I’m one of those who thinks Cronenberg’s version of Total Recall would have been much more satisfying than the one we got (which is pretty good, but flawed; I’m referring to the Arnie movie, of course, not the Farrell one). The counter is that Videodrome makes a Cronenberg Philip K Dick adaptation largely redundant. It makes his later Existenz largely redundant too. Videodrome remains a strikingly potent achievement, taking the directors thematic obsessions to the next level, one as fixated on warping the mind as the body. Like many Cronenbergs, it isn’t quite there, but it exerts a hold on the viewer not dissimilar to the one slowly entwining its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).
Cronenberg movies are evidently a popular choice for sampling. “Ease yourself back into consciousness”, uttered at the outset as a wake-up call by Max’s assistant Bridey (Julie Khaner), was used all the way back in Bomb the Bass’ 1991 Dune Buggy Attack, and the line makes for an effective primer of Videodrome’s assault on perceived reality. The movie is at once Cronenberg’s most transhumanist foray, explicitly visualising, in a (relatively) low-tech ’80s hardware way, the melding of man and machine. Or, as Time Out’s Chris Peachment suggested, an environment where Cronenberg may “eradicate the difference between hardware and software by giving his hero a pulsing vagina-like slot in his stomach through which he can be programmed by…”
Max’s environment is one of both very ’80s obsessions (video nasties, desensitisation to sex and violence and the debate on their influence, addiction to media at the expense of one’s real life) and ones that have inevitably proved “prophetic” in terms of their becoming not only underpinned but also entrenched in our current paradigm. We accept them, are resigned to them, but no longer discuss their potential malignance. They’re here to stay, so what would be the point of obsessing over our interdependence with our iPhones and interaction with our Alexas?
In Videodrome, Max, the president of CIVIC-TV (ha), an exploitative TV station, is looking for the next big thing, something to bust taboos, but he bites off more than he can chew when he “discovers” the very Eli Roth titular torture porn parlour; soon he is hallucinating – or is he? – and receiving (predictive) programming in the form of Betamax tapes inserted into an aforementioned vaginal orifice.
Kim Newman was both impressed with Videodrome and clear about its failings in Nightmare Movies. He noted that “the detective story… eventually breaks into narrative anarchy” and that “Once Renn has been exposed to Videodrome, the film cannot hope to sustain its storyline, and as Paul Taylor wrote in Monthly Film Bulletin, ‘becomes most akin to sitting before a TV screen while someone else switches channels at random’”. One might attest such a collapse is entirely the point – we aren’t supposed to know what reality is, any more than Max – but whether that works dramatically is another matter. In Videodrome’s considerable favour, Cronenberg keeps things tight, Renn’s journey toward “the new flesh” taking less than ninety minutes.
James Woods, who also rates the movie highly, also recognised its shortcomings, as did his mum: “She said ‘I’m sure there’s some kind of message here, but honestly, it’s silly. It’s bullshit.’ If it’s not a narrative story, she wasn’t keen…!” He suggested Cronenberg “wasn’t really sure what the story was, and I think my mom sensed that in a way. She said ‘look, I get all this video stuff, Marshall McLuhan and all that. But the story just doesn’t captivate you, you don’t care about that character… And I have to say she was right. Why do you care about him?”
I’d actually disagree, to an extent. I don’t think you “care” about Renn, the sleazeball opportunist, as such, but Woods’ magnetic, wired performance reels you in. And I do think the world Cronenberg has created is compelling, as opaque as its logic may be. Woods recalls how there were only “70 pages of the script” when he was offered the picture and how they shot three endings, as the director wasn’t mad keen on the one he had (“And I think the final ending of Videodrome was my idea, that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that he’d just explode, or implode essentially”). “There’s no plot. It just goes on like that for an hour” might be a critique both of Videodrome and Videodrome.
What Cronenberg manages with Videodrome, without saying it outright, or even intending it, is an exploration of simulation theory. Does Max implode at the end? Or does his “hallucination” of himself implode? Cronenberg arrives at this place through a largely materialist process. His suggestion that “I am fascinated with what reality is, because it became obvious to me very early on that reality is neurology” is very much the Ahrimanic (in Rudolf Steiner’s language) application of defining the world from the outside in. Not the mind, or the soul even, as the constructive force, but rather electrons firing in and around grey matter.*
Cronenberg observes limits in the degree to which the philosophy of this area fascinates him, such that he wouldn’t go as far as pushing the envelope: “Philosophers like Kant and Plato have driven themselves crazy trying to figure out the reality behind the reality”. Accordingly, his ideas coalesce perfectly with the outlook of the Klaus Schwabs of the world: “If neurology is reality, that’s an incredible theme—how to structure a narrative that will discuss that? Immediately you’re into changing the body to change the reality, and that’s what led me to all of those things like Videodrome”.
Consequently, while it’s quite easy to view a selection of Cronenbergs – particularly ’70s-80s Cronenbergs – and come away with the impression that he has quite a nihilistic attitude to existence, that “What certainly survives is Cronenberg’s wholesale disgust with the world in general”, the man himself would evidently protest such a characterisation. This goes back to his willingness to see things from the “virus’s” point of view. His icy, dispassionate stance allows him to deem any progress/regress as a positive, be that Cameron Vale’s body bursting into flame in Scanners, Seth Brundle mutating into an insectoid monstrosity in The Fly or Max Renn’s hand merging with a firearm here: as he says of taking drugs/alcohol “it’s not just a question of people being destructive, it’s a question of people trying to transcend their own reality”.
With this kind of outlook, it’s unsurprising that Cronenberg doesn’t see his grue as gross or repulsive: “You know, they talk about me as the inventor of body horror. But I’ve never thought of it as being horrific”. Videodrome, more than any other of his films – excepting perhaps The Naked Lunch – is a celebration of the distortion and disruption of form, taking its cues from the carnival ride of the previous year’s The Thing (albeit, Videodrome was also originally scheduled to open in 1982). In Videodrome, the spark to this is depravity, indulging baser instincts (so like The Naked Lunch, then).
Max discovers he has been the target; there is no broadcast (albeit, who knows the subjectivity of this, or any scene after a certain point in the proceedings). We are told violence opens up receptors – chakras? – in the brain and spine and heart: “Why deny you get your kicks out of watching torture and murder… But why would anybody watch it?” (one might argue Max is watching the “real” thing, but the allusion is clear: why would anybody watch Hostel? The original conception of Videodrome, Network of Blood, in which “strange, wealthy people… were willing to pay to see bizarre things” isn’t a million miles from Roth’s elite cullings).
Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry being convincingly overstimulated) is such an express fantasy figure to Max, by the end you’re indeed doubting she was ever real. She’s absolutely Max’s object and outlet (“Torture. Murder”: “Sounds great”), and leads him into an S&M world with little reluctance on his part (at one point, she “brands” her breast with a lit cigarette).
In the arena Newman refers to as the movie’s “bodily evolutions”, sex becomes blurred with tech (as it later would in Crash), and Max “buries his head in a mammary screen”. The superbly named Brian O’Blivion (Cronenberg’s so clinical in his detachment, it’s often only in such overt gestures as this that his sense of humour is revealed) warns Max “Your reality is already half video hallucination. If you’re not careful, it will become total video hallucination. You’ll have to learn to live in a strange new world”. Which could be a description of today. Indeed, the perverse hilarity of Brian’s daughter leading therapy sessions whereby “Watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing board” is no longer a joke: “He saw it as the next plane in the evolution of man as a technological animal”.
What this evolution counts on is the detachment of the subject, a passive willingness to be programmed. Brian announces “The television has become the retina of the mind’s eye… That’s why I refuse to appear on television… except ON television”, while Max habitually recites the justification mantra “Better on TV than on the streets”. But the key to his “joining” the cause is indifference. Videodrome has purpose and intent: “Because it has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it real”. At the end, Max is intoxicated with his fugue realm, and with his shallow obsessions, such that he’ll readily kill himself for a titillating fix: “Don’t be afraid to let your body die. Just come to me, Max. Come to Nikki”. Materialism, even virtual materialism, is everything.
Tellingly, and in succession to Scanners, the architects of this new world are corporate interests, as led by Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) of Spectacular Optical. Like any conglomerate worth its salt, its fingers are in many pies: “Inexpensive glasses for the third world, missile guidance systems for NATO. We also make Videodrome, Max”. It’s the technocrats like Gates (with a shot) and Bezos (with a synch) rushing us to the new frontier. Cronenberg isn’t judging of this, at least thematically (“If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have said, ‘This is the way that the world is going.’ But in retrospect, it’s pretty obvious”). He simply suggests the permeation of media.
Newman believed the elusiveness of Videodrome’s coordinating narrative ultimately detracted from its impact, “swamped by Cronenbeg’s flesh-twisting horrors and flashes of a dozen different films” and “since the last three-quarters of the film appears to take place inside its main character’s head it is difficult not to interpret the final blackout as another part of the ongoing illusion”. Which it may be. It goes back to Woods’ mother wondering why you should care. It’s tempting to see this as part and parcel of Cronenberg’s presiding ethos (“As someone who is very antireligious, I wasn’t particularly interested in giving my characters religious belief… I’m very interested in the creation of reality that a group of people will do together. But there are so many ways that one can do that”). Cronenberg attributed the omission of an ending in which Max ends up with Nikki on the Videodrome set as, in part, down to his atheism. Ahriman would be very proud. And doesn’t need David to believe in him.
I well remember – long before I first saw it – the poster for Videodrome and various suggestive stills. And then that its video release was shorn of about three minutes, seeming to ally it further with the video-nasty theme. In retrospect, it clearly remains in the vanguard of ’80s effects showcases and evergreen in thematic resonance, just like The Thing, but lacking that movie’s coherence. Which, as noted, may be the point. Is the really disturbing part of Cronenberg’s vision that we are all in Videodrome and didn’t even realise our passage? Or that we aren’t in it, yet are entirely pliable to programming as if we were?
*Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently.