Long Live the New Flesh
“The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye,”. These words, spoken by Marshal McLuhan parody Brian O’Blivion, perfectly encapsulate the central conceit of David Cronenberg’s bizarre 1983 techno-thriller. Though almost forty years old, Videodrome seems to only grow in its relevance to the modern world. Especially with the rise of the internet. But why does it do such a good job of presenting the darker strata of the media-saturated we inhabit? I think a quick look at its plot, followed by an analysis should answer that question.
Videodrome puts us in the cheap shoes of sleazy television executive Max Renn (James Woods). Renn manages a Toronto-area local channel called Civic TV. An artistically vacant outlet which dishes up soft-core porn and gory, low-budget shockers. Always on the lookout for new programming, Renn comes across a pirated broadcast of something called Videodrome. A show that seems to depict violent torture and murder without any pretensions of story or art. Intrigued, Renn tries to track down the show’s creators to buy Videodrome for Civic TV. However, he discovers a lot more than he bargained for.
Videodrome is more than just a show. Instead, it’s a vehicle for a new technology that alters the way people perceive realty. Because of his exposure to Videodrome, Renn begins to experience vivid hallucinations. Many of which involve his body morphing in grotesque ways. Oh, and the torture and murder presented in Videodrome? It’s real. As Renn digs deeper, he finds himself caught in a bitter media-based war for the mind of North America.
Virtually ignored by both the viewing public and the critics on its initial release, Videodrome has since, like many of Cronenberg’s films, attracted a cult following on home video. Strangely, despite the renown that the film eventually gained, it has not had much of an influence on filmmaking. The same could be said for a lot of Cronenberg’s oeuvre really. He has interesting ideas which he presents in an interesting fashion, but he is perhaps a little too auteur to have a wider impact.
Body Horror with a Point
As with The Brood and Scanners before it, Videodrome uses extreme body horror not just to terrify, but also to explore its central themes. Which in this case, is the manipulation of reality via media. However, Cronenberg was using the philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s definition of the word media. In brief, McLuhan called anything that acted as an extension of the human body media. For example, McLuhan would call your clothes media because they act as an extension of your skin. Going further he would call television an extension of your nervous system. Cronenberg simply takes this idea to its logical extreme by forcing Max Renn’s body to take on aspects of a television.
Over the course of the film, Renn’s body undergoes a series of frightening changes. Most of which are symbolic of Videodrome’s increasing hold over him. They are perhaps only hallucinations, but the way Renn’s personality seems to change with them is very real. Most memorably, he grows an orifice in his abdomen which resembles a cross between a vagina, a tumor, and a marsupial pouch. If that was not usettling enough, the antagonists of the film insert videocassettes into this new cavity that control Renn’s behavior.
While presenting a vagina as symbolic of this new passivity potentially carries some unfortunate implications, the broader message is that people are influenced by what they see. This is not a rehash of the old argument that violent entertainment makes people violent. Instead, this is a warning that people with agendas, political and otherwise, will manipulate new media technologies in order to bring the public consciousness in line with those agendas. Renn’s fatal mistake is neither properly respecting nor understanding the power and potential of the media he profits by, leaving him vulnerable to those who do understand its power and are willing to use it.
Sex and Violence on TV
Another recurring theme in Videodrome is the disturbing conflation of sex and violence. It is absolutely no coincidence that the some of the changes to Renn’s body resemble sexual organs. Aside from the abdominal vagina, Cronenberg also treats us to a disquieting sequence where Max Renn’s pistol fuses with his hand. Which transforms into a disgustingly phallic “meat gun”. This is perhaps the most straightforward application of McLuhan’s media. That is, the gun becoming a part of Renn as it extends his ability to do harm. The show-within-a-show Videodrome also contains sexualized violence, with deliberate references to S&M in the costumes worn by the torturers and the victim’s nudity presented in a titillating manner.
Cronenberg seems to believe that sex and violence has a definite effect on the person that sees it. Now, once again, Cronenberg is not arguing that seeing violence makes people violent. Rather, that such images are powerful and must be used with a certain sense of responsibility. Moreover, he also argues that such things are actively sought out by people who already have a taste for them. People like Max Renn for example.
While the body horror and sexualized violence are both integral to the film’s visual language, they aren’t Vidoedrome’s only point. In fact, go one level deeper and you will see what really holds the film together is something which is never directly discussed by the film at all: Paranoia. In fact, paranoia permeates the film’s narrative fabric like the scent of limburger permeates a cheese shop. It is never directly discussed in the film because it is implicit in the very idea of something like Videodrome in the first place. Then there is the idea of shadowy cabals with unclear motives manipulating a media-world for their own ends.
Over the course of the film, forces much grater than him use and abuse Max Renn for their own ends. For them, he is nothing but a stepping stone to greater things or a disposable tool. In other words, they manipulate and control Renn just as they control and manipulate the media he consumes.
As the world grows more media-overloaded, Videodrome resonates more and more. We have watched as media outlets helped maneuver new leaders into place. We have watched as media-savvy individuals disseminated misinformation, often at the behest of governments and corporations, to influence public opinion. But most importantly, we have watched as our media lives and our real lives have grown together. Often in ways that make McLuhan’s ideas about media look quaint. While we have not quite achieved Max Renn’s level of fusion, we might be closer than we would like to think. Throw in the alarming fact that about six corporations control most of the world’s media, and the picture grows bleaker still.
Screens mediate most of our reality, weather smartphones or television. Cronenberg somehow predicted this facet of our existence, as well as it’s dangers and put them in a very watchable, if very strange, film. It certainly deserves a viewing in light of that alone.