Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.8: David Cronenberg's Videodrome

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 95 (A)

There’s been talk over the past few years of a potential Videodrome remake. Not to sound all “Hollywood has no new ideas” here, considering that I’m not against remakes in principle, but it’d be just about the most needless remake of all time. It’s not just that David Cronenberg’s 1983 classic is so attuned to its director’s sensibility, or that much of the film’s technology (Betamax, VHS) is wildly out of date. It’s that Videodrome is one of the most prescient and prophetic science fiction films ever made, and a film that’s still relevant to this day.

Max Renn (James Woods at his sleazy best) is the president of a tiny Canadian network that makes waves by showing violence and softcore pornography to viewers. Max has grown bored with this material and wants something with a little kick. One day, Max’s video-pirate associate finds a strange transmission of a show called Videodrome: all torture, mutilation, and murder, without story. Max is intrigued, but as he starts to learn more about the show’s origins, its ties to bizarre philosopher Brian O’Blivion, and its ultimate purpose, he grows unnerved. Max’s prolonged exposure to the show, meanwhile, starts causing strange hallucinations and experiences as he slowly loses his grip on reality and his very identity.

Videodrome is one of Cronenberg’s most fascinating and lauded films (although still polarizing in some circles), but it is also one of his most experimental, stylistically. The first half of the film is a rather well-crafted  (if unusual) thriller from Cronenberg, with strong suspense, unnerving coldness, and plenty of Cronenberg’s usual interest in how violence and sexuality intersect. Cronenberg’s usual neutrality serves him well in the early going as he makes the viewer doubt whether or not they can trust anyone on screen. Max is a sleazeball, Brian O’Blivion a cryptic philosopher who only appears on television while on television, his daughter Bianca is a chilly intellectual, and every new person Max meets seems equally shady. Cronenberg doesn’t judge anybody more than anyone else, and he builds up a mood of eerie dread and uneasiness as the audience never knows what to think of someone. Howard Shore’s creepy electronic score certainly helps turn the film into something that’s slowly building into a big, twisted nightmare.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t have a sense of humor. Videodrome is one of Cronenberg’s funniest movies, filled with puckish wit (a villain who uses TV to poison minds runs an eyeglasses company) and moments of black comedy, like when Max first sees Videodrome and proclaims it as genius (“there’s no production cost!”). Cronenberg had showed real satirical bite to his style in Shivers, but it really comes full force in Videodrome. His neutral tone and coldness serves the comedy well, as everyone from the sleazy producer to the more “moral” characters seems like a monster. And James Woods is at his hilariously sleazy best as Max Renn, a protagonist who’s equally sympathetic and contemptible.

Of course, it can’t stay funny forever. What starts as a strange but well-structured thriller eventually evolves into full-on mindfuck territory. Cronenberg had certainly used body horror effectively before, but at that point it was mostly as a way to make the viewer uncomfortable. Videodrome is equally unnerving, but it’s also a deeply disorienting film. The second half is largely preoccupied with Max’s increasingly surreal and horrific visions. Television sets and videotapes turn fleshy and seem to breathe. People on TV interact with Max. Max starts to imagine people who aren’t really there. And, of course, there’s the film’s most famous body horror element: the large vaginal opening that one day shows up on Max’s chest.

“WHAT THE FUCK” tends to be the first reaction there, and not without reason. But Cronenberg is working more confidently and boldly here than ever before. He has Kubrick’s detached coldness and mastery of tone, Nabakov’s playfulness and wit, and Fellini’s satirical bent and vivid characters. The biggest influences on his work here, however, are William S. Burroughs and Marshall MacLuhan. Burroughs’ novels often concerned themselves with physical and psychological transformation and shifting natures of reality and identity. Cronenberg connects that with the philosophy Marshall MacLuhan, perhaps best known today as “the guy who Woody Allen pulled out in Annie Hall”. MacLuhan’s philosophies are complex and intricate enough to fill out a thesis paper on their connection to Videodrome, but essentially MacLuhan’s belief was that “the medium is the message”, and that a medium could, among other things, have a transformative effect on society. Videodrome connects Burroughs’ body-minded transformations with MacLuhan’s technology-minded transformations, making for a film about transformations in the body, the mind, technology, reality, and identity.

O’Blivion acts as the Marshall MacLuhan stand-in. The world is at a point of overstimulation, with television as “the retina of the mind’s eye”. He believes that television is becoming far more real to the people than reality, and that soon we’ll all have new identities and names we weren’t born with (“I wasn’t born ‘Brian O’Blivion’”). O’Blivion has had strange visions caused by a tumor…or rather, a tumor caused by strange visions- Videodrome. Eventually the so-called tumor becomes more of a part of O’Blivion than his body. When his body dies, he lives on in thousands of pre-recorded tapes.

Confused? Don’t worry. It’s a film that’s meant to be experienced above all else. But while O’Blivion’s dialogue is difficult, it’s not complete gobbledygook. Matt Singer of IFC and Indiewire perhaps best outlined it on Ebert Presents At the Movies last year: Television, to O’Blivion, becomes but an extension of humanity, far more connected to us than our own reality is. And he’s not wrong. In 2012, we live in a world where televisions are everywhere, from our homes to our phones to our computers. Our new faces and alternate names? Avatars and screen names on the internet that we hide behind. The idea that a tumor can be caused by technology? This ties-in to paranoia about cell phones causing tumors in the late-80s, or any other technology-disease paranoia. There’s early forms of cybersex, streaming, viral videos, and video chatting in Videodrome, not to mention the fact that violent entertainment like the Videodrome TV show isn’t too far removed from modern violent entertainment- say, torture porn like Saw or Hostel (I’ve defended Hostel more than a couple of times, but that’s neither here nor there, and the label still applies).

With all of this technological madness, it’s hard not to lose touch with reality. And that’s exactly what happens to Max. He sees strange things. His visions become far more real than his day-to-day life (“television is reality, reality less than television”). Technology becomes part of him- it’s now biological in that strange chest-vagina, and it can process technology in strange, frightening new ways (made literal here by a videotape being shoved into Max). And the most frightening thing is how difficult it is to tell what’s real anymore- is Max being controlled by the government, or is he just nuts? Is the government trying to kill those inclined to watch “filth” like Videodrome*, or is Max paranoid? Is Bianca with Max, or just another manipulator? And to all of these questions, does one answer or another change the outcome?

*By the way, I love that Cronenberg fits a barb at those who condemn violent entertainment- even that which contains extreme violence- without necessarily letting those suppliers off the hook. Fitting metaphor for horror films, anyone?

Does it finally matter to Max, in the end? Cronenberg’s films are marked with not only shifting identities, but loss of control and, eventually, loss of concern over that control. Max goes from being repulsed by his chest-vagina to embracing it. He’s being manipulated, but he doesn’t mind it by the end. The video world is reality now, Videodrome the poison for it. He is, as Bianca says, “the video world made flesh”- a beacon for the television obsessed. And it’s time for him to follow Brian O’Blivion and become more real on television than he is in body. Death to Videodrome and to the original body is necessary to give television the total transformation, and Max is more than willing to make that transition. “Long live the new flesh”.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment