My main job here at the Flam is to inform you about films playing locally and to incite you to go see them, so, first of all, hey! VIDEODROME is playing at midnight tonight and tomorrow at Coolidge Corner Theatre. Should you go see it? Well, are you depraved? Or do you enjoy depraved stuff? (Judgment-free zone here, I promise.) How about giant hallucination machines? Do you find the prospect of interacting with one galvanizing? If you said yes to at least all of the above questions, you should go see this movie. Again, if that’s how it is. Because whatever else can be said about it — and it invites protracted blathering, as I intend to demonstrate — VIDEODROME is a knock-out gross-out of a mind-warping freak-out. So go out and check it out.
But here’s that blather I promised you:
“I am the video word made flesh,” says porn-merchant turned human VCR Max Renn (a pocked, jumpy James Woods) to Bianca O’Blivion, daughter of Brian O’Blivion, martyred inventor, prophet, first apostate and first victim of the Videodrome. A forerunner of Max Headroom, but with none of his levity, Mr. O’Blivion portends a future in which we will all appear on television, as he does, “on television” — as talking heads, each of us basking in and broadcasting from our own cathode-radiant box, the next evolutionary leap for mankind being its integration with its favorite medium. After all, as O’Blivion explains to a hallucination-addled Renn, “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” — an unsupported but compelling assertion from which he smoothly derives his core principle that “television is reality and reality is less than television.”
There is something unavoidably quaint and dated about VIDEODROME, arguably David Cronenberg’s cult-friendliest film in a career strewn with contenders for that title. All those CRT consoles, massive banks of which once served artists like Nam June Paik as glowing signifiers of futurity, barely even scan as retro-futuristic now — but there is a sense in which this superannuation only sharpens Cronenberg’s argument (or the hallucination of an argument that I’m going to go ahead and ascribe to him). VIDEODROME is finally a fable — you could think of all those tapes and tubes and head-sets as its talking animals — about the prospects for political control opened up by new developments at the nexus of technology and desire. Its moral, as I (possibly mis)understand it — that new forms of fascism lie latent within the very media through which our cravings for stimulation are excited and (never quite) sated, but that those same media can be harnessed to resist social control and erect benevolent alternatives — now seems as nostalgic and ungainly as its gadgets. Who’s afraid of Oculus Rift? Google Glass garners giggles — it isn’t likely to trigger the itchily reflexive disgust of watching a man shove throbbing videotapes into his gaping gut. NSA snooping may freak us out, but tech start-ups? They help us help ourselves, don’t they? While adding value to our investment portfolios?
Computers are nowhere to be found in VIDEODROME. We do see a pair of the once-ubiquitous Atari 2600’s joysticks sitting on top of Renn’s television, where it provides a premonition — along with, later in the film, the flesh-crawling, hallucinated interpenetration of a gun with Renn’s hand — of the biomorphic game controllers Cronenberg would go on to devise for EXISTENZ (1999). But every extrapolation we may want to make from VIDEODROME to the present involves talking about computers — from the encroachment upon reality of “social media” to the transformation by commerce of consumers into consumables, or of persons into products, classifiable and compliant, the Internet-age has witnessed an exploitation of our compulsions so relentless that a certain kind of sickly and anomic “freedom” has become all but compulsory. “We live in overstimulated times,” says Renn’s lover Nicki Brand (played by Deborah Harry, decked out on first meeting in a resplendent red dress and apparently afflicted with facial spasms she may have mistaken for expressivity). “We crave stimulation. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual.” It is upon this psychic material that the Videodrome performs its dark works.
The villain in VIDEODROME isn’t today’s conspirators’ most popular bogeyman, the Big Government windmill against which libertarians persist in tilting as they play their own private Ayn Rand-scripted RPGs. The nightmare here derives from a different paranoia — like all of Cronenberg’s early films, it reflects the hopes and fears (mostly the fears) of the 1960s counterculture, which in its pursuit of liberation unleashed at least as many agonies as it did ecstasies. The director’s trademark “body horror” is admixed with McLuhanite speculations on how our media mold us; sex continues to figure prominently (Renn is a porn-merchant, remember?), but its key role is as a renewable source of sublimatable desire. Spectacular Optical (not to be confused with the aforementioned Oculus Rift) is a corporation, not a government; one that “make inexpensive glasses for the Third World and missile guidance systems for NATO.” It also makes Videodrome. One of its aims is the same as all corporations’: to generate profit for shareholders. The other is to build a New Man, and with it a New Order, one “tough” enough to defend the American way of life against the geopolitical threats arrayed around it and the insidious threats from within. “Softness” — surely a code word for laid-back relativism and touchy-feely pacifism — must be rooted out. Spectacular’s method, albeit not openly stated, may not be that unusual in the business world either: it intends first to control your mind, and then to destroy your body. How? By appealing to your basest instincts — by subjecting you to a visual diet of violence and degradation until your resistance is leveled, your sense of self is pulverized, and all of your tabulas are rasa.
Renn, who comes across Videodrome while hunting for new programming for his employer, Toronto’s Civic TV (“The one you take to bed with you”), is himself interested in rooting out softness — soft-core porn, ineffectual and naive — and replacing it with “something tough.” Videodrome looks like just the thing, until it dawns on him — if anything really dawns on anybody in the farrago of involuted hallucinations that characterizes the last half-hour of the film — that Spectacular Optics seeks to establish a new kind of slavery via Videodrome, and that opposing it requires the creation of a “new flesh.”
From here we move briefly into comic book vengeance territory — “Death to the Videodrome! Long Live the New Flesh!” — which affords a deceptive respite of clarity before devolving into vaguely religious invocations of an afterlife that may be akin to the singularitarian dream of transcending the man/machine divide, or may be no more than the compensatory fantasy of a very doomed pornographer.
5/9 & 5/10 – Midnight
Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard St