Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Favorite Movies: Videodrome

Videodrome Blu-Ray cover and Amazon link

I grew up in the video age. I have never known a time when it wasn't possible to preserve and disseminate audio/visual media with relative ease, and it's easy to take for granted the impact this has had on our society and culture. This may be the reason Videodrome speaks to me as much as it does. David Cronenberg's landmark film is a brutal, intense, and cunningly crafted nightmare, and on every viewing it reveals new details and new avenues of thought. The film not only shows its filmmaker's unique vision of the world, but is a brilliant encapsulation of its time. And it tackles the issue of the media's influence on our lives with the complexity and ambiguity that nonfiction writers too often pretend isn't there.

James Woods stars as Max Renn, owner and operator of Civic TV, a small public access cable station that specializes in horror films and soft porn. He's looking for new and extreme material, so when his in-house video pirate Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up "Videodrome", a show that seems to be nothing but torture and execution, Max gets hooked on it. His girlfriend, radio host Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry) also ends up sufficiently enthralled that she travels to Pittsburgh to audition for it. But Max hears that the program is actually an authentic snuff broadcast, and that it's the head of something very large and dangerous. A tip leads him to the Cathode Ray Mission, a strange TV-centered religious charity headed by media prophet Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), who will only communicate with Max via videotape. The cassette confirms to Max that watching Videodrome has started to make him hallucinate, and may end up changing his body as well as twisting his mind.

From here the narrative becomes increasingly unreliable. The film is told entirely from Max Renn's perspective; he's in every scene and we generally see what he sees, which means that as his grasp on reality slips, so does the film's. The movie resists any temptation to spell out for us what's real and what isn't- indeed it seems to deliberately confound attempts to work it out. Scenes involving Max growing a decidedly Freudian orifice in his stomach seem too absurd to be real even going by  what we have learned, but certain scenes later can't happen if all the weird stuff is a hallucination. It plays out like a drug narrative, a la Naked Lunch or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with no clear line between what's real and what's hallucinated. In this case, the drug of choice is television.

The film is full of twisted and gory imagery, which gives flesh and visceral reality to what can often be a very abstract and dry discussion- how the media influences us.  The story is in some ways the classic reactionary nightmare scenario, media permissiveness giving way to outright snuff pornography which warps the minds of those who watch it. But Videodrome, the show within the film, is actually the product of a moralistic organization who want to control and transform the sick perverts who normally watch Max's channel, while the seemingly benevolent Cathode Ray Mission is in some ways more permissive- it hooks people to television without regard for what's actually on it, believing that access to the medium itself is what is necessary for people to be patched into "the world's mixing board". O'Blivion himself is clearly modeled on media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who was interested not in what was on television but what television itself was. Is the film arguing that media is best left in the hands of the dispassionate and permissive rather than those who would use it as a means of active social control? Well, maybe, if certain scenes actually occur as Max sees them. This is Cronenberg's best trick; what the film means is entirely dependent on what actually happens within it, and what actually happens is as subjective as anything else.

If nothing else, this setup is also notable for deftly sidestepping the clich├ęs and ossified assumptions of modern discussion of the media. It's really not a left or right issue, or one of religious moralists vs. atheist hedonists, it's not about whether pornography increases sexual assault or video games cause mass murder. In Videodrome the medium is undeniably transforming us, but not simply by telling us what to do. It transforms how we live by the mere fact of its existence.

Though Cronenberg's visual style here is typically low key, avoiding obvious flashy camera setups or tricks, it's clear on repeated viewings that nearly everything we see on screen has been meticulously placed. Max's apartment is full of images of manipulation, and windows, glasses, lenses, and just as importantly doors are common recurring images. Even the less-symbolic decor seems chosen to evoke a slightly unnatural atmosphere. The film's gorier imagery (visualized skillfully by Rick Baker) focuses on openings and interiors, but also tempers the film's intellectualism with plain old fashioned visceral shock- an organic atmosphere often enhanced by Howard Shore's music, which takes on the quality of a slow heartbeat. It's a film with meat on its bones.

Some of the film's spark of life also comes from James Woods in the lead. Not only does Woods ably shoulder the burden of a first-person narrative, he gives Max Renn a great glib humor and the jittery persona of a man who never worked 9 to 5 a day in his life. Deborah Harry's siren presence is nicely balanced out by the ice queen performance of Sonja Smits as Brian O'Blivion's wise daughter Bianca. Everyone is well cast, looking vaguely normal but distinctive nonetheless. The last of Cronenberg's "tax shelter" films (so named because they were originally financed under a Canadian tax credit meant to encourage film production), Videodrome shares its predecessors' glum vistas of a Toronto winter, giving the proceedings a cyberpunk feel at a fraction of Blade Runner's cost.

Over a decade after I first saw it, Videodrome still feels fresh- not only topically relevant but representative of what cinema can do when a filmmaker allows themselves the freedom to transgress. I can't think of any film that manages to be quite so raw and brutal while at the same time being so carefully put together. The combination of the visceral and the intellectual is finely balanced despite the seeming chaos of the film's story, and it's that chaos which allows it to be as insightful as it is. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece, and it's the reason I'll follow Cronenberg anywhere.

Written and directed by David Cronenberg

Grade: A+

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