Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Videodrome (Cronenberg. 1983)

"Long live the new flesh!"


What bothers me most about the incendiary David Cronenberg is that he has never been able to make up his mind over what type of film he is trying to make. Because of this, he has been dubbed one of the founders of “techno-surrealism”. I have previously reviewed one of the finer works by Cronenberg, Naked Lunch, and though I liked it quite a bit – I still thought the entire endeavor was a tad pointless. I am forced to say that I have the same feelings toward one of his most famous “cult” films, Videodrome.

Videodrome follows that story of a sleazy television programmer, Max Renn, for a UHF station in Toronto. His station is controversial in the area because it almost exclusively depicts softcore pornography and extreme violence. Max is looking for the next big thing for his station when one of his employees uses a pirate satellite to intercept a strange, plot-less television show that seems to be coming from Malaysia. The show features two men who are dressed in all black as they torture, beat and eventually kill a young woman right there on the screen. It is never said why that woman had to die, nor are the killer’s identities known to the audience. The show is called Videodrome. Max is enthralled by the show and proclaims that this new form of fake-snuff-television will be the future of his station.

In the midst of all of this, Max is a guest on a local talk show where he is put on a panel to defend his actions against psychiatrist Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) and a strange pop-culture analyst and philosopher who will only appear on the show through a video-feed, Brian O’blivion (Jack Creley). Max explains that he does not see any problem with his station because it provides a much safer outlet for people who are excited by the idea of extreme violence. In an unexpected twist, the feminist Nicki agrees with him and the two spend the majority of the show flirting back and forth. O’blivion overtakes the host and endlessly rambles about how television will eventually become the actual reality and how the audience is powerless to stop it.

Max and Nicki end up bonding over their infatuation with Videodrome and even have terrifying sex while watching it. I do not know about you, but I do not associate sex with having my ears pierced, but this is how they like it. After learning that the show actually takes place in Pittsburgh, Nicki goes off to audition to be a contestant. This leads to Max wanting to know more about Videodrome. He does not like what he learns.

Without giving too much of the story away, Videodrome ends up being an actual, snuff, production where the contestants are killed on the screen. Though that is shocking, it is not even the half of it. It also emits a strange frequency that causes the audience to develop brain tumors. Max becomes a victim of this unusual scheme and eventually begins having violent and graphic hallucinations where his stomach opens up and serves as a VCR for his new reality.

The hallucination scenes are probably what make the movie famous, but that does not mean they are fun to watch. In fact, they are a bit disgusting. It was hard to pick a working picture from the movie to serve as the header for this blog-post, but I decided that I would use the least graphic one I could find.

James Woods is an actor who is not capable of doing wrong in my book. He is masterful in Videodrome with his sarcastic smile, condescending vocal-tone and skinny sleazed out demeanor. Watching him succumb to the disturbing side effects of Videodrome is a haunting experience for the viewer. As an empathetic moviegoer, I could not help but experience some significant stomach pain during a few of the scenes. But Woods controls these moments with the calmness of a veteran actor. It is obvious that he believed in Cronenberg’s vision no matter how strange it seemed. He is not able to makes the film believable, but he certainly does try. That alone is worth some respect.

Debbie Harry, most famous for being the lead singer of the punk band Blondie, has something irresistible interesting about her in Videodrome. She advertises herself as a feminist psychologist, but then begs Max to cut her and stick needles through her ears during sex. In one scene, she shows arousal after burning her breast with a lit cigarette. I do not want to send off the wrong signals, I am not into cutting, needles or burns – but Nicki is actually a pretty sexy character. I have no idea why I think that. Please, feel free to judge me.

Cronenberg is the writer and director of Videodrome and displays a knack for setting a gross scene. Sadly, he mixes far too many aspects of too many genres that, for me, do not seem to mix well together. Surrealism and horror have gone hand in hand for years, but I have no desire to watch erotic surreal horror with a dab of comedy and a touch of mystery-thriller. Also, the science fiction points in the plot do not stand up well on their own. Long story short, it just does not make any sense. Looking at Videodrome is pretty neat, but watching it is disappointing.

Videodrome is not a bad movie by any means. It is just messy. It is fun to go back and watch a director like David Cronenberg as he evolves and grows stylistically. In Naked Lunch he displays a much more mature tact and tells a far more surreal, but still more interesting, story. I can see why Videodrome has remained a cult hit. It is less deep than it seems and harder to watch than it needs to be…

Videodrome: C

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