Why modern political violence makes this cult classic required viewing
What if there existed video so malicious that it caused its viewers to hallucinate perils and commit inhumane acts of murder and violence? What would be the real-world ramifications of its existence? — And could you imagine how such virulent imagery would even look and sound?
In 1983, Sci-Fi Horror master David Cronenberg released his magnum opus VIDEODROME answering those disturbing questions and heralding the reality-bending nature of modern life dominated by mass media. Here’s how— *LIMITED SPOILERS AHEAD*
First off, it isn’t easy to sum up just what VIDEODROME is. This cult classic is many things– a technological body horror staple, a psychosexual thriller, and even by some, a cyberpunk touchstone. The story is about Max Renn (James Woods), a steely-eyed weirdo who runs a Toronto UHF TV station that broadcasts the lowest-grade smut that he can get his pirate hands on. A seemingly decent man nonetheless. From the first scene of the film to the very last, Max lives and breathes TV screens in constant search of meaning. Max’s initial problem is that he has grown numb to the usual perverted stuff he consumes and longs for video content of a “tougher” nature. Shady machinations begin to churn when he gets his wish in the form of a mysterious feed that features fetishistic torture and death– called “VIDEODROME.”
Watching the deviant footage has a profound effect on Max as it seems to quench his thirst for harder content for his business and as a gateway drug for his personal morbid and sexual curiosity. It becomes his instant obsession to track down the powerful media source while hyping its futuristic potential to his peers.
Max is our protagonist and our gateway into this film world, a small, dingy, and overcast Toronto. He represents the kind of person most susceptible to propaganda— A loner and possible sex addict with no “line” that he will not cross. Max is quite the anomaly in the early 1980s more than anything though because he has access to an unregulated network of highly stimulating questionable videos, and he lives for it. In the present day, this is commonplace.
The film’s most visionary lines come when he inquires about VIDEODROME from a wise smut-industry veteran and friend, Masha. She’s the only one in the movie who forewarns the sinister nature of Max’s discovery and insists the footage is unfit for broadcast, “[it’s] How can I say? More political than that… VIDEODROME. What you see on that show, it’s for real. It’s not acting. It’s snuff TV… it has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.” She adds worriedly that he should stay far away from the whole thing. Notably, Masha is the only character in the film with a definitive moral standing.
A philosophy inextricably tied with politics, Masha explains, is the difference in what makes VIDEODROME dangerous. The thriller element of the movie doesn’t bother with the specifics of this statement and it’s all the better for it.
Masha’s admonitory revelations fall on deaf ears and are proven true of course. Max had already been experiencing hallucinatory episodes and they only ramp up in sadomasochistic violence as he stumbles to the bottom of the mystery. Furthermore, his own body begins to morph—growing an infamous orifice and fusing a human-made weapon to itself. Ultimately, he does come face to face with the creators and subsequently finds himself caught in the middle of a messy divorce of dark socio-political interest groups vying to apply their posthuman philosophies on the world by way of VIDEODROME.
“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena — the VIDEODROME. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore the television screen 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.” Prof. Brian O’Blivion, an originator of VIDEODROME pontificates to Max Renn, announcing war and justifying superpowered propaganda meant to evolve the public into something greater together. A historically Left-wing authoritarian sentiment.
An agent from the opposition passionately delivers Max a slightly similar monologue. “North America’s getting soft… the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them. Now, you and this cesspool you call a television station and your people who wallow around in it, your viewers who watch you do it, they’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.” They also point to the existential international threat but refer to the population unto which VIDEODROME would be released as a weak “cesspool” to be wiped out for the puritanical benefit of the region. A more Right-wing fascistic statement.
The competing shadow factions take their turns literally feeding Max information just the same (with exceptional practical effects) and brainwashing him into playing an assassin. Whether the much-lauded war is even REAL in the first place is left on no specific terms. The entire concept of reality itself is continuously toyed with during the sleek 89-minute runtime. We experience screens within dreams, visions within screens within a distorted reality, and characters who defy physics and death– and it all ends on a radical existential shift in perception from our protagonist, in front of a TV set.
A cynical quote from Prof. Brian O’Blivion seemingly rings true as the credits roll, “After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there? You can see that can’t you?”
There are many interpretations to this seminal Cronenberg movie. Still, I believe that it works most effectively as a cautionary tale that mirrors something that my stoney Video Prod teacher taught me on the first day of high school. Referencing a recent news media story about a heinous criminal act, he asked us if the suspect was guilty. We gave a unified “Yes”, to which he asked “How can you really know if you weren’t there?”. I never forgot that lesson—Never blindly accept a secondhand piece of information because it has been inherently refracted. I say refracted because lenses are subtly incorporated into the story of VIDEODROME as symbolic elements that reinforce this perceptual phenomenon through features such as dirty windows, spectacles, and even a headpiece that resembles a modern-day VR device.
So what exactly makes this cerebral romp such a must-watch now?
VIDEODROME is real and it has devastating real-world effects
The best Sci-Fi and horror classics stand the test of time because the fear of the unknown is fascinatingly primal and viscerally REAL. At its core, the titular VIDEODROME is audio/visual information that can change a person’s perception of reality and eventually themselves into a murderous programmable robot ripe for socio-political application by shadowy parties. This is news media in the new millennium.
Equating freaky snuff films to news media may seem like a stretch at first, but think— where is it that you’ve seen footage of people dying before? Possibly accidentally scrolling through social media, and probably on the news. It’s no mere coincidence that S&M plays as a visual motif linked with VIDEODROME as well. The pain and pleasure that comes with a particularly nasty hit of macabre news is a thrill unlike anything else, and it translates into good network ratings numbers. More importantly, it presents an emotional reason to stick around for the aftercare and soothing words. Comedian Bill Maher dubbed the current mass media-backed fear campaign as “Covid Porn.” Repressed addicts beware.
The 2020s, more explosively than any other time is the era of digital information warfare in North America. Cultural upheaval ignited numerous flashpoints throughout 2020 with recorded deaths at the hands of people who span the political extremes. In Portland, Michael Reinoehl, a self-proclaimed Far-Leftist coldly stalked and assassinated a perceived Right-wing political enemy. A visual that played out over several different cameras. In the beginning of 2021, an online conspiracy-bound group Qanon coalesced to the public as a Right-wing uprising poised to wretch the reins of democracy by force– a failed attempt that resulted in several deaths and could have been much worse. Both instances were fueled by corporate VIDEODROME in their own way. These extremists are the Max Renns of the world.
A media this powerful is inevitably seized for use by elites. Though we can see that only a select few would willingly subject themselves to the deathly footage, it begs the question– how many other susceptible people are there living amongst us, and how do we prevent political violence from happening? In a world of house-arrested people whose primary window to the world is in their hand and not on the walls, the answer is unclear.
The Edelman Trust Barometer has measured American confidence in leaders and media for 21 years, and the most recent example found that, for the first time, the majority (56%) of Americans either believe that journalists either lie or greatly exaggerate their stories to pursue an established narrative. The historic low confidence numbers give some hope that the mainstreaming of addictive yet nutritionally bankrupt content is naturally resisted by most. But as the most trustworthy person in VIDEODROME advises, it’s best to stay away altogether. This would mean talking face-to-face with actual people again to get a more natural sense of perception beyond one’s limits. Whether we will rectify our VIDEODROME problem or not is as ambiguous as the ending that Cronenberg essentially improvised for his masterpiece.
Truths often come on cue when an artist strikes sparks on something as universally poignant as questioning the nature of reality, and I don’t believe it happens on purpose. Those objective truths hold, even when coming from a nonsensical B-movie plot. But would they hold true if the medium and its information were to be purged from existence? Say, for the safety of the public?
Long live the new normal.
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