Tuesday 5 September 2017

The Question in Bodies #3: Videodrome (1983)

Most of our assumptions have outlived their usefulness
In 1997 David Cronenberg appeared on an episode of the BBC series Forbidden. He talked about Shivers, Crash (then new) and Videodrome. Cronenberg is a softly spoken, thoughtful sort of guy in front of the camera, considered, precise and very literate. On Videodrome particularly, he stressed his commitment to realism.
It occurs to me, watching Hollywood films in particular, that characters in the films take various stances, just as a plot point, that they are very moral or ethical, or someone is, or someone isn't, and it's really meant to make the narrative work, but that there is in fact no one making the film who really believes or really cares about what these characters care about. It's just another filmmaking device. I wanted to be more realistic than that on Videodrome, and not have any characters who very righteously make speeches about morals and ethics.
David Cronenberg and the the Cinema of the Extreme (BBC2, 19th January 1997)
And this flies in the face of some of the lazier readings of Cronenberg's 1983 masterpiece. It's easy to look at Videodrome and see something surreal, stream of consciousness, where people behave according to no explicable schema. Or as something reality bending, a case of it-was-all-a-hallucination-OR-WAS-IT.

But that's not it at all: Videodrome is, by intent, a realistic film.

I wonder how you become a contestant on this show.
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us
Max Renn (James Woods) wants to broadcast something more extreme on his cable TV channel ("Civic TV, the one you take to bed with you"). He finds it in Videodrome, an hour long broadcast of people apparently being tortured and killed by masked men in a room with walls of electrified clay. New romantic partner Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry), a phone-in radio host he met on a talk show, watches it with him. She's already pretty kinky.
Nikki: Got any porno?
Max: You serious?
Nikki: Yeah. Gets me in the mood. What's this? Videodrome...
Max: Torture, murder...
Nikki: Sounds great. (she puts the tape in the machine)
Max: Ain't exactly sex.
Nikki: Says who? 
They both begin to hallucinate.
I'll leave you to it. I can't stand the freaky stuff.
Nikki begins to obsess over Videodrome. She'll eventually vanish, heading off to Pittsburgh to "audition" for the show. Max, meanwhile, delves deeper into a rabbit hole. When Max sends his contact Masha (Lynne Gorman) to find out more, she comes back with a dire warning.
Masha: What you see on that show... it's for real. It's not acting. It's snuff TV. 
Max (dismissive): I don't believe it. 
Masha: So. Don't believe. 
Max: Why do it for real? It's easier and safer to fake it. 
Masha: Because it has something that you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous.
Videodrome has a point to it, a purpose.

It carries a signal that changes you, creates tumours in your brain, makes you experience the world in weird ways. Max is having sex in the Videodrome studio. A videotape pulses and moans in his hands. A vertical opening, somewhat vaginal in aspect, appears in his stomach.

The key is philosopher and TV prophet Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a fictionalised version of Marshall McLuhan, who only exists now in an archive of videotapes curated by his daughter Bianca (sonya Smits). O'Blivion is Videodrome's creator and victim; it is now in the hands of industrialist Barry Convex (Lesley Carlson), who plans to use Videodrome to destroy the people who watch it. Max is a dupe. As his perception of reality fragments, his identity crumbles. He becomes a shell, a fanatic automaton programmed to kill by first one side and then the other. Max watches his gun meld itself into his right hand; it controls him. He is the extension of the gun, its hollow vehicle. Videodrome will destroy him, whether or not he destroys it himself first.

I refuse to appear on television, except on television.
The medium is the message
We are told by the characters of the film that it happens in a "real" world and that Max is largely hallucinating, but Cronenberg (deliberately, I think) makes it unclear where the lines are drawn. If Max is hallucinating the slot in his stomach, how come he can lose his gun in it, and then pull it out later, so that when he's programmed to kill with a pulsing, whining Betamax tape thrust into his stomach, the gun comes out again, and he suddenly has a gun again? If the gun itself is hallucinatory, how does he murder his colleagues? Does he even do that? Is anything that happens after Max puts on the (frankly prescient) VR headset "real"? Is the VR headset real? Is Barry Convex a figment of Max's imagination?

None of it matters. Cronenberg refuses to make any real distinction between Max's hallucinatory fugues and the real world, and why should he? We are experiencing the film through Max's point of view; this is Max's world we are seeing, Max's story, and the question of what "actually" happened is a nonsense, because it's a fiction. None of it "actually" happened. The story is the story is the story (is the narrative).

People assume Videodrome as a body horror ur-text, but the horror of the situation lies in the erasure of Max's identity, in his being subsumed and exploited by a signal, and turned into a fanatical murderer. It's interesting that it's only when Bianca turns him against the "moral majority" types who have turned Videodrome into a weapon that Max takes on the language of fundamentalist religion. It's only in striking against the soldiers of conservatism that Max becomes a prophet.
Max: I am the Video Word made flesh. Long live the New Flesh.
The New Flesh isn't any flesh at all. It's the state to which Brian O'Blivion and Nikki Brand have already ascended, an electric transfiguration, the transformation from body to television.

Videodrome posits a sort of cyberpunk gnosticism, a latter day heresy. We transcend our gross bodies into a conceptual space of ideas, signals, information. The New Flesh is, for all the images of transformed physical bodies, made of light and thought. The New Flesh is an image on a screen. 

I have something new I want to play.
The more the data banks record about each of us, the less we exist
Videodrome is a film made by a stridently anti-censorship director about a violent TV show that literally turns people into hollow killers and debased monsters when they watch it. Except it isn't, because it's weaponised by the sort of people who believe that TV does that to you. It's not that it really does that to you – rather, paradoxically, it's that the people who would censor these things make them into that sort of thing.
Harlan: North America's getting soft, patrĂ³n, and the rest of the world's getting tough. Very, very tough. We're entering savage new times. And we're gonna have to be pure, and direct, and strong, if we're gonna survive them. Now you and this, uh, cesspool you call a television station, and your people who wallow around in it and... your viewers... who watch you do it... you're rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot. 
The TV show Videodrome is only what people who want to censor the things we see think that we watch. It is empty content, it is artistically bankrupt, it is death. And it is the means by which human lives ascend to the state of information recorded on a screen.
Professor O'Blivion: The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye. That's why I refuse to appear on television... except on television. Of course, O'Blivion is not the name I was born with. That's my television name. Soon all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.
Long live the New Flesh.
I can't think of anything more prescient; we live through Twitter handles and usernames now. We all have television names, and sometimes those television names are the ones were born with, but sometimes they are new. We've moved beyond cathode ray tubes, but the issues of identity in Videodrome are years ahead of their time, and you can draw a line from Videodrome through to eXistenz (Cronenberg's conceptual sequel, which I'll write about in the future) to Demonlover as films that explore these issues.

The new flesh is no flesh, it's a virtual existence (compare to the Rule 34 extrapolation: if you are on the internet, there is porn of you). Our identity becomes media (and let's for the sake of argument include the internet in that) and soon the media is all there is.
I think films should be seductive, and involving, and intriguing.
David Cronenberg and the the Cinema of the Extreme (BBC2, 19th January 1997)
I can't think of many films that improve on the small screen; of course Videodrome is made for that, and the simple touch of making the title card of the TV show the title card of the film adds a frisson on a TV that it simply can't in the cinema. You're not just watching Videodrome; you're watching Videodrome.
You're watching Videodrome.

And that makes the whole film a slippery, endlessly exciting thing; a piece of fiction that makes you complicit in its twists and turns, that endeavors to bring you into the frame. It questions us, challenges us with its images. In our relationship with it, it makes us the new flesh.