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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Stories that Sustain Us—Scanners

More a declaration than a popcorn flick. 

David Cronenberg’s 1981 film, Scanners opens in a shopping mall where a disheveled man sits down to enjoy a discarded cigarette only to be accosted by a judgmental prig. We quickly realize that the man, Cameron Vale is suffering not form the assclown's comments but from her thoughts. No more able to tune-out her mental hostility than he is to break his gaze, Cameron stares until the woman collapses in the throes of a fit.

While the viewer is still processing who-did-what-to-whom the film shifts to a corporate auditorium, (“corporate” means nothing fun has ever happened in that auditorium). A guy who looks like an insurance salesman drones on about scanning and nosebleeds or some such. Honestly, even the empty chairs look bored. Then he asks for a volunteer to demonstrate the procedure. Hilarity does NOT ensue.

My sister hoodwinked me into Scanners. A sheltered-sensitive child, the movie scared the living hell out of me. Shellshocked by the auditorium scene, Cronenberg’s prescience flew completely over my head but then I was 12 years old, with no idea how brutal the world was/is/would become.

From shopping malls, to corporate excesses, to abandonment, Scanners was the first 80s movie, in tone if not chronology. It remains mirror-honest on Reagan’s campaign slogans, which, like this movie, looked a lot more like Gil Scott-Heron’s Winter in America sounds.

Lessons for writers

A lot has been made of the stilted dialogue in Scanners. But what that dialogue does is imprat an emotional desolation common to the time. The ubiquitous coats reflect a cold society, insular and guarded. Incidentally that is my sensory memory of the 1980s: permeating cold, (weather, people, economics) all the time. 

More than “a dark and stormy night…”

The night shots, (Montreal doubling for every-city, North America) are close and menacing. Day shots, (Toronto, in washed-out natural daylight) are bleak and sterile. In short, using the environment to shade your story doesn't cost extra.

Look for different big-bads

Unlike conspiracy films made in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, there’s no shadow government here plotting against society. It’s just us, plain-old-normal humans who created the scanners. It’s plain-old us who lose control of living/breathing weapons and end up burned by the fire we started but were too ignorant to wield. 

Sometimes the underwhelming truth is more compelling than the sexy-shiny lie

Those of us who recall the ultimate outcome of the free-market 1980s, (the consequences of which bled into the next two decades) see the same incompetence in the ConSec management. A global security company, ConSec is run by a bunch of “dads,” blinded by arrogance. They are tragically unprepared for the crisis that they create.

The best villain is gray, the simplest object is the most effective

Daryl Revok has been in and out of institutions for most of his life. Abandoned by his family or so it seems, he is an extraordinarily strong scanner. But Revok is more importantly highly intelligent. He deduces what the scanners were created for. A master manipulator by necessity, he realizes that it’s easier to manipulate normal people through greed than by telepathy. Which is how he sways Braedon Keller to be his mole. Keller is no scanner but he is willing to kill his own people to achieve a seat at the table with whoever takes over. Revok makes a collar and leash out of normal human desire for control and power.

The best stories hit the reader/viewer where they live

No, Scanners is not a great movie. Nor would I rank it in my top ten. But over the decades since that frightful movie night in 1981, I’ve watched Cronenberg’s cautionary tale a dozen times or more. I have also read the excellent novelization by Leon Whiteson. 

Like Cameron Vale, I was homeless within a year of seeing the movie. Like millions of other Americans, my family would struggle with chronic homelessness for years. I watched relatives and friends struggle with addiction, mental illness, and abandonment—all depicted in Cronenberg's film. All while millionaires became billionaires. 

Stick the landing

Corporate excesses, real harm done to real people, and bald-faced power grabs are the legacy of the 1980s and Cronenberg’s film. It is indemic in the ending. When a character proclaims “We won.” The viewer can’t help but wonder if it’s the good guy or the good-enough guy.

In her Sound on Sight retrospective, Katie Wong said, “Without Scanners, the 1980s would not be the same.” I think that without the 1980s, Scanners wouldn’t even be a footnote. What I know for certain is that when I watch Cronenberg’s film, (which I do when ever it's on) I feel less alone with my memories. 

Easing loneliness and softening harsh recall is an outstanding accomplishment for any story.

The photo at the top, "Scanners Theatrical Release Poster" is the property of New World Pictures. Its use here, for educational/instructional purposes is covered under the Fair Use Doctrine.