It’s not uncommon for a science fiction film to prophesy the future, in terms of technology, the social state of humanity, or even certain global scenarios. It is, however, relatively rare for a film to have as its basic premise particular subject matter that, while relevant in its year of production, grows increasingly pertinent and frighteningly accurate as years go on. This is the case with Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s extraordinary 1983 film starring James Woods as Max Renn, a sleazy television programmer who has grown sensorially flaccid by the stale material he peddles on air.
The shows that run on his Civic TV Channel 83 just aren’t cutting it. Max is not content with straight porn, not even niche markets that cater to particular fetishes. Samurai Dreams, which we see a few seconds of, is just too soft. Yes, as Max puts it, “Oriental sex is a natural,” but is it tacky enough? After all, “Too much class is bad for sex.” Viewing these films with his associates, all of them paralyzed in their detached bottom line stress on commodity, Max seeks out something new, something different, something that will “break through” … “something tough.”
Meanwhile, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), a partner of Max’s, trolls the high seas of pirate satellite transmissions. He happily shows Max a program he recently stumbled upon: “Videodrome.” Initially thought to be from somewhere exotic (like Malaysia), “Videodrome” turns out to be more regionally based (Pittsburgh). Max is transfixed and enlists a producer friend, Masha (Lynne Gorman), to track down the makers of the show. When she returns, she quickly and vehemently warns Max to stay away from the series, as well as those behind it.
Of course, he doesn’t, and the duration of Videodrome follows his pursuit and his ultimate destruction, all at the hands of this twisted, dangerous, and mind-altering program. This being a David Cronenberg film, there is much going on throughout the picture, at various narrative and stylistic levels, with his trademark incorporation of pitch black humor, a sense of paranoia, and absolutely stunning special effects. But what is perhaps most interesting, and what gives Videodrome its keen futuristic forecast, derives from its themes of media manipulation, saturation, and dependency.
What constitutes “Videodrome” is nothing more than nudity, torture, and murder: no plot, no characters. It is, according to Max, in his best promotional salesman’s pitch, what’s next. It’s something viewers can’t get anywhere else, though Masha cautions him that it may very well not be for public consumption at all.
Seeing Videodrome today, in particular those figures who in the show within the movie perform the torture and murder, one can’t help but think of the hooded figures of ISIS, and their own shockingly graphic videos of beheadings, burnings, and mass executions. Similarly, twenty-four hour news cycles keep viewers abreast of the situation—always “breaking news”—with round-the-clock footage of riots, protests, and standoffs. Like with Max and the others who have poured over the “Videodrome” content, part of the draw is the safety and the perverse thrill, or at least acceptance, of a voyeuristic violence: it’s OK to watch as long as we’re only just watching.
As rare and bizarre and “Videodrome” is in fictional 1983, today, in the real 2015, when even the underground has gone viral, the Internet has made it possible for anyone to see almost anything, and accessible quality technology has made it possible for anyone to make almost anything. If the era of the film was an over stimulated time, as radio show host Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) contends, where are we now? Max’s blind passion toward the potential of something he has never seen, something that affects the viewer on a profound level, mirrors today’s more implicit insatiable quest for provocative content: more and more and more, more extreme, more violence, more sex—more.
Early on in the film, Max is a guest on the Rena King show, along with Nicki and the mysterious Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who is joining the panel by a presumed satellite transmission. Rena (Lally Cadeau) poses questions concerning “television and social responsibility.” She asks Max if the shows he puts on the air “contribute to a social climate of violence and sexual malaise.” Max argues that it’s a harmless outlet, but when Professor O’Blivion is asked about erotic and violent TV shows leading to desensitization, his response is to make the parallel between real life and the media, and where the overlaps falls. O’Blivion stresses the importance and potency of media (in this case television) and its impact on the general populace. “The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the ‘Videodrome,'” he states. “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” Part of Max’s skepticism when he first sees “Videodrome” comes from this validity, whether the show is real or fake. But if the effect is the same, does it matter?
As a relationship develops between Max and Nicki, he discovers complicity on her part far beyond his profit-driven interests. Not knowing if “Videodrome” is genuine or not (and not really caring), Nicki wants to audition and be a “contestant.” Her words suggesting that the program is in some way a game or mere entertainment goes a long way to stress her unorthodox drives that in some ways seem to alarm even Max. It’s also a curious foreshadowing of today’s reality TV, where interested parties go through the rigors of the varying trial processes all in order to land a coveted spot on a show where they will then be subjected to humiliation, disgusting challenges, physical agony, and maybe even a Kardashian.
To draw a further contemporary parallel, like today’s TV talking heads, O’Blivion seems to exist only in his given media, as a (pre)recorded personality. He sits behind his remote, televised pulpit and espouses his proclamations and condemnations. He has his legion of followers and a legacy maintained by disconnected reproductions, catchphrases and recurring points of easily profitable concern, and his own sense of self-propagation. Rush, Bill, I’m looking at you.
Another connection between Videodrome and our modern world comes with the reveal that Spectacular Optical is not only the manufacturer of “Videodrome,” but is also behind “inexpensive glasses for the Third World and missile guidance systems for NATO.” That a company could clandestinely produce the good and the bad, the helpful and the deadly, the personal and the governmental, is an astute commentary on the blurred lines between wartime politics and capitalistic, corporate production. Without getting too politically contentious here, think of Halliburton and its alleged and actual role in the Middle East and the various conflicts that were born from the region. In the end, it’s all about following the profit and playing into—while also manipulating or ignoring—the “optics” of the arrangement.
In the Sci-Fi realm of Videodrome, and within the design of Cronenberg’s fertile imagination, the technologies at the heart of the film are so much more than mere devices. Tapes and television sets become breathing beings, creatures with a life of their own: their own will, their own desires. There are moments when the physical presence of the formats mesh with those of the consumer, in a way that—and this may be a stretch—isn’t far off from our own body/world boundary breakdown with Google Glasses, Apple Watches, Bluetooth accessibility, and even the assorted digital devices that oftentimes appear to be obsessively melded with one’s palm. In Videodrome, these absorptive mediums are literally so, and what they convey produces subliminal and occasionally downright terrifying psychological/physiological outcomes.
But ultimately, the film’s narrative emphasis, if not its thematic one, is primarily on the effects of said imagery. It’s not necessarily its format or technology (those could be easily adaptable and updated), but its social construction and impact. Max’s steady exposure to “Videodrome” leads to a complete mental and physical transformation. The debate about violence in the media and the subsequent effect on the viewer is manifest to the extreme here. At various points, Max has videotapes forcefully trust into his body, but later, he reaches into his stomach and when he pulls his hand out he is holding a gun: in goes the media, out comes the weapon. And with that, he embodies a curious cyclical example of media informing behavior, which in turn counters the media itself. With his revolutionary pronouncement, “Death to ‘Videodrome!’ Long live the new flesh!'” he seeks to abolish the very form that gave birth to his newfound capabilities. It’s a final statement that, again, mirrors a similar contradictory relationship today. Certain forms of media may manipulate us, harm us, and even distort our conception of the world and our selves, but their significance and, at this point, their almost necessity, is profound.