“You’re so analytical,” says William Hurt’s character in THE BIG CHILL. “Sometimes you have to let art flow over you.”
Case in point: VIDEODROME.
I understand the plot. Max Renn works for a Toronto TV station. You know it’s Canada because when the characters talk of domination by a world-controlling New Flesh guru they don’t say he might control all of Canada (“Who cares?” snort, drinks beer), but that he might control all of North America (“That might interfere with the Superbowl. OK, how do we kill this guy?”). Videodrome is a TV show of just violence, no plot, no characters, and in seeking the source of it (Spoiler, it’s the weird guy we saw on the TV set), Max begins hallucinating violent thoughts. The TV guy reminds me of the Architect in the TV room at the end of the first bad MATRIX sequel. Then we learn that there are two factions battling for control of what Videodrome can do. Max becomes a walking weapon able to be programmed. He is being transformed, not so completely as Jeff Goldblum in Cronenberg’s THE FLY, but gradually, through his mind. But as with Brundlefly, Max’s transformation goes down a one-way street.
I know: Cronenberg movies aren’t about plot. They’re about witnessing transformation. Of course, you could say the same about any movie.
I’m always mesmerized by VIDEODROME until the dude with the big teeth in the optical shop shows up. I have a low tolerance for Is It A Dream, Or Is It An Illusion, I Mean Reality? stuff. Movie makers who play such games don’t impress me as being intellectuals because such games are by their nature pointless, actually mock the idea of the movie having a point. (INCEPTION was bullshit, sorry to tell you.) (But I like FIGHT CLUB, so go figure.) The mechanics of the Church of Boob Tube-ology (my name) vs. Big Teeth Fascist Guy (my name) seem kind of clunky beside the scene of James Woods making out with his T.V. set. From that point on, the movie is like a pulpier SCANNERS until Max hides out in a rusting tug, where he meets his destiny. Maybe.
VIDEODROME is Cronenberg’s ultimate expression of his body horror/mind game inclinations, even though THE FLY, M. BUTTERFLY and DEAD RINGERS were in his future. It’s a companion piece to NAKED LUNCH, both of them movies in which Cronenberg had larger canvases on which to splatter his weirdness. After these two and THE FLY, where did he have to go with his obsession with transforming flesh?
Due to the need to get things moving while tax shelter cash was plentiful, Cronenberg was writing the screenplay while filming was going on, so I don’t feel like a total dope when I say I think the twists and turns of the script are less planned than some might assume. I’m not complaining that the movie isn’t locked off in a three-act structure — just the opposite. Once Max starts hallucinating and starts battling the way exposure to the Videodrome death ray is messing with his head, the movie is that rare horror/sf flick to really follow ‘dream logic.’ Max is trapped in a tumor-induced new reality, very different from the tumor-induced visions of Johnny Smith in THE DEAD ZONE. Max is both poisoned and liberated by the melting of his brain by Brian O’Blivion’s TV eye — he is heading toward his destruction, but his search for something beyond mere reality TV torture shows is exhilarating. Pulling guns out of his gut, “hand” grenades, whipping an undulating TV set, the eye glass guy exploding in the throes of combustible cancer — the hell does it all mean? What’s it saying about television? (The multiple mentions of MTV on the Criterion disc’s commentaries are almost cute. Who the hell watches MTV for videos anymore?)
James Woods is very good in a role he’s perfect for, projecting intelligence, aggression and sleaziness. In his DVD commentary he links the movie to Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? That makes sense, especially the Mercerism and mood organ material ignored in BLADE RUNNER. I’d forgotten how quickly he and Debbie Harry hop in the sack, and her character’s unapologetic kinkiness; would these characters be allowed in today’s cinema? Sex on the first date, sure, but our first sight of her on the date is when she’s rummaging through his tapes looking for porn.
Rick Baker’s effects (there’s barely what you’d call make-up) are still effective, even though the breathing TV set looks like it’s made of plastic. Mark Irwin’s photography is the best of his Cronenberg films, especially in the darkness of Max’s apartment. Howard Shore’s rumbling score is even better than his fine one for SCANNERS.
The ending of VIDEODROME is one of Cronenberg’s finest, if not the most satisfying dramatically, even with the What-Is-Real? angle. Max Renn has no place to go, so he ends up on a rusty old tug, sitting on a squatter’s old mattress, his mind gone over to Videodrome decay. He’s sitting in the dark, staring at a television set that isn’t really there, alone, and he puts a gun to his head and shoots. Having seen this on TV, he repeats it in ‘real’ life, precisely.
I’m not completely sure what it all means, but it feels right, which is what matters in dream logic.
VIDEODROME is an original vision that isn’t particularly hard to follow, or analyze. Once you hook into what Cronenberg feels and how he expresses it visually, the suspense devices of the whole civil war between the Brian O’Blivion and Videodrome factions are a bit of a disappointment. Imagine if Cronenberg made the movie today, with a Nolan-sized budget? Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have Nolan’s ambitions for sets and effects, but it’s intriguing to think about what he might do. It’s gratifying to realize that it’s not insane to think that someone like Cronenberg could get this sort of thing financed today. I just don’t know if there is a director out there capable of writing and directing a horror/sci-fi screenplay that doesn’t rely on effects but uses them as tools to tell a story that says something critical about the visual media.