Videodrome (1983)

“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

As a kid, David Cronenberg used to pick up American television from across the border and worried that he’d see something he wasn’t supposed to see. Videodrome’s CIVIC-TV was based on the Canadian television network Citytv, which had a show called The Baby Blue Movie that played stuff like Camille 2000 and Wild Honey. There’s also an urban legend that Cronenberg saw Emanuelle In America and wondered how anyone could enjoy a movie that combined sexuality with snuff footage. I don’t know — or care — if that story is true. I’d like to just have complete faith in it.

The director was between Scanners and The Dead Zone and got a bigger budget on this movie than he never had before. Of course, it barely made its money back yet became a classic film, which is usually the way of the world.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of CIVIC-TV, a Toronto UHF television station that shows footage on the absolute limit of what is allowed to be shown on TV. One of the satellite dish operators shows Max Videodrome, which is either coming from Malaysia or Pittsburgh — as a lifelong resident, I am pretty pleased with that — that shows people being tortured and murdered with no storyline to get in the way.

Max’s lover, Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry) is so turned on by Videodrome that she goes to try out and never returns. Max is now obsessed and learns that the channel is so much more than just a video show. It may also be the voice of a political movement.

Media theorist Brian O’Blivion is the only person who can guide Max further down the tunnel. At the homeless shelter where O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits, The Pit) conducts marathon TV watching experiments. He soon learns that O’Blivion was killed by his partners who created Videodrome but lives on in the hours of video footage he created. Oh yeah — Videodrome also creates brain tumors and hallucinations which are both the symptom and the cause.

Videodrome is really part of an ideological war between its sex and violence-obsessed viewers and Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson, Black Christmas) and the Spectacular Optical Corporation, a combination ophthalmology and arms company. They program Max — via videotapes inserted into a vaginal opening in his chest that causes his body to transform and even grow a gun in his hand — to murder anyone that gets in their way, which may or may not all be hallucinations, until Bianca reprograms him to start killing for her father’s cause, shouting “Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.”

That new flesh means ascending outside of the bonds of our normal form, which for Max means suicide. Or does it? There were plenty of endings made for this movie, including one where Max, Bianca and Nicki appear on the set of Videodrome, all with slits in their chests filled with sex organs. As an atheist, Cronenberg cut this ending, as he felt it may make people think he believed in Heaven. He was also forced to cut all manner of berserk things from the script, like Max having a grenade for a hand, as well as him melting into Nicki as they kissed and a total of five more characters dying of cancer.

This sequence sums up why I love this movie so much:

Max Renn: Why do it for real? It’s easier and safer to fake it.

Masha: Because it has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.

You can hear dialogue from this movie in tons of songs, including “Microphone Test” by Meat Beat Manifesto, “Master Hit” by Front 242, “Children” by EMF, “Draining Faces” by Skinny Puppy, “Scared to Live” by Psychic TV and so many more.

For a movie made in 1983, it really could have been made today. There’s so much to experience here and I will be going back for another experience. See you in Pittsburgh.

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