The last Cronenberg I looked at was his 1986 remake of The Fly which, being a studio film, embedded his body horror motifs and subversive critiques in a more conventional narrative with a clear trajectory. His 1983 film Videodrome, however, was not a studio picture and demands far more of the viewer hoping to grasp Cronenberg’s vision. Reality and hallucination bleed together, the sexual grotesque is more pronounced, and meaning is more elusive.
But despite needing to decode some of the film’s less explicable ideas, I still found Videodrome to be – like the best obfuscatory or surrealist films – an intuitively powerful and satisfying experience. Its exploration of the transformative effect of the media and technology on the self still feels relevant today, even if the mediums have changed. It’s hard not to see the domineering effect of the internet on our thinking and lifestyles in how television and video inexorably consume James Woods in this film.
Woods plays Max Renn, president of a small cable TV station in Toronto that broadcasts softcore porn and anything they can find to titillate viewers. His technician stumbles on a signal broadcasting a show that resembles a snuff film, with characters being tortured and murdered with no surrounding plot. Max thinks this is the next big thing and tries to track down the source, but his exposure to the signal starts to have hallucinatory and physically transformative effects.
While Videodrome is famous for its occasional extreme gore, flesh-object fusions, and new bodily cavities, perhaps the most unnerving special effects sequence is Max’s first hallucination. The video message he’s watching starts to become nonsensical, as Brian O’Blivion refers to his own death in the past tense as it starts to happen on screen and his executioner is revealed to be Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), Max’s new lover who surely couldn’t be on this tape. The top of the TV then starts to pulsate like hot mud. Nicki seductively calls Max to her as her lips fill the screen, which begins to bulge out towards him. Obedient, he pushes his head through the surface of the screen and caresses it.
Here Cronenberg taps into our innate fears of what we create, in this case media technology. Whether it be television or social media, this is something we should ostensibly be able to control. Yet we’ve let if off the leash for our own enjoyment and can now be seduced and manipulated by it. It feels alive despite merely representing life, but could the power of that representation over us not make it alive in its own way?
This level of critique of television – and particularly video so early in its consumer life – is prescient. Videodrome was made before the explosion of American cable channels, 24-hour news, and the ubiquity of VHS. It certainly prefigures today’s blurred mediums, where television is streamed over the internet, newspapers are on screens and constantly updated, and video can be pirated and duplicated en masse with the click of a button.
Indeed, Videodrome emphasises the tactile nature of broadcasting and recording television. Max tracking down an elusive signal reminds us that TV used to be a fiercely analog form, sent out and then captured by individual sets and strips of tape with tech that now seems almost miraculous in its banal physicality. This sense of a jury-rigged fluke made TV and video seem strangely ephemeral. What might or might not appear after some static on an unknown tape? Could you pick up a signal you’re not supposed to see if the aerial were pointed the wrong (or right) way?
These are the technologies and the environment Videodrome reacts to. The warped hierarchy of almost bargaining with our own technology to receive information may be what unsettled Cronenberg. What’s impressive about how the film endures is that his concerns are still valid even though we’ve moved beyond such rough, comparatively arcane methods to digital perfection and cleanliness. But the same hierarchy remains in a new guise. Instead of managing to capture information with analog alchemy, we are inundated with it in clean, easy form. We are still in thrall to what we’ve created.
Moderation is key, of course, and Cronenberg isn’t denouncing television just as we shouldn’t entirely condemn the internet. But we need to be wary about its potential power and realistic about the transformations it’s already caused in ourselves and culture at large.
But this comes from a more instinctive reading of Videodrome. It has much more to say about reality and the body that I haven’t been able to decipher just yet. I haven’t even touched on its commentary on our exposure to violence or Max’s new belly orifice. I’m more excited by Cronenberg as a filmmaker now though because here he demonstrates a capacity for complex commentary in subject areas relatively few artists touch. His recent films are less provocative and The Fly more narratively straightforward. Videodrome suggests that the rest of his filmography will be challenging and visceral and unlikely to offer easy answers.