Thursday, July 18, 2013
The Cronenberg Series Part 6: Love Comes in at the Eye
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.