David Cronenberg’s classic bit of uncategorizable prescience stands up amazingly well today, almost 30 years later. A grotesque, bloody, but always cerebral fantasy about the curious ways media are affecting our experience of reality, Videodrome hit the film community like a cannon shot back in 1983. Following a series of increasingly assured (but always singular and “difficult”) films, this Canadian wunderkind had finally scored a full spectrum triumph. As clever as it was entertaining, as sexy as it was revolting, and at all times unrelentingly imaginative, Videodrome set the standard for what has developed into a bit of a subgenre: the “transnational media as enemy” film.
What would happen if the mind, the body, the human, became a kind of cog in a media-driven system in which monologue overwhelmed connected interaction? What if this has already happened, and media (whether unwittingly or not) merely serve to reinforce our enslavement to some systemic infection of the mind? What if those screens we are all staring into every day were to become the dissemination point for a global plague, a mass hypnosis, or, you know, FOX news? Videodrome suggests these, among many other, unsettling questions as it leads us down the rabbit hole.
Max Renn (a rarely-better James Woods) runs a TV channel devoted to edgy entertainment: soft-core porn, violence, objectionable material in general. He has recognized the hole in the market, and has filled it up with his brand of titillation. However, he is always redefining the limits of what his channel deems fit for broadcast. “I’m looking for something that’ll break through,” is how he puts it to one of his suppliers. When questioned about the irresponsibility of broadcasting this kind of material, his response is curt: “Better on TV than on the streets.” Maybe so. Yet when he comes across a new kind of entertainment that his colleague has pirated from some satellite in Malaysia, he finds himself entranced. As he defines it: “[Videodrome] is just torture and murder. No plot, no characters. Very, very realistic. I think it’s what’s next.”
As he seeks out the makers of this curious brand of distraction, he begins to lose his grip on reality. Hallucinating that he is himself a video machine, or that he is inside the torture chamber, that he has become subject to the very Videodrome itself, Renn comes to believe that he has fallen under the hypnotic sway of a few shadowy anti-media revolutionaries. As a kind of Manchurian Candidate with a role to play in bringing about the new world order, Renn has become programmable, incapable of distinguishing between reality and the video-induced hallucinations. As one of the revolutionaries explains to him of their purpose: “We’re entering savage new times. And we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them. Now, you and this cesspool you call a television station and your people who wallow around in it, your viewers who watch you do it, they’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.”
This fascinating premise is so convincingly developed and performed that there are sections of Videodrome that appear to have wholly predicted the rise of the web, social networking, and the app-driven corporatized internet of the 2010s. Of course, it didn’t predict anything. Rather, it warned its viewers about this stuff, about these possibilities. It repeatedly suggested alternatives, means of escape, ways back in. The key heroic character, a Dr. O’Blivion (Jack Creley), has instructively resorted to appearing in public only as a pre-recorded image on a television set. As his daughter explains, “My father has not engaged in conversation for at least twenty years. The monologue is his preferred mode of discourse.” Turning the tables on the one-way discourse of the cool TV medium, this McLuhan-esque character has taken to using the key dissemination point of the media against them. Though, of course, his deliberate de-humanization has deleterious effects on his ability to connect to others, to reality. His various pronouncements about reality, perception, humanity, and nature, are all filtered through his inability (deliberately fostered) to make human connections. At what point, he asks (rhetorically, of course), does a human stop living, and simply become an image, a reflection, a mediated abstraction? “Television is reality,” he counsels. “And reality is less than television.”
They are remaking this film (because why not, I guess), which is a shame. See the original: a tour de force of atmosphere, economical dialogue, and grotesquerie. Featuring superb performances from Woods, rocker Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, and Peter Dvorsky, and boasting truly wondrous special make-up effects from the incomparable Rick Baker, Cronenberg’s first masterpiece is essential viewing. Like the man says: long live the new flesh.
As usual, Criterion Collection provides a wealth of worthy extras and commentaries. A 2004 documentary featuring Rick Baker details the creation of the film’s iconic imagery, including the sensuous television screen, the huge-maggot-filled corpse, and the vaginal videocasette-input on Renn’s unfortunate torso. There’s a stills gallery, various trailers, and a few other short films, all of which are amusing and informative.