The New Cathode Ray Mission: Videodrome 40 Years Later

In one of the earliest scenes of what many consider to be David Cronenberg’s magnum opus, 1983’s Videodrome, Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a masochistic, titillating talk show host has this to say during a TV interview –

“I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gouge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional, or sexual. And I think that’s bad.”

This is one of many lines that strikes me as an uncanny prophecy, and even more applicable to modern-day than to when it was released. How could Cronenberg have predicted TikTok, YouTube shorts, or even Twitter? Websites with algorithms designed to not only draw visitors in, but keep them there, swiping for more content, auto-playing videos, and generating ad revenue. Consuming solely for the sake of consumption, or as Nikki Brand puts it, “craving stimulation for its own sake.” Cronenberg doesn’t strike me as a director keen on trying to be purposefully ahead of the curve or forward-thinking, yet his films, both past and present, seem to only prove more current as time goes on. Funny how certain artists manage to do that.

To imply what the seminal Canadian auteur has done is largely accidental would be more than insulting however, as Cronenberg has proved time and time again that he is capable of pumping out a variety of works, ranging from celebrated horror classics to riveting drama/thriller films. Still, Videodrome occupies a special place the Cronenberg filmography. It sits nicely between his streamlined, more narrative-driven films like The Fly, or Scanners, and his more subtextual, impenetrable films like Crash (my favorite of his works), or even his latest effort, the heady but revelatory Crimes of the Future. Many filmmakers dream of having a body of work as solid as his, and it’s not hard to see why.

Still, despite the seemingly larger-than-life feeling his works entail, Videodrome feels oddly cozy and relatable in parts. Are you the type that likes to have some background noise when you go to bed? Max Renn (James Woods), the underground, sleaze-TV savant, would relate, as he falls asleep to TV programming, and has personal morning tapes made for himself entailing the duties of his day ahead. Are you a hardcore exploitation film fan, sick of the shiny, safe, veneer of Marvel films and Disney-produced blockbusters? Max would be too, as he’s always craving something more daring, more boundary-pushing, and less soft. He hates fragility, and idolizes toughness, or at least what he perceives it to be.

Videodrome

The beginning third of the film where we get this character shading is especially interesting considering how grounded and plausible it starts. When Max and one of his cohorts, Harlen, (Peter Dvorsky) first intercept a broadcast of the titular program, there is no heightening of the material to ease its blow. What you see, and Max’s response to its content, are meant to shock and disgust you. As Harlen states, the fictional show is “a real sicko. For perverts only.” Max later describes it perfectly to Nikki Brand. “It’s just torture and murder, no plot, no characters, very realistic.”

Watching this scene for the first time and learning what the in-universe program is supposed to be, I couldn’t help but think of a certain strain of films. Films that, while they didn’t quite exist back then, now exist purely to emulate what Max is describing. Movies like the August Underground Trilogy, the J-horror Guinea Pig series, or even the films of the controversial, self-coined “vomit gore” director, Lucifer Valentine. These are films that, in my humble opinion, dear reader, fit this description to a tee. Films with little to no plot, substance, or characters, and made solely to be as gritty and realistic as possible.

If it wasn’t clear, I am in no way a fan of these films, nor am I here to put down the people who are. But the similarities between them and the fictional Videodrome do strike me as again, uncanny, at least until the truth behind the program is revealed later in the film. The film asks the same questions that many today would ask of the films I compared it to. Is it immoral for content like this to be made and consumed? How should we feel about the ones who enjoy it? Are those consumers the dirty underbelly of society that we’re to quietly exterminate, or are the subversive contents of these works important and worth examining? You do get a very specific image of the type of person who would enjoy the fictional Videodrome after all, and it’s not a particularly savory one.

This is why Nikki Brand works as a perfect subversion of what we expect this caricature to be like, and why her character is essential to what we take away from the film. She is attractive, successful, and smart, yet is allured and enamored by Videodrome. When she goes with Max back to his place, one of her first lines is “Got any porno?”. While Max plays the Videodrome tape for her, she says it turns her on and asks if Max can get a clearer picture of the program. Ultimately, her interest in Videodrome directly leads to her death at the hands of it, the horrific details of which we’re thankfully spared from, but can easily imagine. Yet, despite us having no reasons to dislike her otherwise, we ask ourselves, did she deserve this? Is she morally tainted for seeking out this content?

The film itself gives no concrete answers to these questions, and if that frustrates you or makes it hard to engage with the material, I would say this; Cronenberg respects you, the audience, far too much to spoonfeed you any one message or tell you what you’re supposed to think. He simply aims to make you think period. As he would say, “My films aren’t meant to entertain you, you’re meant to entertain them.” This to me represents the utmost respect and thoughtfulness as an artist, and instead of being frustrated by it, we should aim to understand and penetrate our discomfort so that we can find a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Most of us don’t believe we have the capacity the actualize the atrocities we might see on screen, to find ourselves in our very own Videodrome room. But only a select few will ask themselves that question sincerely enough to find a concrete answer, and even fewer will find some kind of solace in what they do find.

Videodrome

Eventually, after the film opens up and reveals itself fully, we get more of what we expect from Cronenberg. His slimy, spoiled, surreal bread-and-butter. We’re barraged with inconclusive, but thoughtful ideas and imagery. Scenes you can’t fully explain or comprehend, in scenarios that at best feel dreamlike, or at worst are living nightmares. He’s a director that understands that not everyone will be on board with what he’s doing, and instead of letting that be a thorn in his side, he uses that to make his films fully embody his vision. If you want to turn a square off from Cronenberg, have someone walk in the room as Max Renn’s chest vagina is both metaphorically and literally fucked by the Videodrome tape, it will more than do the trick.

Honestly, it’s hard to get into everything that makes Videodrome such a success. To rapid fire off a few more themes and ideas that have stuck with me – I love how Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits) and her “Cathode Ray Mission” elevate literal, biological, consumption, and metaphorical, entertainment-based consumption, to the same level. It is melding the consumption of both body and mind into one, essential need. I love how in Videodrome, the stimulus we engage ourselves in are just as alive and real as we are. When Max is whipping the television version of Nikki in the Videodrome room, at first he’s hesitant, but as he gives into his urges more and more, he gets lost in the violence and is completely engrossed by it. Eventually, Max is a helpless perpetrator of violence, the gun being physically connected to his person. All this is the work of his mind and body being tainted by Videodrome, fostered by his own curiosity. The thematic elements, script, character acting, score, direction, everything just comes together to make a truly special piece of art that resonates now more than it ever has, and maybe that’s why it feels so nebulous but sure of itself at the same time.

Just as Max Renn is held hostage by his Videodrome, our world is too held hostage by our own new version. Black mirrors act as the face of tiny computers in our pockets. We browse multi-billion dollar websites where we create screen names, pick funny little avatars, and contribute drops of water into an ocean’s worth of data. In this ocean, we swim alongside family, friends, and strangers, trying to stay afloat and make our voices heard in an advertisement-polluted, impersonal sludge that we desperately try to pull meaning out of. Scarier than any horror flick is the fact that this is our new flesh, this is our cathode ray tube. The soft glow and gentle buzz of our analog past, replaced by the cold, still, darkness of the digital age, right before our very eyes. Even scarier still is the fact that we must all reconcile with this fact, and learn to cope with our new realities ourselves, for better or worse. Our shared new world, our shared new flesh, is going nowhere; long live the new flesh, and long live Videodrome.

YouTube video

Check out VideoDrome on Amazon for the ultimate 4K version.