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In 1983, David Cronenberg did something few directors ever really accomplish: he released a masterpiece. Videodrome, which is both written and directed by Cronenberg, is one of his best horror films, a fusion of many, if not all, the themes Cronenberg had explored previously, and would continue to explore in his later films. In this respect, Videodrome is more than an author's masterpiece, a sublime example of “auteur theory” in film. It is a social commentary about the direction of humanity's future, a dazzling and terrifying journey to a frighteningly familiar dystopic society and a freakish glimpse of what it means to be betrayed by our own bodies and consciousness. Videodrome is, put simply, David Cronenberg's vision of the not-to-distant future on film.
Videodrome takes place in a world that, at first glance, is no different than today (with the exception of a noticeable absence of DVDs – this was made in 1983.). Max Renn (James Woods) owns and operates an underground TV network – one that specializes in “softcore porn and hardcore violence.” Serving the underbelly of an overstimulated society, Max is always on the lookout for the newest perversion. And then he discovers Videodrome – a pirated satellite broadcast that features gratuitous violence and sadistic murder. Max is enthralled and begins trying to track down the source of the transmission, supposedly so he can broadcast it on his own network. And then the hallucinations begin…
The main thing you need realize about Cronenberg's vision is that it is not like yours or mine. When I say that the world is not terribly different, I speak only of the setting and the basic plot. The happenings of Videodrome, however, are fantastically grotesque, yet another example of Cronenberg's talent and obsession with the body politic. The Videodrome transmission creates a tumor in the brain of anyone who watches, causing severe and graphic hallucinations. This offers a neat framework for the body horror, making it a part of the world while, seemingly at least, still being separate from it. However, the questionable reality of the happenings makes them no less horrifying. Whether it is the interactive vaginal slit that Max develops in his abdomen, or the gun that fuses itself to his hand, growing into it in a manner reminiscent of the cancer growing in his brain, the body is a fickle, changeable and not to be trusted. This is reflected in the concept of the cancer itself, a disease the arises from within the body. The tumor may be induced by the Videodrome transmission, but it is perpetuated by the body's own cells. Cronenberg's grotesque twisting of the body doesn't stop with the hallucinations, however. The Videodrome transmission itself, which infects and penetrates the body, is itself just as twisted as the hallucinations it causes. It portrays murder and violence for pleasure, displaying the body's response to pain transformed into one ecstasy. While the Videodrome transmission may have betrayed the body, the body first betrayed itself, warping pain and pleasure into a single, undefined experience.
Cronenberg's ever-present focus on body horror in Videodrome could not be accomplished without the help of a fantastic special effects team. Lucky for him, Rick Baker and Michael Lennick are just that. One scene in particular, in which a pair of lips displayed on a TV screen swell out, kiss and then engulf Max’s head is, for the time, phenomenal. The pulsating televisions and videocassettes, which makes the implements of media appear alive, are incredible when you realize they are realized without the benefit of CGI. These skills also lend themselves to the visual manipulation of the human body, particularly Max, as he becomes more intoxicated by the Videodrome transmission's hallucinogenic cancer. The bionic-cancer-gun that Max sees melded to his hand is one particularly striking image, as is the previously mentioned vaginal abdominal slit. The last example I offer, and I think one of the most impressive, is when Max guns down one of the masterminds behind the Videodrome transmission. As the body falls to the floor, it explodes on impact, the skin shattering like a hollow shell to reveal an overgrowth of cancerous tumors leaking out. It's almost enough to make you physically ill, and the realism with which it is presented, given its fantastical nature, is indicative of the skill level that went into Videodrome's special effects.
Unlike a medical cancer that arises naturally and unpredictably, the Videodrome cancer is a deliberate force. It is created by technology, which, in turn, is created by people. The cancer is transmitted by video, and the hallucinations it creates are technological in nature. Media contorts and breathes, practically comes to life, under the influence of the cancer – much like it has come to life under the influence of man's growing dependence upon it. Once you've drawn the connection between the cancer and technology, it's only a matter of logical progression to take it one step further: the disease is one of people's own making. By drowning themselves in media, letting it consume their reality, society has created an environment in which the cancer is autoinfective. Not only is technology the illness, it's an illness society has given to itself.
This is not, however, the only question posed by Videodrome. In addition to asking that we take responsibility for our diseased society, the film asks us to consider the inevitability of that disease. Technology is part of what it means to be human – it's our one evolutionary asset. The Cathode Ray Mission shows transients television in order to “patch them back into society's mixing board”; the implication is that, to progress in society, people need technology. People need the Videodrome cancer that infects them to survive; it's not just a disease, it's the next level of humanity, the next step in evolution. The thing about evolution, however, is that it changes species. When humans have evolved enough, they will no longer be human. And it's this change from humanity to technology that Videodrome reflects. Max, infected with the technological cancer, has become “the new flesh”; he has evolved into something new something, something inhuman. Videodrome not only shows what happens to a society that becomes too dependent on technology and media, but it shows that this dependence is inevitable, a natural part of humanity since the day we first discovered tools. In the end, it is our own humanity that will destroy us.
It is to this effect that Cronenberg uses Videodrome to create a sense of ambiguity. In fact, the blurring of boundaries is one the most noticeable themes in the film. The effect of the hallucinations, which seemingly bring to life media and technology, actively obscures the boundary between fantasy and reality. If the television is “the retina of the mind's eye”, as one character states, are the hallucinations, induced by television, any more or less real than what is seen with the unaffected human eye? Since the film is told subjectively from the point of view of Max, and he's infected with the Videodrome cancer early in the film, there is no way for the viewer to know what is “real” and what is not. Further, Videodrome doesn't care. The point of the film is not to figure out where the hallucinations begin and reality ends – there is no line to discover. Instead, the boundaries meld into each other, and the viewer is left only to experience this new, hybrid world in which technology and humanity have become inexorably fused.
This ambiguity isn't limited to the outside world, but, in keeping with the blurring of boundaries, has bled over into the internal world of the mind. Nothing is sacred, anymore. The appearance of a vaginal slit in Max's abdomen is particularly significant. Not only does its very existence convolute the idea of defined gender, its use is reflective of female sexuality. Objects are inserted into the orifice - a gun, a cassette, a human hand – and, to one degree or another, implanted in Max’s abdomen. The gun he inserts stays inside him, incubating and developing, until it gives birth to new life – a cancerous melding of metal to flesh – and ushers in a new chapter in human evolution. And yet, despite the obvious parallel, female (and, by way of ambiguity, male) sexuality is not shown to be strictly creative. Everything this abdominal slit transforms is created to destroy. The gun, which melds to Max's hand, is used to kill first the enemies, and then the architects, of the Videodrome transmission. The cassettes also reflect this dual nature. When inserted, they can be used to control Max, creating a new personality and morality, while destroying the old. By blurring gender, and sexuality, Videodrome has made the forces of creation and destruction the same thing, and, by extension, has blurred the line between life and death.
When the lines between life and death are no longer clear, nothing is clear. The concept of birth, life and death as linear progression is core to what it means to be human, and Videodrome destroys that linear pattern. The result is that nothing in Videodrome is more or less human that anything else – particularly media and technology. The people who masterminded the Videodrome signal think they are the ones running the show, that they are the ones who will correct the flaws of their technologically saturated society. However, when Bianca O’Blivion changes Max's cassette, freeing him from the control of the Videodrome agenda, the tool turns on its wielders. By the end of the film, it almost appears that no one is in charge, that the entire situation has spun out of control, but there is one important constant: technology. When everything is said and done, and the movie concludes, the world is unchanged, and technology is still pervasive. Only now, as demonstrated by the content of Max's hallucinations, technology is almost a life unto itself, behaving as a sentient entity that has a tangible and controlled effect on society. In the world of Videodrome, man or machine – it doesn't seem to make much of a difference.
Cronenberg chooses to emphasize this point in particular, the cold, mechanical nature of society, not only through writing, but through overall tone and atmosphere. The world of Videodrome is very sedate. The screen is swathed in greys and sepia tones, the only splashes of color showing up when it emphasizes the need for life, for stimulation. Max practically spells it out for us when he first meets Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) wearing a bright red dress, on a TV talk show. Leaning in, he pointedly notes, “It's red. You know what Freud would say about that dress”, drawing attention not only to her attire, but to its color. Red appears again in the context of stimulation, this time on the actual Videodrome program. The wall that serves as the backdrop to the violence of the show is made of red clay. While it's not as bright as Nicki’s dress, it doesn't have to be. Unlike the dress, which highlighted the main attraction, the wall on Videodrome is an accent to the real stimulus – the torture and murder taking place for the sake of entertainment. In both cases, the color red, contrasted sharply with the otherwise dull, lifeless coloring of Videodrome's world, draws attention to something that can be used to enliven otherwise rote lives.
And, of course, the reason for this stagnation returns again to society's dependence on media and technology. With the television serving as the “retina of the mind's eye”, humanity sees and experiences the world through a technological filter. And, as often happens when things are filtered, they have become slightly removed from the reality of their own lives. Once the cold, mechanical reality of media becomes more tangible than the actual reality that surrounds humanity, it's only natural for that humanity to crave overstimulation. It's just a way of overcompensating, much in the manner of jumping off cliffs to make one feel more alive. Only, in the world of Videodrome, instead of jumping off cliffs, people seek stimulation through sex and violence – those topics that are most taboo in the world of media. Hell, Max’s broadcast company exists for the sole reason of providing that taboo media to a stimulation starved populace. Not only is Videodrome's population deadened by media and technology, it seeks life from that which stifles it. It's no wonder the Videodrome signal was so easy to implant and spread – the people who are infected craved it, sought it out, and willingly exposed themselves to it's corruption.
This, in fact, is one of the moral sticking points of Videodrome. On the one hand, it would be easy to characterize the masterminds behind the Videodrome signal as the ultimate bad guys. I mean, they're infecting people with cancer, and using that cancer to make people kill their enemies. However, it's important to note that these “bad guys” have a mission. Worse, they have a philosophy. They don't see themselves as terrorists, but rather freedom fighters, struggling desperately to redeem humanity at any cost. And, when you consider what Videodrome's society has become, it's really hard to blame them, no matter how atrocious their actions. On the other hand, the “good guys”, represented mostly by Bianca O’Blivion, try to save this corrupt society, to let it continue along its natural course. While Bianca is fighting against those we intrinsically want to recognize as evil, she is doing so to preserve a corrupt and deadened society, fighting, essentially, to ensure that it continues to stagnate and decay. Neither side is in the right, and the progression of society, as a function of natural evolution, doesn't care. Nature, even when twisted towards the mechanical, is morally ambivalent. And, in the end, Max here is just as screwed either way.
In short, the world of Videodrome is completely FUBAR. Cronenberg, through careful crafting, has created a cinematic dystopia, a world that is destined to decay. As media and technology continue to infest Videodrome's society, the people will continue to fade, seeking out more intense stimulation and, by doing so, allowing media a greater hold on their lives. What is terrifying about the vision Cronenberg presents is not the grotesque twisting of the body, but the twisting of the psyche it represents. Our world is not so different from that of Videodrome. Our news is filtered through television and radio, our communications shunted through email and telephone lines. Bit by bit, as we watch Cronenberg's masterpiece, the parallels between this fictional world and our own, all-too-real world begin to form. The terror of Videodrome is not the vaginal abominal slit, or the grotesque cancerous gun – it is the idea of being controlled by media, of slowly losing our humanity to technology while docilely allowing it to happen.
This review is part of David Cronenberg Week, a celebration of the Canadian director's work running March 17-21, 2009.