David Cronenberg’s speculative nightmare gives us a glimpse into the now
James Woods’ smut-peddling CIVIC-TV partner Max Renn, having fled a very public and gruesome assassination, retreats to a sleazy hideaway and attempts to come to terms with what has transpired during what appear to be his final moments. Amid the gloom, a television screen comes to life. Staring back at Max is the salacious Nikki Brand (note the surname), the sultry gatekeeper to a further reality who becomes the visual motivation for Max and his newfound loyalty to a cause he barely understands. Brand is there to guide Max into the illusive realm she inhabits, a life beyond life. He has reached, as Nikki explains, “the beginning of the new flesh,” and now he has to go all the way. A mirror image of Max appears on the television set in front of him, a tutorial for his transcendence that ends in an explosion of human entrails crashing through the screen. Imitating what he sees, Max aims a quasi-organic mish-mash of revolver and hand to his temple. Max, as serene as the vision that preceded him, repeats the act. This time all we hear is the gunshot as we abruptly cut to black. Death to Videodrome; long live the new flesh!
WHAT. THE. FLYING. FUCK?!!
That was my exact response after first experiencing what I consider to be David Cronenberg’s greatest, most visionary triumph, and I’m sure many of you felt the same way. I was twelve at the time and didn’t understand subtext, had no idea that films could possess such ingenious social commentaries and speculative undercurrents. In fact, Cronenberg’s oeuvre made little or no sense to me. There were moments when I thought it was becoming clearer, a hope that I retained until long after the credits rolled, but it was like taking two steps forward and ten back, with a few diagonal jigs thrown in for good measure. I took everything so literally back then. I wasn’t searching for meaning beyond conventional narrative developments. I was used to films that dealt with themes such as love, fear, regret, honour, revenge, experiencing them on a purely emotional level. I mostly veered towards horror, and despite my confusion Videodrome certainly fell into that category. If nothing else, Howard Shore’s colossal, doom-laden score made that abundantly clear.
But for me horror was something else entirely. I was used to the madman in the hockey mask, the guy with pins in his head, the haunted house, the possessed child. Thanks to movies like Aliens I had even experienced body horror in a more mainstream sense, was deeply affected by (though not fully cognizant of) the xenomorph’s phallic nature. Videodrome I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but it filled me with dread, a different kind of dread, one determined by the absolute unknown, by the queasy feeling of being lost in an inescapable realm of absolute bedlam. I was sucked in by the film’s mind-bending matrimony of technology and flesh, of the real and the unreal. Like Max, I inhabited a void that I couldn’t understand, that I wanted to know more about in spite of myself. This surreal, psychotic vision had absolutely consumed me, and very soon it would spit me out in a squirming heap of viscera not dissimilar to that featured in the movie’s startling and utterly perplexing climax.
Today I look at the movie very differently; seem to derive something new from every viewing. There is so much to ponder here, so many commentaries to be discussed and conclusions to be made, some of which I’ll explore here. Unlike copious movies from that era, Cronenberg’s techno-surrealist head-scramble hasn’t dated on iota; it has aged like fine wine, a heady brew that begs to be popped and consumed, now, more than ever. Some of the technology may be a little dated ― back then, our clunky speculations promised robots in every home and very soon we’d all need mansions to accommodate our increasingly sophisticated gadgets and skyscraper home computers ― but the film’s themes, based around the idea that technology is a medium for change, but also a conduit for manipulation, particularly in corporate hands, are as relevant as ever.
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.
Protagonist Max is drawn to and ultimately consumed by an almost purgatorial realm of transience. Replacing modern technological fancies are the outmoded mediums of television, VHS (or Betamax, which made it easier to create the practical effects, to be specific), and the kind of gaudy virtual reality headsets that belong in a museum, but the film’s sentiments and social commentaries are thoroughly enduring. During the film, Max is devoured, quite literally, by the alluring images beamed through his TV set. His hand, mutating into a mechanical/flesh hybrid redolent of a gamer’s joystick, becomes a deadly weapon, as, through a life-threatening genetic mutation, does Max himself. Like laptops, smartphones and the Internet, these are intensive nodes of attention that absorb Max absolutely, all-consuming environments that forge an impression of life beyond the conventional. The film explores the relationship between the screen, the retina and the mind, foretelling a technological portal into further existence, the kind we are living today through social media platforms and immersive virtual reality gaming.
Rather than embrace a future in which automation makes our lives easier and more satisfying, Cronenberg presents it as another outlet for human corruption. Not only does Videodrome challenge our dependency on technology, it predicts our fetishization of mind-numbing devices and the insidious nature fundamental to all modern technology. Pre-digital, Orwellian dystopia ruled with an iron fist, presenting us with a society who are monitored intensively, who are forced to conform against their will among a paranoid community of spies and misinformation, shaped by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother and weaned on notions of doublethink, thoughtcrime and Newspeak. Not in his wildest, most twisted dreams could Orwell have predicted life in the 21st century, a time when conformity is self-imposed, when privacy-invading devices masquerade as glamorous consumer products that we crave uncontrollably. We conform thanks to the sense of vanity imposed through advertising, but also out of necessity due to the kind of planned obsolescence that sees technology bettered gradually, providing us with new model iPhones and next generation processors faster than we can consume them. Not only do we submit to control and order in modern society, we lust for and actively seek it.
Videodrome is absolutely teeming with lust, the most universal form of self-imposed conformity and the root of human self-denial. Rick Baker’s lurid, sexually-oriented practical effects, some of the most affecting of the era, sweat and pulsate from every frame, the sexual nature of Max’s physical manifestations cutting to the bone at a time when the AIDS epidemic had exploded across America. The moment when Max licks Nikki’s blood off the needle she uses to pierce her ear, bathed in lurid sensuality, opened up wounds beyond Baker’s visuals during a highly sensitive and utterly terrifying period of sexual self-loathing. The Reagan 80s kissed goodbye to the drug-fuelled, free love of previous decades, a fact reflected in the increasingly abundant slasher movie, a sub-genre that punished kids for embracing sexual experimentation in violent ways that were unprecedented.
Baker’s hypnotic visuals transform seemingly inanimate objects into living, breathing entities that consume absolutely, a notion that was hugely unsettling back in the early 1980s when censorship hysteria attached itself to the pre-certificate home video boom. Videodrome itself, an elusive broadcast that blurs the lines between staged and real-life violence, reflected the work of independent filmmakers who were hauled into court on charges of real-life atrocities up to and including murder. The suggestion that filmmakers were actively killing their performers for the sake of a few bucks seems like madness in hindsight, but that’s how deep the hysteria ran. In reality it was all a very personal attack on our civil liberties, the kind that have occurred throughout history for a plethora of ridiculous reasons (remember when rock n’ roll was considered the devil’s music?). The relative cheapness of emerging technologies meant that filmmaking was no longer an elite process under a studio’s control, leading to widespread fear-mongering and the kind of puritanical censorship that led to a list of 72 banned movies dubbed the ‘Video Nasties‘.
During the early-1980s, Cable TV would also expand to include niche channels that catered to tastes that were viewed as unseemly, the emergence of more violent and pornographic material a cause for concern for a generation who had never imagined such a world. Suddenly, the general public were able to access an abundance of unregulated exploitation films that parents and authorities were unable to monitor. Depictions of graphic rape, the torture and degradation of women, real-life animal cruelty and what at the time were very realistic portrayals of murder or ‘snuff’, were a far cry from what audiences had been used to previously. These weren’t classic, fantastical monsters committing acts of pure make-believe, they were regular people committing very believable and accessible atrocities. Pornography also became cheaper and more widespread after making the jump to video, the emergence of kinks such as sadomasochism a source of shame for a generation who likely harboured similar desires but were unwilling to flaunt them in public. As Que Spaulding, head of sales for racy cable network Escapade would tell The New York Times in 1981, ”There’s no doubt that when you offer this sort of material you’re serving two masters. One master is what the subscriber wants, which he’s not always willing to admit. The other is that elusive ‘they,’ which could be the city council, the church or even your own conscience.”
Nicki Brand: Got any porno?
Max Renn: You serious?
Nicki Brand: Yeah. It gets me in the mood.
[looks through casettes]
Nicki Brand: What’s this? “Videodrome”?
Max Renn: Torture. Murder.
Nicki Brand: Sounds great.
Max Renn: Ain’t exactly sex.
Nicki Brand: Says who?
The first Cronenberg film to be distributed by a major Hollywood studio (Universal Pictures), Videodrome bombed at the box office when released on November 25th, 1983, recouping less than half of its $5,952,000 outlay. Rejected by audiences and loved by the likes of Andy Warhol, the movie was way ahead of its time, with themes that hardly qualify as a popcorn draw for cinemagoers. Not even the appearance of Blondie style icon Debbie Harry ― a pop culture presence and international idol who was as much of an allure to the general public as her character is to Max ― proved enough of a draw for a movie that was described as, “simultaneously stupefying and boring” by the Washington Post and “more fascinating than distancing” by Variety — hardly ringing endorsements for a fun-filled night out. Cronenberg had achieved cult success and even critical acclaim with low-budget Canadian films such as Rabid, The Brood and Scanners, but his transition to mainstream audiences didn’t come easy. Even the director’s more conventional adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone failed to make an impact. Not until The Fly in 1986 did he manage to make that broader connection.
Videodrome‘s unlikely protagonist is the personification of an 80s man. Gone are the Christian loyalties and staunch family values of past generations, replaced by a sleazy singleton with an unhealthy fascination with the perverse. 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.’ The trouble is, 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. Seeking a product which truly pushes the boundaries, Max illegally scans overseas satellites for lurid material and eventually stumbles upon Videodrome, an authentic snuff production operating out of Pittsburgh. Before long Max is hooked, and when he meets Debbie Harry’s sultry sadomasochist, his fascinations take on a whole new reality, leading him along a murky path of wild hallucinations, surreptitious mind-control and politically-motivated assassination.
Our engagement with the movie’s mind-boggling events hinges almost entirely on the performance of its lead player. No one can play the wildly frenetic subject of jaw-dropping conspiracy quite like Woods, who makes the surreal, unimaginable visuals and hallucinogenic developments acutely intimate and deeply unsettling. Harry is also inspired casting. Playing the provocative fashion icon is something that comes naturally to her for obvious reasons, and who better than a universally influential pop culture symbol to effectively communicate the movie’s left-field philosophies? She is the ultimate motivator, the kind of cool, sensual creature who makes political assassination sexy. Lust and sexual attraction are great human motivators, and Harry inspires both in abundance.
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.
After being exposed to Videodrome, Max begins to hallucinate in ways that fuel his desires, crawling towards his television set 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-up 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. When Max is recruited as an assassin by the political figures behind Videodrome, his semi-organic handgun becomes a phallic representation of the medium’s grip on our thoughts and actions.
Videodrome also questions the media as a tool for systematic propaganda, presenting a device that subliminally installs political ideologies while promoting mass indoctrination. The latter is nothing new. Cinema is inherently fascist, and television and film are sophisticated conduits for promoting such ideologies. In 1988, famous linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, along with American economist Edward Herman. The book proposed what would become known as the Propaganda Model, a study of how propaganda and systemic bias function in the corporate mass media as a means to communicate political ideologies to mainstream society. Today, the internet is an open canvas for fake news, and modern political leaders feel much more comfortable in the realms of celebrity, using social networking platforms to promote their narratives and sell their ‘brand’.
Is Max’s gun any different from a joystick or a remote control? You have to ask yourself that question as you watch his unwilling descent into murder and madness. Almost four decades after its release, Videodrome is as relevant as ever, not only due to 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 that has been established. 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.
In Videodrome, 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.