Videodrome

Videodrome-HERO

On February 4, it will have been forty years since David Cronenberg’s Videodrome — his magnum opus about fantasy and control — emerged, like a rash, on theater screens and shortly thereafter withdrew its shingle and closed shop. In the decades since, it has been re-appraised as an important work on display in the Cronenberg museum of images and ideas. Taking the form of a classic noir, the film is less a whodunit than a what’s-it-gonna-do-to-me. The protagonist, Max Renn (James Woods, seldom moister or better), owns and operates a shady indie TV station that traffics in the obscure and the louche. Max is always on the lookout for harder content, and he finds it in Videodrome, a program consisting only of torture and murder (simulated or real? does it matter?). 

One of the great ironies of Videodrome is that the actual content of the Videodrome programming isn’t the problem — it’s not, in and of itself, harmful to the viewer. It’s just there to lure people — perhaps a certain kind of person not averse to violent fantasizing — and then the signal, which we’re told could just as easily be conveyed in a test-pattern screen, causes hallucinations and, eventually, death. The concept of salacious and/or violently stimulating content as a Trojan horse for something else is borne out by Cronenberg’s own movie, which attracts us with kink and splattery, suppurating Rick Baker special effects and then infects us with its virus of ideas — or at least an invitation to debate them. Unlike Videodrome, Cronenberg doesn’t want to hurt you, just provoke thought.

Following the rabbit hole of clues and sketchy figures, Max gets involved with Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), who gives advice on the radio by day and indulges s&m urges at night. Nicki is intrigued enough by what she sees of Videodrome to want to be part of it. For Max, she becomes the erotically entreating face of Videodrome, her lips bulging forth from the TV set from which many of Max’s head trips flow. Despite the wild and often unprecedented imagery he puts on the screen, Cronenberg has never been a flashy director, which suits his material just fine. If we’re to understand what Cronenberg is telling by showing, we need to see it, straight on and dead-eyed. No fancy cinematic footwork will do.

Other figures fade into the picture, like gangsters out of the noir fog — mainly media cult types, who study the effects of mass communication and either caution against it or weaponize it. Somewhere in the film’s second half, Cronenberg gets a little lost in the weeds of his own story’s implications. But that’s what makes it art. Cronenberg has famously said that you make a movie to find out why you wanted to make the movie. Videodrome, possibly, stays unresolved for us because it was unresolved for him, and how can something this visually and philosophically tangled be resolved? It can’t. It can only go out on a small frequency and reach the like-minded, who may perceive its unanswered questions as a void they feel duty-bound to fill with interpretation.

Cronenberg began with a disturbing childhood experience with a TV signal that was barely coming in; the (again) unresolved fuzz and hiss of a bad signal, he thought, could have been a dark and frightening program without enough juice to cut through the static. That’s not even a premise, that’s a vibe, and the original tone of young Cronenberg’s unease makes it into the movie. The sometimey signal of Videodrome seems to cast its malefic spell by what it conceals as much as reveals. Sweaty imagination pastes in what the eye misses. Videodrome has a lot to say about the bad romance between eye and brain, mind and body. Cronenberg has taken his childhood fear and built a world of conspiracy around it. Some of it plays as old hat — Cronenberg had just been down a similar paranoid road with 1981’s Scanners — and some of it is an excuse for Cronenberg and Rick Baker to do the Lovecraftian work of imagining the unimaginable. “Long live the new flesh” are Max’s final words, and Cronenberg’s artistic credo. The flesh Cronenberg shows us may be new, but it’s as flawed as the old flesh, because it’s ours. 

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Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, cronenberg, cult, film noir, horror, one of the year's best, science fiction

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