David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a wild and astonishing culmination of the auteur’s journey so far. It’s also a refreshing and prescient slice of science fiction and film noir that serves as a reminder of just how warped things can be in the right Canadian mindset.
The 1983 movie follows up Scanners by drifting away from convention in just about every way. The narrative is comprised of psychedelic debris, psychologically-bent critiques and boiling genre blasts across the broad side. It is every bit as subversive as it needs to be, especially as it critiques the influences of media related to consciousness.
James Woods is Max Renn, president of UHF television station CIVIC-TV in Toronto. He specializes in shocking programming, the kind of stuff people today expose themselves to on the Internet. His quest for something even more scandalous takes him to something called Videodrome. It depicts torture and murder and appears to emanate from Malaysia.
Renn dates a sadomasochistic woman named Nicki (Deborah Harry) and follows the trail of Videodrome, fascinated by its approach. He discovers that it is something political, maybe. It’s something coming from Pittsburgh, maybe. The trail leads to various other places, like the Cathode Ray Mission, and veers right inside Max Renn. Literally.
Explaining the plot of Videodrome is rather futile, as it features as many bends and inexplicable turns as the grimiest of films noir. Cronenberg’s screenplay gives the audience elements to grasp on to, however, and that keeps the experience from drifting. Something always anchors the proceedings, whether it’s a lucid critique on media saturation or the bizarre visuals or Harry’s self-destructive femme fatale.
Critiquing media inundation can sometimes require a primer when dated technology like UHF channels and cathode rays are part of the frequency. But Cronenberg’s divinations are universal in nature, especially given the prevalent nature of “alternative facts” and the implacable dependence many have on their devices.
And that necessity arcs wider to the physical in Videodrome, where the medium becomes the message and vice versa. The subsequently synergetic relationship between humanity and technology feels less like a person using a tool and more like a tool using another tool. Or, as Max Renn puts it at the end of the picture, “Long live the new flesh.”
Cronenberg’s subversion of typical frameworks can be jarring, but the effect is necessary to convey the phantasm. Woods’ Renn is as a capable access point, a morally dubious shock-dealer who validates his existence as providing an outlet for society’s violent impulses, but even he gets lost in the shadows.
What Renn becomes – another tool moulded into use by another tool – is part of the practical terror of existence in a world where reality cannot be separated from television because television is reality and reality is less than television. If this labyrinth sounds like a knot of nonsense, imagine how it sounds coming out of the mouth of someone called Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley).
And imagine how clairvoyant it is to have O’Blivion and his daughter (Sonja Smits) working toward the ubiquity of television in lieu of social interactions. O’Blivion will never appear except on videotape, his preferred method of communication being the monologue.
There’s a lot to unpack in Videodrome and that’s all part of the process. There are many channels on Cronenberg’s television, many aspects that stream through the fuzz and deliver hard, cold shocks. And there are many conceivable reactions to such shocks, the least of which merges the audience with the screen in hypersexual, hyperviolent interdependence. Talk about mind-blowing.