David Cronenberg’s breakout is as disturbing now as it was nearly 30 media-saturated years ago
Published: October 19, 2011
Directed by David Cronenberg
At the Charles Theatre Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. as part of the Gunky’s Basement screening series
Radio psychologist Nicki Brand is guesting on a TV chat show, and the topic of the day is whether violent and sexually explicit video content is a matter for concern. “I think we live in overstimulated times,” she tells the host. “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.”
This was in 1983, when “home video” was in its infancy; when cable television was still a fast-spreading novelty offering dozens of channels, not hundreds; when the internet was the obscure preserve of a handful of military types and government code nerds. This was the world that inspired writer/director David Cronenberg’s breakout film Videodrome, a nightmare vision of electronic-media content that can not only affect the mind, but also the body and certainly the soul. Watching the film nearly 30 years after its premiere, in times so exponentially more overstimulated that it boggles comprehension, makes Cronenberg’s achievement more prescient and its portents more worrisome.
Sitting beside Nicki (Deborah Harry) is Max Renn (James Woods), the man behind fly-by-night fringe station Civic TV, a succès de scandale thanks to its broadcasts of arty soft-core porn (inspired by a real-life station in Cronenberg’s native Toronto at the time). Max plays the unapologetic smut peddler to the hilt, even hitting on Nicki on camera. But he’s already spotted what he considers the next level in televised provocation: Videodrome, a grainy pirated feed of plotless, pointless torture and, ultimately, murder, carried out by hooded figures on screaming victims in a dank, clay-walled space and shot by a single camera.
Max has no moral qualms about airing what he assumes is a radical new form of (faked) entertainment. His only question is, “Can we get away with it?” But before he can make contact with Videodrome’s creators and cut a deal, it makes contact with him, inspiring vivid hallucinations, including Cronenberg’s masterstroke: television sets that bulge as if breathing and throb with veins, with protoplasmic screens that reach out from their cabinets to envelop or threaten Max. And the strange changes aren’t limited to Max’s home electronics: As his sense of reality becomes increasingly undermined, his belly develops a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t vulvic slit, perfect for sliding in a hand, a videotape, even a gun. And to paraphrase Chekov, if you insert a gun into a vulvic gut slit in the second act . . .
Videodrome bears certain elements of noir, from antihero protagonist Max to femme fatale Nicki, who’s not the disapproving type her remarks above might indicate (she’s into mid-coital ear piercing and cigarette burns as foreplay). The film also works as a mystery/thriller at first, as Max tries to track Videodrome to its source and find out who/what’s behind it. DVD copies will most often be found filed in horror, and it fits no worse there than in either of the above sections thanks to its visceral ick, an early Cronenberg calling card. But clearly he had more on his mind than genre kicks.
Cronenberg may allow Max to write off Civic TV’s prurient content as a “harmless outlet,” but the writer/director clearly questions the value of televised transgression, as well as the wisdom of allowing unfiltered electronic content into the cerebral cortex. He resorts to a sort of rhetorical device in the form of a character eye-rollingly known as Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). A televisual pundit who appears in public only in televised form and for whom, in the words of his daughter (Sonja Smits), “the monologue is his preferred mode of discourse,” O’Blivion allows Cronenberg to unspool extensive musings on TV versus reality, including such bon mots as, “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.” It’s one of a few bits of Videodrome that feel as clunky as the VHS-era tech (Harry’s performance chief among them). Still, the film’s vision of electronic media as a direct injection mode, a narcotic, a substitute for “real world” stimuli, and, in the wrong hands, a weapon, remains cogent and urgent, even as Max’s reality—and the film’s—goes off the rails.
Cronenberg is still making movies, though mostly less febrile in tone (A Dangerous Method, his film about the relationship between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and a patient they shared, is due out later this fall). Yet Videodrome is perhaps the film of his that, aesthetics aside, still speaks loudest, even if no one seems to be listening any more than they did decades ago. As video proto-hacker Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) tells Max at one point, “North America’s getting soft . . . and the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. 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. [Y]ou 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.” And that was in 1983.
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