well. Watching Scanners, then, is a bit like witnessing Cronenberg’s style – and medium – gradually acknowledging its complicity in the very technologies its is critiquing, and trying to find a way to incorporate that acknowledgment into its own aesthetic, a process that culminates with the participatory, post-cinematic affect that has dominated his films from A History of Violence onwards, which is perhaps why Scanners also feels more emphatically and unmistakably Canadian than any of Cronenberg’s films from around this period as well. For, despite the fact that some Hollywood films are actually set in Canada, for the most part Canada – and especially Toronto – has been treated by the West Coast studios as a cheap substitute for whatever city – often New York – they need to depict. As a result, in the Hollywood imagination, Toronto is not really a place so much as a kind of malleable, protean, corporate anonymity of precisely the kind that Cronenberg is seeking to capture in Scanners, which – ironically – also happens to be set in Toronto, like so many of Cronenberg’s other films. What ensues, then, is neither a vision of Toronto in itself nor a version of Toronto as some simulacral American city but instead a kind of immersion in the very spatial fungibility – the sense that what we see could be susbtituted for any space or city – that has made Toronto so precious to the American film industry. In place of an actual place, Cronenberg offers a series of transitional, ephemeral and interstitial zones – especially escalators, staircases and guided walkways – that are pointedly non-representational, and more like the various hinges, syntax and connective tissue that are conventionally used to assemble Toronto into whatever version of American urban life it needs to mimic or replicate.

While that may sound like something of an anti-aesthetic, there is, in fact, a distinctive – if somewhat inadvertent – “look” to films that are shot opportunistically in Toronto, especially those with the kind of low-budget imperative still visible in this point in Cronenberg’s career, which Ramon Lobato, in Shadow Economies of Cinema, attributes to Toronto’s “ubiquitous cloudy sky”: “the muted Ontario light lends many of these films a uniform greyness, and shorter shooting schedules mean crews cannot wait around for sunny days.” As a kind of accidental aesthetic that momentarily draws the economic basis of the film industry into visibility, this “uniform greyness” lingers around the fringes of Scanners, in a kind of visual echo or imprint of the ways in which the shooting locations themselves have been scanned and made over in the image of Cronenberg’s first predominantly American production. If Scanners is a harbinger of Cronenberg’s post-cinematic turn, it’s also a harbinger of the way in which this greyness has become his dominant palette over the last decade, even or especially as his late work has emphatically situated itself outside of Canada, whether by a way of a quite startling recourse to historical drama (A Dangerous Method), a movement away from the kinds of American urbanity that might plausibly be refracted through Toronto (A History of Violence) or by the kinds of location shooting that leave no doubt as to our actual location (Eastern Promises, Maps To The Stars). In some ways, Cosmopolis culminates this tendency, as Cronenberg presents us with an iconic New York parable by an iconic New York author, shoots it in Toronto according to Hollywood custom, but – most critically – makes no effort to hide that displacement, instead orchestrating the limousine drive around which the film revolves in terms of a series of iconic Toronto streets, landscapes and vistas that can leave no doubt as to where we actually are, reclaiming Toronto as an actual, independent city only to immerse us even more drastically in its putative anonymity.

In all these cases, what has occurred in Cronenberg’s late work has been a gradual dissociation of this accidental Toronto aesthetic – or Toronto anti-aesthetic – away from Toronto itself, in a kind of sleight-of-hand that projects that anonymous fungibility back on the very American industry that previously promulgated it. It’s not surprising, then, that Cronenberg’s late body horror has no particular interest in transcending this “uniform greyness,” since to transcend it would be to reiterate the very distinction between American centre and Canadian supplement that produced it in the first place. While I understand why some critics have found this cultivated blandness somewhat tiresome, I also think that it represents a genuine development in Cronenberg’s worldview, as well as a more specific development of the “banal quality of life in a digitally automated environment” that Mark Fisher has identified as the cornerstone of eXistenZ’s “subdued, resolutely non-spectacular” brownscapes. In his iconic monograph on late style, Edward Said suggested that late work often “abjures mere bourgeois aging” in favour of an “increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism,” and there is something about the very way in which Cronenberg has exiled himself from his own fan base – especially with A Dangerous Method, which is up there with M. Butterfly as the most drastic and bizarre left-turn in his filmography – that is compelling in its very openness to the new, to the unexpected, and – above all – to the Canadian.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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