Scott: Videodrome strikes me as an important transitional effort in David Cronenberg’s career, the last and most cerebral of his early films before he departed for Hollywood with The Dead Zone and The Fly, and started making independent films that were disturbing for more than their viscera. (Though there was still plenty of that when necessary.) Here, Cronenberg’s pet theme about the traumas of the psyche manifesting on the body connects in a very personal way with the VHS era, and our compulsion to watch the sort of sick stuff that genre filmmakers, Cronenberg included, are putting out into the world. Videodrome includes so many motifs that surface again in later Cronenberg work: the merging of humans and technology in eXistenZ (both have similarly disgusting guns), the opening of new sexual orifices in Crash, the increasingly abstract nightmare of Naked Lunch. Even as auteurs go, Cronenberg has such a specific set of interests, and Videodrome seems as complete a summation of those interests as any.
Noel: The irony of Videodrome is that the movie and Cronenberg both owe a lot of their reputation to video stores. As you say Scott, Cronenberg is commenting to some degree on his earlier films’ high gore quotient, and on the kind of fans they attracted. But I remember Videodrome as at least seeming to stand apart from Cronenberg’s work at the time. Only later, when I was able to see more of his earliest work, did I see how Videodrome fit into a bigger picture. In the early 1980s, pre-Videodrome, I knew Cronenberg mainly as the horror maestro Stephen King raved about in his book Danse Macabre, and the guy who made that movie where dudes’ heads explode. Videodrome, though, was in the same category as movies like Blue Velvet, Liquid Sky, Blood Simple, and all the other arty genre pictures my high-school film-buff friends and I rented and passed around as our own gnostic canon of essential cinema. We didn’t feel like the sickos in the movie, though; we felt like we’d found something meaningful, even if we couldn’t yet articulate what it was.
Nathan: Your characterization of Cronenberg as a video-store auteur touches on how weirdly personal, even autobiographical, the movie feels. This is the closest Cronenberg has come to making a movie about movies, and it’s worth noting that the very elements James Woods’ Max Renn matter-of-factly describes as the cornerstones of his station’s economic health—sex, violence, eye-grabbing novelty—defined Cronenberg’s filmography up to that point and afterward. When Cronenberg punishes the audience and his characters for their enduring fascination with sex, violence, and dark, nasty stuff, there’s an element of self-criticism as well. Cronenberg isn’t a pornographer, but he certainly works in extremes, and that’s part of what gives the film such a lacerating edge.
Keith: Videodrome fits snugly between the films Cronenberg made before and the films he made later, but it still feels like a leap forward. I think his early films are terrific, and value them in part because of their crude directness, like the way Shivers literalizes every sexual anxiety drifting around in the midst of the sexual revolution. There’s an elegance to Videodrome that’s absent in the earlier films, though, which I know is a weird thing to say about a movie most famous for putting a sexualized, videotape-hungry orifice in its protagonist’s belly. Yet the film drifts along like a dream from one disturbing episode to another. After a certain point—and I don’t think this point can be pinned down—it becomes impossible to discern what’s really happening and what’s in Max Renn’s head, and part of the brilliance of the film comes from Cronenberg’s bold decision not to make that distinction. I’m not sure he could have pulled that off in any of his earlier films, and it’s an approach he brought back in later films, to great effect. It’s most directly evidenced in Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, but it’s there even in a film like M. Butterfly, whose protagonist almost needs to live in active denial of reality for the story to make any sense.
Noel: It’s one thing for David Cronenberg to dream up a scene for Videodrome in which a television screen becomes a gun, or a man receives an undulating videotape; it’s something else for a team of effects artists to turn sketches and words into images that Cronenberg can then assemble into something that won’t look goofy. Rick Baker was in charge of designing the special makeup effects for Videodrome, working with a team of inventive young people who probably could just as easily have been staffing one of the early tech companies. (The Criterion edition has a featurette about the effects, and the pictures and clips of the team make them look like the cast of Computer Chess.) I’m sure Cronenberg attracted those kinds of people because of the sort of movies he was making, which were (and are) far more cerebral than typical splatter fare. He was asking his crew to translate his nightmares, really, and to manifest them physically on a set, not in some kind of virtual space.
Keith: We’ve talked a lot about the difference between CGI and practical effects, both on the site and in private conversation. Videodrome is a prime example of a film that uses practical effects to accomplish things digital never could. I’m not opposed to CGI at all, really, which has given us sequences impossible in the pre-CGI era, from Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to the ape rampage at the end of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. But when Max’s TV starts to breathe and expand, and his body starts to adapt to the new demands of technology, I don’t think digital technology could offer any improvement on Videodrome’s effects. They’re immediate, and sometimes literally visceral—material things made of pulsing flesh. The film makes the audience feel them.
Scott: What I like about Rick Baker’s effects generally—and specifically, as they apply to Videodrome—is how he doesn’t seem to care that audiences might understand them as effects, as opposed to attempting to make them more “realistic.” (Insofar as a vaginal portal carved into a man’s stomach could be called “realistic,” anyway.) The important thing here is that they be visceral, getting across the grotesque, horrifying transformation Max Renn undergoes after he looks into the illicit signal. We’ve become so accustomed now to verisimilitude being the goal of effects, even in escapist fantasy films, that the analog splatter of Videodrome is refreshing to revisit.
Nathan: It seems safe to assume that if Videodrome were made today (and there have been rumors of a remake for years now), the effects would be done with CGI. which would destroy the physicality that makes them so powerful—that tactile sense of flesh, blood, glue, and craft instead of the airy, artless perfection of computer-generated imagery. That in itself is both paradoxical and appropriate: A film about the sinister evolution/de-evolution of technology and humanity intertwined would be undone by an over-reliance on the technology that came decades later.
Videodrome: Then And Now
Keith: I wrote a pre-Dissolve piece on Videodrome at 30 last year that got me thinking about the ways the film predicted the future. (Though Cronenberg has repeatedly waved off any suggestion that he was trying to predict the future.) Some ways are obvious: Videodrome posits a near-future in which pornography would become a part of everyday life—one suggested by a Toronto station already airing soft porn in some late-night slots—and that no fetish, no matter how dark, would be without an outlet to serve it. And it suggests that darker erotic entertainment would creep into the mainstream, which happened by the end of the decade, as soft T&A fare gave way to the fearful, edgier fantasies of Basic Instinct and its ilk. There’s also the way it predicts a string of cyberpunk-inspired films exploring virtual reality by intentionally confusing what Max watches for entertainment with what he believes to be the real world. But what I find most remarkable is the way it predicts the integration of technology into everyday life, from Max’s automated wake-up calls to the many ways, both subtle and overt, it suggests the melding of technology and the human body. There’s Max’s stomach, of course, and his hand/gun, which are chilling effects that now look like crude ancestors to the many devices we keep close at hand or on our ears—or, if Google Glass catches on, in front of our eyes—to always stay “connected,” even if we also use them to keep reality at a distance.
Scott: My Keynote from yesterday touches on a lot of these issues, too: Watching Videodrome again, it struck me that Cronenberg saw the future by engaging with his obsessions in the present. We’re all old enough that the VCR—and cable television—is at the root of our cinephilia, so we know that intimate, all-consuming connection between viewer and screen/device. That convergence has intensified greatly in the 21st century, as our devices have become extensions of ourselves, and we exist online perhaps more vividly than we do in real life.
Nathan: The fusion of humanity and technology the film depicts as both a form of evolution and a living nightmare has been realized in a way even Cronenberg could not have imagined. These days, our dependence on increasingly invasive/helpful forms of technology turns us all into mutant cyborgs in the mold of Max Renn, only in our case, our tormentors aren’t the sinister folks behind Videodrome, but the ostensibly benevolent folks over at Apple. I’ve often felt like my laptop, iPhone, and iPod are a part of my physical being; when a laptop crashed with all of my information on it a few years back, I felt like my body had been injured. All of that makes this film about videocassettes and video recorders seem alarmingly prescient and contemporary.
Noel: It’s a cliché to say that a movie “predicted the rise of reality television,” because so many films can make that claim. But I’d say that Videodrome was unusually prescient about both the increased intensity of reality TV (as seen in extreme-stunt series like Naked And Afraid, which I have to admit has become a show I never miss), as well as about the way “television is reality, and reality is less than television” (to quote Brian O’Blivion). Now that we have reality shows spinning off other reality shows, all of which are followed by programs in which people sit around and talk about reality shows, it’s as though as many spare minutes of the public discourse as possible are being purposefully monopolized by minutiae, so we won’t have time to think about anything else. It’s no wonder that even political pundits can only seem to talk about the state of the world right now in terms of the “characters” in charge of running things, and how they come across on camera.
Sex And Violence
Nathan: The debate on whether exposure to sex and violence in media leads to real-life violence will rage for eternity, but in Videodrome, exposure to sex and violence of the most extreme and transgressive sort doesn’t just affect its protagonist on an emotional level, it affects him on a biological level as well. Exposure to Videodrome the show literally transforms his body. It opens him up (again, literally) to a dimension of being beyond anything he had previously imagined. That’s part of what makes the film so fascinating and ambiguous. In Videodrome, violence and sex are destructive forces that desensitize and dehumanize, but they’re also strangely constructive forces, since they’re leading to a new form of evolution that Max embodies. Videodrome comments on our enduring, bottomless fascination with the intersection of sex and violence, but it does so using the visual language of nightmares, which helps explain why it feels so timeless. It also helps that Cronenberg implicates everyone: the violent pornographers, of course, but also the audience that consumes their output, the audience for this film, and Cronenberg himself, a man whose art and livelihood have largely been dependent on terrifying people with violent, sexually charged imagery.
Keith: I think Cronenberg’s refusal to pass judgment is part of what makes the film so effective. Are there any good or bad guys here? What happens to Max, insofar as we can even figure out what happens to Max, is hideous to look at, but the film presents it as a kind of grim inevitability. He becomes an embodiment of an evolutionary process that we couldn’t stop if we wanted to. Sex and death are all tangled up in that, but sex and death are tangled up in everything. Cronenberg is just less shy about examining the ways they’re knotted together than most filmmakers.
Noel: One of my favorite images in Videodrome is of Max whipping the television, which holds an image of a woman getting whipped. I think one of the ways Cronenberg has been able to traffic in such transgressive imagery over the years is that those images are so layered. He’s pulling from his own subconscious, and the mix of sex and violence doesn’t seem like it’s lurid for its own sake. It just sort of is.
Scott: Based on the evidence here, you could argue that Cronenberg has made a conservative movie about Max’s destructive impulse to explore the outer limits of representation. After all, if he had no interest in seeing and peddling softcore pornography and worse, then his body wouldn’t be subject to such a gruesome transformation. Then again, Max’s hacker avoids the Videodrome bug by never actually watching the screen, and he and Barry Convex are part of a diabolical conspiracy. I’m with Keith: Cronenberg isn’t the judgmental type. Whether bad images are bad for you seems beside the point.
Scott: Be honest: How much do you identify with Max Renn in this movie? I take Max to be Cronenberg’s worst image of himself, as someone compelled by the outré and explicit despite his best moral and intellectual impulses. One of the draws Videodrome has always had for me, beyond its uniquely visceral depiction of what it’s like to be a VHS junkie, is that it gets into the seductive draw of extreme imagery, and our weird compulsion to venture to the darkest edges of representation. In other words, Max is my kind of sicko.
Noel: And how perfect is James Woods as Max? He has a fluid quality that fits this movie perfectly: both macho and effete, and keenly intelligent, yet frighteningly impulsive.
Keith: There are few actors I can imagine working half as well, which is part of why I shudder at the proposed remake. Another reason: As forward-looking as this film is, it’s also very much of its time, and concerned with the technology of its era. Any attempt to update its ideas makes it a different sort of movie.
Getting back to acting, you know who the secret MVP of this movie is? Julie Khaner, who plays Max’s assistant Bridey. Not only does she quietly convey that she’s probably in love with him, her reactions to his worsening state provide the only clue as to how far he’s slipped. She’s the film’s last anchor in the real world. Then, after a certain point, she disappears, and we’re as lost as Max.
Nathan: And while we’re giving out props, let’s spare some for Deborah Harry, whom I suspect was cast as much (if not more) for her presence and iconic quality as for her untested acting chops. At the time, Harry was a hugely sexualized pop star—a sexualization she savvily controlled and manipulated. So there is a power to casting this mysterious pop icon as a woman whose complicated personality and sexuality draw an already dark, tortured man into a bizarre realm of violence, sex, and insanity beyond anything he’s ever known. Harry was one of the first megastars of MTV; Videodrome puts her on screens to be looked at and desired for much darker, more resonant purposes.
Yesterday’s Keynote tackled the eerie familiarity of Videodrome’s vision of technology fused with biology. And tomorrow, Keith Phipps looks at other films of the 1980s that expressed a fear of television.