Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Cronenberg’s Cinematic Marvel

A buddy cautions Max Renn not to explore the stolen signal of the ultra-violent torture program “Videodrome,” pointing out that the show carries a unique philosophy and ideas, he claims, are intrinsically hazardous. The unsettling revelation serves as a prelude to a journey into the mind of filmmaker David Cronenberg, a visionary whose 1983 breakthrough, Videodrome, stands as a testament to the perilous amalgamation of intellect and visceral prowess in cinema. David Cronenberg, the auteur behind this cinematic marvel, also possesses a philosophy that permeates his work, and films like the film stand out for their unique blend of intellectual depth and raw, gut-wrenching impact. At the core of its philosophical exploration lies a profound question: Can media images exert influence on our unconscious minds independently, or is transformative change only possible when the viewer willingly succumbs to their power?

Amidst the thematic currents of overstimulation and transmigration through technology, Cronenberg skillfully wields an arsenal of grotesque makeup effects. These visceral elements seamlessly align with the hallucinatory science-fiction narrative, creating an unforgettable cinematic experience. In this surreal world crafted by Cronenberg, pain and desire intertwine, becoming interchangeable entities that blur the conventional boundaries between horror and eroticism, pushing the limits of disturbance to new, uncharted territories. While David Cronenberg’s earlier works could be neatly categorized as exploitation, schlock, or simple genre exploration, Videodrome emerges as a cinematic enigma that defies easy classification, transcending the boundaries of horror and science-fiction. In this groundbreaking film, Cronenberg achieves a milestone in his career, fully embracing the title “Cronenbergian” for the first time. The film not only serves as a harbinger of the themes that will permeate his future projects but presents them in a manner so perplexing and severe that it borders on the impenetrable.

Within the intricate tapestry of Videodrome, Cronenberg fearlessly delves into a myriad of themes that serve as a roadmap for his subsequent works. The film turns into a bizarre investigation of the ways in which technology is used, how violence manifests itself in society and the media, sexual repression, physical horror, hallucinations, paranoia, displacement, and sadomasochism. These themes, which Cronenberg would later in his career handle in more focused, individual terms, have an early appearance in the complex story of the film. As a cinematic endeavor, the film not only reflects on Cronenberg’s prior contributions to the horror genre, including Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Scanners, but also ascends above them and the varied reactions they provoked. Through a deep reflection on the conceptual foundations of his earlier works, Cronenberg uses this film as a means of examining the “censorious notions” that dogged the reception of his early output.

In numerous aspects, Videodrome marks a significant leap forward for David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker whose early 1980s career was characterized by a consistent output of low-budget shockers—films that, while reasonably profitable, often struggled to garner serious attention from an artistic standpoint. The cinematic landscape began to shift with the film, a pivotal work that not only showcased Cronenberg’s evolving artistic prowess but also served as the concluding chapter of his tax shelter film era, ushering in a new phase in his cinematic journey with the backing of a major Hollywood studio, MCA/Universal. During the early 1980s, Cronenberg’s creative endeavors were fueled by the tax shelter incentives prevalent in Canada, enticing local investors to support the production of Canadian films. The incentive structure allowed investors to issue promissory notes to Canadian film studios, committing to a larger sum than the comparatively modest investment they actually made. This financial maneuvering enabled investors to write off a substantial amount on their taxes. However, the tax shelter loophole had its repercussions, leading investors to delay their commitments until the fourth quarter of the fiscal year in a frenzied pursuit of last-minute ventures. This pattern, in turn, resulted in spring and summer month shoots being nearly non-existent, leaving filmmakers like Cronenberg grappling with tight deadlines and potentially precarious budgets as they scrambled to complete their projects.

Production Challenges

Fueled by the financial support of Canadian tax shelter dollars and poised for distribution to broader audiences than ever before in David Cronenberg’s career, the development of Videodrome underwent significant revisions both in the screenwriting and production stages. Originally titled Network of Blood, a nod to Cronenberg’s affinity for titles evoking classic horror akin to They Came From Within, the script underwent a substantial overhaul when the director, recognizing the graphic intensity of his initial vision, realized it might be too provocative for conventional cinema. This revelation, given the eventual onscreen potency, marked a pivotal juncture in the film’s creative evolution. In a twist reminiscent of the reaction to Terry Gilliam’s production of Brazil in 1985, Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal, sought to halt production upon finally reading the script. However, his intervention came too late, and the project forged ahead. Facing constraints imposed by Cronenberg’s budget and logistical challenges, additional cuts were made during the production process. The limitations of a $500,000 effects budget, managed by the renowned effects wizard Rick Baker, necessitated alterations when certain scenes could not be realized as envisioned by the director. This collaborative struggle underscored the intricate dance between artistic vision and practical constraints inherent in filmmaking.

Throughout the meticulous editing process, David Cronenberg grappled with the intricate challenge of sculpting Videodrome into a coherent narrative. The initial foray into a 75-minute version proved to be a misstep, as Cronenberg himself later conceded its “incomprehensible” nature. Unsurprisingly, the audience’s reaction aligned with this assessment, deeming the shortened film a bewildering mess. It was only when the director settled on an 89-minute cut that the film began to take a more cohesive shape, yet this posed a new challenge—many studio executives overseeing the project remained perplexed by the enigmatic nature of the final product. In a move that would prove consequential for the film’s reception, the studio failed to target appropriate demographics during the distribution phase. Instead of tailoring the promotion to arthouse crowds receptive to the sophisticated filmmaking on display, the studio adopted a hands-off approach. Cronenberg acknowledged his mistake in retrospect and stated that the film ought to have been treated like an art film, promoted gradually and with the help of reviews. The disconnect between the film’s unconventional nature and the conventional marketing approach left general audiences bewildered, repulsed, and ultimately dismissive—a response that may not have surprised Cronenberg, given his track record of producing work that seldom reached mainstream audiences.

Critical Reception

The critical landscape, too, reflected the polarized nature of Videodrome. Some critics voiced confusion, while others expressed wild enthusiasm. Notably, Andy Warhol dubbed the film the “Clockwork Orange of the 1980s,” a testament to its groundbreaking and provocative nature. Even John Carpenter, the maestro behind The Thing, recognized Cronenberg’s unique artistic prowess, hailing him as the “only real artist” in the horror genre. Carpenter went further, emphasizing, “He’s better than all of us.” However, not all critiques were as laudatory; Roger Ebert, for instance, labeled the film as “one of the least entertaining films ever made.” In the twisted dystopian landscape of the film, James Woods assumes the role of Max Renn, the cunning president of Civic TV, a cable company shamelessly peddling a concoction of soft-core pornography and gratuitous violence to the eager masses in the comfort of their homes. The story begins as Max, always searching for the next innovative show to enthrall his viewers, meets Hiroshima Video behind closed doors. This illicit transaction transpires in the shadowy confines of a derelict hotel, setting the stage for a black market deal that mirrors the clandestine nature of the content being peddled.

During this covert meeting, Max is introduced to Hiroshima Video’s offering–the show “Samurai Dreams.” Despite the real-life Universal production head, Bob Rehme, urging cuts to an explicit segment, Max dismisses it as “too soft” for his tastes. Eager for something that will truly shatter societal norms, Max turns to his satellite bootlegger, Harlan, portrayed by Peter Dvorsky, who unveils a clandestine signal known as “Videodrome.” This subterranean transmission plunges participants into the harrowing depths of snuff TV, featuring individuals chained to electrified walls, subjected to agonizing whippings, and ultimately meeting their demise through strangulation. In the riveting odyssey to unearth the origins of the disturbing “Videodrome,” Max Renn embarks on a chilling expedition that leads him to the Cathode Ray Mission. Here, he encounters the enigmatic Bianca O’Blivion, portrayed by Sonja Smits, daughter of the elusive Professor Brian O’Blivion, brought to life by Jack Creley. In a surreal encounter, Bianca unveils a disconcerting revelation, suggesting that the act of watching the “Videodrome” broadcast is not just an act of voyeurism but a catalyst for hallucinations induced by a brain tumor generated through the broadcast’s insidious signals.

Hallucinatory Torment

As Max grapples with the torment of these hallucinations, a pivotal moment arrives when he is contacted by Barry Convex, played by Leslie Carlson, the formidable head of Spectacular Optical. This shadowy corporation, known for manufacturing everything from inexpensive eyeglasses to missile guidance systems, reveals its sinister role as the creator of “Videodrome.” Motivated by an ideological mission to cleanse North America of those deemed social derelicts, individuals who indulge in the filth propagated by Civic TV, Spectacular Optical conceived “Videodrome” not merely to cause fatal brain tumors but to transform its viewers into programmable drones, eradicating the undesirable element from society. Under Convex’s ominous directives, Max is coerced into a macabre transformation, shedding his humanity in a brutal act that involves eliminating his partners at Civic TV and, later, the very conduit of information, Bianca O’Blivion herself. However, in a surprising twist, Bianca, in an act of defiance, reprograms Max. Now wielding a newfound purpose, he becomes the instrument of “Videodrome’s” destruction.

The intricate web of manipulation and control tightens as Max is commanded to eliminate Harlan, a double agent entangled in the machinations of Spectacular Optical and, ultimately, Convex himself. As the lifeless bodies of these key figures lie in the wake of Max’s obedience, a profound revelation unfolds—Max learns that to obliterate “Videodrome” entirely, he must undergo a metamorphosis into what is cryptically termed the “New Flesh.” The path to this transformation demands the relinquishment of his mortal coil; Max must willingly let his body succumb to death. As Max Renn first glimpses the surreal and unsettling world of “Videodrome” in Harlan’s lab, a mere 12 minutes into the film, a subtle dissonance begins to emerge for the viewer. David Cronenberg deftly sets the stage for a narrative where the veracity of what unfolds onscreen becomes increasingly suspect. The director employs a gradual shift, aligning the audience’s perspective with Max’s as his hallucinations progressively hijack the visual landscape of the film. What begins as apparent waking dreams gradually transmutes into violent delusions and less overtly discernible altered perceptions.

Visceral Manifestations

One of the film’s most haunting and indelible sequences involves the manifestation of a vaginal slit opening on Max’s stomach. This visceral image later serves as the receptacle for a pulsating videotape containing ominous directives from Spectacular Optical. This visual motif, reminiscent of Cronenberg’s thematic explorations in Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, underscores the director’s penchant for seamlessly blending reality and hallucination within the fabric of the narrative. Watching Videodrome becomes an immersive experience, prompting the audience to grapple with the fundamental question: What is real? In the spirit of Brian O’Blivion’s philosophy, which contends that “there is nothing outside our perception of reality,” the film unfolds through the lens of an unreliable protagonist, Max Renn, who is increasingly detached from a clear understanding of his own experiences. As the narrative unfolds, the audience, much like Max, is left in a state of ambiguity, struggling to grasp every intricate plot turn along the way. The film deliberately fosters a sense of uncertainty, challenging viewers to rely on intuition and interpretation rather than a straightforward narrative comprehension.

Within the haunting tapestry of Videodrome, the hallucinations induced by the insidious the film signal emerge not merely as cinematic spectacles but as potent metaphors, encapsulating the film’s profound exploration of the impact of media on the human psyche. This visual distortion becomes a compelling symbol, conveying the film’s central thesis that prolonged exposure to explicit content in the media desensitizes the viewer, rendering them emotionally numb and driving them to seek pleasure through visceral stimuli. In the twisted arena of the film, the torturous spectacle of graphic sex and violence serves as a deceptive lure, strategically crafted by Spectacular Optical to target what they deem as social undesirables. Their twisted worldview claims that this sensory assault causes receptors in the brain and spine to become active, luring people into a state where they are vulnerable to servitude. The true menace, however, lies not in the explicit content itself but in the very essence of television signals, as Bianca illuminates. The dangers of the film can stealthily hide within the innocuous guise of a test pattern, highlighting television itself as the weapon—more potent than any specific content displayed onscreen. In this chilling revelation, any viewer becomes a potential subject for enslavement, emphasizing the film’s commentary on the insidious power of the medium.

Adding complexity to the narrative, the O’Blivions present an alternative perspective. The O’Blivions view television not merely as a harbinger of malevolence but as a social stabilizer. Within the confines of their Cathode Ray Mission, they offer TV cubicles where people experiencing homelessness find solace and are seemingly reintegrated into society through the therapeutic act of watching television. The O’Blivions argue that viewing TV will help them reintegrate into society, which is a strange viewpoint. It underscores the film’s layered exploration of television’s dual nature—a force that simultaneously alienates individuals from reality while providing a semblance of connection to the world portrayed onscreen. In the enigmatic realm of Videodrome, the character of Nicki Brand becomes a focal point for exploring the intricate interplay between reality and illusion, blurring the lines between the literal and the figurative. When Nicki declares that she was “made for that show,” the ambiguity surrounding her statement deepens the mystery. Is she asserting a literal connection to the show, potentially as a televised automaton engineered by Spectacular Optical, or is she expressing a more abstract affinity, claiming a figurative alignment with the perverse allure of “Videodrome”?

Bianca O’Blivion further muddles the narrative waters, suggesting that Nicki’s image was exploited to seduce Max, contending that “she was already dead.” This cryptic revelation raises questions about Nicki’s authenticity and existence, hinting at the possibility that her appearance onscreen may be nothing more than a manipulated illusion. The film introduces the notion that Max and Nicki might have shared only a singular encounter during a panel show, immediately followed by Max’s inaugural exposure to “Videodrome.” This temporal correlation raises the intriguing possibility that Nicki’s entire presence onscreen could be an elaborate hallucination woven into Max’s consciousness after his initiation into the dark world of the signal. The complex narrative unfolds as Max and Nicki finally engage in a sexual encounter, a sequence that occurs after Max watches the pirated signal in Harlan’s lab. Therefore, the majority of Nicki’s onscreen appearances may be construed as products of Max’s hallucinatory experiences. It raises the fascinating hypothesis that Nicki’s role in the torture arena of “Videodrome” serves as a manifestation of Max’s desires and projections, symbolizing stimulation and becoming a conduit for his hallucinatory experiences.

The “New Flesh” Concept

Brian O’Blivion’s enigmatic assertion that “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” introduces a radical perspective on reality. In this paradigm, the television screen is posited as an integral part of the brain’s physical structure, and whatever appears on it becomes a raw experience for the viewer, blurring the boundaries between television and reality. Consequently, Nicki’s true existence becomes an elusive and secondary concern as her impact on Max and the narrative transcends conventional notions of realism. In the enigmatic philosophy articulated by Brian O’Blivion, the concept of the “New Flesh” emerges as a cryptic exploration of the body existing in an intermediary realm between human existence and the pervasive influence of technology. This ethereal state, the “New Flesh,” symbolizes a transformative fusion where the boundaries between the organic and the technological blur into an enigmatic coexistence. Television, in O’Blivion’s metaphorical lexicon, assumes the role of the “retina of the mind’s eye,” acting as the anticipatory medium for this symbiotic relationship.

While the film tantalizingly hints at Max Renn’s metamorphosis into the “New Flesh,” the audience is denied a complete visual representation of this next phase of being. Instead, glimpses of bioorganic changes manifest as Max’s flesh appears to melt and contort under the influence of technology. This grotesque manipulation of the human form stands as a testament to the invasive power of technology, rendering the body seemingly irrelevant and abnormal on its own. It is only through the absorption of television that the body undergoes a normalization process, inching closer to the envisioned “New Flesh” standard—an organism shaped and standardized through the assimilation of information. Despite the horror evoked by the graphic portrayal of the transitional phase, David Cronenberg views the ultimate result as something inherently “beautiful.” The “New Flesh,” in its post-absorption form, represents a complete and novel organism, an entity that, while objectively beautiful in its completion, appears horrifying precisely because of its unfamiliarity. The radical departure from conventional human anatomy and the unsettling amalgamation of the organic with the technological contribute to the disconcerting aesthetics of the “New Flesh.”

Cronenberg’s Vision for the Finale

Cronenberg’s vision for the film’s finale involved a striking tableau, a liquid bonding of Max and Nicki’s organic material. In this climactic scene, the two characters would meld together in an unbroken pool of growing and undulating flesh—a visual representation of the melded orgy of participants in “Videodrome.” However, the realization of this effect proved elusive, as Rick Baker, responsible for the special effects, fell short of capturing Cronenberg’s vision to the director’s satisfaction. Consequently, the absence of a tangible representation of the “New Flesh” in the film left audiences perplexed, prompting the removal of several allusions to this transformative concept from the final script. While Rick Baker, renowned for his exceptional work on practical makeup effects, faced the daunting challenge of realizing the abstract concept of the “New Flesh” in “Videodrome,” his contributions to the film nonetheless stand as a landmark achievement in 1980s makeup effects. Baker’s artistic prowess and innovation shine through in creating some of the most visually disturbing and unforgettable visions ever captured on celluloid, a testament to his expertise in practical effects.

In line with the film’s overarching theme of overstimulation, Baker and his skilled team were tasked with bringing David Cronenberg’s nightmarish visions to life, becoming an integral part of the director’s presentation. From the so-called cancer gun that intricately bonds with Max’s hand and forearm through biomechanical tendrils to the visceral and surreal imagery of the gun’s bullets entering Convex and causing his body to convulse and surge with clumps of globulous, cancerous growths, the practical effects in Videodrome are nothing short of attention-grabbing. These grotesque and meticulously crafted visuals, often pushing the boundaries of the audience’s comfort, become focal points that draw attention away from the layered commentaries and thematic intricacies embedded in Cronenberg’s narrative. One of the most indelible effects etched into cinematic memory is the depiction of Max’s stomach slit. While not intended as a direct representation of a vagina, the image undeniably evokes such connotations. This haunting effect is first unveiled in Max’s apartment, with James Woods ingeniously positioned within a couch prop, connected to a dummy bearer of the slit. This innovative setup allowed Woods to reach inside the torso, creating the illusion that he had penetrated the slit with his hand, holding a pistol. The effect takes a surreal turn as Max panics, and Woods, standing and reaching inside himself to locate the weapon, presents his hand pressed against his stomach, cleverly covered by a prosthetic lip. The absence of any disguising elements behind the actor exposes the meticulous craftsmanship and creativity inherent in Baker’s practical effects.

Potent Imagery

In crafting Videodrome, David Cronenberg, alongside the collaborative efforts of makeup effects artist Rick Baker and video effects supervisor Michael Lennick, delves into imagery laden with potent connections to sadomasochism and sheer horror. These visuals are purposefully designed to evoke an intense reaction, a synthesis of Cronenberg’s visionary concepts, Baker’s practical mastery, and Lennick’s innovative video effects seamlessly integrated throughout the film. The film’s exploration of highly sexualized elements interwoven with violent and grotesque imagery has occasionally led to misinterpretations, notably by critics such as Robin Wood. Wood suggests that Cronenberg’s visceral portrayal of the body, particularly the female body, reflects disdain or disgust. However, this interpretation needs to understand Cronenberg’s intent. Far from repressing the body out of disapproval, Cronenberg’s approach is one of celebration—he liberates the body from the constraints of standardized nature, allowing it to transcend its biological boundaries. In doing so, the body becomes a multifaceted symbol, representing both the cerebral and the physical in a singular, liberated manifestation.

While Cronenberg’s work has faced occasional accusations of sexism, the director vehemently rejects this interpretation. His perspective as a heterosexual male auteur valuing his sexuality informs his storytelling. His characters, he argues, represent singular individuals rather than making sweeping statements about all men or women. Cronenberg crafts narratives centered around the experiences of individual men or women, exploring the nuances of their psyches and bodies. The provocative thesis advanced by Videodrome serves to illuminate David Cronenberg’s overarching theory, one that has permeated his entire career: that horror originates from within, a stark departure from conventional external sources such as masked killers or monstrous entities. In the realm of the media, Cronenberg contends that television, in and of itself, does not exert influence over viewers; rather, viewers consciously permit themselves to be swayed, making it an unconscious choice. Consequently, television is not inherently perilous; the danger lies in the susceptibilities of home viewers who willingly subject themselves to its influence.

Forces Exploiting Television

When confronted with accusations of disseminating socially irresponsible material on Civic TV, Max Renn staunchly defends his role by asserting that he provides a necessary outlet, contending that such content should exist on television rather than manifest in the streets. However, the film reveals a complex reality where other forces exploit television as a weapon or a societal regulator, taking advantage of viewers’ dependency on this medium. Spectacular Optical, for instance, preys on specific viewers by transmitting the insidious “Videodrome” signal through excessively violent or sexual programs, tapping into the vulnerabilities of those who willingly expose themselves to such content. Simultaneously, the O’Blivions leverage television as a tool for the reincorporation of people experiencing homelessness into the societal collective, using it as a means of reconnection. In the prescient tradition of true science fiction, David Cronenberg’s critique of media culture in Videodrome was remarkably ahead of its time in 1983, offering not only a glimpse into the technological landscape that was still unfolding but also laying the foundation for the director’s enduring thematic explorations. The film exhibits an eerie precision in its predictions, foreseeing technological advances that continue to shape our contemporary existence and capturing the essence of Cronenberg’s ongoing narrative preoccupations.

Videodrome astutely anticipates our contemporary dependence on “entertainment” as a defining aspect of collective normalcy, reflecting society’s measure of itself. The film remarkably foreshadows the emergence of technologies such as virtual reality, the resurgence of 3D, and the evolving nature of user involvement in video games—themes that Cronenberg would explore with more specificity in later works like eXistenZ. Furthermore, the film eerily foresees the ubiquitous reliance on mobile devices, seamlessly integrated into our lives, transforming us into near-cyborgs—an observation that has become even more apparent in the present day. Cronenberg’s visionary work in the film also sets the stage for his exploration of the consequences of new technology, a theme he would delve into with films like The Fly and eXistenZ. Additionally, the film demonstrates Cronenberg’s narrative prowess by immersing the audience in the intricate recesses of the protagonist’s mind—a storytelling technique reminiscent of his later works such as Naked Lunch and Spider.

Declaring comprehensive comprehension of every shifting reality encapsulated within Videodrome would be not only misleading but also inherently impossible. The film navigates a surreal landscape where certain characters exist solely on television screens while others transition from being mere viewers to becoming drones themselves. The question of who among them is real becomes a persistent enigma, and the very act of tracking reality within the narrative proves to be a challenging endeavor as the story unfolds. Cronenberg, in his masterful narrative construction, intentionally blurs the lines between hallucination and narrative progression, purposefully weaving a complex tapestry of messages that, at times, might seem inherently mixed. Even Martin Scorsese, a seasoned filmmaker, noted that “David himself doesn’t know what his films are about.” The film embraces the concept of “disorder” on numerous levels with its visuals that feature anthropomorphized televisions and videocassettes, scenes that flow effortlessly in and out of hallucinogenic states, and imagery filled with sadomasochistic connotations. Rather than offering a clear, linear explication, Cronenberg’s creation pulsates with organic, interconnected ideas, emphasizing the overarching theme of overstimulation.


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