Friday, April 27, 2012

Videodrome

To quote Keanu Reeves from The Matrix, "Whoa." How else can I describe my reaction to David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983)? It bares all the hallmarks of his work: graphic violence, warped sexuality, bodies and minds mutating and changing in horrifying ways, and reality-bending weirdness. Having watched the movie at least twice, I still can't say I understood it or can discern what really happened and what was a hallucination of the protagonist. Still, I remain fascinated by Videodrome, curious to peel back the layers and find the method and purpose to its madness.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of a sleazy Toronto cable station specializing in "soft-core porn and hardcore violence." Renn is looking for the next big thing, something "tough" to take his station to the next level and show his audience something they've never seen. He soon discovers "Videodrome," a pirated show with no plot or characters, just violence and torture. Renn becomes convinced this is what he's been looking for. Before long, Renn begins having fantastical and quite gruesome hallucinations related to Videodrome and interacting with a host of strange, sometimes dangerous people: Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a radio psychologist Renn romances who wants to audition for Videodrome; Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a prophet who speaks only through prerecorded television monologues and considers television the reality of the future; Bianca O'Blivion (Sonja Smitt), O'Blivion's daughter who runs a mission that provides the homeless daily doses of television; and Barry Convex (Les Carlson), the head of the company that developed Videodrome.

"The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome," O'Blivion intones. "[W]hatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television."

Our reality is determined by the experiences of our five senses: touch, sight, taste, smell, and hearing. Those sensations in turn are shaped by our minds. To quote another Matrix  character, "Your mind makes it real." Television influences are minds, which in turn influences are senses, which in turn influences our reality. Videodrome is about how something as powerful as a television signal can be used to corrupt our minds and alter our reality if those who broadcast it saw fit to do so. As we see what happens with Renn, Videodrome is capable of "programming" people.

Television has become so ingrained in our society over the past 50-60 years or so, and that's reflected in Videodrome. When we first meet Max, he's asleep in his apartment with the TV on, a prerecorded message plays to get him up. Television for Max is his livelihood and his life so much so that it extends beyond his waking existence. Later, on a talk show, Max defends his product's smut on the grounds it gives consumers a healthy outlet for emotions. Meanwhile, at Bianca's mission, we see television as the new alter of worship, a need as important as food and shelter. That dependence can be exploited.

The hallucinations Max undergoes, triggered by a brain tumor caused by Videodrome, are freaky and disgusting. Special props must go to Rick Baker because the effects are top-notch. Like reality itself, flesh too is capable of bending and changing in seemingly impossible ways. If television and Videodrome can take over your mind and alter your perception of reality, just imagine what kind of havoc it can wreak of your body. Body horror is a theme Cronenberg regularly explores; the changes that our flesh undergoes can be just frightening and horrific as the threat of death.

Cronenberg proves yet again what a master he is. Even as the grue and weirdness pile on, Videodrome  remains intensely cerebral and involving. It's definitely one of his finest works.

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