(Mind and) Body of Work: David Cronenberg

(WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BROOD, SCANNERS, AND DEAD RINGERS)

 

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

How the mind and the body might, or might not, connect is a quandary philosophers have contemplated since ancient Greece. Plato theorized that multiple souls existed within one organism and that the most sophisticated of them, the faculty of reason, exists only in humans, separate from the corporeal world. In modern philosophy, Renee Descartes argued in his Cartesian Dualism model that the mind, consisting of the consciousness and the intellect, was completely apart from the biological brain. In the past few decades, film director David Cronenberg has made his own contributions to the mind-body dilemma. His films The Brood, Scanners, and Dead Ringers suggest that the mind and body connect to such extremes that sickness in the former has immediate consequences on the latter.

The Brood offers the most transparent example of how psyche effects matter in Cronenberg’s films. The story revolves around a mental patient named Nola Carveth who has undergone experimental therapy called “psychoplasmics”. The term insinuates the amalgamation of the mental (“psycho”) and the physical (“plasma”). The viewer learns that her disturbances derive from preoccupation with motherhood, symptomatic of trauma inflicted upon her by alcoholic parents while growing up. Meanwhile her husband Frank battles for sole-custody of their daughter, Candice. The Brood hints early that Nola’s neurosis is not entirely isolated to her mind. A number of homicides occur, perpetrated by a mysterious gang of genderless, mutant children. The victims are people who agitate Nola’s sense of maternal ambivalence: her domineering parents and an interloping schoolteacher. On a figurative level, Nola’s internal demons externalize as child-sized grotesques who terrorize those who threaten her maternal adequacy. The mounting mind-body confluence peaks when it’s revealed that Nola’s turmoil results in an actual physiological abnormality. The deformed brood is in fact her biological offspring, birthed from an external uterus she has preternaturally developed. Like an insect queen, Nola has transmogrified into a perverted incarnation of nature’s ultimate nurturing mother. The Brood suggests that the mind and body are so intertwined that a malady in one directly causes mutations in the other. As an exclamation point, the coda emphasizes a skin rash emerging on Candice’s arm. She has shown signs of a stress disorder since the beginning and has now inherited more than her mother’s mental fragility but the corporeal repercussions as well.

Scanners goes beyond The Brood in that instead of merely acknowledging mind and body reciprocity, it actually espouses hierarchy. A powerful telepath (or scanner) named Cameron Vale is recruited by a government agency to track down a dangerous fugitive scanner named Daryl Revok. Similar to how The Brood visualizes the consequences of mental illness, Scanners introduces Cameron as an everyday schizoid so overwhelmed by his abilities—to eavesdrop on stranger’s private thoughts—he can exist only as a homeless derelict on the fringe of society. To push the evocation further a doctor then prescribes him a drug called Ephemerol, a sort-of antipsychotic designed to suppress the voices. But where Scanners deviates most from The Brood’s mind-body metaphysics is how its characters can bridge gaps from person to person to traverse the empty space between bodies. Unlike most movie psychics, scanners can do more than read minds: they can also manipulate the thoughts of and cause physical harm to others. In an early scene Revok makes another scanner’s head explode during a telepathic duel. When enemy guards confront Cameron and his ally, Kim, the two telepaths escape by attacking the guards with troubling hallucinations. The finale recalls Aristotle’s theory of metempsychosis. He opined that a mind could survive outside the body and transplant itself into another being. Cameron and Revok have a climactic standoff and though Cameron bursts into flames, his mind travels invisibly through space and supplants Revok’s. Kim finds Revok sitting in the corner but with Cameron’s blue eyes and gentle voice. Thus Cameron has successfully displaced his consciousness interpersonally. The ideas on mind and body in Scanners coincide with Aristotle’s, for both stipulate that the human body is merely a vessel to temporarily house the sacred mind.

Dead Ringers makes a considerably more abstract dialectic on the mind-body problem. It chronicles identical twin brothers, Beverly and Eliot Mantle, who own and operate a gynecological practice that specializes in infertility. Their success relies on Beverly’s medical expertise and Eliot’s suave business savvy. The viewer discovers how unhealthy their codependence is when a patient with an especially rare reproductive deformity infatuates Beverly, throwing off the brothers’ essential equilibrium. Eliot and Beverly are two different men only in the most literal way. Their individual bodies represent two opposite yet synergistic sides of one personality. When Beverly’s lover leaves town he starts abusing prescription drugs then descends into a state of depressive delusion. Eliot copies the behavior, desperate to reestablish the pair’s harmonious functionality. In that way, the characters demonstrate mental illness as an imbalance of cerebral processes: both must cooperate in designated roles for the overall body that is the Mantle Brothers to endure. Their usual contrapuntal traits (Eliot is carnal, Beverly emotional; Eliot masculine, Beverly feminine; Eliot confident, Beverly timid; Eliot interested in women for pleasure, Beverly for science) become discombobulated. The final scenes explore the grave consequences of such a disruption. They decide that the only solution is to separate, but how does one split psychologically conjoined twins? As legend dictates, only one brother can survive the procedure, and Eliot volunteers to sacrifice himself. Yet after a brief attempt to live independently, Beverly returns to his brother’s side to die. Dead Ringers’ conclusion on the mind and body is that while a person might thrive without a physical whole (as many amputees and paraplegics have proven) nobody can exist with just half an identity.

In cinematic terms, the three films posit theories on the ancient philosophical question of mind-body connection, piggybacking off arguments supported by Plato, Aristotle and Descartes. The Brood presents an explicit physical manifestation of neurosis, while Scanners proposes the mind’s superiority to the body and its potential to traverse entities, and Dead Ringers uses symbolism to express that the mind is a meticulous system of functioning bodies that must work in concert to survive. Therefore the films of David Cronenberg could be labeled Monistic Idealist, which assigns greater value to mind than body. In Cronenberg’s cinema the body is merely the canvass that the mind chooses for its medium of gruesome expression.

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