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Videodrome

(David Cronenberg, Canada, 1983)


 

The Mind Boggles

Did I really see Videodrome? It appeared, entirely unannounced, in a Melbourne cinema late 1984 ­– already a legend, a myth, already almost two years old. I raced to see it, and immediately wrote the words you will find below. I then rushed back the next day, to verify and expand my first impressions. It was already gone from the marquee, replaced on the screen! Did it really exist, in that shadowy room?

 

This film can’t be for real. Comic strip stuff, like Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973): character names like Dr Convex (Leslie Carlson) and Professor O’Blivion (Jack Creley), nutty talk-show set pieces, crazies serving behind shop counters (“That’s some script you got there!” sings a laid-back black optician to an ageing customer – or possibly the writer of Videodrome). I mean, this film just can’t be for real. Where the hell is it going now? What’s that ugly looking dome contraption Dr Convex has just placed over the head of Max Renn (James Woods)? “Excuse me for leaving”, the good Doctor explains at this point. “I can’t take this freaky stuff”.

 

At least he has the option of a quick exit. Me, I can’t move. David Cronenberg has clamped this whole damn film over my head, I’m trembling and I won’t leave – mainly because mounting incredulity, the reflex that makes you want to turn to anybody else in the theatre and enquire “Can you believe this??” provides also a kind of ecstasy. I can’t for the life of me predict the next move in Videodrome. The mind of this viewer is in full boggle, as the paranoid logic of a very weird film escalates at a rate faster than is usual – even for Cronenberg.

 

The catastrophe principle of the modern horror film (Cronenberg, Larry Cohen, George Romero): start it in the banal everyday, soft and corny, and then proceed quite quickly, in a hyperbole that always inches just a bit further, twists just one more time, into the full, metaphysical nightmare: a terror that acknowledges, as it flies screaming out of the back windscreen of the movie’s abrupt ending, that Good and Evil, Appearance and Reality, Truth and Lie, Mind and Body are no longer operatively distinguishable. A tortured philosopher indeed is Cronenberg, as he dredges his fictional premises and image-ideas out from the worst carnages of derailed mythic thought: bodies mutating, Egos controlled by sinister, unknowable Others, the splattering of on-edge subjectivities all over the screen. Yes, folks, believe it: that really is a huge hole in the hero’s stomach, into which forced guns and video cassettes are being forced; that truly is a gun sprouting nails and drilling itself into his hand.

 

And that really is a TV set breathing, moaning, stretching out; it’s truly got skin, veins, hands and a little hole in the extended finger for some strange mixture of bullets, saliva and semen to shoot out. That’s, in effect, another order of nightmare which Cronenberg plunders at length in Videodrome: all the sociological fears about the hypnotic effects of TV, the video invasion, the medium massage, the plug-in drug, blablabla. There’s something both dumb and wild in the way Cronenberg literalises these theories about the media (some quite old, some completely in tune with Jean Baudrillard) one after another willy-nilly, instantly pulverising them, in the process, into yesterday’s pseudo-intellectual clichés, the stuff of pure fiction – thus letting us off the hook of deep-seated terror in a truly perverse and liberating way. It gets down to this kind of nutso, sci-fi prediction: headsets will record your dreams; human bodies will be turned into programmable video machines; media-induced hallucinations will become the only perceptual reality! Media Panic material (copyright Arthur & Marilouise Kroker: like Cronenberg, also Canadian).

 

Videodrome starts off by preying on some of the anxieties aroused by the ongoing pornography debate – consumers in search of a tougher, kinkier image-fix (i.e., snuff movies) get their brain softened up, their spine and nervous system prodded into numbed relaxation, their emotions desensitised ­– and then slams home with the most literal kind of conspiratorial control thesis. For it’s not the porno images that are the root cause of the film’s Philip K. Dick-like global takeover, but that deadly frequency (videodrone?) in the transmission causing brain tumours, hallucinations and bodily mutations. This sounds and looks like some monstrously inverted fantasia on a bit of outdated Marshall McLuhan, or a delirious sick-bed reading of Australian artist Mark Titmarsh’s “Touch Me Television” (and everything that essay says about the tactility of video finds its literal apotheosis in Videodrome’s most unforgettable scene) – a thesis which, figured as it is by Cronenberg through an insistently synthetic horrality (as Philip Brophy called it), a textuality both schlocky and unnervingly phantasmic, comes out as both intellectually vacuous and absolutely right in its feel. (1)

 

But maybe it’s not so vacuous, after all. Cronenberg’s secret, his trick, is doubtless in the multi-threaded structuration of his catastrophe narrative. Everything contributes, inexorably, inevitably, to the piecing together of the paranoid phantasm that is the film; every banal little detail, every seemingly innocent minor character becomes, eventually, crucially significant in the retroactive comprehension of the Videodrome conspiracy. And, away from the strict plotting, clueing and revealing, floating in and through this tight chain of cause and effect, is a series of motifs and metaphors that the film deploys, in a deliberately off-hand manner, to expand the horrifying phantasm in our minds.

 

Endless details return us to the englobing, symbolic paradigm of video: a dispositif constituted by screens (“I’m his screen”, says O’Blivion’s daughter) and spectators (“Love comes in at the eye”, a convention slogan for the Spectacular Optical company; “The screen is the retina of the mind”, muses O’Blivion) and the unification/intensification of both in performance (spectacles “improve the performance” of eyes; the invitation of Nicki Brand [Debbie Harry] to sado-masochistic love making is “Let’s perform”). The screen and the spectator: points that come to define the limits of a performance enclosure, the type of enclosure that appears everywhere in its claustrophobia and finality: the room with clay walls in which the snuff-scenarios are enacted, into which lovers project themselves in ecstatic hallucination; the monstrous head-set apparatus for recording dreams; and, finally, that “box in the corner” (as the TV set was once called) itself, into which Nicki B. disappears, its sides her new flesh which she asks her lover to beat with a whip. In the realm of the senses … but here, everyone is a victim of these rooms, these spaces, overwhelmed by these sense stimulations triggered and channelled by others. J.G. Ballard, Philip Dick … the modernistic, science-fictional associations flow in, feeding Cronenberg’s precisely calculated vision.

 

I have suggested that the nightmares of Videodrome are of two orders: the metaphysical and the sociological. Usually, in Cronenberg, a third in is order: the sexual. Robin Wood – a horror film moralist/ideologist as significantly rigorous and probing as Brophy, who works on the subject from a very different, essentially amoral and open-ended perspective – sees Cronenberg as unremittingly and unforgivably reactionary in his sexual politics; even as the kind of filmmaker who could be counted on to give us, right now in the mid ‘80s, a great, State-approved, thoroughly panicky horror movie on the subject of AIDS. According to Wood, any sexuality deviating from the strict, straight norm is thoroughly disgusting to Cronenberg, this disgust thereby producing the conceptual premise for his work’s horrifyingly evil proliferations and catastrophes – see especially Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). However, by the time we reach, in Cronenberg’s career, The Dead Zone (1984), this thesis certainly no longer sticks; and in Videodrome – although it plays in some particularly troublesome minefields, like sado-masochism – something mysterious, not-quite-formulated but potentially marvellous is going on.

 

I read Videodrome the way Raymond Durgnat reads Bu˝uel’s Belle de jour (1967) (2) – as a film which, in the area of its sexual phantasms (“the film is a pattern of fantasies”), is calmly cruising around all kinds of dead-zones, interstices and imbrications; playing with, and every now and then dissolving, the straight/bent, normal-vital sex/death-driven porn dichotomies that seem to precede it as a horror movie premise. Typically, catastrophe/conspiracy horror movies separate out so-called normal, public, familial sex-life – safe and sanitary – from the seething (and equally so-called) perversions that are invisible, underground, covered-up, rising up only to wreak wholesale destruction. What’s remarkable about Videodrome is that it allows no space or place for such stereotypical ideas of normalcy – its public, everyday world is already quite happily into soft porn on a cable station … titled, significantly, Civic TV.

 

Some cultural Others, onto whom horror movies typically displace their notions of the Evil and Perverse, like Orientals or homosexuals, are here coolly accommodated into the soft hedonism of this up-front society: Civic TV runs Samurai Dreams; the hero’s subterranean video agent is a well-matured, sophisticated woman who eyes off young men in restaurants. (Wonderful gag: when the really evil Videodrome snuff-stuff appears, it’s traced not to some Third World black hole or a dug-in pocket of Euro-decadence, but … Pittsburgh!) Nicki, above every other element, carries this theme in the film: set out initially as a prissy, repressed, public-moralist figure on a TV talk show (famous for her radio therapy program Emotional Rescue), she is, in a flash and on air, off with Max, tuning in and turning on later to his Videodrome tapes, inviting him to “play around” with pins-through-the-ear and cigarette-burns-on-the-chest. Videodrome is quite adventurously progressive at this point – at least in the kinds of skin-games and ambiences with which it can persuade you to flow as a spectator.

 

But then what? Some will validly interject that the female agent is eventually whipped and killed by our hallucinating hero, and that his brush with S&M is what seems to open him up to brain tumours, mutations, and the most evil manipulative effects of Videodrome. And that Nicki, walking on the wild side, gets herself killed in pursuit of such unnatural pleasures, as if she were “looking for Mr Goodbar”. It’s fair to say that Cronenberg is probably confused, uncertain of where the schizzes and flows in his material can (and do) take him at times, and that his cutting between metaphysical/sociological/sexual levels creates many ideological problems and mystifications for all (of us) concerned. The confusion stems from this: what seems to turn Cronenberg on, plugging into one or several collective cultural phantasms, also frightens the hell out of him. A familiar neurosis!

 

Dimly aware of the potential and power of this reversibility, certainly aware of its fascination, Cronenberg (like De Palma) comes to manufacture confusion, to make it work for him, multiplying its indices on all levels. Videodrome takes the essential narrative device (theorised by Tzvetan Todorov in his classic The Fantastic) of hesitation to new heights of dissociation: finally, there’s just no telling what to strictly believe in plot terms as to the status of anything that’s happening. Nor does there seem any way to stabilise the critical vantage point of an “exploitation” movie that analyses exploitative video (the official Videodrome title graphic – blurry, dirty – is the film’s own title graphic).

 

Cronenberg is fond, in his fictions, of finally unveiling two Grand Cosmic Forces – like God and Satan – ready to battle it out at film’s (and world’s) end. In Videodrome, this comes down to a battle between “Videodrome death” versus “the Video Word made Flesh” (or “the New Flesh”) – except that, since both seem to be manifesting themselves at the same time in the one blasted, mutated body of the hero, and both come out of, talk through the same video screen, it seems an each-way bet whether Max, in his last moment of directed action, is opening the door to an unrepresentable future in that cut-to-black, or merely blowing his brains out. But, either way, the film has managed to bring its vertiginous spin to an abrupt halt, and I suspect that’s what really matters to Cronenberg – probably as anxiety-ridden as we are over the whole, catastrophic affair.

 

Videodrome’s ace card in this dizzy game of calculated confusion is the strategy of disappearance. Nicki disappears early in the film – en route to Pittsburgh, naturally, from and to where the whole film flows (“See you in Pittsburgh” says the hero, as he blasts his ex-best friend). A brilliant, unnerving strategy, this; for in her three subsequent appearances on that damnable video screen – first murdering, second being murdered, third advising her lover on how to murder himself (a bit like the stages of the Freudian a child is being beaten scenario) – it’s quite impossible to know whether, and on which precise occasions, she is ever actually there. Disappearance of character, disappearance of flesh, disappearance of sense: old-fashioned, referential reality flees this film in a hurry, only to return in its monstrous, undecidable mutations and transformations.

 

And yet Nicki’s disappearance leaves us with a consoling possibility. Maybe the hellish two-point tableau of screen and spectator has shrunken, by the end of the film, into a small, compacted, insignificant, hallucinatory scene burning itself out in the basement somewhere. And maybe cool blondes in search of modern pleasures are still holidaying pleasantly, in the flesh, in the Pittsburgh of their dreams. The mind boggles. (3)

 

MORE Cronenberg: eXistenZ, M. Butterfly, Crash, Naked Lunch

 


NOTES


1. Mark Titmarsh, “Touch Me Television”, On the Beach, no. 3-4 (1984), pp. 62-67; Philip Brophy (1983/1985), “Horrality: The Textuality of the Contemporary Horror Film”. back

 

2. Raymond Durgnat, Luis Buñuel (University of California Press, 2nd edition, 1977), pp. 139-146. back

 

3. Postscript: Videodrome did eventually return to an Australian cinema screen in 1985 – as an official Film Festival selection. There, an eminent programmer introduced it as schlock, trashy, fun stuff, which was also how Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982) was presented in the same context. No comment! back

© Adrian Martin North Fitzroy, 22 November 1984, 3.30-9.30pm


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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