Wednesday, January 28, 2009
David Cronenberg, no stranger to bizarre trips into the horror of the mind, started out in the 70s with a series of audacious yet ill-formed horror-thrillers such as Shivers and The Brood. After a few years of slowly bettering his craft, he hit his stride in 1981 with the enduring cult hit Scanners, the film that will forever be remembered as "that movie where the guy's head blows up." But it is 1983's Videodrome that will likely stand as Cronenberg's most lasting triumph, a well-acted, flawlessly constructed journey through the interim between reality and hallucination so ahead of its time that it may only increase in relevance as the years go by.
Videodrome concerns the trials and tribulations of Max Renn, the president of CIVIC-TV, a disgusting TV station that seeks out the most depraved programs to show its perverse audience. Renn is always on the look out for new shows, and he seems to have hit the jackpot when he and his girlfriend, Nicki, are watching TV one night and the signal picks up a pirate station's feed. The program in question is "Videodrome," a plotless show that simply airs sequences of brutal violence and torture. Nicki, who's into S&M, likes the program, and Max sees potential.
What results is a indescribable orgy of bended reality, social commentary, and innovative special effects. Renn begins to have increasingly graphic and violent hallucinations that concern him, to say the least. Soon he realizes that "Videodrome" has something to do with the hallucinations, and tracks down the owners for answers.
But instead of finding some sadomasochistic, pierced whackjob, he discovers that the true owner of "Videodrome" is a well-mannered businessman who communicates only in video messages because he believes it to be the "new reality." He uses "Videodrome" to broadcast signals that awaken our basest instincts while implanting people with tumors that will birth the "new flesh." Through "Videodrome" he crafts Max into an assassin via horrifying metamorphosis and increasingly blurred lines between reality and fever dream.
These grotesque transformations are where the film gets its reputation, but I wonder if people perhaps focus solely on the gore and gross-out horror and ignore the deeper meaning. Max continues to think about Nicki and one night actually sees her on "Videodrome." While watching, a wound opens in his stomach that look almost certainly vaginal, and suddenly Nicki beckons to him from the screen. In perhaps the most famous shot of the film (it's even the cover of the Criterion DVD), Max presses his lips on the screen and seems to melt into her lips. I watched this on Netflix's Instant Watch service, and I was immediately ready to buy the DVD just to see how they did that.
The vaginal opening in Max's chest takes on numerous meanings. On a surface level, it's Cronenberg's usual gimmick of doing all sorts of weird things to bodies and sexual organs, but it takes on great significance when "Videodrome's" producer begins to actually place video cassettes inside of Max. Not only is he quickly becoming a hybrid of man and machine that opens the door for the "new flesh," by shoving these tapes into this vaginal wound Max is literally being screwed by television and television executives.
Cronenberg forces us to watch the extremities of television, what happens when we become so de-sensitized to pornography and vulgarity that we turn to snuff films just to get it up. At the same time, he condemns both the conservative watchdog groups who try to tell others what they can and can't watch, who claim to be protecting the "innocent" but really just are too lazy to change the channel, and the rise of the television conglomerate that manipulates its viewers by preying on our base desire to see violence. Considering Rupert Murdoch wouldn't even get Fox off the ground until the end of the decade, Cronenberg really was bold as hell.
Of course, anyone who's seen the film will know that you can't possibly understand all of it; it's so intrinsically tied to the director's magnificently warped mind that a great deal of it can only ever make sense to him. Yet this may be the most prescient and intelligent horror film I've ever seen, the Blade Runner of splatter gore. It warns of a future in which man turns not only to violence (which is present is every major sport except golf) but to actual death to get his jollies, and when I turn on Fox or Spike TV and see programs that air police footage of people getting killed in car crashes I can't help but wonder how much longer it will take until Videodrome stops being a deeply metaphorical foreboding and becomes a trippy, effects-ridden documentary.
Videodrome is a landmark achievement of the horror genre: as a comment on the growing insidiousness of the television industry, it ranks with Network in terms of identifying the problem before it ever became apparent, while it also introduced a number of special effects that presaged the CG era yet still stand up today. Combined with Cronenberg's minimalist direction and a strong cast anchored by Woods' commanding performance (he clearly got the film), these effects never overpower the story and the whole thing keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Long live the new flesh.