In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Many directors discuss the body’s capacity for sex and violence. For more than 40 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits.
Such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in more recent, less fantastical work (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), he rarely separates sex from violence — poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions those acts cause.
In regard to that pursuit, he’s arguably the most fearless filmmaker there is — or, at least, the most fearless one who can usually find funding. He’s also one of the most frustrating.
Cronenberg’s early work often sputtered out his transfixing theses in somewhat self-congratulatory celebrations of how far his gore could go on a limited budget. Then, some of his later films (eXistenZ, Spider and 1996’s Crash) failed to find the right balance of cerebral and visceral, no matter how controversial the subject.
But Cronenberg couldn’t have achieved his stature without some great films along the way: The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers, Violence and Promises. Those films strip out his more cartoonish impulses for carnage altogether, their macabre moments more psychologically probing than they are simply wired for shock value. Nor are they without a strong degree of vulnerable humanity, which, in a Cronenberg film, should never ever be confused for sappiness.
As the last before Cronenberg’s trifecta of Zone (which this column will visit later this year), Fly and Ringers, 1983’s Videodrome falls curiously in the middle.
Certainly, the film would rather stick orgasmically pulsating videotapes between the ribs of its protagonist than craft a cautionary tale that sticks to ribs in the audience. And although it’s stuffed with impressive effects work, Videodrome’s third-act rabbit-hole tumble starts to grow a little tiresome.
However, revisiting it 30 years later reveals intriguing and eerily prescient prognostications of many aspects of modern media and technology.
Just as Max Renn — the sleazy president of a Canadian TV station played by James Woods — feels compelled to pump up sex and violence to compete with his rivals, so, too, do the heads of U.S. broadcast networks against their cable brethren. Consider this winter’s primetime scene of a woman plunging a knife into her eye on Fox’s The Following an attempt to keep up with the sight of sawed-off feet in the current seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead or FX’s Justified.
Then there’s Max’s ideological nemesis, stage-named Professor Brian O’Blivion, who communicates only via cassette, the monologue his exclusive method of discourse. After three decades, he’d fit right in on almost any 24-hour “news” network, regardless of its political leanings.
Cronenberg also works in brief digs at corporate malfeasance, religious fundamentalism and American perception of weakness in the Cold War. Plus, there are flickers of two of today’s commonplace media/technology critiques — the schadenfreude that has made reality TV more popular than scripted shows and how 24/7 interconnectivity can erode personal relationships.
“Videodrome has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous,” one character says of the film’s titular TV program — a pirated snuff-film feed said to emanate from Pittsburgh in which women are physically and sexually abused by hooded tormentors before being killed onscreen.
Oh, but if the movie ultimately shared that same danger of a potent philosophy. Most of the aforementioned metaphors are only teased, given a snippet of a scene before the story moves on. And once Videodrome becomes a conspiracy thriller in which “television is reality and reality is less than television,” it never gels into the brain-rattling mind-fuck it thinks it is. Still, this Cronenberg movie remains compulsively watchable even when it gets, well, weird for the sake of weirdness.
Its first act suggests a sturdier film than we ultimately get — an appropriately claustrophobic, scuzzy setup. (Retrospective essays reveal it was as much a function of budget as directorial intent; many scenes were filmed within one large building.)
Max’s channel is programmed with a cornucopia of cheesecake pornography — including a Japanese program that opens with wooden-dildo masturbation. But that soft-core stuff barely gets the brain’s sine waves going any longer. That’s why Max takes an interest in Videodrome when he sets his grubby eyes on a bootleg feed.
If ever a role was tailor-made for Woods, it’s Max. This leather tie-wearing cretin becomes Cronenberg’s mouthpiece for shrewd observations about desensitization and brazenly describes Videodrome as though it were a stock option: “Just torture and murder. No plot. No characters. Very realistic. I think it’s what’s next.”
Max also smugly defends himself on the news by saying his network provides “a harmless outlet for fantasies and frustration” before turning it into an opportunity to get radio DJ Nicki Brand (Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry) in the sack.
He does, but only after she insists watching Videodrome will get her stimulated. There’s then post-coital scene in which Max pierces Nicki’s ear in a close-up that speaks to cultural rituals. Maybe ours is overstimulation, Cronenberg seems to say, but then the story starts to spin sideways.
Save those early moments, though, Max is the rare Woods character suffocated by the story surrounding him. And the actor spends the final 30 minutes in a numb, flat-affect stupor, a brainwashed assassin for two opposing factions who would seek to control the Videodrome program. (The program, we learn, is actually a hallucination-inducing, tumor-causing signal that, if globally broadcast, will weed out the depraved who would watch it incessantly.)
Although it comes to overwhelm the film’s narrative, Videodrome’s effects work does provide some indelible, striking images.
In a film filled with hallucinatory moments, the most surreally unforgettable is a collaboration between special video effects man Michael Lennick and special effects director Frank C. Carere. Nicki appears to Max on his console TV, the top of which becomes an undulating, membranous erotic zone that responds to his touch. As Nikki’s lips fill the TV frame, a convex curve leaps off the screen and envelops Max.
Videotapes also feel convincingly alive, quivering like stimulated G-spots. And makeup guru Rick Baker — a year after winning the inaugural Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling (his first of seven) — fuses a gun to bone and flesh in a scene as persuasive as An American Werewolf in London’s canine transformation.
But to what end is the ick for? Only the moments involving Max’s gun, embedded earlier in his stomach, potently speak to any sort of theme — how vengeance is in our veins or how we consume, digest, process and expel violence in our daily diet. Again, those are fleeting moments in scenes that exist to emphasize Videodrome’s prosthetics more than they do its scattershot psychological viewpoint.
(If a proposed Videodrome remake ever happens, it will, if it’s remotely smart, tackle the increasingly loud debate of entertainment’s effects on individual acts of violence. Or, it will just have Colin Farrell in the lead and call it a day.)
Taken on the terms of the films he’s made, Cronenberg’s fetishistic fascination with flesh has been for better or for worse. Earlier works like Videodrome show that sometimes, he’s a provocateur only to a point — boldly striding past boundaries of comfort but getting the heebie-jeebies upon approaching true profundity. But it also shows he wasn’t too far from figuring out which incisions could cut the deepest.