“Violence, Sex, Imagination, Catharsis” – Videodrome’s Postmodern Headtrip

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This article was originally featured back in issue 2. You can pick up a physical copy here.

“Why would anyone watch a scum-show like Videodrome?” Well into Cronenberg’s head-trip narrative, James Woods’s Max Renn is asked this very question. The director, however, squares this directly at the spectator. Videodrome is a feast for the eyes and a trauma for the brain, and, much like other Cronenberg films such as Naked Lunch, Crash and Existenz, the power of this trauma lies in the initial generic set up and the consequential audience expectation. Videodrome comes wrapped as an erotic thriller – an admittedly deviant one, to be fair, but a conventional set up all the same. Soon after, all generic conventions are dismissed. Each irrational narrative twist obliterates any sense of developing comprehension, as a question presents itself to us again, and again, “what is this – and why am I watching it?”

With Videodrome, Cronenberg assembled the perfect postmodern film: He not only targets narrative convention, but narrative expectation. Just as Jean-Francois Lyotard mistrusted the all-encompassing grand narratives that defined modernity, Cronenberg presents us with multiple convoluted and often seemingly contradictory plot lines that frequently compete with each other for dominance. The battle for narrative consistency is carried out on screen, while a more private battle for comprehension rages on inside our heads. This is Videodrome’s greatest achievement: a thoroughly entertaining, spectacular and stimulating visualisation of Lyotard’s ‘postmodern condition’ – where knowledge loses all value and “ceases to be an end in itself.” Cronenberg builds a world in which technological addiction generates high-tech hallucination and reality and fever dream, like image and narrative, become indistinguishable. Before I get deeper into this, it’s probably best to provide a brief outline of this weird and wonderful film.

The deviant pirate broadcast that initiates Videodrome’s storyline is described early on as having “no plot” – “it just goes on like that… torture, murder, humiliation.” Correspondingly, the unprepared spectator’s first viewing of Videodrome can be a nasty and confusing thing. Max Renn (James Woods), president of a low-class cable channel specialising in strange and obscure soft-core porn, becomes obsessed with an illegally intercepted broadcast called Videodrome. Evidently produced in Malaysia, the narrative-light television show seems to centre on the torture and murder of unwilling victims. After some investigation and the help of smut-expert Masha (Lynne Gorman), Max learns that Videodrome is very real, and broadcast from Pittsburgh. What’s more, Videodrome is the obscene face of a political movement seemingly linked to ‘media prophet’ Brian O’Blivion – a cipher for media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, under who Cronenberg had studied. What follows gets deeper, darker, and increasingly convoluted; Max is pulled into a world of corporate conspiracy, underground resistance and covert assassination. Throughout, he suffers accelerating hallucinations caused by the Videodrome signal, driving him further and further away from a stable identity as he suffers a severe psychological trauma and apparent bodily mutation.

As every plot twist in Videodrome only serves to undermine the last, the spectator begins to doubt the legitimacy of each subsequent narrative development. Indeed, there is a very real possibility that everything that happens to Max after his first viewing of Videodrome is merely a hallucination. This very notion, the convergence of real life and hallucinatory experience, is perfectly in line with O’Blivion’s overriding doctrine:

“The television is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

Ultimately, O’Blivion asserts that images on TV, now dominant in society, have begun to become indistinguishable from reality – much like Max’s hallucinations. All knowledge is essentially brought into question; knowledge becomes illegitimate. Lyotard wrote of a postmodern, cybernetic society wherein computers, telecommunication systems and other forms of processing and sharing information – the internet, perhaps – have become fiercely dominant, changing the status of knowledge. When supposed knowledge(s) are readily available and constantly penetrating, how are they legitimated? How does knowledge retain its value? The metanarratives that have dominated the modern world therefore become unreliable and untenable; much like the overarching narrative in Videodrome. Extreme advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence, further complicate the distinction between the real and the unreal; fantasy and reality. Many filmmakers – Ridley Scott with Blade Runner, the Wachowskis with The Matrix – have chosen to tackle this issue, but no film has taken on the postmodern condition’s struggle with the legitimacy of knowledge to such success as Videodrome.

There are those that will gleefully enter Videodrome’s cognitive meat-grinder and return again and again, eager for another trip. For these individuals, that question – why am I watching this? – requires little thought. Videodrome is a veritable smorgasbord of imaginative and disturbing cinematic gore. Rick Baker’s practical effects make Videodrome so utterly re-watchable, and while he would not end up working with the director again, I believe his work here defines Cronenbergian body horror. In Max’s first visceral hallucination, Debbie Harry’s Nicki Brand begins addressing him onscreen from a broadcast of Videodrome. Soon, her lips take up the entire television, calling out to Max, who proceeds to press himself against the image, his entire head sinking into the pulsating static. This serves as a weirdly erotic visualisation of O’Blivion’s mantra – television is reality; reality is less than television. However, it does little to prepare the spectator for the hallucinatory mutations of reality and unreality that are soon to come: The TV grows a veiny, jaundiced epidermis, from which an extended arm gripping a pistol attempts to burst free; Max’s stomach transforms into a gaping, fleshy, monstrous vagina, into which can be placed living, pulsating video cassettes used to program his mind; Max’s hand bonds with a handgun – its pistol grip violently penetrates the flesh of his hand, as metallic veins extend from the gun and fuse with his muscle.

If indeed each of these horrific mutations are merely a hallucinatory product of Videodrome’s deviant broadcast, then perhaps the story of conspiracy, espionage and assassination into which Max enters is another illusory by-product. Does it matter? Faced with such a barrage of convoluted, contradictory and competing narrative, there is no way we can ever really know. And so, this is Videodrome’s real power and Cronenberg’s greatest achievement: The cinematic dissolution of knowledge; a grotesque literalisation of Lyotard’s postmodern condition.

“…We live in over-stimulated times…”

Martin Macnamara

 

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