Friday, June 11, 2010

All Hail the New Flesh

Film: Videodrome
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Ask me who is underrated as a director and I’d have a couple of answers for you. Guillermo del Toro certainly rates on this list for me, as does David Fincher, who never gets the acclaim he should. No one is more underrated in my opinion than David Cronenberg, though. Perhaps no other director has done more with less and done it well than Cronenberg. Few of his films are weirder or more interesting than Videodrome, which is oddly prophetic in places.

Max Renn (James Woods) is a sleazy manager of an equally sleazy television station called CCTV in Toronto. He makes his living showing soft-core porn and extreme violence. Nothing is ever “tough” enough for him, and he’s always looking to find something more. In addition to his television station, Renn also runs a pirate TV lab that pulls in signals from the rest of the world. The man who works here, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), has uncovered something he thinks Renn might like. Apparently streaming from Malaysia, the video feed depicts a woman being brutally tortured, and it’s impossible to tell if it’s the real thing or faked.

Renn is later a guest on a television program where he defends himself and his station to a psychologist named Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and a man who calls himself Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). O’Blivion won’t appear in person, but instead is on camera on a television set, claiming that he’ll only appear on television if he’s on another television. Max chats up Nicki, ignoring O’Blivion.

More investigating into the strange signal, which is evidently called “Videodrome” is not coming from Malaysia, but Pittsburgh. Max hooks up (in the modern parlance) with Nicki, and shows her the program. As it turns out, Nicki, the helpful, caring radio psychologist is also a masochist and is intensely turned on by the show. She has evidence of recent cuts from sex partners on her body and invites Max to cut her, something he’s not sure he’s really into. And as the conversation continues, it becomes apparent that she would love to be a “contestant” on Videodrome herself. Max buys into the pain thing, and while the tape plays on behind them, the two get freaky in a very real sense. I’ll just say that it involves very long needles, and serves as yet another reminder as to why I remain without piercings.

Max’s desire to track down the show conflicts with his desire to keep Nicki away from it. When she goes on assignment to Pittsburgh and doesn’t return, he’s now far more involved than he’d like to be. Through his connection Masha (Lynne Gorman), he finds out more about the rogue program. Masha is convinced that there are no actors involved—it’s snuff television—and she tells him the name she found is none other than Brian O’Blivion, the professor from the television.

In tracking down Brian O’Blivion, Max finds his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), who runs a mission for the homeless that encourages the people to watch hours and hours of television. It seems Brian O’Blivion no longer engages in conversation, but he does send Max a tape that changes everything. Actually, everything changes before he even watches the tape. When he takes it out of the box, it begins breathing.

What follows, the better part of an hour, is something like a fever dream as Max begins to hallucinate and neither he nor the viewer is ever certain if what is happening on screen is real or a bizarre, irrational fantasy. O’Blivion is evidently killed on the tape by a masked attacker, who turns out to be Nicki.

This synopsis covers less than the first half of this movie. For a B-movie, it’s pretty dense, which is one of the reasons I love Cronenberg’s work. It falls directly into the heart of the majority of Cronenberg’s work, which has always been about our relationships with our own bodies. Much of his work touches on this at least tangentially, and much of his best work sees it as a central theme—The Fly, for instance, is all about the betrayal of our own bodies, as were Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. Here, the theme appears central due to all of the extreme body modification that takes place, but I think it’s actually not the central point of the film.

What is central here is our relationship with media, and television in particular. In the Videodrome world, this obsession is a costly one, one that will eventually kill us all. It’s also where Cronenberg appears the most prescient. O’Blivion is usually his messenger for these prophecies—like how one day we’ll all have special names that we use (like on the Internet), or how what we see on television becomes reality for us, more real than what we experience in our daily lives.

Videodrome is a troubling movie. It asks difficult, real questions and offers few, if any, answers. It’s also disturbing because many of its images are terribly disturbing as well, and while some of the effects don’t really hold up after 27 years, some of them definitely do. The obvious disturbing stuff is the physical alterations Max Renn goes through—the gigantic stomach/vagina is the most iconic—but there’s a lot here that is viscerally disturbing and more that is emotionally and philosophically disturbing.

What sells Videodrome is that it’s more relevant now than it was when it was made.

Why to watch Videodrome: Prophetic vision of our relationship with video.
Why not to watch: Two words: stomach/vagina.


  1. One of the things I love about the List is that something as random as Videodrome is on it.

    I saw it at a drive-in when it was (almost) new. It was the third film on a triple bill. A bunch of us went in three or four cars. Almost nobody stayed for Videodrome. One of the guys who hadn't driven asked me to stay because he really wanted to see Videodrome. "Sure, why not?" I said. I had no idea what it was, but whatever.

    (We went to triple bills several times that summer, but I think this was the only time I stayed for the third movie. It was stuff like ... Chick Norris movies. I particularly remember Silent Rage. We saw Octopussy that summer too. The third feature was usually something like Yor, the Hunter from the Future. So Videodrome was really out of place.)

    Videodrome BLEW OUR MINDS!

    I didn't regret staying at the drive-in for all those hours.

    1. I don't think it's inclusion is that random--there's a lot here and I think the argument can be made that it's pretty influential. If I were to come up with a 1001 Movies list on my own, I'd include at least this or Scanners, and probably both.

  2. The prescience about a virtual existence being more real than reality is something I forgot to mention in my review. I got hooked up on the absurdity of a virtual video world, but it actually fully applies to an internet existence. Prescient indeed .

    1. If you don't mind jumping ahead a few years, this would make a very interesting pairing with eXistenZ. Similar themes, similar vibe, and very Cronenberg.