“Better on TV than on the streets”
To watch David Cronenberg‘s Videodrome today is to acknowledge his clairvoyance as far as technology’s capacity to control via (mis)information. He filmed this body horror classic about subliminal messaging in mass consumption in 1983: years before the political firestorm in 1992 revolving around ubiquitous violence in videogames via Mortal Kombat, the 2007-08 television writers strike that spawned the proliferation of reality TV, the 24-hour news cycle that transformed real-life tragedies into entertainment, and social media placing false content at our fingertips with an ease able to render fact-checking less important than competitive viewership. Cronenberg saw this cultural shift towards sex and violence as the doorway it later became. He saw its power to numb us to the point where reality became a matter of perspective rather than truth.
Beyond everything else that happens in this film, its greatest strength comes from the secretive conspiracy behind each new revelation. This notion that Max Renn (James Woods) wasn’t simply susceptible to falling into the rabbit hole he does, but was actually handpicked is a telling one. We are seeing it today via the #FakeNews hashtag and the constant tagging of specific journalists, politicians, and fear-mongers to ensure the target of an attack hits its mark. As soon as you sign-up for Facebook, Twitter, or multiple other platforms, you’ve become infected by a virus wielded with expert precision on behalf of marketing gurus and media spinners placing you exactly where they want. Your smartphone becomes an extension of your body, its screen quite literally a retina for your eye.
We’re all targeted. We’re all triggered. The world divided itself into too camps: one hinging upon selfish desires and another on selfless compassion (generalizations both). We are a part of a war between Videodrome and the New Flesh, a battle waging on digital frontlines wherein our choices are remaining a sheep or waking up to the reality that we’re part of this insidious framework. We either absorb the nonsense spewed forth by “personalities” or question its veracity, origins, and intent. Which side is Videodrome and which is New Flesh is in the eye of the beholder, but the division exists nonetheless. And it affects everyone. If the film’s signal is a test, reality pulled the trigger long ago. Every child with a cellphone proves the infection has spread.
So think of Cronenberg’s work as ground zero—the age of television in the 80s as the moment when status quo was forever defeated. Max seeks to destroy it by finding the most provocative content he can for his station (CIVIC TV) to play. He sees the channel as a punk-rock alternative to wholesome family fare, its purpose to awaken our baser urges in a bid to reap the benefit of controversy through an increased audience and revenue stream. This is why he scours the airwaves for whatever new carnage is available. His payroll “pirate” (Peter Dvorsky‘s Harlan) intercepts these rogue transmissions for his discerning perusal. “Videodrome” is merely the latest find. And its snuff-aesthetic is just real enough to pique interest. Max wants to shock the world.
What he couldn’t know is that this subterranean program of torture and murder possesses a coded message beneath its imagery. It’s merely a device to open minds and distract them from noticing the pervasive evil entering through the cracks. And once it grabs hold, it will not let go. But while the hardware controlling you remains intact, the entity at the reins can continuously change depending on who arrives last. They will tell you to fear Muslims. They will tell you you’re being persecuted by the demands to not be persecuted from those who truly are. They will tell you to stand during the “Star-Spangled Banner” and they will tell you to kneel. Self-control is rendered fantasy. “Middle ground” is declared a cop-out. You are or you aren’t.
This leaves Max in a tenuous purgatory blurring the line between reality and hallucination. What is real and what is dream? Who is real and who is dream? Once perception is hijacked, the answer is simultaneously everything and nothing. We must look to those he encounters whether the man who proselytizes how TV is our new form of vision (Jack Creley‘s Dr. O’Blivion), the alluring Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) who fights against over-stimulation despite craving it within her DNA, or the intelligent and obtuse Bianca (Sonja Smits) who knows much more than she lets on. And as they obfuscate, the true orchestrator (Leslie Carlson‘s Barry Convex) seeks to “open” us to the truth. “Open” is of course a euphemism to indoctrinate and wield victims like weapons.
In great Cronenberg fashion, the director ensures we understand the metaphors with visual grotesquery. He literally opens Max up with a slot from belly button to sternum, perfectly sized to fit a living Betamax cassette embedded with instructions and perhaps a telekinetic attachment to its creator. These hallucinations become reality for the character, his ability to shut them off no longer his to own. As soon as he watches the “Videodrome” program—the violent torture of a strung up, naked woman—with voracity, he’s transformed into a puppet. The tapes that enter his stomach reveal who is at the wheel, his body merely a tool to kill the enemies of his master. (See any number of politically motivated attacks on Twitter or Fox News.) Consciousness has been digitized.
He’s given physical form to invisible chains wrought by complacency and ambivalence. He showed us then what we’ve become now: empty vessels more acutely engaged in passionate discourse online than real life. But how much of that passion is rooted in popularity? How much of what we say is regurgitated from people in positions of power that no longer hold the dignity they once did? We’re being controlled to the point of caricature, the media dictating what we should and shouldn’t believe. Objectivity died so subjectivity could live in its place. We can become new Gods, our voices traveling at the speed of light towards strangers we will never (want to) meet. We judge pixels on screens, unbothered by tragedies outside of their ability to increase our brand.
Watched in conjunction with Season Three of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.