Monday, 16 July 2012

Videodrome (1983)

Starring:  James Woods, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Sonja Smits

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: David Cronenberg

Duration: 1hr 24 mins

Rating: 5 out of 5

‘Video’ and ‘drome’.  Have two unrelated nouns ever been combined to create such an ominous-sounding compound?  And just try explaining the movie’s plot without making it sound like the nauseating fantasy of a sick mind (and thus labelling yourself a deviant pervert by association): 

“Max Renn (James Woods), an executive at a sleazy late-night cable TV channel, is always looking for the next edgy product to unleash upon his titillation-hungry viewers.  Whilst scanning the airwaves for illegal content he picks up a transmission containing the most extreme show he’s ever seen:  ‘Videodrome’.  Eschewing niceties like introduction, premise or context, it is simply hour upon hour of a single red room where people are bound, tortured and humiliated.   Renn is hooked and quickly becomes obsessed.  The show turns out to genuinely dangerous:  it’s not staged at all but for real – snuff TV – and worse still is actually a mind-control device that quickly begins to corrode first Renn's brain and then his body.  As our hero descends deeper into a hallucinogenic nightmare, he discovers that Videodrome is part of a grander scheme of mass manipulation involving a deceased professor who only exists via hundreds of video recordings and is the patriarch of a spectacles firm that is actually a front for a NATO weapons manufacturer.”





So not exactly Pixar, then.  And that’s without even mentioning the soft-focus Asian porn featuring wooden dildos hidden in dolls; James Woods inserting a video cassette throbbing with sexual energy into a vaginal slit in his stomach after kissing and caressing his erotically pulsating television set; and Blondie starlet Debbie Harry putting out lit cigarettes on her breast and cajoling Woods into piercing her ears with a dirty needle during sex on the living room rug.

How can you recommend this unique and enthralling movie without making it sound like the worst kind of exploitative sleaze?  Consuming horror cinema does not, of course, actually make you a depraved lunatic, and similarly the creators of such works are (not necessarily) salivating perverts, either.  In fact, it’s become almost a clich√© to hear how a director is nothing like his oeuvre:  John Woo apparently hates the sound of gunfire and deplores violence, and David Lynch was called a ‘nice, normal guy’ recently by Chris Isaak on British TV (amusingly, Isaak also stated on the same show that the extremeness of an artist’s work tends to be inversely proportional to his deviancy, meaning that purveyors of kiddie-centric innocence are likely the biggest sickos of the lot).  And David Cronenberg himself comes across as intelligent, erudite and somewhat bashful in interviews.


Ironically, it is often in controversial ‘extreme’ flicks that the most interesting allegorical cinema emerges.  George A. Romero’s …Dead movies each represent characteristics of the society of the time in which they were made; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Tobe Hooper’s venomous reaction to the US’s callous attitude regarding the atrocities of the Vietnam war; Cannibal Holocaust, arguably the most disturbing film of all time, contains a thoughtful 'who are the real savages here?' conundrum amongst its animal sacrifice, castration and native rape.  

The question is, since you can waffle pseudo-intellectual claptrap about pretty much anything (I still remember agonisingly trying to stretch my undergraduate analysis of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 4000 painful words) how do you identify the texts with genuine depth? 


The answer, for me, is strangeness.  Some films are, of course, simply cheap sleaze and have nothing to say, existing just as exploitative vessels for sex and violence.  Which is fine and often a lot of fun, but such titles can only be appreciated on the basest level.  Even the most desperate Media Studies student would struggle to sit through Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, for instance, and see anything more than a simple stalk ‘n’ slash affair – the series gains no further credence through relocating Jason Voorhees from the backwoods to the big city (he’s actually on a ship for most of the movie, but there’s no nautical relevance, either).  It’s gory, but straightforward; brutal, but conventional.

Contrastingly, when you watch Videodrome, or even hear a description of it, the "WTF?" moments come thick and fast.  Some people do watch it and are left cold, considering it nothing but a crazy and disturbing mess.  But they’re wrong; there is a lot more going on under the gory, trippy surface – it’s just not easy to put your finger on exactly what that is.  I first saw the movie when I was 14 and have re-watched it many times since, and its exact meaning still eludes me.  The dangers of watching too much TV?  How life as we know will eventually become just a reproduction of what we see on television?  The corrupting influence of those who hold power and influence over us, how they keep us in check through subliminal messages that amount to mind-control?  The film’s famous closing line is ‘Long live the new flesh’ – so is it a call to independence and the transgression from mass obedience to individual freedom?

I’ve never quite been sure, just like the viewer never really knows how much is real and how much is just in Woods’ mind after he first watches Videodrome in the film’s early stages.  But to those who are left frustrated by the movie’s ambiguity, I say this:  there can be a satisfaction in letting go of the need to understand what you are experiencing and simply going with it.  Don’t fight your confusion, embrace it; hell, our protagonist is baffled for most of the duration, so it’s not as if the bewilderment alienates us from his journey.  Art doesn’t have to always be grasped on a rational level, and since it’s quite obvious that the strangeness meter is up to eleven in this film and that Cronenberg is no mere hack on the level of Eli Roth (Hostel I and II) or Leigh Whannell (the Saw saga), then just embrace the weirdness and take it all in.  We human beings aren’t meant to understand everything, after all.  

Long live the new flesh!  (Whatever the hell that actually means.)  *****

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