Conventional wisdom goes something like this: “David Cronenberg’s films are so damn grotesque because of his personal distaste for the flesh.” I used to agree. But watching Shivers helped me realize I had it all backwards. If anything, The Flesh is David Cronenberg’s not-so-secret hero. That’s why he continually returns to stories that center around the Flesh’s victories over barriers human society has erected against it. I submit Videodrome as my evidence.
Four minutes and two sets of boobs into the film, I paused to consider the way Cronenberg introduces us to Max Renn (James Woods), who would be Our Hero in anyone else’s picture. Max co-owner a sleazy satellite TV station in Toronto, Civic TV Channel 83. Think of it as classic Skinimax before Skinimax found itself into the sheltering arms of the Time Warner octopus sometime in the mid-80s.
Most of Max’s job revolves around buying up soft-core porn to plug holes in Civc TV’s schedule. We meet him as he wakes, getting an uncomfortably close shot of his James Woods-ian mug twisted into that first-thing-in-the-fucking-morning scowl spouses know so well. We watch Max make an espresso and look over some nudie stills. His breakfast consists of last night’s pizza crust. Max dips the crust in his espresso, takes a bite, and walks out of frame. I know: “Ewww…gross,” right?
Then I think, There’s an amazing amount of information packed into that softened left-over. Right away we know Max is a slob, a porn-merchant, and a bachelor. In other words, he’s the Canadian me. With a TV station. That apparently broadcasts his personal secretarial briefings every day at 6:30 a.m., something I’m sure his competitors appreciate. Now that I’ve wasted so much time writing about films, I can really appreciate Cronenberg’s special power to hit that instinctive, gut reaction, that “Ewww, gross.” And I especially appreciate his willingness to deploy the “Ewww, gross” by way of introducing us to our hero. That, my friends, is what you call “creative balls.” Screw you if you don’t like it, the film says. This chump here? Yeah, he’s the hero. Settle in and get used to it, punks.
Max’s shady-but-dull routine’s broken up by his techie friend Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), who I initially feared would be our Odious Comic Relief. But no. Harlan happens across a scrambled video signal of some poor woman getting tortured against a BRIGHT RED BACKGROUND we shouldn’t make too much of (even if Freud would). Apparently Malaysian in origin, Harlan soon unscrambles enough to find the broadcast is called Videodrome, that it centers around nothing but the slow torture of anonymous people, week-in and week-out…and it actually originates in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
That’s right: go all the way back to 1983 and the United States is still Number One in torture porn. Eat that shit, Human Centipede. USA! USA!
A scene later, Max appears on a sensationalist, bullshit, TV talking head show, complete with its own literal TV talking head: Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). Max uses the standard “I’m-just-filling-a-market-niche” parry to deflect the standard, bullshit, “gotcha” question of whether “violent” programing has a negative impact on its viewers and fans. In a totally unprofessional move, he turns his real attention on co-guest Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), host of The Emotional Rescue Show on a local radio station. Nicki claims we live in “overstiumlated times.” Max (somehow) secures a date with her.
Set all that aside for a second. Listen to O’Blivion.
Plenty of people call Cronenberg “visionary” or “prescient,” but the Professor’s little speech here contains at least one out-and-out instance of honest-to-God prophecy. His words eventually came true…just not in his, or Videodrome‘s, medium of choice. Still, how many of us are now known by the self-serving message board handles we picked out in our Sophomore year of high school? Or is that just me?
Videodrome can easily be dismissed as a film about one sleazy-but-affable man’s total descent into gibbering insanity. That might be enough for brain-damaged industrial accident survivors (i.e., professional film critics from the 1980s), but I find that explanation passe. Boring. I prefer to think of it as a film about schisms. In embryonic religious system. In lonely, workaholic’s minds. In relationships. In our cultural fetish for instantaneous communication and (yes, darling Nicki, we agree on this) perpetual over-stimulation.
“Got any prono?” Nicki asks as soon as she’s back in Max’s place. Instead, she chooses Videodrome…and finds it turns her on. As do various other sadomasochistic games she and Max proceed to play. I have seen some things in my time, but the sight of a brunette Debbie Harry asking James Woods to cut her is a whole new kind of creepy previously unknown to Science. I’m glad Cronenberg presents it here with a horror movie director’s courageousness. But sadomasochism isn’t as central to Videodrome‘s plot as the morally-outraged might have us believe.
Using Professor O’Blivion and his hot daughter Bianaca (Sonja Smits) as our guides, we discover Videdrome is the story of a “media prophet” who happened upon the Culture Warrior’s nightmare: an audio-visual signal that plunges the viewer into a hallucinogenic state, leaving them open to all kinds of insidious and unlawful suggestions…a Manchurian candidate of the future, complete with technorganic weapons and a moral sense overridden and superseded by shadowy, mysterious “programmers.” Who are they? What do they want?
Bill Burroughs would’ve said the answer to both is simple (and gone on call me a “stupid, vulgar, greedy, ugly, American deathsucker” for even asking the question): control. Those who developed Videodrome want control over the masses, and seem set to gain it one low-budget TV station at a time (idiotic as that might seem). Max wants to maintain control over what (at first) looks like a orderly life. Sure, his job requires the occasional meeting with a shady, Japanese businessman in one of Toronto’s finer no-tell-motels…but, hey…it could be a lot worse. Instead of stomach parasites, Max leaves with prono tapes, and it’s all well and good…but Woods keenly portrays a truth few outside the skin-industry know (unless we read books): in North America, for the most part, porn is like any other job. A tedious, repetitive, dull, same-y grind that leaves Max looking for something more. Something new. Something like Videodrome.
The real point comes to my mind via Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, published two years after Videodrome‘s premiere. About halfway through (as is the wont of popular nonfiction authors everywhere, including your humble narrator) Postman finally gets right down to it:
“It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, the entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.”
Max is pulled out of his hum-drum daily grind on the ass end of the “entertainment” industry into a hallucinatory arena Cronenberg did well to name in Latin: “drome.” From the ancient Greek “dromos,” meaning “a race course or arena” which in its broadest sense (like the English equivalent, “track”) can also mean “a road.” Max’s world becomes a stage and he the main character in a drama that begins with mystery, conspiracy, and double-cross…only to end in volleys of cancer-causing bullets, new sex organs that double as VCRs, and a refutation of the false boundaries between hallucination and experience, reality and fantasy, mind, spirit and (most importantly) Flesh.
Max’s old flesh is a disconnected flesh, an afterthought to a mind so busy scouting new entertainments it doesn’t even notice the fucked-up goings on…until they begin to twist Max into new shapes, invading the technological and social cocoons he’s spun for himself with biological elements…that don’t look all that out of place thanks to some excellent special effects by Rick Baker…who seems to be channeling a contemporary Rob Bottin.
In the World of Cronenberg, flesh and spirit always seem to begin in opposition. It is the blindness, the sheer hubris of this, that leaves both open to all manner of violation, whether by shady mad scientists with classical allusions for surnames or shadowy conspirators who run World Domination schemes out of optometrist shops. Over the course of Croneneberg’s films, the Flesh inevitably subsumes and conquers to varying degrees…with varying levels of horrific consequence. The “horror” of these films flows from a creeping sense of inevitability that hangs over their stories, the way awareness of our own impending demise is supposed to hang over the heart of every human being.
Back to roads for a bit. Roads are an ubermetaphor for any story, becoming especially important to stories as draped in pseudo-religious imagery as this one. Recall Saul, knocked off one ass and onto another by a blazing vision from the sky…the same way Max is knocked into the Videodrome. Attempting to track down Brian O’Blivion, Max first meets his daughter Bianca inside the Cathode Ray Mission, an overnight homeless shelter dedicated to the proposition that physical poverty can be alleviated by “exposure to the cathode ray tube.” Eventually, Max is christened “the video Word made Flesh” and set on a path that would probably appear insane to anyone not named Sirhan Sirhan…complete with a new slogan for the new religion of which he has just become the first Messiah: “Death to Videodrome! Long live the New Flesh!”
“Alright,” I hear you say, “so what?” So, who the hell else even thinks about making horror films centered around the murderous schisms between competing adherents of cybernetic, videocassette-based religions? Nobody. As of Halloween, 2010, it’s all torture porn, retro-camp, or remakes. Fuck that. And fuck the people who bring it to us. My president is black and my lambo is blue, nigga. I expect – nay, in the people’s name, I demand – better than that. I won’t get it, but in America we all enjoy the freedom to bitch, moan, and complain.
Hence my constant return to Planet Cronenberg, which is fundamentally Canadian. Much like the actual Canada, a visit (almost) always cheers me up and I leave feeling refreshed. His New Flesh is always an excited flesh, and the excitement’s as contagious as an aphrodidic stomach parasite.
Videodrome is a film that gets better every time I watch it specifically because I had no freakin’ clue what I was getting myself into. As such, it’s one of those unfortunate films that’s impossible to really review without major, major spoilage. Unless you’re a thickheaded asshole who completely missed the point. (Timeout.com/london, I’m looking at you.) As such, I’ve probably already ruined it for someone among you. My bad.
Still, it’s a perfect example of a horror movie done well using then-current innovations in home video and satellite broadcast technology as the jumping-off point to tell a taught, surreal, thrilling story. Either this is one man’s eventual descent into madness at the hands of a cultural conservative’s worst fear…or one man’s successful battle against a shadowy, Right Wing conspiracy to inspire mass panic under the guise of making “North America” more “pure, direct and strong” in the face of “savage, new times” coming just over the horizon. (Oo-oo…shades of my favorite, conspiratorial action movies…)
Either way, drop everything your doing and find yourself a copy of Videodrome. Don’t do what I would do were I in your position and look up twenty other reviews of the film just to punish me for being coy. Yeah, its melodramatic and overwrought. Yeah, some of the performances fall into the Uncanny Valley when they aren’t supposed to. Forget all that. Consider this an unqualified rave from Dr. Psy Chosis. And, as always, long live the New Flesh.