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, which towered haphazardly from every gaudy, silver screen spectacle. Practical effects would evolve tenfold during the 1980s, and there were plenty of bargain-basement endeavours that relied on those novel charms. From Chopping Mall‘s disastrously immobile killbots to Michael Crichton’s campy action vehicle Runaway, dubious technology was rife in Hollywood, and many of us lapped it up with a suspension of disbelief that would leave us grinning with incredulity as we entered the 21st century.
Such visual absurdities were not confined to the VHS doldrums; it wasn’t a case of budget, this was genuinely the way we saw our future. The way things were going, soon we’d all need mansions to accommodate our increasingly sophisticated gadgets and skyscraper home computers, and according to movies such as Short Circuit, Batteries Not Included and Rocky IV, the days of robots being integrated into society were just around the corner. Even Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, though satirical and utterly self-aware, belongs firmly to that era. Such films are monuments to simpler times, a period in history when people were more open to the clunky dreams of a technological future. Those movies are remembered fondly, but with a large helping of playful derision.
Not all movies from that era are confined to the annals of the outmoded. Some were able to shake that stigma, extricating themselves from those visual hindrances through themes that are timeless. There are examples of such gaudy speculations in techno-surrealist oddity Videodrome, but they become almost peripheral as you find yourself drawn deeper into the movie’s warped realities, which in itself is a testament to the visionary qualities of David Cronenberg’s most enduring achievement. Videodrome is a speculative head scramble 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.
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 at a time when interactive home gaming was on the horizon. The infamous video game crash of 1983 — one that saw millions of consumers turn their backs on the industry thanks to a truck load of crappy Atari imitators and even crappier games — happened the same year that Videodrome was released, but over in Japan the Famicom was introduced, a home console released two years later in the States as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Soon we would see the release of Nintendo’s R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) and later the Power Glove, a cute commercial package for a technology that allowed us to interact with games via some early virtual reality mechanics. Rather primitive by today’s standards, but an amazing leap forward all those years ago, and Videodrome is a testament to that.
The movie also questions the medium of television 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 is a scaled-down conduit for promoting those ideologies. Following the debacle of the Vietnam War, Americans were beginning to lose faith in their government, and many refused to swallow such blatant patriotism as their loved ones sacrificed their lives for unnecessary causes. Quietly, the Civil Rights Movement was seen as an attack on private power, an uprising that promised a period of widespread rebellion. As a consequence, the government tightened its grip, and a methodical approach was adopted, those same ideologies masquerading as everyday news and entertainment. Back in 1988, famous linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky released Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, along with American economist Edward Herman. The book discussed 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 network platforms to promote their narratives and sell their ‘brand’.
Technology has always been a double-edged sword, with the capacity for both freedom and censorship, a battle that was as prevalent during the home video revolution as it is with the internet. During the early ’80s, Cable TV would 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. In the home video market, porno had never been bigger or more accessible, but society was still unwilling to flaunt its home-bound desires. 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.”
A product of that unseemly conflict, Videodrome bombed at the box office when released on November 25th, 1983, recouping less than half of its $5,952,000 outlay. This is unsurprising. 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 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. So unattractive a prospect was Videodrome that the movie wasn’t released on VHS in the US until 1990, almost a decade after its initial theatrical run.
Ironically, the movie could not have been released at a more opportunistic time. In 1983, VHS and Betamax were more popular than ever, and the ‘video nasty’ censorship crusade was just around the corner. The home video revolution gave independent directors more freedom, and a pre-certificate industry allowed them the kind of creative licence that would rarely be seen again. A moral panic ensued, one that led government officials to sanction the kind of regulation that succeeded in stripping society of certain civil liberties. Such was the outrage against deregulated creative violence that filmmakers were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, some of them accused of filming real-life atrocities, and the Video Recordings Act of 1984 (UK) was just around the corner. Today, computer hackers are embroiled in a similar censorship battle, and Videodrome echoes such underground movements, here using VHS as an outlet for political upheaval.
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 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 many corners, such notions are passed off as conspiracy theory, but that term has become the convenient buzz word of our era. Everything is labelled as conspiracy theory, as harmless crackpot notions, and because so many of them are just that, the real misdeeds are able to slip through unnoticed. Our suspicions act as a kind of filtration system.
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.