Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 6: Love Comes in at the Eye

In 1982, the Canadian tax shelter producer-types with whom David Cronenberg then worked told him that, since the money was there, and since Scanners had been successful, they wanted him to get started on his next film, and so Cronenberg got to work. It seems strange that such a business-like pragmatism should have led to Videodrome, but here we are, and anyway this is how professional filmmaking works, more or less. But as the filmmaker says in both David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg and Chris Rodley's Cronenberg on Cronenberg, when he sat down to write the script he only had a general sense of what it would become, with various topics of interest, having to do with media and violence and video and so forth, colliding unexpectedly to shape one of the strangest, darkest, and wildest films of his career. Videodrome is often cited as Cronenberg's masterpiece, a stance I take issue with only on the grounds that by my count he's made more than one of those, and some of those I prefer to this, but nevertheless it must count as his boldest signature. It would also be, and I don't know if this means anything or not, the last purely original script he would write until eXistenZ, seventeen years later. In any case, he dumped a great deal of his imagination into this 88-minute film.

Which is maybe as good a place to start as any, and if not, too bad, because Videodrome is a tough one to get rolling on. But it's lean, is my point. Cronenberg has yet to make a film that anyone could reasonable argue was bloated, but dense and complex as Videodrome, only his first professional feature, Shivers, is shorter, and that only by a minute. Cronenberg talks often about how ruthless he is in the editing room, to the point that the version of Videodrome that was shown at its one and only, and nearly catastrophic, test screening was only 73 or 75 minutes long (accounts vary) -- in order for the picture to make any sense at all he had to puff it up to 88, which you kind of get the sense was as long as he could stomach. This is interesting for a couple of reasons I've already touched on, more than once each probably, such as Cronenberg proving yet again not only how much content, incident, and imagination you can pack into a relatively brief running time, and how even here, with his first film since Stereo that could be slotted into the "art film" category should one be so inclined to do so, though one wouldn't necessarily be so inclined, his early genre and exploitation...not roots, because those aren't Cronenberg's roots, but his only somewhat ironic inclinations bust through. I say "ironic" because Cronenberg's aesthetic education and interests didn't really build out that world -- in the Grunberg book, he talks about leaving science fiction behind in his childhood, as so many do, and only partly returned to it as an adult due to a new interest in writers like Philip K. Dick. But I say "somewhat" because in his horror and science fiction films, you never catch him winking or implying that we all know how ridiculous this stuff is. The closest he's ever come to that is when Shivers was originally called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, a title he bagged precisely because he realized that title turned his whole movie into a joke. During the years when he was making the horror and SF films that have defined him, despite the fact that these account for only about half of his career, Cronenberg made genre films in much the same way that novelist Richard Price has quietly been writing the best modern crime novels, certainly in the US, and quite possibly in the world, which is to say both men understand that these genres can be used -- and Price has said this -- to do pretty much any goddamn thing you feel like doing. So Videodrome is only 88 minutes long, is what I'm getting at.
And once again, like Scanners, Videodrome has a classic genre plot structure. Max Renn (James Woods) runs a small Canadian cable TV station that specializes in soft-core pornography and violence. He's opportunistic, smart, fast-talking, glib, all the kinds of things you might associate with a character played by James Woods, but also possibly more ambivalent about his job than he lets on, to others and to himself. He successfully tamps down on this ambivalence most times, and seems intent on obliterating it when one night he's checking in with Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), the cable airwaves pirate who works for him, and Harlan shows him footage from a mysterious signal he picked up. The footage consists of a nude woman chained to a wall in a large red room, being savagely whipped by a man in a mask. Harlan tells Max that that's all this programming is -- a series of people being stripped and tortured. There's no plot or anything. The show, or the programming, is called Videodrome. Believing, or convincing himself that this stuff is fake, Max also thinks it's thoroughly compelling and the next big step in sleaze. So he goes about trying to track the signal to its source -- Harlan says it's somewhere in Pittsburgh. And in its barest terms, that's Videodrome, another in a long line of stories, typically horror stories, that feature a character stumbling on some kind of art object -- and it can be anything, a film, a painting, a photograph, a book -- that is mysterious and dark, unpleasant and genuinely dangerous, yet so hypnotic in its queasy way that the hero must trace its origin. Usually by finding the artist, which isn't really the case here, since Renn isn't interested in art, and never thinks of Videodrome that way, but regardless Videodrome the film uses a classic plot, one which, I might as well tell you, is absolute catnip to me. Nothing even vaguely interesting will come from that revelation, by the way, I just thought I'd tell you that I like this kind of thing a whole lot.

Before any of the detective work gets going, Renn appears as a guest on a talk show to defend his broadcasting philosophy against claims that his brand of sex and violence can have an adverse effect on viewers. Set up as a counterpoint to Renn is Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), the host of a radio show on which she helps her listeners through troubled times and whatnot. Very quickly, Renn and Brand become an item, and it's soon revealed that her taste for extreme violence and transgressive sex, which she doesn't exactly hide, so outpaces Renn's own that you have to wonder how her anti-Max Renn stance could have played out, had things gone that way. We don't even know enough about her to think of her as a hypocrite. But things don't go that way, and Renn shows Brand tapes of Videodrome, and tells her that the signal comes from Pittsburgh. She decides she was made for that show, and promptly skips off to Pennsylvania to see if she can get in. Meanwhile, Renn is beginning to hallucinate -- during sex with Brand, his apartment transforms into the Videodrome's torture room, a videotape seems to bulge and breathe in his hands, and he thinks he's beating his secretary when in fact he's doing no such thing.
Good gravy, is this thing hard to summarize. I haven't even gotten to the meat of it, though by way of doing that perhaps I'll note that in his interview about Videodrome with Cronenberg, Serge Grunberg asks this question:

Wouldn't it be your desire to, say, open a third dimension in cinema? I'm thinking of the hand penetrating the stomach of James Woods in Videodrome. I know image is not the ultimate thing for you, but this...

Whoa, whoa, hold it right there. Cronenberg immediately says that image is very important to him, but I hardly think he needed to bother. What do we remember most about Cronenberg's films if not the imagery? I could begin listing examples, but where would it end? Cronenberg's bizarre imagery, at least in the first half of his career, is how he illustrates pretty much every idea or emotion he's trying to get out there. If it's the ideas we take away from Cronenberg, they're inseperable from the imagery. Even if Grunberg is talking about composition -- and he doesn't seem to be -- "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," as Scorsese said, and so good film or bad film, what the viewer sees is always composition, so from that angle it's 95% of what a director actually does. In any case, in the Rodley book, Cronenberg ties Nicki Brand and that imagery and the film's very plot and counterintuitive philosophy together when he says:

If you're going to do art, you have to explore certain aspects of your life without regard to a political position or stance. With Videodrome I wanted to posit the possibility that a man exposed to violent imagery would begin to hallucinate. I wanted to see what it would be like, in fact, if what the censors were saying would happen, did happen. What would it feel like? What would it lead to?

That's only part of what Cronenberg, an artist who is fiercely anti-censorship, is doing here, as the unfolding plot lets us know, but it's still a very serious element. Eventually, the plot of Videodrome will include characters like Brian O'Blivion (Jeck Creley), a quasi stand-in for Marshall McLuhan, a prophet both for and against what would then have been new media, who helped develop Videodrome and acquired a tumor for his efforts, and Barry Convex (a terrific Les Carlson), an eyeglass manufacturer (no points for subtlety there) and developer of weapons for NATO. Of which Videodrome is one. This twist would seem to remove Videodrome from the curious situation it seems to hold as a graphically violent and sexual pro-censorship nightmare, but the fact remains that however deliberate the effects of Videodrome on its viewers, as plotted out by Convex, the gist is still that watching this shit will fuck up your head. The only difference is that Convex and his people know that already, and are just using it. I've spoiled a bit of the film already, so I might as well spoil more. Look what becomes of Renn once Videodrome really takes hold of his mind: he becomes, possibly, a sex killer (that one may not have happened, but the uncertainty of it doesn't weaken the point), a man who walks into his office and opens fire on his coworkers, and a political assassin. All of these monstrous acts, when they occur in real life, have been attributed at one time or another to extreme violence and sexuality in TV and movies. Renn is quite literally driven by voices in his head and images from television to carry out these horrors. It's quite possible to be anti-censorship and wonder where it will all end.
Then again, if O'Blivion resembles McLuhan in some ways, and if O'Blivion is Videodrome's mad, diseased, dead voice of, not reason, but anyway philosophical urgency, then what's happening on screen is less important than the screen itself. Or the video. Barry Convex doesn’t shove a violent movie into the gaping slit that has opened up in Renn’s stomach (a hallucination, one among many, that becomes real); he shoves in a videotape. Of course, Renn has already stuck a gun in there, so there’s a good mix of everything, I suppose. It’s quite possibly a fool’s errand to try to make sense of everything, every bit of grotesque insanity on display in Videodrome, or indeed in any of Cronenberg’s films, but while my knowledge of McLuhan is scant, to say the least, my understanding is that the very shallowest baseline point of the work that made him so famous in the 1960s and 70s, is that the danger of new media is less the thing itself than it is the way people roll along with it and offer up barely a single question. So that in Videodrome you have the slit in Renn’s stomach, which comes from Videodrome, the broadcast. And you have the gun, which Renn already owned for protection and in a fleeting bit of physical comedy shows us he’s not very adept with. And so you have the gun, and Renn sees the slit open up, and without even a though he sticks the gun in the slit. There’s no question in his mind that this is what is to be done.

Rick Baker’s special effects, by the way, are outstanding – they’re still outstanding, I mean. It’s not so much that you can’t see the latex seams, as you can see them but you still can’t quite figure out how those seams can lead to a given image, as a whole. And there’s lots of it, from the stomach slits to elastic TV screens to a man’s body completely ripping open because…why did that happen to that person (and did it happen, though my vote on that one is an enthusiastic and confident “Yes”)? I’d say because, and not to sound glib, his body was full of tiny little videodromes who no longer needed their host body. So it’s Cronenberg and parasites again, except this time the parasites are malignant tumors. Potato, potato. Carcinogen, instead of infection (or invasion, maybe). The point is, it will ruin you, and part of that ruination will involve you doing terrible things.
On the level of the medium itself – which is the message, I’m told – you have the freedom of video, or the “freedom of the image,” as Cronenberg puts it. He supports this, and the context of that phrase comes from a section in Rodley’s book where Cronenberg is talking about how censors, with the advent of video technology, had begun entering people’s homes. But it’s a videotape that Convex crams into Renn’s belly. Like Shivers, the beliefs and philosophies that Cronenberg holds as a human being appear to be at odds with what is actually on screen, though unlike with Shivers he has allowed for this, claiming it as a necessity when creating art. It takes some digging, but this could be the source of Videodrome’s fascination, and its reputation as the best of Cronenberg’s career. And it is a pretty terrific movie. The film had studio backing, and as such functions pretty much as an American film, which, Cronenberg notes, opened up the pool of actors available to him (the Canadian film industry has certain requirements that limit those options), and the presence of James Woods blows open the potential of Cronenberg’s career. While Deborah Harry is, you know, a singer, she’s not really in it much, and so Woods is free to take the considerable weight of Videodrome upon himself. There’s a certain kind of actor that is full of a restless energy that often, eventually, as they get older, transforms for whatever reason into flamboyance, but when they’re younger is invigorating and compelling. James Woods is this kind of actor, and Videodrome is pre-flamboyance. At this point, he could appear just as easily as a leading man as he could someone who was sleazy, dangerous, and possibly psychotic. Which is good, because he has to do all of that in Videodrome. Though Cronenberg had worked with many good, even great, actors before this – John Saxon, Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggert, Barbara Steele, Patrick MacGoohan, plus I’ll stand up for Art Hindle’s lead performance in The Brood, something I might have considered doing when I wrote about that film – with James Woods, he finally had the lead actor he deserved.

All of which, I’d say, helps Videodrome not just in the obvious ways, but also to transcend a vague feeling I have that buried in its heart, the one formed by McLuhan and man’s relationship with technology, the film contains at least a little bit of nonsense. It would be a bad idea to now attempt to argue against McLuhan, and Cronenberg’s take on him, so soon after I’ve accurately pointed out that I know very little about the man, but from what I’ve picked up over the years, McLuhan strikes me as having an academic’s view of the world, which is the kind of thing that tends to melt once the rain hits it. There’s some of that in Videodrome, too. But even so, a couple months back I remember seeing an internet headline, this for one of the internet’s inexhaustible supply of nothing stories, about a guy at a baseball game who had been caught on camera, from a distance, being mean, or something, to his girlfriend (or something?). On the scale of these sorts of things that we have nowadays, this story is absolutely not even a drop in the bucket, and, probably because I’m such a good person, I never clicked on the story, so I don’t know what he supposedly did, or if the footage came from a network camera or the phone of a regular joe, but I do remember thinking that this guy may have had a bad day, or done a stupid thing that was otherwise out of character, but whatever the case now it was on video, and now we can do whatever we want with him. Now, you may ask me in what sense does this directly apply to Cronenberg’s film, and it’s possible that you just may have me there. But all I can think about is something Brian O’Blivion says about the strange disease infecting him, and that might soon infect us all, which is that when they removed his tumor, it was called Videodrome.


John Magwitch said...

I wanted to see what it would be like, in fact, if what the censors were saying would happen, did happen. What would it feel like? What would it lead to?

That's a great quote, in particular, and I figure pretty essential to any attempt to draw meaning or (...ugh...) a message from this movie.

I don't think Cronenberg is concerned here with, as you put it, "where it will all end" or, on the other hand, with pushing an anti-censorship agenda, so much as in sending up the puritanical hysteria and the hollow academic pontificating of the various breeds of self-appointed media critics, essentially by bringing their worst nightmares to life.

In Videodrome we finally have a new medium that truly alters the mind and, ultimately, reality, not merely as some dry, theoretical conceit, but in the most literal and tangible ways. And now, yes, the world of TV & video really does have an apocalyptic potential for wreaking unlimited havoc on not just society but the very fabric of reality, and no amount of moral posturing and academic prattle is gonna be able to stop it.

Taidan said...

Great essay. Long live the new flesh!

bill r. said...

Thanks, guys. And John, I don't think I agree that Cronenberg is "sending up" anything. While he doesn't believe that censors are correct by any stretch, I think that element of VIDEODROME is an essentially sincere "what if" kind of approach. Which is maybe a tough stance for me to defend, given that he's also certainly not saying "This could literally happen!" but I just don't think satire is on his agenda here.

Noumenon said...

" academic’s view of the world, which is the kind of thing that tends to melt once the rain hits it"

For some reason, that line is going to stay with me. The time is coming when our movies and books will be prefaced with blog quotes (if they aren't already) rather than beats from mere high literature. Yours has that in its future.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Nou. I not only appreciate the very flattering compliment, but also your wide-eyed optimism.