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The Jewishness of ‘Scanners’

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Sean Alexander unpicks the Jewish undercurrents to the film Scanners which was released forty years ago on this day.

Probably best known to David Cronenberg fans as ‘the one with the exploding head’, Scanners (1981) has proven to be one of the Canadian’s most remembered and entertaining of early studio features.  Following the parasitical excesses of Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1979), and the cathartic ‘divorce movie’ that inspired The Brood (1979) – Cronenberg famously called it his Kramer vs Kramer  – Scanners is both characteristically Cronenberg and an unusually populist dip into outright Hollywoodian action and violence. No other Cronenberg film is as replete with car chases and explosions, but at the heart of Scanners lies a powerful treatise on scientific experimentation and hubris.

For a director whose Jewish ancestry was never too far from the surface, the titular ‘Scanners’ – enhanced telepaths who are sought by corporate science for their cognitive abilities as telepaths and mind-controllers – make for an interesting comparison to much of the historic archetypes associated with Jews and antisemitic notions of their mystical and duplicitous natures. When we first meet our main character Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) he is seemingly a vagrant, wandering through a shopping mall and picking up bits of food from abandoned tables. A pair of women nearby look on, with one even saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything so disgusting in all my life…I can’t believe they let creatures like that in here.’  Already able to sense people’s thoughts, Vale responds in kind by unleashing a ‘scan’ on his accuser, causing her to convulse and suffer a seizure before the incident alerts some shady governmental men in black (MIB) to Vale’s presence; tranquilising him before he can get away.

At the same time, a corporate demonstration in the presence of a select group of financial and political VIPs sees another scanner, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), quite literally blow someone’s mind. As MIBs once again descend to take Revok captive, they are instead met with a far more powerfully honed talent; Revok killing each and every one of his would-be captors by forcing them to take each other’s lives. Unlike Vale, Revok is an accomplished telepath and mind-controller, and as the film unfolds, we learn he is both a former psychiatric patient (aged 22 he drilled a hole in his own forehead to relieve the ‘pressure’ of all the unwanted voices of those around him) and now, aged 35, has become the leader of an underground movement of scanners looking to control the world.

Vale and Revok’s paths are irrevocably fixed with the introduction of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) whose name recalls the Jewish sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, and whose bearded countenance has more than a passing resemblance to both the biblical Moses and Abraham. Ruth’s intelligence and background in psychopathology also code him as Jewish, while his plan to use Vale as an infiltrator of Revok’s underground army has more than an element of Jewish associations with spying and obfuscation. Dr. Ruth works at ConSec which is involved in seeking out and training new scanners. The theme of double agents is reinforced in the figure of ConSec’s new head of security, Keller (Lawrence Dane), who we later learn is working for Revok and is the ‘spy’ Vale is sent to expose; albeit too late to save Dr. Ruth whose desire to undermine ConSec’s control of the scanner community leads to his own assassination.

But perhaps what gives Scanners its most resonant Jewish interpretation comes from the revelation that Vale and Revok are in fact brothers, both sons of Dr. Ruth (Jacob and Esau to his Isaac, if you like), and the climactic conflagration between the pair is rich with Biblical analogy. While Revok’s desire to lead a super-race of scanners has more than a hint of fascism to it, Vale’s decent and upstanding ‘Messiah’ is instead willing to divest himself of his own bodily existence; the climactic fight between the brothers sees Vale consumed by fire, only for his personality to be transferred to Revok.  Revok’s own egotistical pursuit of glory, relying on the foot soldiers of willing (if not gifted) followers is itself redolent of Hitler’s own influence over the Nazi youth and those stormtroopers that carried out his orders.  Interestingly, one such would-be assassin is persuaded by another scanner, Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) to see his own mother rather than his intended target in another example of archetypal Jewish ‘mimicry’.

The idea behind Scanners’ drug, Ephemerol, relies much on the Thalidomide scandal of the 1950s (where pregnant women were administered a drug found to be effective in combatting morning sickness, but which led to serious malformations in their unborn foetuses).  From a Jewish point of view, though, Revok’s plan to inject all pregnant females with Ephemerol recalls the kind of scientific experimentation conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele on Jews in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  While Revok and Vale share both a father and a powerful ability to control people’s minds, they are nevertheless polarised examples from Jewish history: the fascistic and genocidal mind-controller versus the gentle and decent mensch. Dr. Ruth’s ‘Ripe’ programme (a list of Ephemerol recipients inaugurated during the years of World War II) is now used by Revok to bring a new world order of ‘elite’ scanners under his rule.  This ‘final solution’ is, we assume, averted when Vale replaces Revok’s consciousness with his own at the film’s end.  As Revok/Vale tells Kim Obrist, ‘I’m here Kim.  We’ve won.  We’ve won.’

All photos: Wikipedia, Youtube

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Sean Alexander is a PhD Candidate at Bangor University, exploring Jewishness and Judaism in the films of David Cronenberg.
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