Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stuart Henderson Describes 'Videodrome' as the "First Transnational-Media-as-Enemy Film"

I am a huge fan of David Cronenberg's films - and one of his early films that I have seen probably ten times (at least) is Videodrome. He is probably better known for The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises. He has only began to achieve recognition in the film industry in the last five years or so, yet some of his earlier films are profoundly disturbing and philosophically complex, all the while working in the horror genre in a way few others have done.

One thing that all of his films have in common, whether they are horror, psychological dramas, or studies of human nature is that they all have a philosophy - they all revolve around a moral question in one way or another. I think it is this factor that has led me to see nearly every film he has made (that I have access to by video or now on DVD or Blu Ray).

For example, Dead Ringers (starring Jeremy Irons as brilliant identical twins, both of whom are gynecologists) tells the story of brothers who share women (and the women generally do not know). One brother is confident and smooth with women, but the other is more insecure. Elliot is the dominant twin, and he seduces women and then hands them off Beverly - until one of them falls in love, and this is where everything goes wrong. Roger Ebert gives a fair review, generally positive:
The technical perfection of the film is not matched by its emotional content. The story could have used more of the Bujold character, who is sophisticated and worldly enough to understand the twins, but who is dropped when they begin to retreat into their private disintegration. "Dead Ringers" is a stylistic tour de force, but it's cold and creepy and centered on bleak despair. It's the kind of movie where you ask people how they liked it, and they say, "Well, it was well made," and then they wince.
That creepy despair is the point of the film - it's cold and distant, just like the characters at the center of the film, who discuss female anatomy as they are talking about engine parts. Cronenberg generally shapes the feel of the film to match the content - that what makes his films feel different than so many other directors.

With that background on a single movie, and assuming many people have by now seen A History of Violence, a brilliant film, and/or Eastern Promises, also an excellent film, this review of Videodrome at PopMatters (occasioned by the release of the Blu Ray version) may make a little more sense.

In a strange way, the film predicts the rise of monologue as discourse, a la Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. Another point of interest, there is a line, "reality is less than television," that feels, in the context of the film, like an amplification of Marshall McLuhan's "the media is the message."

As a side note - it's unfortunate to hear that the film is being remade (I'm not sure by who), but the time at which it was made the first time around made it a very prescient film.

'Videodrome': The First 'Transnational Media as Enemy' Film

By Stuart Henderson
PopMatters Features Editor

cover art
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky
(US DVD: 7 Dec 2010)

David Cronenberg’s classic bit of uncategorizable prescience stands up amazingly well today, almost 30 years later. A grotesque, bloody, but always cerebral fantasy about the curious ways media are affecting our experience of reality, Videodrome hit the film community like a cannon shot back in 1983. Following a series of increasingly assured (but always singular and “difficult”) films, this Canadian wunderkind had finally scored a full spectrum triumph. As clever as it was entertaining, as sexy as it was revolting, and at all times unrelentingly imaginative, Videodrome set the standard for what has developed into a bit of a subgenre: the “transnational media as enemy” film.

What would happen if the mind, the body, the human, became a kind of cog in a media-driven system in which monologue overwhelmed connected interaction? What if this has already happened, and media (whether unwittingly or not) merely serve to reinforce our enslavement to some systemic infection of the mind? What if those screens we are all staring into every day were to become the dissemination point for a global plague, a mass hypnosis, or, you know, FOX news? Videodrome suggests these, among many other, unsettling questions as it leads us down the rabbit hole.

Max Renn (a rarely-better James Woods) runs a TV channel devoted to edgy entertainment: soft-core porn, violence, objectionable material in general. He has recognized the hole in the market, and has filled it up with his brand of titillation. However, he is always redefining the limits of what his channel deems fit for broadcast. “I’m looking for something that’ll break through,” is how he puts it to one of his suppliers.

Read the whole review - it seems Stuart Henderson is an even bigger than am I.

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