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Videodrome

UGH. I can’t remember the last time I went so long without a blog entry. That’s partly due to my busy offline life, I grant you, but what the hell am I going to write about? That Awkward Moment? Ride AlongThe Nut Job? I had some sliver of hope for Gimme Shelter and Labor Day, sure, but those films are getting such a dismal reception that I know better.

Mercifully, we won’t have to wait much longer to see how The Monuments Men and The Lego Movie shake out. We’ve also got some coming attractions via the Super Bowl this Sunday, which I do plan to liveblog as always. But first, there’s another commercial-related classic that I thought I’d check out first.

Though Videodrome first came out in 1983, you’d be forgiven for not knowing much about it. So much insane shit goes on in this movie that describing it to the uninitiated is damn near impossible. But I’ve got a blog that needs content, so I’m going to try it anyway.

One of the great things about this movie is in how it builds. It starts simple enough: James Woods plays Max Renn, the president of an underground cable channel that airs softcore porn and violent programming. The execution is such that writer/director David Cronenberg apparently predicted the rise of internet porn about ten years before the mainstream internet even existed. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Max goes out looking for harder material, partly for his business and partly to sate his own uncontrollable lust. The escalation of media is another huge theme of this film; television is getting to be considered such a vital need that we see charities offering free television to the homeless. Again, this is a rather prophetic statement for the world that would eventually see the ubiquitous smartphone and omnipresent internet access. Hell, we even have homeless shelters offering free internet access so the unemployed can stand a chance at looking for jobs.

Sorry for the constant digressions, but this should give you some idea of how deep this film is. Every five minutes of screen time peels back a new layer of fascinating social commentary.

Anyway, Max intercepts a scrambled underground feed and discovers a torture fetish channel called Videodrome. He becomes fascinated by the hardcore violence on display and chases down every lead with the intention of showing Videodrome to a larger audience. In short order, he realizes what a catastrophically bad idea that would be. And by that point, it’s far too late for him.

One of the movie’s most prominent themes is the question of how our entertainment affects us. Violent and sexual media are of course nothing new, and there’s always been the question of how such media is affecting us as individuals and as a culture. Here, that question is taken quite literally. As Max gets in deeper and deeper over his head, conflicting forces start using him as a pawn by showing him videotapes. The taped shows cause hallucinations and (possibly) cause actual physical changes, forcibly transforming Max into whatever his overlords need him to be.

Yet on another level, the film portends a world in which technology and human biology fuse together. The concept of cybernetics is nothing new, of course, but this is something else entirely. This film portrays such a heavy dependence on media that the brain would begin to grow an entirely new organ to help process it. Or maybe it’s just a tumor causing hallucinations. Or maybe it’s the hallucinations that’s causing the tumor.

In any case, the film serves as a pitch-black satire of our over-reliance on technology, particularly media-related technology. The presentation is obviously too exaggerated to be taken as literal truth, but the commentary — in light of today’s smartphone addictions and the Google Glass — is still timely to a stunning degree. Come to think of it, if someone really did spontaneously grow an antenna to pick up Wi-fi signals, I’ll bet they’d be the envy of every soul in America.

Then the movie gets more abstract, and it started to lose me. It begins with the statement (given by Prof. Brian O’Blivion, played by Jack Creley) that “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.” By that, he means that the media has become the filter through which we perceive the world. All well and good. But then he argues that therefore, a television screen must physically be a part of the human brain. And therefore, we must accept television broadcasts to be reality, for anything that we perceive must be taken as real.

That chain of logic is so full of far-fetched leaps that I can’t bring myself to take it seriously. Then again, my own personal philosophy doesn’t exactly help in this regard; I completely reject the notion of a subjective reality, but I digress. Also, it’s entirely possible that Max is only hearing bullshit because he’s gone hopelessly insane, so there’s that.

Luckily, the film has a lot more to offer than social commentary. The basic premise of biology mutating to imitate machinery demands some spectacular makeup effects, and by God does this movie deliver. The pairing of David Cronenberg with makeup grandmaster Rick Baker is impossibly perfect, and the results are beautifully grotesque. Every single effect conveyed the movie’s themes and symbolism with jaw-dropping, gut-churning brilliance.

Of course, the cast deserves a lot of credit as well. James Woods brings his unique brand of wit to deliver a likeably sleazy protagonist. Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, and Lynne Gorman are all creepy as fuck. Deborah Harry makes it look good, however, delivering sexual material in such a disturbing way that it couldn’t possibly be considered sexy. Kudos are also due to Julie Khaner and Peter Dvorsky, who play some of Max’s most vital supporting characters. Khaner and Dvorsky both more or less made their debuts here, so I’m impressed that they made such a lasting impression. In fact, Cronenberg went out of his way to find obscure Canadian actors who could bring solid performances despite limited experience on a movie set.

(Fun fact: David Tsubouchi, who appears very briefly as a Japanese porn manufacturer, later went into politics in Ontario. That made for some very interesting election campaigns, as you might imagine.)

Though Videodrome is a brisk 87 minutes, every last moment is jammed to the gills with incisive social commentary and visceral imagery. That’s what makes it a classic, though I expect it may also be what turns a lot of viewers away. This is an overwhelmingly dense movie to plow through, designed to keep the audience unsure about what’s real, and the unflinching body horror doesn’t make things any easier. Nevertheless, the film’s ideas and statements are still so shockingly relevant that it simply must be seen.

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