Films / Horror / Science Fiction / Thriller

Videodrome

David Cronenberg is often seen as the Canadian David Lynch; both directors rose to prominence in the early 80s, exploring modern culture through a satirical and very individual lens, each working with a distinct visual style, both heavy on atmosphere with flashes of brutal violence and horror. Stylistically, the two don’t have that much in common as such, despite sharing some occasional similar themes – Lynch is more interested in dreams and metaphor, Cronenberg is much visually literal, with a focus on the body, primarily its distortion, corruption and infection – but it’s easy to see why the two directors are often lumped together. Both have, over the past 30 years, carved out a niche for themselves within American cinematic culture, with a particular identity and tone of voice, with both directors having gained the post-name suffix reserved only for the truly distinctive artists – it’s now common within pop-culture to refer to something as Lynchian, or Cronenbergian, those adjectives instantly conjuring up a certain style of story, look and style. Cronenberg’s more recent movies – Eastern Promises, A History of Violence – have arguably been more straight-forward than his earlier films, which, whilst rougher around the edges, were more surreal, puzzling, and visually disturbing. It’s perhaps these earlier movies, the more directly Cronenbergian, which stick in the cinematic consciousness. Everybody remembers the head exploding horror of Scanners, or Goldblume’s hideous transformation in The Fly, but it’s Videodrome which stands as Cronenberg’s most interesting 80s movie. It’s a dark, puzzling and at times, upsetting movie, famously panned by critics on its 1983 release (Ebert considered it one of the least entertaining movies of all time) but as with many films misunderstood in their time, Videodrome has become something of a cult classic. Not a perfect movie by any means, but one ahead of its age, and still relevant today.1Videodrome tells the story of Max Renn (James Woods), the president of a small television network, who stumbles upon a mysterious pirate transmission known as ‘Videodrome,’ a show which jettisons plot and meaning for scenes of explicit torture and violence. Renn is drawn to Videodrome, as it represents everything he’s been looking for; the next step in entertainment, something stronger than soft-core pornography to grip his desensitised audiences. Partnering with radio personality Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), a sadomasochistic woman who is drawn to Videodrome’s violence, Renn traces the transmission to its source, media prophet O’Blivion, and learns the terrifying truth; not only are Videdrome’s scenes of torture and death not fake, the transmission seems to have control over the very nature of reality itself, and may be part of a much wider political conspiracy.5Cronenberg has said that Videodrome was inspired by childhood memories of watching television late at night, after the local stations had gone off, when the TV would pick up unusual, distorted images. Cronenberg wondered with fear and curiously, what would happen if the television picked up something he wasn’t supposed to see – would he turn away in disgust, or would he keep watching? With Videodrome, Cronenberg asks why society is drawn to violent, upsetting images, and questions the moral responsibility of those who present them. Early in the film, Renn is asked if violent, sexualised shows ‘contribute to a social climate of violence and sexual malaise?’ Cronenberg plays to an argument which has plagued television (not to mention video games, and even movies like Videodrome) since the medium’s inception – does on screen violence generate real-life violence? The film seems to suggest such, as Renn is driven by Videodrome to commit a series of violent gun crimes; as the movie progresses, he loses his identity to the one being projected back at him. Renn watches Videodrome, therefore he becomes Videodrome.4There’s a running theme that television’s reality is stronger than actual reality; if television is more powerful than real life, than real life becomes meaningless, and is easily usurped by the more intense images on screen. Cronenberg seems to be saying that people can be perverted and controlled by what they see on screen, and Videodrome therefore stands as a cautionary, satirical movie, warning audiences not to underestimate the power of media. In Videodrome, these ideas are played out literally and taken to their extremes, but Cronenberg uses extremes to draw attention to what he sees as a genuine problem, and one still relevant today. The media does control us; look at how newspapers can sway public perception with articles, or imagine how a political party would gain power without a televised campaign? We don’t like to admit it, but it’s easier to form opinions if the media already forms them for us, and it’s hard to view anything without a media bias.2Cronenberg takes this to its conclusion with a slightly heavy handed, but striking and disgusting, visual metaphor, as Renn develops a VCR friendly slot in his stomach, through which others can program and reprogram him through a series of tapes. The movie is full of sequences like this, utilising Rick Baker’s special effects to great effect, the showpiece being a pulsating, sexualised television. A lot of these images are quite on the nose – the screen turning into a gun, for example – but they give the film a powerful visual identity and add a disorientating sense of surrealism; it can be purposefully difficult to understand what’s real in the movie, and Cronenberg plays with ambiguity, showing how television blurs the lines, makes us struggle with what’s real and what isn’t. Even Debbie Harry’s character is strongly implied to be some sort of hallucination. Television possesses Renn, and corrupts him.1But Cronenberg blurs this further; Renn is already corrupt before he sees Videodrome; his reaction upon first seeing it is not one of revulsion, as it should be, but one of opportunity; he sees it in terms of sales. Later, Renn is told that Videodrome was designed to control the more perverted elements of society; perhaps television can only poison those who are already rotten. There’s a constant questioning throughout the movie of why people are drawn to this sort of material – one character even directly asks, ‘why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome?’ –  the suggestion being that violent and disturbing images provide a natural means for civilised people to get their demons out. Say what you want about the effects of violence on television, people remain drawn to it. Society is unable to turn away from videos of horrific torment and death; there are people who watch Youtube clips of 9/11 jumpers, or find online videos of beheadings, or car crashes. The internet is the modern extension of Videodrome, and coming full circle, there are now television shows containing camcorder clips of natural disasters, plane crashes – ‘Top 10 Worsts…’ as recorded by you, with no sense of plot, thriving on real, snuff-level voyeurism. On some level, with the rise of portable mobile screens, Videodome’s body horror elements – the merging of man and machine – are more relevant than ever. Warhol called Videodrome an 80s Clockwork Orange; both movies were dismissed as violent and nasty on their release, but ironically, are no longer considered shocking for modern audiences, who have long since become desensitised to horrible images. Its striking how pale Videodrome’s violence seems these days.3Cronenberg’s movie was ahead of its time, thematically, and the movie raises some big questions about media and morality, which make it worth discussing even in 2014.
8/10

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5 thoughts on “Videodrome

  1. Great review which really gets to the heart of everything the film is about. I always find this one difficult to analyse because rather than blame TV and film for breeding violence, or blaming violent people for breeding more violent media, it seems to suggest that a vicious cycle of both is responsible – that it manages to make that case so powerfully, and with such fierce creativity, makes it all the more impressive.

    So glad you liked this! It’s a cult classic, yet it’s still much too often overlooked and underappreciated!

    • Thanks Jay. I wasn’t too into it as I watched it, but its stuck with me all day and completely grown on me. Very hard to write about – like you say it can be read both ways so its hard to discuss without going in circles or going on tangents. I think I only scraped the surface of it. Very interesting movie though! Thanks for inspiring me to watch it 🙂

  2. Pingback: Reading List 18.10.2014 – Hyperfilm

  3. This movie is such a classic. I remember watching this so many times back in the day and realizing how it gets better each time. Freaky and yet so dripping with commentary on media. Excellent review. Nice blog. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Thanks! I wasn’t too into Videodrome as I watched it, but it stuck with me for days afterwards and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Very interesting movie! Thanks for the kind words too, I’ll check out your blog today 🙂

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