By Mel Cartagena
Videodrome – 1983 – dir. David Cronenberg
If at times you feel overwhelmed by the tidal wave of ‘entertainment’ that comes at you from your all around, then you understand how Max Renn (James Woods) was feeling in Videodrome. In his quest for the ultimate cheap thrill he finds himself caught in the zone between the real and the manufactured fiction he peddles.
Aside from the now forgotten Fast Company, David Cronenberg’s body of work has a thread of continuity in its thematic content that is remarkably consistent. From Shivers to Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg has been studying the divide between the outer world and the world within. Like the writer J.G. Ballard, he has devoted his career to treading in that largely unexplored terra incognita Ballard refers to as inner space, the place where the real thing inhabiting our skin lives.
In Shivers, The Brood, Rabid, and Scanners the scientist is trying to bring about the change, to tap into the dormant sensorium of that other entity inside. In Videodrome there’s a shift, the New Flesh is reaching out.
“I had a brain tumor. And I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumor, and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce, and become flesh…uncontrollable flesh. And when they removed the tumor, it was called Videodrome.”
This is what Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) tells Max shortly after he starts searching for the pirate signal that broadcasts a show featuring torture and sex in an orange room. Meant as a warning, Max takes the statement as a sales pitch. It’s just what he’s after, the lowest common denominator in a package ready made to deliver to viewers, unaware that his goals and those of the New Flesh are the same. The act of turning on the television opens a portal to reach out for a similar kind, to the ones channel surfing through reality television and gory, visually graphic news coverage.
In Videodrome the New Flesh wants to break free from the soft machine holding it back, this human body, and it rebels against it, violently. As Max’s quest for the pirated signal clashes with the interests of one Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), and Max falls under the signal’s spell, reality and fantasy blur. Vagina-like openings develop in Max’s stomach cavity where a gun and video cassettes disappear into. The New Flesh has transcended the need for verbal communication, using the body to receive instructions from video tape and TV broadcasts. The gun reappears later, permanently attached to Max’s hand as he goes about his work of killing the agents of Videodrome. Max shoots Barry Convex in the middle of a presentation, after which cancer tumors burst out of his body. Barry Convex has been consumed by the New Flesh. When broadcasting technician Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) tries to stop Max by shoving a tape in Max’s stomach opening, showing himself to be an accomplice of Barry Convex, his hand fuses to a grenade that kills him on detonation. The New Flesh is self-contained and determined.
Videodrome is a loaded essay on the nature of reality, and the effects of technology in the mind and body’s evolution. It’s a movie much too dense and multilayered for simple deconstruction, and amazingly prescient in noting the rise of television as a neo-religion, as seen in the Cathode Ray Mission, where homeless people are placed in front of TV’s so they can be “patched back into the world’s mixing board,” as Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits) tells Max. This belief is reinforced with the presence of Brian O’Blivion. A Marshall McLuhan parody, he appears only on television, aware that to people, only what happens in TV is real and worth paying attention to. (“Television is reality, and reality is less than television.”) O’Blivion has been dead for some time, yet continues to communicate through videotape, like a deity sending messages from the altar of television. Videodrome parallel’s William Gibson’s Neuromancer in showing how a disembodied entity (in Neuromancer an artificial intelligence) manipulates people to set itself free.
James Woods plays Max Renn as a sort of detective at first. Then, as the shifting realities become too much for his senses, Max is reduced to the state of the average TV junkie. His stare is blank. He can only stare and receive the images coming at him from the screen. Cronenberg has stated in the past that he writes his stories from the point of view of the disease and he relates to the characters after they’ve become infected. In Videodrome we get proof of this when we see Max ignore Maya’s (Lyn Gorman) warnings about the pirate signal, explaining to Max that “It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.” Max is a sleazebag who eats cold pizza and only cares about finding new means of cheap stimulation for viewers. The New Flesh wants to exist, to be. In fighting for its life it earns our sympathy, as opposed to Max, who by the film’s end it’s just a vessel we don’t care about.
Using the public’s obsession with TV and mindless, violent, sexist entertainment, the New Flesh (whatever it is we’re destined to become in the digital age) finds itself on the verge of taking over. This is a trend that David Cronenberg continues with The Fly, Naked Lunch, Crash, Spider, and Existenz. With each new Cronenberg film we move closer to the Jean Baudrillard’s world of the simulacrum, where reality has collapsed on itself, and has been replaced with reality television. The New Flesh comes home to roost.