Videodrome (1983)

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*. The most common accolade you’ll hear directed at Videodrome is that it was ahead of its time: a prophecy of reality TV, Internet porn, jihadi execution videos, virtual reality, and all the other horrors that play, endlessly, on the screens of our lives.
*. But we might want to reconsider some of this. The idea that television could be addictive wasn’t new in 1983, nor was concern over the effect of too much sex and violence. Meanwhile, Professor O’Blivion (Cronenberg’s names always seem drawn from Pynchon) is a very familiar character in at least two ways. First of all he’s the typical Cronenberg man of science: responsible for unleashing inner demons and becoming Videodrome’s first victim in the process. Second, he was based on the media-studies guru Marshall McLuhan, who had been a cultural icon in the 1970s.
*. The ideas O’Blivion expresses are no more than the usual Cronenberg pseudo-scientific claptrap. Cronenberg has always grounded his nightmares more in the subconscious than in plausibility. The technospeak is just window dressing. And so you get bland, McLuhanesque aphorisms from the professor like “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” and “Television is reality, and reality is less than television.” If talk like this means anything it certainly doesn’t mean anything more than what Howard Beale was ranting on about in Network.
*. In fact, Videodrome may be Cronenberg’s dreamiest movie. Once it gets going it’s entirely impossible to understand what is “really” supposed to be happening. In part this is the result of cuts that were made. In part it’s attributable to a script that was still a work in progress while the film was being shot. But mainly it’s because we’re not sure what side of the screen we’re on. I don’t just mean things like whether or not Max kills Masha but the whole texture of the last part of the film. We’re supposed to believe a madman is walking around Toronto shooting people and the police aren’t even out looking for him? Surely that derelict ship at the end can’t be a “real” location. You can ask whether or not Max kills himself but the question I had was what that television set would be doing in there anyway and what power source it would be plugged into. Because if there’s no explanation for that then we can’t buy any part of the ending.
*. Tech dates badly. We can shake our heads at the Betamax tapes, the Cathode Ray Mission, and that solid TeleRANGER television set (more a piece of furniture than anything else, and a bitch to move I can assure you). Then there are those Atari joysticks we see sitting on top of the TV when it starts to come to life, but they disappear between cuts in what I guess is a continuity error. But nostalgia aside, the core message is still relevant, arguably more relevant than ever. The thing is, it’s not a very profound or original message.

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*. I’m still not sure of the motivations behind Spectacular Optical. They want to introduce this psychovirus into the media bloodstream because people have gotten soft? Harlan’s speech is worth quoting in full: “North America’s getting soft, patrón, and the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong, if we’re going to survive them. Now, you and this cesspool you call a television station and your people who wallow around in it, your viewers who watch you do it, they’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.”
*. So the answer to this softening (which is something that Max too deplores, albeit in the context of tepid softcore pornography), is to turn the entire population of North American into programmable assassins? Or infect them all with cancer?
*. It seems to me that the key to what the film is saying, or might be saying, is in Masha’s understanding that what makes Videodrome dangerous is that it has a philosophy. Or as Professor O’Blivion recognizes, it is a faith. Max has no ideals and so he really can’t compete with Spectacular Optical. He is a hollow man, a vessel to be filled by whatever signal is downloaded into his consciousness. Outside of a cathode ray tube, technology abhors a vacuum. Something is going to fill the empty space in Max’s cynical soul.
*. We may see a contemporary connection here in the eerie similarity between that orange Videodrome studio and its hooded functionaries and the various videos that have been broadcast by terrorist groups torturing and executing their victims. The terrorists have a faith (political or religious), and they use the Internet or whatever media outlet is available as a propaganda tool to spread that faith like a virus. Losers around the world can watch these videos and be infected with their message, leading them to join the cause. Like Max they become sleeper cells, programmed killers.

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*. McLuhan’s most famous aphorism was that the medium is the message. The point I’m seeing here, however, is that the message counts. We can become dependent upon the medium, or particularly susceptible to its signal, but it only carries the virus (the message, Masha’s “philosophy”) within it. I think of today’s Internet and all the people addicted to social media. It’s all made out to be so liberating and individual-oriented, but behind social media, operating the platforms, are business interests who are controlling and marketing the product (that is, the users). The medium is not neutral; it is programmed and has an agenda.
*. I love James Woods and, especially, Debbie (or Deborah) Harry. Woods is typecast as sleazy and manic, while I wonder if Cronenberg told Harry to play her part down. She says she’s in “a highly excited state of overstimulation” but you’d never guess it from the expression on her face. But this is the kind of person Nicki Brand is. She’s another hollowed-out case, looking for a stronger fix. Even pins and cigarette burns fail to get a rise out of her. She is another vessel for the message of the media, or perhaps the cable equivalent of a proto-bot.
*. Audiences at the time didn’t get Videodrome. It was a box office turkey, not even coming close to making back its minimal budget. I believe the studio bungled its release after brutal test screenings, and even gave it a bizarre animated music-video trailer that was apparently created on a Commodore 64 computer. It has a cult following today but it’s not my favourite Cronenberg film. In brief, I think it’s a fascinating mess that Cronenberg really needed to spend more time on to get right. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most iconic statements made on film of the sinister truism that when you look into the screen, the screen is looking into you.

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