Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: Videodrome (1983)

The following post contains spoilers, but probably won't make any damn sense if you haven't seen the movie anyway.

This may come as a shock to you, but I loves me some Videodrome. It is probably my all time favorite movie, and it certainly had a massive influence on the disheveled 16 year old version of me who picked up its sun bleached plastic case at a rapidly decaying Mr. Movies. Despite the existence of a most excellent Criterion Collection release, this is arguably the best way to experience Videodrome for the first time. The film practically craves the blurry texture and fuzzy tracking problems of a long neglected analog video tape. It certainly goes out of its way to work the medium's technical, physical, and cultural artifacts into the mise en scène.As a bona fide high school AV nerd spending as much time as possible with the half broken, second hand video production equipment, I was also essentially Videodrome's ideal viewer. The great rack-mount towers of oscilloscopes, VTRs, and broadcasting equipment fascinated me with its clunky DIY aesthetics and odd juxtaposition (sometimes simultaneously) of the advanced and the antiquated. I was completely taken by the film's zeitgeist, so the occasional nudity and infamous bizarro-gore were merely the icing on the cake.This analog-philia, combined with the weirdly artificial grime of the Toronto back alleys in which much of the film takes place (it's like no one has cleaned in decades, but no one has been littering either) gives the film a subtle vibe of alternate reality. I like to call it "tubepunk" or "analog-punk," because while it is obsessed with the ramifications of advancing technology, the real world has long ago surpassed it in ways it only dimly perceived. One character gives a fairly accurate prediction of 'user names' and the Internet's egocentric pseudo-anonymity, while another decries the socially destructive effects of media over-stimulation, a laughably quaint idea coming out of 1983. On the other hand, it is too obsessed with looking forward and too subtly different from the '80s as we knew them to ever truly feel like the past. The result is a fascinating world that is sadly unique to the film that spawned it. (Hence my clamoring for a video game sequel, and decrying of a "modern" remake.)For Cronenberg's career, Videodrome marks a clear turning point in his slow evolution from high concept horror auteur to a more mature director of cerebral thrillers. It's also arguably his first truly good film, unmarred by the weak performances that periodically raise their heads in his earlier work (I'm looking at you, dude from Scanners), and completely saturated with dark subtext. Films like Scanners and The Brood obviously had a lot of ideas and certainly revolve around his favored themes, (the power of the mind over the physical world, gooey abjections of the human form) but Videodrome takes these ideas and runs with them.One theme, further explored in the film eXistenZ, is the traumatic effect of exposure to alternate layers of reality. When protagonist Max Renn (James Woods) is exposed to the Videodrome signal, he begins having hallucinations so vivid that they cannot be distinguished from reality. Another character, Professor Brian O'Blivion, suffers from a Videodrome induced brain tumor (similar to the emotion fueled cellular carnosity in The Brood) that he postulates is actually a new organ with the ability (purpose?) to create an even closer relationship between the mind and the cathode ray tube. "Television is the retina of the mind's eye," he frequently proclaims, possibly meaning that Renn's hallucinatory experiences with the Videodrome show and signal are the result of his consciousness being extended into the television program. Once the boundaries between meatspace and the 'video' world are totally blurred, it becomes impossible for Renn and, by extension, the audience to tell exactly how real the events on screen are, and how characters untainted by the signal are perceiving the events.
For instance, Max gets a crazy mutant gun hand, but when he is brainwashed into murdering his unaffected business associates he merely shoots them with a totally normal weapon. This gives the impression that his fleshy new powers only exist within his Videodrome fugue state. (Perhaps other victims of the signal could also see them.) However this is later contradicted by an unaffected character getting his hand mutated into a flesh grenade, which background extras react in horror to, after sticking it into Renn's stomach vagina along with a mind controlling video tape. What exactly were these unaffected characters witnessing and what are the ramifications for the seperation between the real hallucinatory worlds.

The film gives no easy answer to the above question, which merely scratching the surface of possible textual analysis. There are many more interesting questions about perception, censorship, the motif of harmful sensation, the social effects of violent and pornographic media, and our relationship with media in general. Max has a career as a small time cable pornography provider eager to break the next taboo. There are repercussions of the Videodrome signal's increased effectiveness under sexually violent imagery, as well as the hints of vast, moralistic, right wing conspiracies. There's enough to chew on in this 89 minute film to write a whole book. In fact someone did! (Which I confess I have yet to read.)Videodrome: way more than "that movie where James Woods has a stomach vagina," (though it certainly is that too) or a Family Guy joke about nudity. Buy it, steal it, Netflix it. If you are in Minnesota, the Trylon Microcinema just had a showing and will be doing more Cronenberg movies through the end of October. I'll be attempting to catch all of them, so drop me a comment if you're going as well.

"It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous."

1 comment:

  1. also one of my favourite films of all time. ONe of those films your friend says "hey eat these mushrooms then watch this maaaaaan". So I did. didnt need to tho. its trippier than a rainbow fart.