Criterion Commentaries: Videodrome
In a way, David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome was a first for me. Up to that point in my life, though I’d watched a lot of movies, I can’t remember one that had this much undercurrent and meaning in it. I was in college, of course, when I first saw it, and it had an instant impression on me. It’s remained one of my favorites since then.
The movie opens with a shot of a television screen. On it, a woman appears, speaking to the audience, giving a daily message. As the woman speaks, it becomes apparent that the broadcast is only meant for one person, a figure sleeping on the couch. The television is speaking directly to Max Renn, played by James Woods. The woman delivers Max’s daily schedule and then the image switches off, replaced by fuzz. It’s a surreal little moment when you realize that the daily affirmation is directed at one sole person. It gives me a little 1984 twinge.
The next day we really meet Max Renn. He is a man who runs CIVIC-TV, a local television station trying to keep afloat with the other stations in town by seeking new shows that give the viewers something they cannot get anywhere else. We follow him around as he tries to recruit new shows like the weirdly sexual Samurai Dreams. We also follow him into his visit with Harlan, played by Peter Dvorsky, who runs CIVIC-TV’s more clandestine operation, a pirate satellite dish aimed at picking up shows not available on the open market.
While visiting Harlan, Harlan explains that he was able to pick something…a little different. The footage only lasts about 53 seconds until the signal is blocked at the origin. Based on the delay, the show appears to be based in Malaysia. What Renn sees catches his attention in the utmost way. What he sees is a woman held captive in a dungeon being tortured by a masked person. The lighting is dim, the floor appears to be grated and the back wall seems to be made out of electrified clay. Renn cannot take his eyes off of the image – until it fades into static as the signal is blocked. It’s title – Videodrome.
Later, we see Renn appear on a daytime talk show alongside Nikki Brand, played by Debbie Harry (of the 80s synth-punk band Blondie). I consider this to be the thesis statement of the film.
Brand is a radio host who believes that television shows like the ones Renn produces on his station are a constant source of over-stimulation for its viewers, who then in turn act out those stimulations. Renn disagrees with this stance, arguing that his television shows provide an outlet for people who already have those instincts. In a way, he provides a service to his viewers so that they do not act on their urges. It’s a fascinating argument, one that is as relevant today as it was in 1983, and it was here where my attention perked up when I first saw the movie.
In an age where everything is televised, from dramas to comedies to post-apocalyptic horrors to reality competition shows, there is something for every id to be engaged by. Brand and Renn’s debate also brings to mind a common argument for today’s video games. The Grand Theft Auto series, and back in my day Doom, are common targets for this back-and-forth argument. One side believes that video games that feature violent and sexual behavior influence their players into engaging in those behaviors in real life. The other side, of course, argues that these games are merely outlets for these instincts. What really blew my mind was that this argument was taking place seemingly ahead of its time – certainly before I was up and walking around.
The third participant in this debate is Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who appears on the show via a prerecorded tape shown on a television set. O’Blivion refuses to appear anywhere in person, preferring to communicate via his prerecorded diatribes. In this particular speech, the professor elucidates on his belief that in the future, life on television will become realer than living life in the flesh. This is a trippy idea to wrap your head around. I liken this argument to a comment on the state of celebrity in our culture. There are gads of reality stars whose shows glamorize a heightened state of drama, sexuality, and conflict. We watch these shows placing the stars on a pedestal and magazines are practically devoted to delving into the sordid behind-the-scenes lives of the stars. We compare these people to our own lives and theirs seems more…real. Engaging. Interesting. Desirable. And in a way, these people live forever and in some distant universe not connected to our own, never aging. It’s almost as if they are all Professor O’Blivions.
While speaking with one his connections about how to find Videodrome (turns out it’s actually produced in Pittsburgh), Renn learns that the show is not actually a show. It’s real. What’s more, Renn is warned to stay away from it, and from someone who knows a thing or two about it, Professor Brian O’Blivion. Renn learns where to find O’Blivion – the Cathode Ray Mission.
Just like a church serving a hot lunch, the Cathode Ray Mission provides impoverished and homeless people something else that they dearly need: access to television. Its philosophy is that television provides the homeless an access point to popular culture, thus giving them an entry way back into a culture they were shut out of. There, Renn meets O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (played by Sonja Smits), who manages the mission and O’Blivion’s public appearances.
After speaking with Bianca, Renn learns that Videodrome is more than it appears to be. More than a violent reality show, it is a weapon – a means of controlling the human mind. Furthermore, it represents a battleground with two factions fighting over its fate. On one side, there is the producer of the show who aims to use it to control people. On the other, there are those who seek to destroy Videodrome.
Apart from its commentary on the state of television, Videodrome boasts some prime early Cronenberg body-horror, thanks in no small amount to special effects master Rick Baker. Pulling guns from stomachs, bulging and pulsating televisions and videotapes – some great stuff.
James Woods gives a great performance as his character delves deeper and deeper into a world he barely understands, and Debbie Harry’s contribution is surprising, to say the least.
What I loves so much about this movie is that it is of two minds – one is a deeply satirical view of how television controls our lives, and the other is a seedy, pulpy noir story where the main character seeks to solve a mystery that ends up changing him more than he bargained for. What’s more, that this is included in the Criterion Collection, which also includes some higher minded classic films, delights me to no end. It certainly stands out in the bunch.
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