Friday, September 11, 2009

David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983)

For Max Renn (James Woods) is it really "a matter of economics," as he tells t.v. talk-show host Rena King or is it something darker? Renn runs a small cable station and is willing to meet two Japanese pornographers in a sleazy hotel in the a.m. hours, hoping to find "something tough...something that will break through." Maybe Renn's darker side is blossoming as he's attracted to sexy radio-show host, Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry), who believes that society lives in a state of "overstimulation" of whom she is also a proud member. Her sexuality and kink is a little much for Renn, but he keeps looking, even after Nikki disappears. Electronics guru and the self-proclaimed video pirate, Harlan, has found a program on a rogue satellite entitled Videodrome: just torture and murder. Renn wants to find the program and is about to go through the looking glass to find it in David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983).
Now heralded as one of the finest contemporary film makers, period (after A History of Violence (2002) and Eastern Promises (2007)), David Cronenberg was in 1983 one of horror cinema's biggest names alongside George Romero, Dario Argento, and Brian De Palma. His debut feature-length film, Shivers (1975) was a perfect low-budget horror film; and it introduced the most prominent theme to emerge from his body of work: the human body with its subsequent corruption and/or evolution by outside forces, often shown within a fringe society which is really a reflection of the culture-at-large. For example in Shivers the tenants of a modern high-rise apartment building are infected by a man-made parasite which mutates its hosts into ravenous and sexual beings. The opening imagery of Shivers paints the high-rise as a small world, seemingly self-sufficient and complete within its own walls. Cronenberg would continue the viral and sexual in Rabid (1977) with his brilliant The Brood following in 1979, taking and loading the term "psychosomatic" to its fullest and goriest extent. In 1981, Scanners was released and while its premise (psycho-kinetic folks with a killer special gift) and its set pieces (the exploding head scene is a classic horror scene) were interesting, the film's story isn't nearly as compelling as The Brood or his subsequent feature, Videodrome.
In his journey to track down Videodrome, Renn learns through eccentric pornographer, Masha (Lynne Gorman), who has got the answers. She warns him though: the people who make Videodrome have something that Renn apparently doesn't: a philosophy. Who can help him find the program? Professor Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley) who only "appears on television on television." The monologue is the man's preferred method of communication while on television, and the Professor runs a homeless shelter with this daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), where folks can get a bowl of soup and a healthy dose from the cathode-ray tube (to help reintegration into society). Renn begins seeing and hearing things, and when the Professor begins talking to him from a pre-recorded videocassette from a television which subsequently begins breathing and beckoning, Videodrome takes an unexpected turn and keeps going. Not only is Renn's reality changing but also his body.
The characters who populate Videodrome seemingly would be too outside the norm to be accepted as real (or accessible) by the viewer, but Cronenberg, as he is often able to do with his films, is able to bring the viewer in to his created culture. As outlandish as the film's subject matter is, Videodrome's dialogue never sounds trite or ridiculous. Woods's Renn is an obsessive character who hides behind his commercial mask in order to plumb his dark desires. Harry's Nikki is a perfect match, and when she burns her breast with a lit cigarette, this act should be a cautionary symbol for Renn. The two actors have a strong chemistry, and their scenes together are terrific. Videodrome is a slow and methodical story that escalates perfectly: the viewer needs time to be in Renn's shoes and see the world through his eyes. As his reality begins changing, the viewer not only accepts this new reality but like Renn, wants to see more. Every subsequent scene is revelatory and engrossing: what was shown previously is grotesquely turned on its head and as the film unfolds, Cronenberg increasingly becomes less conservative and shows more in its visceral and sexual reality. What is so curious, though, about Videodrome is how wrong Cronenberg captured the culture in 1983 and its future: torture and murder would never become popular in any media; television would shrink in size both in outlets and in its audience; and viewers and seekers of a little kink and darker material would have less access to those sounds and images, because "overstimulation" has never really been our problem. Videodrome is a personal favorite by a truly unique and fantastic film maker. See it (and let it see you).


Jeff Allard said...

Videodrome is one of my all-time faves! Even though we're way past the days of Beta and the sight of a room full of videocassettes belongs to a whole other era, Videodrome's ideas are still bracingly contemporary. Although Cronenberg might've corralled his disparate ideas a little better, I still love the sheer messy sprawl of Videodrome. And Woods as Max Renn remains my favorite Cronenberg protagonist.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review. Large and in charge.

Hans A. said...

Thnx gentlemen for reading and commenting. I always appreciate it. Thnx also Jeff for sharing your thoughts--this is Cronenberg at his most daring.

Emily said...

Man, Cronenberg really is the most fascinating filmmaker working today. Even lesser works, like eXistenZ, are so rich in theme and possibility. I'm with you on ranking The Brood so high--it remains one of those films that always gets under my skin. The Fly may be his best in terms of construction and performance, but Dead Ringers is certainly up there as well.

I really need to rewatch Videodrome one of these days if I find the Criterion release at a good price. I'm not sure if there's a commentary track, but I would love to hear Cronenberg's thoughts on how it's aged in the Internet era.

Hans A. said...

Thnx Em, for your insights and comments. I just rewatched eXistenZ last nite and probably will give it a write up in the next few. Cronenberg really is something else.

Emily said...

Excited for your eXistenZ review! It doesn't get talked about enough.