Videodrome at Thirty
“A lot of people have thought of this film as very prophetic. I myself have never been interested in being a prophet of any kind. [ . . . ] But when your antennae are out there waving in the breeze and you allow them to develop because you think of yourself as an artist, you will undoubtedly pick up some signals from somewhere in the Videodrome way that other people don’t pick up.”
—David Cronenberg, 2004 audio commentary to Videodrome
“Mr. Cronenberg, who also directed Scanners, is developing a real genius for this sort of thing; one measure of the innovativeness of Videodrome is that it feels vaguely futuristic, even though it's apparently set in the present.”
—Janet Maslin, 1983 New York Times review of Videodrome
David Cronenberg’s 1983 feature Videodrome opens with a scene whose full eeriness isn’t apparent without scrutiny. As the camera moves slowly away from a television, a bumper ad for Civic TV (“The one you take to bed with you”) gets replaced by a woman who begins speaking directly to the sleeping figure in front of the screen, revealed as the camera pulls back to be protagonist Max Renn (James Woods). “Max, it’s that time again,” she says before teasingly reeling off his daily to-do list. As she concludes, the screen cuts to another bumper and then, with a flick of Max’s finger accompanied by a click on the soundtrack, the image disappears. The peculiarity of being woken up by a personally recorded agenda aside, it looks like a mundane moment. Look closely, however, and you’ll see that Max isn’t holding a remote.
Videodrome ends with a bookend scene. Max is elsewhere, in front of another TV screen, taking orders delivered in a much more commanding tone from a different woman. The orders lead him to put a gun to his head and pull the trigger, causing the television to explode in a geyser of viscera, the last in a series of images that explicitly fuse flesh and circuitry. But the fusion is there from the start. A hand flicks. A machine responds. An everyday gesture is made unnerving by the removal of a mediating device. Max ends the film a convert hailing the age of “the New Flesh” and eliminating its enemies before taking his own life, but the opening moments suggest he joined the New Flesh ranks long ago.
Cronenberg’s film takes the ways technology changes, and merges with, humanity as its central theme and it’s filled with early ’80s devices and imagery that support that theme: videocassettes, Atari controllers, pirate satellite dishes. It’s a diagnosis of the modern condition from an era when Sting still seemed cool. But it’s also a remarkably prescient film, an analog vision of the digital future waiting just around the corner and the new intimacy our minds and bodies would assume with the machinery we created to serve us, an intimacy for which sex would serve as a gateway.
No mere consumer of Civic TV, Max owns the station, a far-end-of-the-dial UHF outfit that specializes in programming other stations won’t touch, including soft-core pornography. Early in the film, Max considers picking up a series called Samurai Dreams, but worries it won’t catch fire with his late-night viewers. “There’s something too soft about it,” he asks, before expressing a desire for “something tough.”
In the 1980s, pornography—soft and otherwise—remained in the margins, where it had retreated once again after a brief explosion of “porno chic” in the early ’70s that found Deep Throat and other hardcore films playing in mainstream theaters. With pornography easy to access—even difficult to avoid—on the Internet, it’s hard to imagine a time when kids tried to catch bits of action in the brief moments of clarity on cable systems’ scrambled channels. But even in the ’80s, the margins were drawing in. Cinemax regularly played softcore fare from the previous decade—made mostly in Europe and Australia—in its late-night slots and the many video stores springing up usually featured an adults-only section. Civic TV even had a real-life precedent too in Toronto, Cronenberg’s hometown and the setting for much of the film, where a station called Citytv ran a series called Baby Blue Movie in the wee hours of the weekend.
Max is ahead of his time in sensing the rougher appetites of the years to come as well. Exposed by Harlan, one of the station’s engineers, to the sadistic images of torture and abuse that constitute the entirety of a television program known as Videodrome, Max senses an opportunity to get ahead of the programming curve by moving immediately to its extreme. In some respects, he had the right idea. Within a few years, mainstream depictions of sex would shift in emphasis from joy to danger as the T&A films of the early part of the decade gave way to the erotic thrillers of its latter half, a trend that would continue through much of the ’90s. The reasons aren’t hard to discern. AIDS invested sex with a fearfulness it hadn’t had before and as the mood of the country grew increasingly conservative, free expressions of sex fell out of favor. The peephole shower scene of Porky’s gave way to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (whose sequel Cronenberg, however improbably, almost directed). Increasingly, culturally dominant fantasies of sex became tangled up with images of death.
That’s a tangling that’s fascinated Cronenberg throughout his career. A self-described Freudian, he’s returned again and again to the place where Thanatos meets Eros in films like Shivers (his first film to find a wide audience) and Crash (a film whose surrounding controversy almost kept it from finding much of an audience at all). Videodrome stirs something within Max as well. Though he speaks of it as a wise investment—think of the low overhead—he returns to it as a viewer and as he be begins a relationship with Nikki Brand, a local radio personality with a masochistic streak, and possibly a death wish, played by Debbie Harry. Videodrome becomes a central part of their relationship. They watch it and grow inspired to push their personal limits.
For Nikki, that includes burning her breast with a cigarette (a visual pun on her last name that also provides another example of a piece of technology, however crude, altering a human body). The moment at first repulses Max, but not enough to scare him away and the film suggests that watching Videodrome has opened him up to some deep, unspoken desires, desires that Nikki anticipates and accommodates, becoming their embodiment, almost like a customized porn channel tuned into his particular interests, even those he has trouble saying out loud.
Whether by design or as a consequence of Harry’s monotone performance, Nikki never quite seems fully human, more like a projection of Max’s psyche as a real woman. She’s also a herald of the sexual near-future. The Internet has both brought the underground channels which those whose sexual tastes fall outside the mainstream closer to the surface (and helped redefined the mainstream in the process). It’s met the needs of those more interested in watching, too. With a potentially infinite audience, there seems to be no fetish too obscure and no fantasy too extreme for someone not to be realizing it somewhere online. Nikki’s a fantasy seemingly willed into flesh, but she’s also a vision of a time when such fantasies would be only a few keystrokes away.
In time, Nikki goes in search of Videodrome itself, returning to Max only as an alluring vision to draw him deeper into its world. At this point the film doesn’t abandon sex or, especially, sexual imagery, but it becomes apparent that both the film itself, and the world within it, have broader concerns. When Nikki and Max first meet, it’s as part of a talk show about “television and social responsibility” where they’re joined by a third guest, “media prophet” Brian O’Blivion. Declining to appear in person, for reasons that will become clear later, in the film, O’Blivion appears on a TV monitor, speaking aphorisms that sound both cryptic and correct, like “The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye” and “Soon all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.”
Cronenberg modeled O’Blivion after Marshall McLuhan, a fellow Canadian who emerged as the preeminent media theorist of the 1960s. McLuhan believed himself to be living in a moment of transition, with humanity transitioning into a “postliterate” age thanks to the rise of electronic media, a rise that began with the telegraph and had carried on through the television and beyond. “Allmedia, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment,” McLuhan told Playboy in a 1969 interview. Videodrome runs with those notions, making literal the fusion of bodies and machinery, most famously in scenes in which Max’s belly develops a vagina-like opening capable of admitting a videocassette (and, later, a gun).
McLuhan’s been going in and out of academic fashion since his heyday, suffering the fate of all those hailed as a prophet in their own time whose predictions don’t come true. (His vision of a United States soon to break up into “a series of regional and racial ministates,” for instance, remains unfulfilled.) But his concept of a “Global Village” has more than a little in common with ways the Internet has reshaped the world and the core principle beneath his theories—that the media we create reshapes the way we see and interact with the world—seems tough to deny.
Videodrome takes that notion to its extreme with images of technology that reshape bodies to fit its needs or, more accurately, images of bodies bending to find common ground with new technology. Television becomes a part of the sexual process and Max’s body responds in kind (even if, as we later discover, only in hallucination). The television returns the favor, becoming of orifice for Max to enter. In one of the many videotapes he leaves behind to sustain his existence after death, O’Blivion speaks of the brain tumor that killed him, a tumor brought about by the signal placed beneath Videodrome, as “a new organ.” It’s evolution—both biological and technological—working in tandem and in fast-forward.
As memorable as Rick Baker’s special effects work is in Videodrome, it’s the way Cronenberg makes even the most grotesque imagery sprout from recognizable psychological terrain that makes it so effective. The film makes literal a new relationship between humanity and technology then happening under the skin, a relationship that’s only grown more intense in the thirty years since Videodrome’s release. Both McLuhan and Cronenberg articulated visions of the computer age to come based on the technology at hand. (Cronenberg’s 1999 videogame and virtual reality-inspired film Existenz updates some of Videodrome’s themes for the CD-Rom era.) But for both men’s work to resonate getting the details right matters less than understanding the principles beneath the details. In 1983, Max’s waking up to a screen telling him what to do looked novel. Thirty years later, how wake up and check a laptop, or a tablet, or a smart phone to discern the shape of the day?
Videodrome got much right about the future of television. In her liner notes to the 2004 DVD release, critic Carrie Rickey notes “what was satire in its own day has turned out to be eerily accurate in its prediction of the TV landscape at the millennium, with its reality shows that suggest public life on TV is ‘more real’ than private life in the flesh.” It got even more right about, well, the future. Within a few years of the film’s release, cyberpunk would become ascendant and with it a concern with the divide between the virtual and the real. Videodrome looks to a time beyond that, a point when the divide between humans their technology and the realities those technologies create would become impossible to discern.
In the same Playboy interview, McLuhan says, “20th Century man’s relationship to the computer is not by nature very different from prehistoric man’s relationship to his boat or to his wheel—with the important difference that all previous technologies or extensions of man were partial and fragmentary, whereas the electric is total and inclusive. Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man.” He could easily be talking about Max at the end of Videodrome, after he becomes an operative for the forces of O’Blivion’s New Flesh. Or he could be talking about you and me, whose brains have become accustomed to regularly checking email or Twitter or Facebook, who feel disconnected from the world when the 3G drops out, who use text messages to tell others they love them, or want them, or miss them, and who will live on in online trace, O’Blivion-like, after our bodies have died. We’re all living in New Flesh now.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based writer and editor specializing in pop culture. From 1996 until 2012 he worked for The A.V. Club, serving as its editor from 2004 until his departure. Keith's work has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, The Daily Beast, Vulture, Time Out Chicago, Time Out New York and other publications. He can be found on Twitter at @kphipps3000.