Review: Videodrome (1983)


In Videodrome, director David Cronenberg’s usual fascination with the body comes in the form of a repeated phrase in the third act, ‘Long live the new flesh.’ On the one hand, the line can be read it as a celebration of Max Renn’s (James Woods) bodily transformations in the midst of vivid hallucinations that he experiences as a result of the Videodrome broadcast signal, which he investigates through the course of the film. The reading can be supported by a deleted scene in which Max is in a limo with girlfriend Nikki Brand. (Deborah Harry) Brand expresses her envy of Max’s susceptibility to the Videodrome program and the hallucinations that he undergoes. There is a rapturous and profound curiosity when she asks him- what are they like to experience? The scene also illustrates that only some people can be truly affected by Videodrome, which speaks to the inherent distinctiveness of Max’s bodily evolution.

Alternatively, the declaration can be inferred as a fundamental tragic irony because of its use in being a presupposed liberation of Videodrome’s deep-seeded control of Renn. In the closing moments of the picture, Nicki, who is one of the advocates of Videodrome asks Max to utter the empowering words before committing suicide.The gut-wrenching tragedy of this final scene is that the seductive siren posits to our hero that in order to truly destroy Videodrome, one must transcend the limits of the body, which makes the declaration all the more dire in its implications for the main character.

In a 1992 interview with Esquire, Cronenberg expounds upon his view of death and whether or not anything exists beyond the Metaphysical concept. He simply states that “We are all going to die, that is the end of all consciousness. There is no afterlife. There is no God.” With this in mind, one can conclude that the last image of the film has a definitive sense of finality as opposed to being an exercise in ambiguity.

Cronenberg’s direction is commendable in its meticulous construction. One scene that encapsulates this quality is a seemingly belaboured sequence when one first watches the film. However, in context of the picture, it illustrates Cronenberg’s directorial proficiency. The scene in question starts with a citywide panning shot that stops when a white satellite is in focus, appearing in the background of the frame. Then the camera pans across the object as we see it slowly move outward. The sequence ends with a subtle cross cut as we go into the office where the satellite is being controlled via a manual control board. In the sequence, Cronenberg has visually conveyed the painstaking precision and hardship of finding the pirated Videodrome signal.

Moreover, there is a wonderful sense of coherence and progression in Cronenberg’s surrealism, which comes from a deep-rooted nightmarish logic in the surreal sequences.In a 1983 interview, James Woods elaborates upon this aspect in two ways. Firstly, he comments on the fact that a nightmare can begin with a superficial normalcy but then can subtly transform because of an element that is marginally wrong. An example of this could be if one’s arm suddenly started to stretch out as far as the eye can see in a mundane situation such as a person being at a computer terminal in the workplace. As a result of this, he concludes that nightmares are terrifying because of a fundamental “emotional and subliminal terror.”

An excellent example of this is in a scene where Max is watching a videotape of Professor Brian O’Blivion. (Jack Creley) The camera is primarily focused upon on OBlivion delivering his lecture on Videodrome and its effects on the mind. However, the camera occasionally cuts back to shots of Max’s reaction and his stomach as he is sitting on the sofa wearing his gun belt and trousers. At first, his tummy looks normal however through the course of the scene, a single straight line scar develops, and this eventually culminates in that area of the tummy becoming a pulsating and open entrance. It swallows the gun that Max has when he is trying to explore it and mysteriously returns to normal at the end of the sequence. Rick Baker’s ingenious special makeup effects work combined with Howard Shore’s majestic and ominous synth score make this one of the finest sequences in Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre.

In regards to the performances, the most captivating and lingering one comes from Deborah Harry. There a fascinating sense of the external with her performance as Nicki Brand in Videodrome. The lead singer of Blondie plays the part with a casual detachment and mild amusement as though she is having a perceptual outer body experience and is witnessing her physical experiences as if they are happening to someone else. At the same time, there is a strange and inherent seductive quality that Harry has, which comes from her initial coyness and eventual boundary pushing nature. Both of these qualities come together in a wonderfully bizarre sequence that combines the overt sense of unreality with an underlying erotic charge.

The scene simply has Nicki communicating with Max via the television screen in his apartment. She repeatedly commands him with the following words: “Come to me, come to Nicki.” Harry delivers the line as though she is finding delight in casting a powerful spell. As Max nears his television in a heightened state, the object becomes a sentient and responds to his every touch in a sexually charged manner as every area starts to contract and express life. The scene culminates in Nicki’s lips coming out of the television and Max engulfing himself within the holographic image, as though he is in the midst of a prolonged and passionate kiss.

In a great number of his films, Cronenberg’s eroticism has always represented a firm punctuation that marks a point of no return for his main characters. For example, in his remake of The Fly, the love scene between scientist Seth Brundle and lover Veronica Quaife showcased the former at the peak of his physical prowess as a human being while also subtly hinting at his inevitable and terrifying metamorphosis into the titular creature. A more recent example from the director’s filmography comes from his 2005 film- A History of Violence.

In that picture, there are two sex scenes, which ultimately encapsulate the separate identities of Viggo Mortensen’s character. The latter stands out because of its unrelenting depiction of Mortensen’s second identity, which is aggressive and violent. He assertively grabs his wife’s ankle as she is trying to run up the stairs and then proceeds to have his way with her like an angry beast with pent-up energy and rage. The scene is not so much a cementing of his former identity but more of an illustration of how it can no longer be contained as it affects his loved ones in the home environment.

Nevertheless, what makes David Cronenberg’s Videodrome truly transcend is its commentary on censorship and how it wonderfully melds with the Canadian director’s primary thematic fixation of exploring the human body. When Max first gets a glimpse of the Videodrome broadcast, he witnesses a short clip of unrelenting and seemingly unending violence. His reaction is not one of fear or moral revulsion but sheer curiosity. He is determined to show the content on his niche television station- Channel 88. As the film goes on, Max is warned that Videodrome is not worth investigating because it has something that he does not have, which is an “A Philosophy.”

In the tail end of the picture, the rationale behind Videodrome’s existence is to make North America less soft because the rest of the world is tougher and that particular region of the country needs to follow suit. From all this, one can make the meaningful assumption that Cronenberg thinks that witnessing a seemingly random act of violence has no adverse effect on a person’s behaviour. The negative effects only occur when there is an elemental ideology behind the presentation of extreme force.

Moreover, in the BBC’s 1997 documentary- ‘David Cronenberg and the Cinema of the Extreme’ the director expresses some interesting points about conceptualising his protagonist Max Renn. Firstly, he makes an astute observation about the nature of central characters in films. He thinks that when a central character has a fundamental moral stance that it is merely at the service of the narrative of the film as opposed to being a belief that a filmmaker advocates and upholds. As presented in the picture, Max Renn is morally ambivalent which results in his bodily transformations and eventual mind control by the figureheads of Videodrome much more realistic because his worldview has not been changed.

By painting Renn in this manner, Cronenberg posits an egalitarian view of people being affected by ideologically driven violence, it can transform anyone’s behaviour. At the same time, one could interpret Renn as the kind of human being that can get easily swayed to commit violence because he has a no moral conviction and therefore his will can be bent much more easily. The social commentary that emerges out of this does speak the film’s power in being enduringly relevant. Contemporary media sensations do have an undercurrent of ideologically even if they meant to be superfluous candy floss entertainment on the surface.

For example, last year there was a social media sensation called the ‘Kylie Jenner lip challenge’ which involved people going to extreme means to blow up their lips to look like the youngest member of the Jenner clan. The results were disastrous, to say the least. They ranged from a report of one’s person lips turning purple to a harrowing video of a girl struggling to breathe. With this example, one feels that Cronenberg’s pervading message of ideologically driven material having a destructive effect on the body and mind, particularly if a person lacks any sense of firm moral grounding is still potent. For this reason and countless others, Videodrome remains a prominent standard-bearer for horror cinema and its legitimacy as a cinematic genre.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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