Sunday, 26 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Videodrome (1983)

Dir. David Cronenberg

So much couldn't have been predicted thirty years later from the first images we and sleazy cable-TV programmer Max Renn (James Woods) see when one of his techs comes across a mysterious signal, possible from a Malaysian satellite, of Videodrome, a static camera in a red room as women are brutalised and tortured by masked individuals. The obvious comparison to now is there, that the internet has gone further than anything television could do, beyond Renn's softcore sex and hardcore violence to the worst of humanity, especially when I had in mind the recent moral campaigns in my country of Britain over such content and internet regulation over the likes of "Revenge Porn". The way I see it, the motto of Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a being who only exists on television who Renn needs to meet to figure out what Videodrome is, has to be modified, paraphrased, as 'the [visual] screen is the retina of the mind's eye'. Now the computer screen and the iPhone are conduits of the mind's eye, and it's significant that the idea in the centre of David Cronenberg's film, of mankind inexplicably linked to technology and the potential for it to effect their sense of reality, is less the evil of the technology or the content, but goes back to the whole issue of the human subconscious. As much as I support the morals of the campaigners that want to protect the world from the worst online, I heavily suspect they haven't the courage to think about the fact that all of this stems from the human mind itself. As Videodrome makes explicit, in what is effectively Cronenberg's paranoid conspiracy thriller by the way of sci-fi and body horror, the television is merely a conduit for the hallucinations Renn experiences that completely distort his sense of reality. Without spoiling the film for those who've yet to see it, which I heartily recommend, Videodrome is revealed to not need the torture show Renn gets addicted to work, possible to hide in a test screen, and it didn't materialise by itself but through human creation.

What I've now added to the film from my perspective is that recent issues with censorship and moral campaigns around the internet have pierced reality completely. The Dangerous Cartoons Act passed in Britain, which means illustrations or a mere drawing can quality as child pornography, in particular has completely questioned the notion of reality as, not only is there a dangerous of art being censored, but has also meant that people have been taken to court for thoughts rather than real acts. It's a truly Cronenbergian concept, one straight from this film, where a mere idea has more reality than a real crime itself, breaking the barrier between the real body and the mind. What makes this more distorting is the place the mind has in the middle of this, the centre of any thought, obscene or not. Later on in the film, someone tells Renn that no sane person, as he legitimately wanted to schedule Videodrome on his channel believing it was faked, would want to watch torture. Now that is up to debate with how some people clearly would watch this, adding troubling questions of human society, but it also means that the real problem in obscenity and crimes like this, that no moral campaigner I've read of wants to dare tackle, is the human mind and its desire for this sort of thing regardless of any censorship imposed.

Pretty heavy stuff to begin with, but David Cronenberg has always been a filmmaker where it is impossible to not think of the content in such complex thoughts. He managed, in films that could be seen as schlocky and enjoyed for their body horror, to pull from his scripts and ideas implications of such issues of obscenity, the mind and the subconscious that are difficult to merely digest. This is a film that is as much about televisions pulsating with flesh and vaginail stomach slits but the hardest, most striking horror within it is how the ideas are even stronger now even if the technology shown is obsolete. It makes the situation where Cronenberg is now more disappointing to me, apathetic to almost all his recent work. I had a chance to see his latest, Maps To The Stars (2014), at a cinema but decided against it with disinterest, more than happy to see it on DVD even if it was years later. Cosmopolis (2012), infecting itself in my mind like one of his many parasites in his films, has an enticement to be back to his best work on a rewatch, a ghost-like alien that may be able to connect the director's decision to make dramas with the heady ideas of the previous films of his. He has made dramas since The Dead Zone (1983), but they were never inherently dramas in the conventional sense up to Eastern Promises (2007), which is where I started to feel disinterested in him as a current director. The nature of drama as a genre is that it's probably the least able to give directors artistic creativity and the ability to ask real questions - it's a bourgeoisies, middle class thing of art films that feel immensely bland and not forcing you to think about their content. Crash (1996) or Dead Ringers (1988) are so far removed from what drama is now as a cinema genre. Even his depiction of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method (2011), which should've been a true excursion of the human mind, came off as merely okay, bland drama with no real questions and memorable thoughts in its skull. In hindsight, it's the least respectable, dirty little horror films that have more to say, Videodrome reproaching it after so many years causing me to think of all the issues with obscenity and the underside of the internet, from extreme porn to the disconnect from reality said of it, throughout watching the film.  It causes me to wish alongside his underrated sequel-of-sorts eXistenz (1999) that the third film in the trilogy about the web was to exist to complete the chain of thoughts. I can be thankful that the short film, The Nest (2014), that was made available to see on YouTube, gives the potential for him to return back to his roots without necessarily compromising what he wants to do now as a director, but anything could happen.

I'm admittedly hesitant to try and review this film because, so well known, it's been written about by professional critics in greater thought and much more time than I have in this season to compose thoughts. The film itself is still great returning to it, a film I saw as I got into paracinema that I loved immediately back then, when a lot of films I would love later would divide me, and now has greater power now I can appreciate films that don't follow conventions. It's surprising though how small this film is on scale - in terms of actual locations the narrative takes place in, the small cast of characters, how quickly events happen - especially when I've learnt of how small the production was and of how much content from the original script and Cronenberg's ideas were excised from the final film. He's been viewed as a cold filmmaker, but that's far from the truth. When he does depict emotional content, he creates some of his best work; no one would dare call him a cold director is they watched a film like Dead Ringers. The thing is that his subjects are alienating for many. Characters in this film can openly talk about television being the third eye for mankind without any hesitance to their voice. The urban environments, especially in his Canadian productions, are claustrophobic modern works of architecture that become science fiction landscapes of the mind decades later, more part of the characters' psyches than real places. The film is very simple narratively, James Woods in a great performance as a man who is sucked into becoming a tool for a sinister group, or caught between two groups depending on your attitude to Brian O'Blivion's daughter Bianca O'Blivion (Sonja Smits). I wasn't kidding in saying it was Cronenberg's take on a political thriller, becoming it fully in the final act, but it's through the idea of what would happen if television could corrupt you, not through the programming itself but through the interaction of the human mind through a conduit. There is enough content here for two films. A sadomasochistic romance with radio broadcaster Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of the band Blondie). Technology that can induce and even record hallucinations. The possibility to existing after death through Betamax. Psychological freak outs where reality is subjective and body horror gristly depicted through Rick Baker and the practical and special effects team who worked on the film. I could go further talking about the performances, Howard Shore's menacing score, the practical effects or the production design, but honestly it's all the ideas that the film generates that turns it into the great work it is.  

As a film which depicts the dark side of human desire, it also depicts it as a transgressive progression. His feature debut Shivers (1975) showed the line between conservative and transgressive mentality that has been carefully balanced between in Cronenberg's work. It means I can start a review talking about the sombre ideas at the beginning, but can also see in Videodrome a fetishishtic film too. Of Renn and Brand becoming a couple where she likes burning herself with cigarettes, letting him pierce her ears with a needle for orgasmic pleasure, Videodrome's torture and electrocution on in the background as a turn-on for both of them. As worse as human desire can be seen to be, there is a confusion by moral campaigners too where they are looking outside through the window pane of how complicated it also is, frightening to them but between consenting adults, particularly with bondage and fetishes. That doesn't mean the film doesn't question this too, brought to mind when Brand, on a TV interview show where she meets Renn, talks about human beings being over stimulated in their lives. Crash (1996) would push these questions even further, while not necessarily damning the actions of the characters, which is why the film was briefly banned by Westminster in England. For David Cronenberg, the issue of desire and fantasy are more complicated than morality would want it to be, sometimes for the better, but also with a concern about it as well, a judged view that is never heavy handed. This is of course the director who found beauty in disease, in cancerous sores and body mutilation, viruses and parasites. The deformations here, through the practical effects, have a lingering delight in them as well as being repulsive, not to mention scenes like James Woods probing his stomach vagina with the phallic nozzle of his gun, something which doesn't hide its metaphors at all. The films after A History of Violence (2005), the last film to stand out on first viewing, unless Cosmopolis grows in quality, have little of this sense of complex layers, contradictions and prying into sides unexpected in such themes. Far from childish nihilism, it feels matter-of-fact, informed by the director's atheism and view of science, which accepts death and decay and tries to see it as liberating as life is. Videodrome was a premonition for the underside of mediums like the internet, but it doesn't just come off as a condemnation, accepting the complexity of these issues through a cultish horror film. Rarely can you be this detailed with horror films that flirt with said ideas.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
As with a film like Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), the films are very conventional but reveal their abstract natures if one stops to think about the implications of what happened. The basic structure of Videodrome, for all its hallucinations and weird imagery, is not strange inherently. Icky, perverse, indeed weird on a surface view, but not strange as a movie existing against conventions of structure or tone. It's the ideas if you think of them, and place the thoughts you have onto the film again, adding what you've considered, that makes it unconventional. It's not seeing a character kissing giant lips on as pulsating, aroused television that is unconventional, but someone offering in this scene the notion that sexuality exists in the technology itself as well as the content, more so now as concepts as Skype that didn't exist back in the eighties are common for us, and have the potential for such "perverse" sexuality in them in ways the film never even thought of.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
David Cronenberg is not only one of my favourite directors, still despite my apathy with the current films, but it's pretty obvious he'll be talked about here, many times from a large list of potential reviews, many of them possibly getting on the Abstract list. The thing is now, revisiting Videodrome, that it's not necessarily the content itself but the tone and implications of the content which will make the films much more interesting to cover for this blog, and be the influence on where they place, if they place, onto said list. 

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