“In the dream house of the year 2000, Mrs. Tomorrow will find herself living happily inside her own head. Wall, floors and ceilings will be huge unbroken screens on which will be projected a continuous sound and visual display of her pulse and respiration, her brain-waves and blood pressure. The delicate quick-silver loom of her nervous system…the sudden flush of adrenaline…the warm, arterial tides of emotion … all these will surround her with a continuous light show.” – J.G. Ballard, “The Future of the Future”
“The one you take to bed with you.”
Before I get into Videodrome, the movie, please indulge a recent dream. Not long ago I dreamt I was on Twitter. As in, running around, physically online, inside Twitter, in a virtual universe trying to stop some crazed stranger from tweeting deranged comments about me. Ridiculous. In Twitter. Before the dream, I had fallen asleep with large, puffy headphones clasped to my skull – they were practically squeezing my ears while I was watching a Bobby Fischer documentary on YouTube. I drifted off sometime, I think, after Fischer demanded cameras be removed from the room while playing Boris Spassky in Iceland and my dream life raged on. I was chasing this crazy troll in some blue fantasia of Twitter-land, not sure what it really looked like, trying to physically delete this person or avatar or whatever it was, and while I knew I could block the rotten thing with my computer or my phone, I couldn’t get to my devices. I was sleeping. So I was trying to forcibly, bodily shove this tweeting maniac off Twitter, stomping my feet on a weakened, delicate little delete button that did not work and I was becoming upset and frantic and scared and then … I woke up. My heart was pounding. I was shaking. From dream Twitter.
The headphones were still on my head and the cord must have dragged the computer into the bed with me, or I did it myself, I don’t know, and the long cable was wrapped around my throat – I thought of an umbilical cord. The computer was really hot and stuck to my side like an extra organ. I’m half relieved. I’m not really inside Twitter. I’m in waking life. This waking life – nestled around my sweltering laptop with my headphones pressed so hard on my ears that I feel like they’re near bleeding (they’re not), and a cord on my neck, as a disembodied voice from a chess upload that rolled onto YouTube is describing a Fischer Spassky match from a glowing screen of a chessboard in my bed. I was awake but… I can’t describe what existence I was currently residing in. Real life? I guess. It felt like something else, something that doesn’t really have a common name. Prying the headphones off and dislodging the laptop from my side, all I could think of was Videodrome.
Unless you’ve lived in a remote cabin without television or a landline the last thirty years (or you’ve never seen a Cronenberg film), you’d be one of the few surprised to learn that David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) was acutely prescient, moving beyond metaphorical science fiction/horror (it doesn’t seem right to place Cronenberg within any genre limitations) and into something more tactile. Much of Videodrome’s ideas are here (Cronenberg was partly inspired by Marshall McLuhan), while the allegorical skin guns and vaginal chest cavities are not far off from actuality – a small USB flash drive doesn’t seem so intimidating, bodily speaking, and depending on the purpose, some people (many? That’s a bit unsettling) would likely welcome the insertion. When I awoke, wrapped in media, it wouldn’t have seemed so strange had my chest cavity opened up, a la James Woods, and I shoved… I don’t know… a chess piece inside of myself. Maybe a DVD of Pawn Sacrifice, something. The convergence with our various computer devices, glowing with entertainments, email work obligations, political screeds and personal dramas certainly feels physical, often like an extra limb – distinguishing between the virtual and the corporeal seems, at times, impossible. And perhaps that’s OK. Of course I’m not sure.
Cronenberg isn’t going to answer that simply. He doesn’t craft mere warning tales – this is not a nostalgic artist scared of change, frightened by the future, even as he recognizes the horror it creates. He seems, instead, intrigued by possibilities, by transformations, positive and negative, and creates his own cinematic language without (by his own admission) the influence of other filmmakers. Through all of his films, Cronenberg doesn’t present easily explainable or just villainously dark futures (or presents) – he seems interested in the psychologically and physically messier forms of transformation, and frequently, transformation through blood and guts, wombs and orifices, shapes of rage, kidney-looking fleshy pods, etc. (There’s also violence, fetishes, schizophrenia, “dangerous methods…”) As the director said in 1989, “I think that being crazed and obsessed is part of being heroic. You don’t get one without the other … My characters are obsessed with discovery and that does excite me and I do identify with that… My heroes are more subversive really because they’re also a part of society, they draw strength from it and resources from it.”
This makes Videodrome’s lead character – James Woods’ Max Renn, the president of a sleazy UHF Toronto TV station – so fascinating to identify with. He is a subversive, but he is working right in the dirty, lower rungs of entertainment, indulging perversions many pretend they don’t have (but do). This is the character who, in the wrong hands, could be painted merely as the villain – an “amoral” man seeking extra extreme, sexually graphic and violent programming to amp up the soft core porn and violence he’s already unleashing on the public: “I’m looking for something that’ll break through…. Something tough,” he says to bored men smoking, unexcited by the sex in front of them (“Too much class. Bad for sex.” one complains). Max does find his breakthrough (in more ways than he imagines) in the violence and torture of “Videodrome,” via engineer Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), who has offered him a glimpse of this pirated entertainment with no plot, just pure torture. Here begins Max’s exposure to the snuff show that will become like an infection, but not in any easy moralizing way regarding debasement, it’s more nuanced and surreal than that. The stunning (and sickly stunning) hallucinations (gorgeously realized with Cronenberg’s special effects team and makeup artist Rick Baker), and sometimes beautifully trippy imagery, rougher sex and portals to virtual existence engage something nefarious, pioneering and contemplative all at the same time, and beyond easy judgments about the blurring of onscreen sex and violence with real life. I’m not sure what it all means, but it’s there for us to ponder.
We also ponder Max. As portrayed by a superb Woods, Max is not an entirely jaundiced, soulless person numbed by depravity. There’s a comfort level to Max with all of the strangeness he’s seen – it feels lived-in and amused, not totally deadened. He’s mischievous and alive, charming and intelligent. When challenged on a talk show about his choice of programming – if he even cares about his viewers – he says that he does indeed care, and that he cares “enough to give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations.” He furthers that with, “As far as I’m concerned, that’s a socially positive act.” Maybe that’s an easy answer on his part, but that’s not a bad point, really, and some studies could prove that he’s correct. Or not.
Well, not everyone agrees (and they don’t agree today either – this argument will continue until the end of time). Sitting next to Max on this same show (I’d like to see the entire telecast) is Deborah Harry’s psychiatrist/radio host Nicki Brand who states that all of these depraved offerings are overloading our minds and that overstimulation is “bad.” But in an amusing, and also refreshingly honest moment, she admits that in spite of (or because of the endless stimuli) she lives in a “highly excited state of overstimulation.” In one of the movie’s many humorous scenes, Max immediately asks her to dinner on the air as the Marshall McLuhan-inspired (albeit, a crazier McLuhan) Brian O’blivion (Jack Creley) speaks from a TV (he never appears in person). As Max flirts with Nicky, O’Blivion is saying things like, “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye” and “Soon, all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode-ray tube to resonate.” Max wants to nail Nicki. O’blivion is prophesizing social media.
No matter whatever Nicki’s intentions will wind up being, her character’s assertive sexuality and her S&M desire is expressed with neither a clutch-my-pearls kind of shock nor titillation for titillation’s sake (even if she is titillating – but the way she casually goes through Max’s tapes to look for something porny is played like she’s simply searching for a good album, no big deal). Playing her character with mystery and a disarming sweetness mixed with a seen-it-all worldliness, Harry was a fantastic casting choice. James Woods said of her: “She was very smart and connected to the cultural zeitgeist. A very complex woman … She actually was very innocent and emotionally ethereal about the sex scenes … Conversely she took the masochistic sex scenes in stride.” You can see that on screen. As so many had watched her as the pioneering, one-of-a-kind front-woman of the great Blondie (and blonde), out of the clubs and now beaming, gorgeously, “Rapture” from their TV sets, the punk icon was also a cool video-dream queen. She also met with some criticism for her ascent. Read the influential, frequently, thrillingly bristly Lester Bangs, who liked Blondie, but concerned about where the band was headed, wrote, sounding a little too pissed: “She may be there all high and mighty on TV, but everybody knows that underneath all that fashion plating she’s just a piece of meat like the rest of them.” Jesus. Bangs’ sounds straight from the movie! I wish he could join Max and Nicki on that talk show. That would have been something to see.
The “overstimulated” Nicki gets off on the torture violence of “Videodrome,” a bit to Max’s surprise, but he’s not too scandalized (these are adults – they’ve seen a lot), and they make love while he pierces her ears. It’s a beautiful scene, unconventional and kinky but tender, without being corny or sleazy (Cronenberg excels at unexpectedly romantic sex scenes – Crash, The History of Violence). This is also when Max starts experiencing hallucinations and the movie begins morphing into its layered and intriguingly confusing premise – as Max seeks out the source of his choice content, the weirdness and mysteries double and triple and fold into one another. He discovers O’blivion’s virtual existence (he’s a room full of tapes, no longer in flesh form) and then the sinister Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), head of the corporation Spectacular Optical (eyeglasses – perfect touch) who is now in charge of “Videodrome,” and who stuffs a Betamax tape into Max’s torso, brainwashing him. And Nicki has taken off to “Videodrome’s” base located in George Romero land and Andy Warhol’s birthplace – Pittsburgh.
The picture twists into both a surrealistic sci-fi horror treatise on media, and media addiction, and even something of a film noir – akin to the PTSD nightmare that riddles Robert Cummings in The Chase (there’s also the missing, possible phantom woman in Nicki and Max’s loyal secretary giving off a Velda Kiss Me Deadly vibe). The vaginal chest cavity, the throbbing fleshy videotapes, the breathing television set pulsating with Harry’s lips, and in one of the picture’s best scenes, the Cathode Ray Mission where the homeless get their TV fix, sitting inches away from television screens, as O’blivion’s daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits) states the benefits of this kind of methadone: “Watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing board.” This is all wonderfully fantastical, dystopian and both critical and questioning, but why and where and what Max is going towards in his final moment (“Long live the new flesh!”) isn’t certain. And what does it all mean?
It’s interesting to see how this movie has been unpacked, from its initial release, to ten years ago, to five years ago – Cronenberg’s ideas discussed and theorized and mind fucking as the movie become closer and closer to the now. In five more years the movie may cease to be allegorical. Again, I’m not sure how to feel about that. Media consumption via cable television, reality TV, Network-like sensationalism news has been a constant for so long now, and has now merged with streaming media, where one can find everything from ‘70s TV movies you’ve never heard of, to Thomas Edison shorts, to tips on makeup application by teenagers in their bedrooms. There are YouTube stars. Catfishing. There’s endless porn and endless types of porn and fake or real violence and then there’s citizens recording their lives, from the most banal discussion of their breakfast and their cats, to some of the most charged, disturbing and politically divisive dramas caught on camera. There’s also so much impressive art – photography, video and art that doesn’t even know its art. And social media (my anxiety dream), all of the updates, arguments, pictures, videos, friends and “friends,” gifs, memes, jokes (good ones too), politics … I mean, I cannot list all of this. Describing every aspect – all of the connective tissue of our media environment is like reciting the contents of an anatomy book. And everyone knows what I’m talking about and has talked about it endlessly – and on social media or linking pieces on social media – anyway. As Woods also said, “David [Cronenberg] said he was always fascinated by the deterioration of the subtle membrane between the human and his environment. Videodrome is obviously a metaphorical journey along the razor’s edge between the flesh and the video world. Today it would be the virtual world.”
This plugged-in world could be conceived as disturbing and alienating, toxic and addictive, or instead, a new frontier full of creativity and fluidity – or both (there have been plenty of essays warning the dangers and hailing the advancements). Morphing physically, either by a corporate device created by Google or Apple, seems an inevitability. That’s where things sound scary – on a corporate level.
But if you’re in charge of it (Max often is not – he’s got a Betamax shoved in his torso), the physical alignment of technology with the human body could have benefits – like those that awaken Cronenberg’s characters in Crash (adapted from J.G. Ballard’s brilliant novel), where mechanical connections can infuse human relationships with a charge that’s, perhaps, been lost through deadened senses and alienation. And when Cronenberg takes us into the game world of eXistenZ (a movie paired well with Videodrome), his characters take refuge, but they also become more assertive, sexier and increasingly excited by the illusions they are generating. Is that good or bad? I certainly don’t know. Videodrome is darker by its finale, but so smart, so terrifying, so mordantly funny, so thrilling to watch, especially now, given its prophetic pull and timelessness, that the even the confusion keeps it current. The picture’s meaning and moral (if there is one) is still up for debate and bafflement.
In an interview with Sight & Sound from 1992, Cronenberg said:
“I think that the body of a person living now is substantially different from one which was alive even ten years ago. We´ve altered the earth, the magnetic waves in the air, and we´ve altered ourselves. I think that change itself is fairly neutral, but it contains the potential to be either positive or negative. I’m not a Victorian or a Romantic who believes that we are evolving in an inevitably positive way. Nor am I a Marxist who sees the March of History leading us to something grand and glorious. I really believe that we create our own reality, and it´s only in the human mind that any kind of moral judgment exists. We are the source of all judgment and thus it really will depend on us. It’s up to us to say ‘Yes I like this better,’ and if enough of us say that, then by God it is better. To me there is no outside judgment.”
And now think of a body, alive, and perhaps new flesh, 25 years later…