David Cronenberg’s speculative nightmare gives us a glimpse into the now.
Back in 1983, technology was still relatively primitive, but we were on the precipice of a revolution.
Watching the majority of movies from that era, you can’t help but smirk at some of our technological assumptions. The 80s was a period of excess, a time when bigger was better, and that was certainly the idea with evolving technology.
There are examples of those gaudy speculations in Videodrome, but they become almost peripheral as you find yourself drawn deeper into the movie’s warped realities. That in itself is a testament to the visionary qualities of David Cronenberg‘s most enduring achievement.
Videodrome is a speculative oddity that would age like fine wine. Since the movie’s release, the director has also matured. Modern efforts such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) offered richer characters and conflict, but his technophobic body horror stands tallest, functioning as a social and political satire of considerable merit.
Not only does Videodrome challenge our dependency on technology, it predicts our fetishization of mind-numbing devices, while serving as a timely commentary on ‘video nasty’ censorship. It also questions the medium of television as a tool for systematic propaganda, presenting a device that subliminally installs political ideologies while promoting mass indoctrination.
Unlikely protagonist Max Renn is the personification of an 80s man. Gone are the Christian loyalties and family values of past generations, replaced instead by a smut-peddling singleton with an unhealthy fascination with the perverse. Played with sleazy relish by the ever frenetic James Woods, Max is a partner at Civic TV, a morally corrupt station which deals in porn and advertises itself as ‘The one you take to bed with you.’ As human as any of us, Max is just as susceptible to his product’s brain-melting fascinations, watching until the early hours before rushing off in search of his next potential thrill.
Nicki Brand – Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual. And I think that’s bad.
Seeking a product which truly pushes the boundaries, Max illegally scans overseas satellites for lurid material. He eventually stumbles across Videodrome, an authentic snuff production operating out of Pittsburgh. Before long Max is hooked, and when he meets sultry sadomasochist Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), his fascinations take on a whole new reality, leading him along a murky path of wild hallucinations, surreptitious mind-control and political assassination.
Cronenberg indulges in his own fascination with body horror as a means to communicate his central theme, and in Renn he presents his audience with a physical manifestation of themselves. After being exposed to Videodrome, Max begins to hallucinate in ways that fuel his desires, crawling towards his television as technology purrs and pulsates at his very touch. When the line separating fantasy from reality begins to dissolve, Max goes in search of the infamously reclusive Dr Brian O’Blivion, a philosopher who publicly describes the television screen as being ‘the retina of the mind’s eye’.
In one of the movie’s most disturbing scenes, Max’s chest develops a vaginal cavity which doubles as a front loader for his lurid tape collection, material which offers violent or sexual relief the way ‘video nasties’ did a whole generation, mirroring the base desires of a society plunged into moral shame. After Max is recruited as an assassin by the political figures behind Videodrome, his hand transforms into a semi-organic revolver, a phallic representation of the medium’s grip on our thoughts and actions.
Is Max’s gun any different from a joystick or a remote control? You have to ask yourself that question as you develop the same morbid fascination he does, watching his descent into murder and madness as technology melds with rotting flesh and vaguely human characters bubble and mutate into something distinctly alien. By that time Max has lost his grip on reality due to overexposure. He can no longer think or act for himself, and as warped and immoral as it may seem to him, he accepts the reality that is presented to him because it is the only one he is able to see.
Brian O’Blivion – The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.
Almost four decades after its release, Videodrome is as relevant as ever, not only because of our growing fascination with an overabundance of modern technology, or the parasitic relationship we have developed with it, but because of the growing influence the mainstream media has on society, and the sophisticated model of propaganda they have devised. Today, it is through television and the internet that elections are won and lost, that heroes and villains are made. It is also where false information is passed off as truth, moulding our thoughts and opinions and feeding our prejudices.
Like many of us living in today’s society, Max is tricked into believing something that simply isn’t real, but because he is exposed to that something day after day, he has no choice but to accept what he sees, and in the end comes to embrace it in spite of himself. When Max ultimately conforms to the murderous whims of Videodrome, it is an inserted VHS tape that communicates their instructions, sending him on a path of mindless destruction that promotes action over will, fanaticism over reason.
When lascivious business associate Masha (Lynne Gorman) returns with information about the little-known snuff purveyor encroaching on Max’s freedoms, she warns him about their surreptitious nature. ‘It has a philosophy,’ she tells him. ‘And that’s what makes it dangerous.’
But in the end, we become a danger to ourselves.