Friday, March 01, 2013

Videodrome (1983)

Canada, 87 minutes
Director/writer: David Cronenberg
Photography: Mark Irwin
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Lynne Gorman, Jack Creley, Leslie Carlson, Sam Melkin

I'm pretty sure I've seen Videodrome in the theater, but the first time I saw it and the greatest impressions it has made on me have tended to come out of the semi-degraded VHS tape versions. Back in the day, a friend of mine always seemed to know how to put his hands on them early. Of course, seeing a DVD version now one quickly notes how the whole look and feel is slanted in exactly that direction. For much of the movie, in fact, we are either watching "television," or we are watching people watching televisions. One thing it gets surprisingly right still is the sense of intimate connection that develops between people and televisions—or monitors, I guess I had better say.

In many ways indeed Videodrome appears remarkably prescient now, certainly in terms of today's Internet culture, which is at least as bewitching and entrancing as anything on TV in Videodrome. It also correctly imagined the casual acceptance of pornography we see nowadays. "Got any porno?" says Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), picking through the videotapes of Max Renn (James Woods), back at his place at the end of their first date. No embarrassment, no self-consciousness. But Videodrome is way more than a science fiction film that happened to get a few guesses right about the future—and quite a bit more ambitious than that too.

Videodrome wants to get right down into the muck of identity, fracturing it every which way and reassembling again in the context of media saturation. In our hero Max Renn, a principal at the wonderfully named Civic TV, a sleazy fringe cable-TV channel in Toronto in near-future 1983, we see identity literally mediated, refracted into a hundred shards and fragments, before it is fused again and exploded to smithereens. Videodrome is the exploding head of Scanners done at the psychological level.

The basic science fiction conceit is that an electronic signal can be carried with video transmissions that will induce a brain tumor in viewers. The signal is most effective with brain states caused by passive viewing of violence. Once the tumor has grown it causes hallucinations, which in turn make its victims easy prey of others. All this is pieced together and put in motion when Renn's able assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky)—"Home of the buccaneers pirates of the high frequencies," a sign on the door of Harlan's office reads—shows Renn fragments of mysterious "Videodrome" broadcasts he has downloaded and unscrambled from satellite feeds. They are simple scenes ("incredibly realistic," Renn says of them) showing torture, beatings, and humiliations of victims in a room with stone walls.

Never mind that Videodrome devolves in the end down to a strange right-wing plot to purge society of immoralists. That's part of the humor of the movie, a rich vein that runs along all through. When Max Renn first shows a tape of the Videodrome show to Nicki, for example, she says, "I wonder how you get to be a contestant on this show." "I don't know," Max replies. "Nobody ever seems to come back next week." Renn's introduction by Nicki Brand to sadomasochism is equally rich with comic possibilities. There's a cigarette burn scene here I recall the movie being notorious for that puts me in mind now of the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs—just a bit too far on that one, perhaps.

The sharpest point of Videodrome to me is how it's so carefully predicated on the brain state caused by passively watching violence. Because we passively sit there watching it too. We should have brain tumors too. Renn is fascinated by the Videodrome show. He can't take his eyes off it, and we're not necessarily looking away either. It is an insidious element that churns away inside one. Cronenberg is positively ingenious about the way he sets up and stages and shoots scenes of the Videodrome show, which we see only for the briefest moments at a time, before Cronenberg cuts away again, or the show is otherwise cut off. It's just long enough to make it seem alluring and compelling, not long enough to entirely horrify and alienate. Thus we are comically enlisted in the depravity unfolding in front of us.

In many ways Videodrome operates much in the standard low-budget B-movie style, using character actors for texture and highlighting. Professor Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), the leader of a cult who appears only as a talking head on television sets, is a bald homunculus with a pencil mustache. "The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye," he likes to say in sonorous tones. Masha (Lynne Gorman) is a flinty television producer and industry insider, a lusty old chickenhawk dame with a Russian accent. Barry Convex, the mastermind who uses an eyeglass manufacturing corporation as a front, is like nothing so much as the life insurance salesman who stayed too late.

Most of the budget evidently went to the special effects, which are always pretty good, and keep up even as the story begins to take on operatic excesses ("I am the video word made flesh," etc.). And what better excuse, after all, than hallucinations caused by a brain tumor caused by the mindset of passively watching violence on TV? The special effects are admirably utilitarian, never distracting from the ideas they represent, which is their real power. Even as it looks forward to the virtual reality helmet of the '90s (prescient again) Videodrome goes back even further, to iconographies suggested by our old friend Freud, for much of its most compelling imagery, such as the peculiar new orifice that may or may not appear on Max's abdomen, and the things people may or may not put into it.

Videodrome is not just the best picture of 1983, to me it's also David Cronenberg's best. It's harrowing, riveting, and droll, in no particular order, continually overtopping itself in a calibrated series of events that compromise anyone who watches simply by watching. I don't know how you can ask for any more than that in a movie.

Top 10 of 1983
I don't have much to say about 1983—it seems to me to be another lackluster year of the decade, one notably full of exactly same. Although I am more and more starting to feel my gaps in this year as well—there are a handful and more I could have mentioned beyond those listed. I am partial to the entertainments of Risky Business and A Christmas Story for social reasons at least as much as aesthetic. That might go for WarGames too. I really need to see The Right Stuff again. I suspect it could go higher but I haven't seen it in nearly 30 years.
1. Videodrome
2. Local Hero
3. Tender Mercies
4. Passionless Moments
5. Risky Business
6. A Christmas Story
7. The Dead Zone
8. WarGames
9. Koyaanisqatsi
10. The Right Stuff

Didn't like so much: Flashdance, Return of the Jedi, Scarface, Terms of Endearment, Yentl

Gaps: Ballad of Narayama, L'Argent, Nostalghia, Pauline at the Beach, The Terence Davies Trilogy

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