Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: David Cronenberg.
Starring: James Woods (Max Renn), Sonja Smits (Bianca O'Blivion), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Peter Dvorsky (Harlan), Leslie Carlson (Barry Convex), Jack Creley (Brian O'Blivion), Lynne Gorman (Masha), Julie Khaner (Bridey), Reiner Schwartz (Moses), David Bolt (Raphael), Lally Cadeau (Rena King), Henry Gomez (Brolley).
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome belongs on a very short list of films that seemingly gets more relevant as time passes. I think of films like Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) or Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) that looked at the merging of news and entertainment in ways that were meant to be satires when they were made that resemble our current culture even more than the culture that produced them. Videodrome is different, of course, because of its genre – a melding of dystopian sci-fi (and no, I don’t really want to get into a debate about whether Videodrome is really a dystopia or not – like the last time I brought the film up – it’s close enough for me) and horror. Yet, unlike many alarmist sci-fi films that paint a bleak view of the future that end up looking rather dated and paranoid as time passes, Videodrome – which has crazy conspiracies layered inside crazy conspiracies – looks almost prophetic.
The film stars James Woods as one of his prototypical motor mouthed sleaze characters. In this case, he’s playing Max Renn, the founder and President of a low rent cable channel whose programming consists mainly of “soft core pornography and hard core violence”. One of the earliest scenes in the movie has him appearing on a TV panel show, where the host calls him out – wondering aloud if his channel contributes to a culture of violence and sexual malaise. Renn gives a standard answer about giving his viewers a “harmless outlet” for their fantasies so they don’t have to act them out. A fellow panel member, Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) is a radio shrink who questions Renn’s assertions, but isn’t above accepting his invitation to dinner. She thinks the culture has become degraded and debased – but knows she’s no better than the rest. Also on the panel is Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) a media professor in the Marshal McLuhan vein, who refuses to “appear on television, accept on a television” – meaning he’s not in the studio, but a TV with his face on it is. To him, culture has become such that “public life on TV is more real than private life in the flesh”. Cronenberg’s use of the talk show really is kind of brilliant – it allows him to quickly introduce three of the film’s main characters – Max, Nicki and O’Blivion – and the films themes in a few short minutes of exposition that would normally bog down a movie like this for its entire first act. Cronenberg is able to get introduce some rather heady media theory into the film from the start, in a way that feels organic to the movie itself.
From here, the movie becomes freer to explore its increasingly outlandish plot – that nevertheless feels authentic in the film. An employee of Max’s, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) uses a “pirate satellite dish” and tracks down 58 seconds of a show called “Videodrome” – that seems to be nothing but sexual torture. Later, he’ll be able to get an entire hour long episode – which confirms that the show has no plot, no real characters, no context – and simply consists of torture. Max wants the show on his channel desperately. He’s tired of the soft stuff – he wants something hard. Videodrome is hard. But it also starts screwing with his head – giving him hallucinations. He cannot find who is responsible for the show – until he is given one name – Professor Brian O’Blivion. He goes to see him, and ends up talking to his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) instead. And the dark secrets of Videodrome start spilling out.
I’m not sure I can fully explain Videodrome – it may well take a Cronenberg or a McLuhan or at least a media major to do so – but I also don’t think that it’s fully necessary to get everything in the movie. Cronenberg’s overriding point – something he will return to again and again – is the relationship between technology and the flesh. You see it in his dryly intellectual student films like Stereo and Crimes of the Future, and in his seemingly exploitation early films like Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Scanners – all of which are interesting, none of which seem (to me anyway) to be fully successful. Videodrome is Cronenberg’s first fully formed masterwork – something that prefigures what he would on to do (perhaps even more successfully – at least at times) in films such as The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash and eXistenZ. In Videodrome, Max slowly begins to be a hybrid creation between human and television – the so-called “New Flesh” – and then exploited for personal gain by those around him. As Professor O’Blivion explains on that talk show the TV has become the “retina of the mind’s eye”. Cronenberg’s special effects in Videodrome are grotesque – breathing videotapes inserted into a slit in Woods’ stomach, a gun that becomes grafted on his hand, a TV that literally reaches out to touch Max – yet unforgettable. We’ll continue to see through his career the merging of metal and flesh – of technology directing changing the body. The film is about human beings becoming a sort of hybrid between themselves and technology – something that more and more people are saying as humans become increasingly “attached” to their smart phones and computers. The dystopian future that Cronenberg depicts in Videodrome – which he smartly depicts as regular 1980s society before he starts twisting it – may not be exactly what we have got in 2014 – but it’s probably a lot closer than anyone expected it to be 31 years ago.
Recently Tim Robey listed Videodrome as one of the top 10 most overrated films of all time (ridiculous – in fact the whole list, as basically his argument against most of the films on it is that they’re good, but not that good where I would think the most over rated films would be bad films that people think are good – but I digress) and says that Cronenberg’s other 1983 film – the studio project and Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone taught Cronenberg about narrative structure, which aided him in the future. There is some (not a lot) of truth to that. After Videodrome and The Dead Zone, Cronenberg was able to get his more heady ideas into more audience friendly movies – although he still makes films that could be described as deliberately alienating, like his recent Cosmopolis. The Fly (1986) is a more polished film that addresses some of the same themes as Videodrome. Yet Videodrome remains fascinating – and in some ways a more pure distillation of Cronenberg’s worldview. Roger Ebert described it as one of “least entertaining films ever made” – but Cronenberg wasn’t trying to entertain with Videodrome. In the film, I think he accomplished exactly what he set out to do.