Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Scanners / Videodrome (David Cronenberg)

Exploding head syndrome

David Cronenberg's Scanners (1981) begins where Brian De Palma's hallucinatory The Fury ends--with the image of a man's head exploding in slow motion

The film goes on to sketch a world of renegade paranormals and shadowy secret organizations worthy of Philip K. Dick ("Scanning isn't the reading of minds but the merging of two nervous systems, separated by space." The mix of provocative metaphysical ideas with pulp SF terminology is purest Dick). The plot is complicated--Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is sent by CONSEC psychopharmacist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to infiltrate an underground society of scanners and eliminate its head, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside)--but really just a framework on which Cronenberg hangs his paranoid and increasingly bizarre view of reality. 

Not an easy film to follow--legend has it Cronenberg was writing scenes while he was shooting--but charges of incoherence are, I think, exaggerated; the plot does make sense (more or less) only Cronenberg doesn't give you a chance to pull it together. The apparent incoherence reinforces the paranoia: you know something's going on, but can barely keep track of what whom where when why

Interesting to note the root cause of all this--a drug developed for pregnant women that transforms babies into scanners--links this "head" movie (Cronenberg titles dealing with alienation and paranoia (The Dead Zone, Spider)) with his more "venereal" works (physical metaphors for the human reproductive system (The Brood, Rabid, The Fly)). Also interesting to note how Cronenberg tends to blame corporations--in this case, CONSEC and the equally shadowy Biocarbon Amalgamate. The films are mostly set in Canada, giving them a geographically anonymous feel--possibly due to a need to make the films look more universal, possibly due to some notion that corporations are multinational and interchangeable (you've seen one corporate headquarters you've seen em all)

What holds the film together--what makes aesthetic if not narrative sense--are Michael Ironside's demonic Revok (satanic brow, wet lips, gritted teeth), Patrick McGoohan's eerie Dr. Ruth (wandering around muttering profundities that almost--but not quite--make sense), and Cronenberg's inimitable imagery. In one extraordinary scene Vale picks up a phone and scans (merges his nervous system with) a computer. Scientific nonsense--telekinesis transmitted via telephone lines?--but Cronenberg gives the sequence real force and conviction, years before the word 'cyberattack' is ever coined

Then there's the scanning. Cronenberg rings various changes on human flesh the way a sculptor works in clay or plaster (At one point Vale visits a scanner artist who uses his depictions of tortured human forms--you're almost sure he's drawing from experience--as therapy). The paranormals in Scanners demonstrate a simple cause-and-effect--the scanners will the flesh moves--but the onscreen impact goes beyond mere sculpt-by-thought (why do the veins dilate so horribly? Why does the flesh burn and bubble?); Cronenberg records it all with the unflinching unblinking directness of a veteran pornographer.

Long Live the New Flesh

"It has something you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that's what makes it dangerous."

This intoned with appropriate foreboding to Max Renn (James Woods) is the Video Age variation of that classic line from Renoir's Rules of the Game, only today the tragedy isn't everyone having their reasons but that some reasons seem more compelling, more seductive, more able to inspire faith. Within this corollary, Cronenberg seems to be telling us, lies the future

Renn is part owner and manager of Channel 83, a cable TV station looking for programs that show extremes of sex and violence--material with an edge, in effect. He discovers Videodrome, a bandit channel that broadcasts realistically depicted tortures and executions in a room lined with electrified clay. Turns out the video signal  alters not just one's perception of reality, but reality itself; Renn is transformed from TV executive to programmable killer by the group responsible for the signal.

Videodrome (1983) is, if anything, an even more extreme experiment than his previous Scanners (which began with an exploding head). Where in Scanners the horror came from the mind's direct control over matter, in Videodrome the horror comes from eliminating the distinction between mind and matter. The TV set becomes an object of desire complete with veined, undulating surface and a pair of ballooning lips puckered to receive a kiss; a vaginal orifice opens in Renn's belly, waiting to receive programming in the form of hand-inserted videotapes; a gun melds with the hand, forming a biomechanical extension; walls melt away around Renn to become Videodrome's electrified clay--suggesting Renn has always been in Videodrome, nor is he out of it

Most call Videodrome a media satire, a meditation on perception, a metaphor of how the video image has taken over and dominated the modern mind. Few have noticed how the film functions as metaphor for the power of faith--how, instead of the sane mind's ability to shape one's beliefs to the reality around us we have the insane ability to shape reality to one's beliefs (the ultimate objective of religious extremists, you might say). Renn starts out as a shaper--one strong enough to charm and persuade, put a spin to his words, make them palatable to the outside world ("better on TV than on the streets" he says of his programming). Gradually Videodrome breaks down his will by breaking down his sense of reality (the passage a harrowing metaphor for the process of brainwashing as seen through the eyes of the person being brainwashed); he's reduced to being an automaton waiting for his first assignment.

When The New Flesh takes over Cronenberg gives us little sense that Renn's condition has in any way improved (he's still an automaton); The New Flesh's philosophy, more eloquently articulated by Brian O'Blivion, (Jack Creley), only substitutes a new faith for the previous. An unsettling possibly great film for the way it puts forth its ideas unflinchingly, imaginatively, powerfully, it is in my book Cronenberg's unholy masterpiece, and one of the great films in the science-fiction genre.

(First published in Menzone Magazine, June, 2004)

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