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What is the link between cinema violence and real-world violence, between real-world violence and on-screen sexuality, between on-screen sexuality and phallo-centric images thrusting and shooting and blowing people up? These are the questions director David Cronenerg explores, questions we didn’t even know we were asking. I want to discuss Cronenberg for a while, because this is a science-fiction movie podcast, primarily, and to my mind there is almost no name more important to the genre and medium than Dronenberg. You got George Lucas, obviously the number one, and then someone like James Cameron or Ridley Scott, whose sci-fi movies, the two, in Scott’s case, are on average more critically acclaimed, but Cronenberg has the filmography of an auteur.
I think Cameron is similar in that way, but I’d get laughed out of the room. Cronenberg is really the sci-fi nerd’s best weapon, because the guy approaches his craft like an author, and every one of his movies feels quintessentially Croneneberg. He has his recurring themes and elements, though it isn’t as limited to body horror as fans like to say. I should establish that this guy David Cronenberg, the quietest, most Canadian psychopath of cinema, made his name in the 70s with low-budget horror films like Shivers and Rabid, which deal with parasites that make you go sex-crazy, and a sex-crazed biological vampire who sucks your blood with a dart-like penis under the armpit. And later on he’d reach critical acclaim with the notoriously gory remake of The Fly, and nowadays is an award-season, international festival regular with recent non-genre hits like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method.
There might not be a film more quintessential, out of all the quintessentially Cronenberg movies, than Videodrome, from 1983, starring James Woods as Max Renn, a TV executive trading in the most deviant pornographic material around. Renn comes upon a TV signal called Videodrome, and wants to run it, but finds that it’s making him go a little nuts, making him put a hand down his… vagina, which just appeared in his stomach.
So remember when I said that David Cronenberg was an auteur? And that Videodrome is his quintessential film? It’s tricky, because when I think about important, modern pieces of storytelling out there, I think that ambiguity is something of a delicate incendiary, how it messes with people’s heads at the end of Blade Runner, or nearly ruins the end of Oldboy, or is a lame echo of the end of Blade Runner in the end of Inception. But then you have something like the movies Jacob’s Ladder or The Fountain, which are the same movie, but the former is a horror version, and the latter a dramatic version. They’re both spiritual journeys with identical thematic endgames, and they both have weird, trippy imagery that you can’t really parse. That’s the ambiguous part. But the endgame is always the same, so your interpretation of events can vary, but you come away with one point.
Now, I understand that the one point thing, like the storyteller has to be making a point, like a focused commentary, is not auteur theory and isn’t even a shared, perceived requirement of film among filmgoers. But to me, it is indicative of a singular vision, and a mind behind that singular vision that actually gives a shit about something. That matters to me. And the thing we give a shit about with Videodrome is the mutant Venn diagram of screen stimuli, real-world violence and real-world sex. But the problem is that the film’s foundation is, essentially, ambiguity. It’s a story about a man who’s coming apart, experiencing increasingly intense hallucinations as a result of a pirate TV signal.
Ambiguity is generated as a function of the commentary — David Cronenberg chooses to explore the idea by having a hero whose reality is blurring with what’s seen on TV — but because of that, the commentary is in some way rendered void. Simply because I don’t know what Cronenberg is really trying to say. You’d think, considering his role as a filmmaker of horror films, he’d be pretty against claims that televised violence is dangerous. But if you look at the movie, it seems like the opposite is true. Let’s break it down.
Every Cronenberg movie, from Fast Company and Spider to Eastern Promises and The Fly, is rated R in the United States. Although in 1982 he made a point of suggesting a PG-13 rating before it existed, so that kids would have something to see, he’s a guy who’s never transgressed with such a thing. Because it’s bullshit. I mean, theoretically every movie should be R-rated that isn’t you know, a kid’s movie, because if you say the F-word twice, that’s an R-rating. How many times do you hear that in a day? And how many times do you hear some action movie character, tasked with rescuing the world, say, “How the hell is this a dead end? I got a world to rescue, you damn hell!” I’m not saying movies have to perfectly reflect reality, but having restrictions on certain things makes characters feel as arbitrary as the movies they’re in.
I don’t think this is why Cronenberg makes his movies with adult content, I think it comes from a deeply genuine place, because he’s had to fight for it over the years. Perhaps ill-advisedly, early in his career David Cronenberg maximized use of the publicly funded Canadian Film Development Corporation, which was attempting to really establish a national industry, though nobody had a clue as to what that meant or how to do it. So Drone was given a blank check, in terms of creativity and not finance, and Shivers was met with critics accordingly. One critic, Robert Fulford, said that if using public money to produce movies like this was the only way Canada can have an industry, perhaps they shouldn’t have one.
What’s the problem?
That’s the kind of quote that can completely reroute a career, like Stephen King’s quote that he’s seen the future of horror, and it’s Clive Barker. That made Barker a name, but also defined it for years, despite the author’s many, many attempts to break away from the label of genre. But Fulford’s didn’t move Cronenberg an inch, and his movies remained as they were. The only way Cronenberg has come close to ‘selling out’ is by making movies that are often apparently award-season bait, like Eastern Promises or A Dangerous Method. But these movies are not only great, I mean, I like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises a lot, but they’re also distinctly Cronenberg. It’s in the blood. And the bloodshed, as we see.
So why in the hell does the Videodrome signal cause Max Renn to blow his brains out in the end? Shouldn’t it transcend him to a higher level of eXistenZ perhaps? Maybe Cronenberg was undergoing a bit of a crisis, because… if we’re gonna sort this mess out, I think we’ll have to separate the man from the product, and once we do, we get this great contradiction.
If we take the Roland Barthes approach, as outlined in his essay “Death of an Author,” and cut Crone out of the picture, we have a narrative whose meaning is limitless, but more importantly, pure. Untainted by outside influences. We only consider what we see between the Universal logo and the end credits. This is perhaps our most helpful tool in deconstructing something so elusive, yet quite unlike the films of say, David Lynch. We never get the impression that Videodrome is sputtering into nonsense, where as much as I do like some of Lynch’s stuff, those movies exist to do something I don’t really appreciate, which is create the sensation of dreams on-screen, rather than say, something real. The two kind of cannot contain each other, and I’d rather go the Jodo route, where it’s dreams + LSD.
Max Renn has a character arc that aligns with his ideology, his opinion on the matter, so that’s very helpful from the outset. He starts out saying that this stuff is better on TV than on the streets (akin to Lenny Nero’s own halfhearted assertions), denying that his TV program, Channel 83, is negatively affecting society — because why would he say that? He feels it’s actually serving society by releasing pent up aggression, rather than causing it. The broadcast of anything from softcore pornography to hardcore violence is “a matter of economics. In order to survive, we have to give people something they can’t get anywhere else.” He maintains a certain distance to his product, most likely out of a fear of accountability, but as we see, it’s not that simple. He quickly jumps under the sheets with Nicki Brand, played by real-life porn star Deborah Harry, who as it turns out is much more sexually adventurous than he is.
She likes pain, being burned with cigarettes, and she says that Videodrome actually turns her on, and Videodrome is just this room with guys whipping a girl who’s tied up, and stuff like that. He fears for Nicki when she says she wants to be that girl getting whipped, that she’s leaving to audition for Videodrome. Max tries to stop her, and in that sort of paternalistic, sexist way he shows how good a guy he is. So much for the film to say that Channel 83 is his job, not his life.
But the more he sees of Videodrome, the more willing he is to entertain Nicki in her wild sex games, even when Nicki is a living, breathing, moaning television set. This has an in-story explanation, and for that we turn to Brian O’Blivion, the media prophet meant to invoke Marshall McLuhan of Medium is the Massage fame, and Barry Convex, who’s like Renn’s guide through the wacky world of Videodrome. With Brian O’Blivion’s thesis statement that “The battle for the mind of North America* will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome,” we then move onto Convex’s line that Renn had the brain perfectly primed for Videodrome, and we open up this idea that the human psyche is essentially a blank slate, that it interfaces with the stimuli around it.
Pause now to discuss with your partner
And of course, we have sexual urges. We’re pathetic slaves to our biology that effect insipid things like romance and true love. These urges drive us to seek stimulus, and as Nicki Brand says early on, “We live in overstimulated times.” Max Renn, with Channel 83, is kind of like our shrink, our priest, he’s the Santa Claus of the subconscious, at the switchboard of the soul, the magic man. And Max Renn himself is drawn to Videodrome, and so this is the average American or possibly Canadian male taking to pornography and violence. What then happens to Max Renn? Well, like in The Dead Zone, the inciting object transforms him into an assassin (also, Scanners, I think?)
He goes around shooting people with a gross ‘hand-gun,’ and sometimes blows people up with a ‘hand-grenade.’ This is Videodrome manifesting in reality, and for Max Renn, reality is kind of a sore subject. But he accepts it as his mind goes deader and deader and more fucked up, and proves that his brain is truly a blank slate when he’s programmed not once, but reprogrammed as well. And the order both times is to kill (which is all you need, I hear). That’s pretty strong, coming out of this film, pretty overt. It’s not a good thing, that the stimuli in the world will interact to mass murderous ends with our brains, which can be imprinted upon.
First Max Renn goes after the people at Channel 83, and then Bianca O’Blivion, daughter of Brian O’Blivion, who seems to have good intentions. Max guns down his co-workers in his office, but then is stopped in his effort to kill Bianca, who manages to reprogram him to kill Barry. It’s tough to say this is the redemption part of the arc, because he essentially has no agency. Even his action movie one-liner, while funny, seems cold: “See you in Pittsburgh, (Richter).” And then the killing of Barry is extraordinarily grotesque, death by an extreme cancer that rips his body and face apart from the inside and leaves him screaming.
And I gotta say, I’ve never been too hot on when characters you know, lose their minds. It worked in The Fly, because by the time Jeff Goldblum lost his tongue the movie was essentially over, and the hero role shifted over to Stathis, in one of the more dynamic and effective character arcs in Cronenbergology. But it’s like… this is something I’ve felt… actually, with Dwayne The Rock Johnson on more than one instance, in Southland Tales and Pain and Gain. Nothing on the actor specifically, it’s just coincidence. There are moments where the two characters will get high, or lose their sense of identity, and there will be this distancing, this alienating effect. And for The Rock (so maybe specifically) that’s critical because he’s so charismatic and charming. The Rundown is one of the only non-R-rated action movies to really run with the big dogs. In Pain and Gain he gets high and he kind of loses enthusiasm for the whole thing, and it’s funny. But it’s also like, I guess I have empathy enthusiasm, and I also get distant.
In Videodrome, when Max Renn loses his mind, he ceases to become an emotional character and enters into the Brechtian realm of the intellectual character, who we examine because we are distanced from him. The example I usually point to here is the difference between the emotional Boyz N the Hood, and the analytical Menace II Society. And if we’re meant to analyze, what point are we supposed to take away? If there is a point, it’s that Videodrome totally fucked Max Renn. You might say that he deserved it, that Videodrome taking over the world was a red herring resultant of the unreliable reality of the film, that only people like Max Renn would be susceptible to the signal, but then it becomes this puritanical criticism of the porn industry and all that.
The only real conclusion I can come away with is that this movie is solely an exploration, an expression of confusion on the part of the filmmaker, where even his product, this violent, sexual film, isn’t under his complete control. Not in the sense that this was a runaway production (though it was more like a chaotic production, with an ever-changing script), but that it directly contradicts and challenges the filmmaker. And the idea of the creation, the written word, being hostile is something Cronenberg would explore in the similarly grotesque and hero-alienated Naked Lunch.
There’s a lot more to talk about with Videodrome, that despite it not being my favorite David Cronenberg movie, I am happier he made it than any other. It’s obviously a deeply personal expression, and so that’s a… I don’t know, a feather in the cap of dickheads like me who get obsessed with auteur theory, which is like… man. Why bother? Shut up!
There’s a lot to talk about, for example, with the dimension of women as depicted in the movie, but rather than entertain the feminist perspective, I’m gonna play along and talk about something else instead, and that’s a movie where the male hero shoots two women in the back. I mean, you could say they were unarmed, but their bodies were weapons, and from that, you can guess I’m talking about Blade Runner.
Do you love me? Do you trust me?
Videodrome helps me to really parse the Replicant question in Blade Runner, which is if the main hero protagonist in Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, is actually the same type of humanoid robot that he hunts down. It’s broken down like this, and this isn’t my opinion, this is how it is:
Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and from this novel Ridley Scott, David Webb Peoples, and Hampton Fancher created Blade Runner. Now, Philip K. Dick was a guy whose only distinction between short and long fiction was the amount of insane, world-building-breaking elements he could cram in, and… length. Because his novels sometimes ended with the same gotcha! of his short stories, where in the end, all is not as it seems.
But they work because it’s prose. The whole thing is ambiguous, so having an ambiguous ending is par for the course. In film, it can be totally shocking, like Inception. Like, is that your idea of a joke, Christopher Nolan? No, it’s him doing the Philip K. Dick ending. But the nature of prose in terms of ambiguity is not shared by the concrete reality of film. The contract between the film and the audience is that anything you put up on that screen, we take it for reality, because there’s already that first layer of pretending. We know, when we see Tom Hanks, we’re not like, oh my gosh did they ever get him off that island? I mean, the guy’s already got AIDS, and is mentally challenged.
So when you try to have stark ambiguity like that… movies are not novels. In that, there is confusion as a result, and that’s why fucks like myself have been arguing about the unicorn origami in Blade Runner for all time, even though it is exactly, it is precisely, a point that you are not supposed to argue about. The less time you linger on it, the better. It’s there because it’s kind of a funny, freaky way to end the movie, and because it underscores the critical question of reality, that you never definitively know what’s real or not. In Blade Runner, it also has a specific thematic parallel, because Rick Deckard’s arc is one of dehumanization. He is a replicant by the end of the movie, but not literally. Literal, like literature, not like in the movies. Confusing, I know.
“See you in Pittsburgh.”
But anyway, Videodrome is actually a movie that operates more like a novel. You could say that something like Mulholland Drive is purely like prose onscreen if we’re to take this theory and run with it, but Videodrome straddles a line. It establishes a reality, and then explores that notion as it breaks it down. When you see something on screen, you don’t know if it’s real or not, so you receive it in a different way than in any other movie, where you’re to accept it as fact. And it’s different than Mulholland Drive, where you’re to not accept it. Videodrome and eXistenZ are outside that binary, and so the contract is briefly rewritten. And it’s rewritten towards a specific end, I just… don’t know what that is.
And I think that might just be because, after all, David Cronenberg is a filmmaker, and he is coming at it from that angle. I think you can’t in good conscious say definitively one way or the other, and for certain you shouldn’t say that there is no connection between televised stimuli and real-world violence. Only Siths, remember? Granted, statistics are difficult to ignore, and Japan, with a film and TV industry that has forever produced some of the most violent and perverted material out there under jerkoffs like Takashi Miike and Yoshiaki Kowajiri, has the lowest crime rate of any industrialized nation. But the way I see it is that violence on your television screen is a symptom of the violence in all of us, whether that comes out as violent crime or not. And television operates in tandem with parenting and education as sources of socialization in the 21st century, so if a kid is being barraged by all sides, TV isn’t the cause, but it isn’t helping.
“Let me… zip this up.”
*North America isn’t a phrase you hear in American film. That’s because Cronenberg is not an American filmmaker, he’s Canadian. But because Canada is so irrelevant, better to combine both into a mass of which we’ve already named. And Canada being irrelevant is a pretty enviable position on the world stage. How I wish America didn’t make global headlines and could just be chill.