Saturday, February 9, 2013

Videodrome (1983)

Director: David Cronenberg                                Writer: David Cronenberg
Film Score: Howard Shore                                 Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits and Peter Dvorsky

I was of two minds when I re-watched Videodrome recently. The first is that it is, in fact, a cult classic. But if you really stop to think about it, all of David Cronenberg’s films are cult classics. Only his remake of The Fly in 1986 comes close to something that is completely mainstream. All the rest of his films, even the big budget ones, bear the taint of the low-budget auteur in him. The second thing is, never have sexuality and horror been combined in such a prolonged and overt manner as in Cronenberg’s films, and this is the real stamp of his filmmaking style that sets him apart from all other horror directors in the last thirty years.

James Woods plays the studio executive of a small cable network in Toronto, who gets ratings (and, one would assume, advertising dollars) by serving up the kind of sex and violence to his audience that was new at the time (HBO had only been operating a few years) but is ubiquitous now on the internet. Debbie Harry is a talk radio host who is drawn to Woods, but even more drawn to his latest acquisition, an S&M program called Videodrome. When he finds out Harry wants to be on the program he is alarmed, but when he discovers through one of his producers that it is a snuff program, he becomes panicked. Seeking out the real producers of Videodrome he finds more than he bargained for: the program is a form of mind control that has already begun to work on him.

Cronenberg is a gross-out director, to be sure, but he never seems to have been interested in the slasher genre. He is an intellectual who delves into people’s psyches and hits them where they live. The simple fear of external monsters are far too pedestrian. He wants instead to explore the fear generated in a person’s own mind, the fear of sex, the fear of pain, the fear of our own evil natures being turned loose. In this case the fear is reality itself, and what constitutes reality. One of the characters in the film philosophically suggests that reality is whatever our senses tell us. Whether we choose to call it a dream, a hallucination or a delusion, if we experience it as real then it is real.

Dennis Lim’s essay in The B List focuses instead on the virus- or cancer-like aspect of Videodrome’s signal, likening it to various other films in which the mutant organism infects the body, taking over the nervous system, altering the shape and form of the body, and eventually killing the host. He also notes its connection to films that merge technology with human flesh, and the way the film itself has been the inspiration for several modern films as well as the impetus for numerous video games.

Of course the idea of alternative realities has been explored in dozens of ways recently, from the simple mental illness of films like The Fight Club and Shutter Island, to chemical induced state of Jacob’s Ladder, or death itself in The Sixth Sense, to the ultimate in alternate reality, The Matrix. Seen today, Cronenberg’s premise is far too simplistic. Television has been replaced as the new mind control evil with the internet and especially video games. Still, it its own way, Videodrome is cultural icon, a potent warning of the addictive nature of mass media, though now hopelessly dated, one of the first of its kind and still a powerful reminder of dangers yet unknown.

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