David Cronenberg Retrospective: Videodrome

by: Reverend Jon

When Marla allowed me to choose which movie to review for the David Cronenberg Retrospective, Videodrome was my answer. The movies that resonate with me are those that explore real issues and fears and cause me to think differently about life and the world around me. Videodrome is undoubtedly that kind of movie.

Videodrome is about intersections, or perhaps even collisions, between loaded concepts: pain and pleasure, technology and the human body. I will say right now that it is easy to watch this movie and dismiss it as dated and irrelevant, cheesy even, but I argue that the underlying ideas are relevant today.

From the very beginning, we know that this is no ordinary movie. We are introduced to Max Renn (James Woods, whose waxy complexion lends itself to the manual effects) by his wakeup call, which at first seems eerily prescient, a woman on TV addressing the viewer by name and who knows the date, but then later we realize that this was recorded in advance.

We quickly learn that Max is a degenerate. He wakes up at 6:30 in the evening, looks over pornography stills while eating leftover pizza, and then meets with Japanese porn producers in a sleazy hotel room in order to see the Edo-era smut they want to sell him, but he says it’s too soft for Civic TV, whose motto is  “the one you take to bed with you.”

We are soon introduced to my least favorite character, Harlan, the Civic TV tech guy. He has found Videodrome, a snuff program he pirated from a rogue satellite transmission and shows it to Max, who is very intrigued.

Then we meet my favorite character, Nicki Brand, played by the delightful Deborah Harry. You can read an interview with her about the film here. Nicki is the host of The Emotional Rescue Show, and her introduction marks the point at which things become interesting.

She goes home with Max, and we quickly learn that she’s kinda kinky.

Nicki: Got any porn?

Max: Seriously?

Nicki: Yeah, it gets me in the mood. What’s this? (picks up video cassette) Videodrome…

Max: Torture, murder.

Nicki: Sounds great.

Max: It ain’t exactly sex.

Nicki: Says who?

And I think that exchange neatly sums up one of the revelations this movie had for me. It is difficult to define sex, but the more I thought about it in relation to the BDSM featured in the movie, I decided that at a very basic level, sex is about exchanging vulnerabilities. Rather, sex is an exchange where the participants are vulnerable, and it’s the exploitation of this vulnerability, or allowing someone else to exploit your own vulnerability, that is at the root of sexual pleasure. For many people that vulnerability is being nude, allowing someone to see you in a way you don’t normally present yourself. But for others, the vulnerability can extend to being tied up, dominated, or even hurt, and the exploration of pain and your limits thereto becomes an exploration of pleasure.

Nicki soon takes off to Pittsburgh, in order to audition for Videodrome, and Max gets involved in the world of Brian O’Blivion.

Brian O’Blivion styles himself as a media prophet, and it is with the introduction of him, his Cathode Ray Mission, and rival outfit Spectacular Optical, that the other main message of the movie is conveyed: what is the role of television in society? Brian O’Blivion (styled after real-life media prophet Marshall McLuhan) believes that television is the “retina of the mind’s eye” and that all the homeless or otherwise indigent members of society need is a good dose of television.

Barry Convex at Spectacular Optical instead sees the television as a tool to use in order to rid the world of degenerates. Max becomes involved in the battle between these two factions, and Videodrome is the primary weapon. The video itself plays the semi-familiar role of information as infection. Surely this was inspiration for the video in Ringu, and similar ideas occur elsewhere: the samizdat in Infinite Jest, for example.

I had a difficult time writing this review because I feel so strongly about this movie. I truly love it and cherish its unique viewpoint on the world. The latter half is not as psychologically taut as the first half, and Cronenberg never really unites the two themes of techology and the body and pain and pleasure (or if he does, I don’t see it). Nevertheless, it is thoroughly entertaining, and is side-by-side with Naked Lunch as a Cronenberg masterpiece. I urge all of you to watch it (yes, even you Posh) and let it change the way you see pleasure, pain, society, technology, a technological afterlife, and your mind’s relationship with all of the above. Long live the new flesh.

For someone else’s weird, disjointed take on the movie, go here.

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14 Responses to “David Cronenberg Retrospective: Videodrome”

  1. Thank you mightily, Rev, for this thorough and intimate look at one of Cronenberg’s weirdest movies! I haven’t watched this movie since you and I saw it together (at your insistence, natch) back in college, and it’s definitely time for a rewatch. I do remember that Debbie Harry is completely amazing in it, and that James Woods’ complexion is indeed waxy.

    I love the commercial aspect of this film: Brian O’blivion, Spectacular Optical, Barry Convex, Cathode Ray Mission, etc. Great stylized names.

    Wonderful job!

  2. Awesome! I’ve always wondered what Videodrome was about. Sadly I haven’t seen it but now I surely will. I feel like I could benefit from watching it with you, Rev, but alas I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    I didn’t know that Debbie Harry was in it. That’s a really awesome role for her. And your comment about JW being waxy cracked me up.. He should do more roles with manual effects.

    Just curious, what year is this supposed to be? Or is it just like an alternate 1990’s?

    Excellent review, can’t wait to watch it.

  3. ha ha, thanks for the shout-out, reverend! i was about to say, “whoah, this looks WAY too intense for me,” but now you’ve made me feel like it’s my duty as a human being to experience this movie.

    and really, all you needed to say was “debbie harry” and i’m sold!

  4. Long live the new flesh reverend!

  5. Thanks Reverend. I LOVE Videodrome. It was the movie where I really understood what Cronenberg was up to. I think that it made me understand Crash better, that’s for sure. Your review was extremely thorough and thoughtful, but can I just say something? Stomach vagina. Thank you.

    Also, my favorite character hands down is definitely that old porn matron. She is a hoot, and also really elevates your mistrust of Videodrome because she’s been around the block and if she says it’s bad stuff, man, it has to be bad stuff.

  6. As someone with very little hesitation to share TMI, let me just say that Debbie Harry’s character in this movie was the single greatest source of fantasy material that my teenage years every knew. Even now, I can barely stand it when she looks at him all cool and says “you wanna try some things?” It’s probably the sexiest line I’ve ever heard.

    Excellent review, Rev! Now I have to watch this movie again. And again, and again and again. Long live the new flesh!

  7. @marla: The names are great, I know! I particularly like when Brian O’Blivion says “Brian O’Blivion is of course not my real name, it’s my TV name. Soon we will all have special names…” haha.

  8. @Beardy:Well, if you can hold out until mid-April, we can definitely see it together.
    I see it as being exactly when it was filmed, 1983. Nothing is particularly futuristic, just technology that doesn’t really exist and probably never could. All the hallmarks of early 80’s media are there: Betamax cassettes, UHF television…

  9. @posh: I mean, it’s a little intense, but it’s so awesome I think it makes up for it. And I’m so glad that I impressed that sense of duty onto you ;)

  10. @chuck_c:Death to Videodrome!

  11. @sally:Yeah, it really does tie back into the body/machine convergence in Crash. That movie is certainly an exploration of sexuality as well, but something about the technoscifi of this one makes me love it a bunch. But James Woods vs. James Spader!?! Gah, how can you choose?
    And yeah, Masha is kickass. I love it when she says “Max, it’s dangerous. It has something you don’t have. It has a philosophy.” Creepy!

  12. @Jerry: Speaking of TMI, my High School Chemistry teacher, Mr. E, was totally in love with Debbie Harry and once told me “I’ll never forget when the Playboy with her came out…”
    The other super sexy line she has is when she’s on her radio show and she says to the crying caller “I can hear it in your voice, lover.” she’s so husky and cool.

  13. WHOA. So despite knowing Marla (And Jerry, for that matter) for half of my life, I have a confession: I’ve never seen a David Cronenberg film. I have a vague memory of trying to watch one in college but then certain people who will remain nameless but whose names rhymes wth Pitz and Phony started talking through it and I gave up and walked out. (this may or may not be a true memory, because that happened so many times in so many movies that it has all become a blur).

    But obvs I need to see this movie!! And. um is it wrong that as soon as I read the words “snuff film,” I was sold??

    Great review, Rev!

  14. @erin: Thanks! And no, it’s not wrong, that’s the right response, any other response would be wrong. and it’s also wrong that you’ve never seen a Cronenberg movie, get crackin’!

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