Sunday, December 18, 2011

CANON OF FILM: "VIDEODROME"

VIDEODROME (1983)

Director/Screenplay: David Cronenberg



Television is such a peculiar part of modern life. It's an unconditional constant, it's ever-evolving, and it's importance is constantly becoming more powerful. Because of this, there's something interesting about television when it's used as a backdrop or a subject in films. Movies about television seem to be both a representational zeitgeist of the time the movie was made, as well as many underlying parallel motifs that seem to indicate the movie was way ahead of its time. I already posted a Canon of Film entry on "Broadcast News," a movie about an era of TV news coverage that's so part of the distant past, it might as well be in the history books, when the nightly news was kind and nobody was sure what this newfangled-thing call CNN would be, other than constantly finding the most inane of news stories to cover constantly. The most famous example is "Network," the great Sidney Lumet film that seemed to foreshadow everybody from the Psychic Hotline to Jerry Springer and Bill O'Reilly, yet the movie is clearly apart of the '70s, including a TV show about a militant Black Panther-type civil rights group. In many ways, we are just now catching up to David Cronenberg's "Videodrome." Yeah, the technology (TV technology and special effects technology) are of the 1980s. However, it foresees not only a culture of electronic mass available media, but a glimpse of some of the really dark underbelly of society, some that weren't typically explored beforehand 'cause, well-, it wasn't able to be. It wasn't on television then, and now we got the internet, to explore any desire we want. The darkest part of human nature, I believe is not our actions, but the thoughts behind them. Max Renn (James Woods) is a young, controversial programmer for a local Toronto television station, on what would then be considered a cable or UHF station, who would search for sexual, violent and exploitative programming to air, in an effort to earn viewers. This was based on a real channel in the eighties in Canada, and some of you might be surprised to learn that their were a few channels in America like that as well. On a talk show about the state of television, he asks out a talk radio personality on the panel (Deborah Harry, yes, of Blondie). Also on the panel, on a television that's on television, is a media critic/philospher who calls himself Brian O'Blivian (Jack Creley) that warns about television taking over people minds, eventually to the point where people and television will eventually become one. When I was young, the theory was that by the year 2000, everybody would have their own talk show. (Well, we do have a Facebook, MySpace and Twitter account, oh and our own blogs.) Max shows Nikki a piece of television he's investigating called "Videodrome," which has no plot, no story and seems raw, brutal, and possibly real. It shows naked women tied up or chained while constantly being beaten and tortured. It looks like something out of "Hostel," but according to the intercepted transmission signal, it comes from Pittsburgh. Nikki is intrigued by the footage, intellectually and erotically. There's a fascinating sex scene where Max and Nikki seem to have transferred themselves into the "Videodrome" stage, and engage in their own mild form of S&M. Nikki decides to investigate "Videodrome," by heading out to Pittsburgh to participate in the film, over Max's objections. For the rest of the film, she's then seen as a presence that intercuts in and out of Max's mind, what would now be referred to as a virtual character, an idea that's common now, but not back then. To some the extent, the entire movie intercuts in and out of Max's mind. The more he watches "Videodrome," the more difficult it becomes to separates reality from the hallucinations the show incites, or at least a signal that the show sets off. In need of help, he tries to track down the reclusive O'Blivion, only to find his daughter (Sonja Smits) as a keeper of her father's work and as an overseer of a strange cult-like complex where everyone, especially the homeless are instructed to watch TV, for at least an hour a day. The story is horror, mixed with science-fiction, and while impossible in any realistic sense, metaphorically, I think you could argue that while "Network," foresaw the future thirty years ahead, I think it's fair to say that time, has only just now caught up with "Videodrome." The make-up and special effects by the legendary Rick Baker, have a strange effect of seeming realistic, even while clearly special effects. The two most famous images, the TV screen, popping out like an arm, the entire TV looking more and more like flesh-like skin, must have surprised people then. The other, the scene where a nearly naked Max seems to have a long vertical slot cutting out of his stomach, will need to be explain to younger viewers, who might not know what a VCR is. (Actually it was a BETA tape they used, but that's gonna be even harder to explain) The film was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, who's known for his horror films with a distinctly darker edge, usually involving sex and/or violence. His remake of "The Fly," is often cited as better than the original, but it's now clear that the real core theme of Cronenberg's work is the mind, how it works, how one tries to control it, and the ways it can be control and altered by powerful forces are urges. The films of his I've seen include "The Dead Zone," from the novel by Stephen King, about a man who's return from a coma only to discover he's got the power to see the future, his film "Crash," which stars Holly Hunter and James Spader have a sexual fetish for car crashes, and his last two films "A History of Violence," where a small-town diner owner seems to have suppressed an inate fighting ability, and the more procedural "Eastern Promises," which includes a mind-stunning fight scene taking place in a bathhouse. His latest film "A Dangerous Method," goes right to the heart of this obsession he has with the mind, "A Dangerous Method," which portray Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, fighting over a patient, who has sodomasochistic sexual desires of her own. He's also directed "Scanners," and "Naked Lunch," and "Dead Ringers," and more than a few others.  It's almost too easy to trap him into the horror genre, he is good at it, but this wrestling of the thoughts of one's mind which seems to be completely unconnected to the surrounding world, undermines even the most of Capraesque of foregrounds. I don't know if "Videodrome," is Cronenberg's best film, but it's the one that become more prophetic with each viewing. Not simply diving into the mind of his characters, but the mind of the rest of the world as well. Cronenberg is cinema's subconscious.  
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