Written & Directed by David Cronenberg
Few voices in science fiction and horror are as unique as David Cronenberg. He often makes films that are intentionally complex and reality-bending enough to confound audiences. Videodrome is a masterpiece of body horror touching on the themes Cronenberg found most fascinating during this part of his career: sexuality and the inner development of humanity. We’re thrust into a world like ours but where reality is slightly off from the start. It’s never clear if this is the near future or an imagined present. This lack of detail about when this happens is precisely what the film needs to exist in an uncanny space as it tells its story of humanity’s psychic transformation at the hands of mass media.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of a Toronto UHF television station that purchases sensational programming to air. Most of their content is pornographic in nature, but it doesn’t have the edge Renn believes audiences want. He uses the unauthorized satellite on the roof and gets access to tapes from his tech on the inside, Harlan. These tapes show a program called Videodrome which broadcasts sadomasochistic content. The program’s origins are obscured, but Renn desperately wants to contact the maker to get access to their library. His new girlfriend, radio psych Nicki (Deborah Harry), becomes enthralled with the show due to her own sadomasochistic proclivities. This hunt leads him to encounter Dr. Brian O’Blivion, a professor specializing in modern media who knows all too much the origins of Videodrome.
You wouldn’t be blamed for having your brain twisted into knots as the film doesn’t explicate every single detail. Many things are left up to the audience to fill in the gaps or are presented as something people in the world understand as a normal phenomenon. Most prominent to me was the Cathode Ray Mission. This is a homeless shelter run by Bianca O’Blivion, the daughter of the previously mentioned professor. Instead of warm meals or building career skills, the mission centers on having the homeless sit and watch television. Through some dialogue, we learn that the belief is that these people are deprived of engagement in mass media, and if they are given access, it will fix the problems in their lives.
Early on in the film, Dr. O’Blivion appears on television on a television set and says that soon everyone will be known by new names that signify their connection to the media reality. We also learn that Videodrome has been used as a weapon by extremists in North America that see the looseness surrounding sexuality as a sign of the culture’s downfall. The film takes place amid the Cold War, and so these militant forces believe that these proclivities corrupt societies that need to harden themselves to the conflict. It’s interesting how Cronenberg already saw the cultural clash that came with the internet and the explosion of platforms like YouTube and Twitter. But a lot of what is happening now isn’t necessarily new, rather reskinned and evolved as technology changes. Cronenberg based Dr. O’Blivion on Marshall McLuhan, who was teaching at the University of Toronto when the director was a student there. McLuhan’s ideas about humanity’s changes resulting from mass media are the core of what is at work in Videodrome.
Cronenberg does such a masterful job of playing with our perceptions of reality through Renn’s gradual crumbling. He watches a broadcast of Videodrome early on in the picture, and thus everything after should be scrutinized as possibly not happening in the material world. Even his relationship with Nicki has a strong chance of being one of these induced hallucinations as she becomes most potent when appearing to him through the television. Eventually, the concept of “the new flesh” is introduced. While the film never goes into great explicit detail about what that is, we can surmise that it is a coming stage of human consciousness as influenced by mass media. O’Blivion says, “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as a raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”
We can think of virtual communities that exist online as a manifestation of this idea. Sense of self has been distorted since the internet in our homes rose to prominence. It’s no coincidence that LGBTQ identities have risen invisibility. This is due in part to people connecting with communities their physical geography often kept them away from. I also think other individuals who may have lived never having manifested their conscious awareness of the specifics of their identity were tapped into by this influence of the internet. Cronenberg doesn’t deal in black & white, and so it’s hard to pinpoint if new flesh is “good,” but I suspect the viewer is being asked to think outside binaries of that sort. Our main character literally grows a vaginal cavity in his chest at one point, signaling that this is a premise about transcending the boundaries of these temporary forms.
I don’t think Videodrome can truly be captured in a single take or analysis. Much like the thought behind the film, it chooses not to traffic in binaries. Instead, we’re given a movie as complex as the landscape it seeks to pontificate on. Renn’s world is gone by the end of the film, the line between the material and televisual has evaporated, and he has moved into a new stage of existence. Much like in Kubrick’s 2001, that evolution happens on an individual level. For the rest of humanity, things appear to remain the same, but now with the notion that they could change if people willed it so.