Sunday, October 28, 2018

New Flesh for Old

James Woods in Videodrome (1983)

Although the real world caught up with Videodrome (1983, directed by David Cronenberg) a long time ago, in the late 2000-teens, it seems especially prophetic. What is the work of Russian bots and Cambridge Analytica and Fox News but the exact same "philosophical" signal as the one behind Videodrome? The Videodrome conspiracy is a right wing authoritarian fantasy made flesh as gooey cyberpunk hallucination. The real world version is, perhaps, even scarier and more insidious, one that has already wormed its way into every corner of the world's media. One lone assassin is never going to take it down, though our real-world Videodrome continues to manufacture assassins all its own. Sometimes on a daily basis.

The story follows one Max Renn, the president of a fly-by-night television channel that specializes in porn and exploitation. In order to compete with bigger media, he's scouting around for something rougher and more basic than the arty porn his suppliers are trying to sell him. His pirate technician may have stumbled upon what Max is looking for: an S&M video feed called "Videodrome," allegedly from Malaysia but actually maybe from Pittsburgh, that's nothing but torture and murder in a room made of red clay. Max wants it for his channel. Meanwhile, Max meets kinky talk radio host Nikki Brand on a television talk show about media violence, and Marshall McLuhan-ish video prophet, Brian O'Blivion, who only appears on television on television. Max hits on Nikki and they end up together back at his apartment where they watch the taped sample of Videodrome. Nikki is into it. Eventually, she wants to audition for it. Max has reservations. He's begun to experience hallucinations, and his grip on what's real is beginning to slip. He seeks answers from Brian O'Blivion, who he is told is related to Videodrome, only to find out that he is dead. His daughter, Bianca, continues to run his Cathode Ray Mission so the homeless and dispossessed can continue to plug into the world via television. Max is eventually contacted by Barry Convex of Spectacular Optical, who are behind the Videodrome signal, and want to turn Max into their remote control creature. They "program" him to be an assassin with a bio-mechanical tape inserted into a newly grown slit in his stomach, and send him out to do his bidding. His first target, Bianca O'Blivion, is ready for him, and she has other ideas as to what purpose Max Renn and his new flesh should serve.

James Woods and Debbie Harry in Videodrome (1983)

Max Renn, as played by James Woods, is a deeply unsympathetic character. His appetite for sadistic entertainments and his pursuit of rougher and rougher content is skeevy enough, but he's the same kind of asshole who in recent years would have been the poster boy for the Me Too movement. He engages in sexual harassment in his own office, he hallucinates striking his girl Friday, he publicly hits on Nikki Brand while they're being interviewed on television. It's purely an accident that the character and the actor who plays him are so closely aligned, given that James Woods in our reality has been identified by a number of women as a complete creep. This is synchronicity at work, something that the filmmakers could not have planned, but it's of a piece. As a right wing crank Woods appears to have succumbed to the Videodrome signal at last.

James Woods in Videodrome (1983)

The visual textures of the film itself are a portrait of a society in collapse. Unlike Cronenberg's other films, where smart people spill their viscera in modernist spaces, this is a film that takes place in back rooms and dingy streets. There's a class consciousness in Cronenberg's depiction of Bianca O'Blivion's threadbare Cathode Ray Mission and the ornate private office from which she runs it. Even Barry Convex's optical trade show seems cheap. But by the time we get to that, we're inside Max Renn's hallucinations and there's no telling what's real. The film slips into alternate realities without announcing itself, and after the midpoint of the movie, it's difficult to point to anything that represents prosaic reality. After he's been "programmed" by Harlan and "reprogrammed" by Bianca, Renn's world has a quality of lucid dreaming. He can direct his reality to a point, such that his "video world" is a lot like the world of the kid in that Twilight Zone episode about the kid who can shape reality. Renn has a video imagination, so the incidents that form the second half of the movie are generic constructs. Renn is a lone wolf hero, or a political assassin a la Travis Bickle, and he moves through tableaux that are drawn from cartoons (Harlan's demise at the hands of a "hand" grenade"), musicals (the tacky Spectacular Optical show), medical shows (the "cancer" bullets Renn's cyborg gun fires into Barry Convex), and porn of course. The cascade of these shifting idioms made the film difficult to follow for its first audiences, and it's still a challenging narrative structure even today. The ending is drawn from television, too, inspired by Christine Chubbuck's on-screen suicide on a Florida local news telecast.

Debbie Harry in Videodrome (1983)

While the overall thrust of Videodrome is dour and positively despairing, this is one of Cronenberg's more playful films. He's always had fun with the names of his characters, and the anagrammatical nature of "Brian O'Blivion" should give you a hint that the movie is a sly satire hiding behind the gooey special effects. "Nikki Brand," too, who enacts her name on her own flesh. Nikki Brand is in many ways the central character in Cronenberg's output, in so far as her identity and her sexuality are encapsulated in her name and in the cuts and burns on her body: Identity is flesh and flesh is identity. The film's sexual nature is key to one of the central concepts of Cronenberg's cinema: what is the function of sex in a world where it is no longer necessary for reproduction and where, like every other element of human life, it has been and is being augmented by technology. We are a civilization of cyborgs, the film intimates, and that extends to our sexuality. The "New Flesh" of this film's famous catch phrase, is polymorphous, where new organs and new orifices suggest new sexual vistas to explore. The New Flesh is transgender, too, as reified by the vaginal slit in Max Renn's abdomen (and the phallus in Rose's armpit in Rabid, and the parthenogenesis in The Brood, and the sexually dimorphic names of the the Mantle Twins in Dead Ringers, and the new organs for rear entry installed in the gamers in eXistenZ, for example). While the director has intimated a sense of adventure inborn in the possibilities of the new flesh in interviews and commentaries, it's significant that the new flesh in Videodrome is mainly used without consent. The Videodrome signal is coercive. The insertion of pulsing organic things into Renn's neo-vagina begins as exploration, but is exploited through rape and domination.

Les Carlson and James Woods in Videodrome (1983)

The interactivity of media and video was in its infancy when David Cronenberg made Videodrome. He saw video as a virus, carrying information to viewers in ways that could barely be controlled or foreseen by the creators of video content. He once speculated that he didn't care if the film ever made money, so long as the virus of his ideas was carried to, say, a man in Cuba via a bootleg video. In this respect, Videodrome is the grandparent of viral media of all kinds. The film is perfectly aware of the implications of the fusion of media and the collective massmind. Video, and media more broadly, shapes our perceptions of reality. The battles of the future will be fought in the video arena, the film tells us (the videodrome, as it were), and damned if that wasn't exactly what happened.

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