Videodrome tells the story of Max Renn (Woods), the sleazy programmer of a soft-core television channel who discovers a mysterious signal broadcasting a snuff TV show called ‘Videodrome’. Increasingly obsessed with tracing the source of the rogue signal, Max crosses paths with media philosophy guru, Professor Brian O’Blivion (Creley) and his daughter Bianca (Smits). After a series of strange encounters and unsettling visions, he learns that ‘Videodrome’ is transmitted via a frequency that induces malignant tumours in the brain, which in turn cause vivid hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality. The film’s ambiguous ending imagines a violent and visceral takeover of technology by ‘the New Flesh’. The question of what this ‘New Flesh’ might be is at the heart of the film’s philosophical investigations into the influence and effects of media forms.
Although Videodrome was considered a critical and commercial failure upon its initial release in 1983, the film has since become a cult classic. There are many factors to consider when evaluating how Videodrome has achieved this status. From the perspective of debates in genre and auteur studies, it is often cited as the quintessential example of director David Cronenberg’s distinctive philosophical approach to the body-horror genre. From a star studies approach, Deborah Harry’s star turn as Max Renn’s masochistic love interest, Nicki Brand, played a major role in consolidating the film’s cult status. However, the film’s sphere of influence extends far beyond considerations of stardom, authorship and genre. Videodrome’s prescient account of the role of media technologies in contemporary Western societies has influenced a number of other debates, including discussions about screen violence, censorship, and media effects and postmodernity. Finally, Videodrome raises important questions about gender and sexuality and, like Cronenberg’s work more generally, has tended to divide critical opinion when it comes to its implications for feminism.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, Cronenberg’s early work has come to embody the conventions of the body-horror genre, in which horror is derived from gory depictions of the human body’s monstrous mutability. Cronenberg’s early films, Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979), use bodies in this way as the main motor for horror, as they become unwitting hosts to gruesome plagues, parasites, psychoses, and other aberrations. In keeping with these concerns, Videodrome focuses on the monstrous capacities of the human body, as Max Renn’s physique begins to mutate in highly disturbing ways. In the film’s most famous sequence, achieved in collaboration with renowned special effects artist Rick Baker, Max develops a lurid, vagina-like opening in his torso, to which he responds with equal parts disbelief, horror, and tentative fascination. With its emphasis on Max’s grotesque bodily transformations, Videodrome can be seen as a natural extension of Cronenberg’s early career in exploitation filmmaking.
However, Videodrome also anticipates the new, overtly philosophical turn that characterises Cronenberg’s later work. More explicitly than his previous films, Videodrome is concerned with thinking through the terms of embodiment, and can be seen to offer a critique of Cartesian mind–body dualism, a philosophical tenet that holds that the mind is separate from the body.1 Videodrome explicitly plays with and subverts this idea by presenting Max’s body as possessing an agency of its own, as it begins to actively anticipate his needs. For instance, towards the end of the film, Max’s hand morphs into a slimy and tentacled appendage fused with metal to form a pistol that allows him to defend himself against his foes. Later, the slit in his chest becomes another weapon of sorts, as it mutilates his opponent’s hand. While, on one level, we are invited to write off these bodily mutations either as hallucinations or as an extension of a conspiracy subplot, Max’s predicament gestures towards an understanding of human embodiment that is at the heart of Cronenberg’s authorial vision. This vision is summed up in the film’s evocation of ‘the New Flesh’. While the question of what this ‘New Flesh’ might be remains ambiguous, it clearly involves an overturning of clear divisions and hierarchies between mind and body, human and technology, male and female, and a tentative embrace of the new image of humanity that such a levelling of binaries might presage. Cronenberg has commented that ‘the most accessible version of the “New Flesh” in Videodrome would be that you can actually change what it means to be a human being in a physical way. We are physically different from our forefathers, partly because of what we take into our bodies, and partly because of things like glasses and surgery. But there is a further step that could happen, which would be that you could grow another arm, that you could actually physically change the way you look – mutate’. 2 Videodrome’s enigmatic ending, in which Max holds a gun to his head and utters, ‘Long live the New Flesh’, suggests that this ‘further step’ will involve a retreat from the physical world and a reincarnation as pure electronic presence in the video arena. But the film’s abrupt ending and ambiguous tone make it difficult to know how we are meant to interpret this brave new world. Does the ‘New Flesh’ presage a bold evolutionary leap forward for mankind? Or is it a nihilistic ending, refusing any kind of transcendence? And what are we to make of this promise of a disembodied future, given the film’s emphasis throughout on the visceral and the corporeal against the cerebral and the immaterial?3
Videodrome directs such questions toward a wideranging analysis of media technology and censorship in contemporary society. Through its basic plotline about the deadly effects of exposure to the Videodrome signal, the film stages a series of questions about the influence and effects of media, which have important corollaries within the context of the film’s release. Fears about the effects of media content had been raging in several North American and European contexts, due to the expansion of new communications technologies in the 1970s and 1980s. Notable examples include the approval of pay cable television by the CRTC in Canada in 1982 and the widespread availability of domestic VCRs across America and Europe by the mid-1980s. In Britain, the film seemed oddly prophetic in the context of the ‘video nasties’ debates in 1985, which concerned the need to impose restrictions on graphic films that were readily available for home viewing on videocassette.4 Videodrome’s central conceit, in which ‘video itself becomes the monster’, seemed to capitalise on this burgeoning cultural fear about the effects of these new technologies.5 The film plays out these concerns in a typically hyperbolic fashion, as Max is drawn into a right-wing, moralistic conspiracy led by Spectacular Optical to rid North America of spectators of such morally corrupting images. Professor Brian O’Blivion and his daughter Bianca are representatives of a more progressive vision for the media, which includes a ‘Cathode Ray Mission’ that serves up TV to the disenfranchised and Videodrome (1983) 575 homeless as a means of patching them back into ‘the world’s mixing board’. As Professor O’Blivion tells Max at one point, ‘the battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena – the videodrome’. Brian O’Blivion serves as a thinly veiled alter-ego of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose expression ‘the medium is the message’ forms the basis of the film’s critique of media censorship. In keeping with this dictum, it is significant that the malignant tumours that Max develops are induced through exposure to the signal itself, irrespective of what is actually depicted on the sadistic show. Far from suggesting the utility of social controls and moral limits, Cronenberg’s dystopian vision suggests that it is the medium’s relation to disciplinary structures, and its ability to be manipulated by those in power, which makes it dangerous.
Videodrome has likewise been taken up as a classic text within debates about postmodernism. The film makes explicit reference to postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord and Marshall McLuhan. These theories were relatively new at the time of the film’s release, but had become highly fashionable by the late 1980s and early 1990s. This burgeoning interest in postmodernity helped to secure the film’s reputation belatedly as a cult classic, as scholars began to turn their attention to the film’s iterations of postmodern themes. Key from this perspective is the way that the film engages with concepts such as simulacrum and simulation, the increasing virtualisation and disappearance of the real through communications technologies, and the steady breakdown between objective reality and subjective perception. Max’s exposure to the Videodrome signal leaves him unable to tell the difference between reality and his own hallucinations. The opening in his stomach leaves him vulnerable to external manipulation and overt control, as he in effect is ‘transformed into a human video machine’ and is programmed and reprogrammed to carry out the bidding of different factions.6 As several commentators have pointed out, Max’s situation closely resembles that of the postmodern schizophrenic, as theorised by Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson.7 The film also enacts this condition of schizophrenia for its spectators, since it emulates Max’s point of view closely without any clear indication of where Max’s visions depart from diegetic reality. Indeed, the film is postmodern precisely because it confuses our ability to tell the difference between such things in the first place.8 If critics agree that Videodrome is a classic postmodern text, there have been frequent disagreements over what exactly the film suggests about postmodernity. Fredric Jameson argues that while Videodrome may diagnose a postmodern schizophrenic subject who is unable to master the complexity of his own situation, the film remains complicit with the mass cultural forms that it would attempt to critique.9 Steven Shaviro argues that the film counters the notion that postmodernity involves a move towards disembodiment; rather, media technologies such as television and the VCR do not lead to the disappearance of the body, so much as they invest in the body in new and particularly intense ways.10 Scott Bukatman’s reading of the film, meanwhile, excavates the range of postmodern references in Videodrome, and underscores its essential complexity and ambiguity with respect to postmodernity.11
Finally, the film is also significant for its relation to debates about gender and sexuality. Cronenberg’s work has been seen as problematic for feminism. He has been criticised for the way that his films often seem to equate femininity with monstrousness.12 Some critics have argued that his films express misogynistic disgust toward feminine sexuality, and can be seen as a backlash against the liberalisation of sex more generally.13 Along similar lines, Tania Modleski has argued that Videodrome presents media technology as horrible precisely ‘because of the way it feminises its audience’, noting that Max is in essence ‘raped with a video cassette’. 14 Others, however, have argued that such images need to be carefully considered within the context of Cronenberg’s interest in monstrousness and bodily transformation more generally. Steven Shaviro has argued that by emphasising the mutability of gender and of sexual desire, Cronenberg’s films help us to see gender and sexuality as social constructs. While the vagina-like opening in Max’s chest undoubtedly amounts to a feminisation, there is little to suggest that the sleazy, stereotypically masculine qualities that he embodies prior to this transformation are necessarily preferable. It can be argued that in staging gender constructions in a particularly literal way, Videodrome helps to demystify such discourses.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Canada. Production Company: Filmplan International. Director: David Cronenberg. Producer: Pierre David. Screenwriter: David Cronenberg. Cinematographer: Mark Irwin. Music: Howard Shore. Editor: Ronald Sanders. Cast: James Woods (Max Renn), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Sonja Smits (Bianca O’Blivion), Peter Dvorsky (Harlan), Jack Creley (Brian O’Blivion).]
1. David M. Rosenthal, ‘Dualism’ in Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy London, Routledge, 2000, p. 218.
2. David Cronenberg cited in Chris Rodley, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, London, Faber & Faber, 1992, p. 82.
3. See Steven Shaviro, ‘Bodies of Fear: David Cronenberg’ in The Cinematic Body, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. 138–41.
4. Rodley, p. 106.
5. Tania Modleski, ‘The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory’ in Ken Gelder (ed.) The Horror Reader, London, Routlege, 2000, p. 288.
6. Shaviro, p. 139.
7. See Modleski, Shaviro, and Scott Bukatman, ‘Who Programs You? The Science Fiction of the Spectacle’ in Annette Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, London, Verso, 1990, pp. 196–213.
8. Bukatman, p. 207.
9. Fredric Jameson, ‘Totality as Conspiracy’ in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Bloomington, University of Indiana Press, 1992, pp. 9–86.
10.Shaviro, pp. 127–58.
11.Bukatman, pp. 196–213.
12.See Robin Wood, ‘Cronenberg: A Dissenting View’ in Piers Handling (ed.), The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, Toronto, Academy of Canadian Cinema, General Publishing Company, 1983, pp. 115–35, and Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, London, Routledge, 1993, pp. 43–58.
13.See Wood, pp. 115–35. 14.Modleski, p. 292. Further reading Martin Barker and Julian Petley, (eds), Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, London, Routledge, 1997.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.