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ON FILM: Morbid Videodrome is classic Cronenberg

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 7, 2011 at 3:37 a.m.

Philip Martin is blogging daily with reviews of movies, TV, music and more at Blood, Dirt & Angels.

— The Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray edition of David Cronenberg’s 1983 techno-erotic thriller Videodrome last month, a film that, although I’ve watched it four or five times since its release, I’ve never really made up my mind about.

It’s an intriguing, deeply interesting film that over the course of almost three decades has acquired a prescient quality, but it’s also schlock; a kind of cyberpunk rewrite of Network that indulges Cronenberg’s taste for venereal horror. It’s definitely one of Cronenberg’s minor works, but it’s also perhaps his most personal and emblematic film - the most Cronenbergian of his movies. It’s an important one to developing an understanding of his worldview.

Cronenberg says that when he was a child growing up in Toronto, he would sometimes turn on the television late at night, after the Canadian stations had gone off the air, and pick up unauthorized broadcasts from New York.

He was fascinated by the idea of these illicit broadcasts, and at the same timeanxious that he might catch a glimpse of something disturbing. He had heard the urban legend, around since the beginning of television broadcasts, that the transmitted waves could cause brain tumors. Later, Cronenberg studied literature at the University of Toronto, where Marshall McLuhan was delivering lectures on how content was ultimately less important than the medium that delivered it. And, in the late 1970s and ’80s, Citytv, an independent Canadian television stationon the UHF dial, was broadcasting - late on Friday nights - soft-core pornography.

Cronenberg pulled these disparate strands together in Videodrome, which was about the physical and psychological deterioration of Max Renn (James Woods), a sleazy owner of a small Toronto-based cable station that specializes in cheap, sensationalized programming. Renn is always on the lookout for fresh meat for his “subterranean market.” To this end, he acquires a Betamax cassette of a satellite signal of a show called Videodrome - a sadomasochistic “snuff” program allegedly broadcast from Malaysia. Renn becomes obsessed with the show on a professional and deeply personal level.

I saw Videodrome pretty soon after its release, probably because I was a fan of Blondie singer Deborah Harry, who had a substantial role. I understood it as a horror movie, a movie about going mad, and I imagined it was trying to say something about the malignancy of ubiquitous television. But I lost touch with the plot shortly after Renn hooked up with radio shrink Nicki Brand (Harry).

For me, Videodrome quickly collapsed into a carnival of disturbing images, and I think I felt the same sort of panic young Cronenberg did when he happened across those pirate images from Buffalo; though I feared I was doing myself damage, I could not look away.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reassess Videodrome, and sometimes I even believe it might be my favorite Cronenberg film.Considering that Cronenberg is probably the most consistently interesting director of narrative films working in English, that’s saying something.

He’s not the sort of director that humanists tend to embrace; there’s a clinical cerebral cool to his methods that suggests he’s as aligned with the plagues he unleashes as their victims, but his movies are crammed with ideas - maybe too many ideas. In a way, it’s a relief when Cronenberg adapts someone else’s work to the screen; his A History of Violence (based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) and Spider (based on Patrick McGrath’s novel) are two of his most successful films.

Looking back at Videodrome, one is struck that Cronenberg anticipated not only the VCR revolution, but the rise of social media, reality television and the erasure of the borders between the personal and public, between the man and the machine. The film is probably best received as a McLuhanesque essay on the battering of the human by the made - and like one of McLuhan’s books, you can practically pick up the film at any point. Videodrome’s incoherency is an important component of its message - its fractured narrative and irreconcilable plot points are integral to Cronenberg’s purpose. Or at least that’s what I’ve come to believe.

The messiness is the message. And the medium.


MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/07/2011

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