Directed by: David Cronenberg
Premise: The program director of a television station (James Woods) fills his broadcast schedule with sleazy, sexual, and violent content. He comes across an underground broadcast of torture and is gradually sucked into a world in which the body and media are inseparable.
What Works: David Cronenberg’s movies are shot through with an obsession with the relationship between individuals and society. In many of his early works, and in some of his later ones as well, Cronenberg explores the ways in which the most personal parts of our selves are molded by technology and ideology. Films such as Shivers and Rabid devised fantastical scenarios that allowed Cronenberg to visualize these ideas and he followed them to provocative and thoughtful conclusions. Among Cronenberg’s most successful films was 1983’s Videodrome. This movie was very much a product of its time. The arrival of home video in the form of VHS and Betamax tapes was transformative for both the entertainment industry and the culture at large. Around this same time, cable television began to take hold in American households and local news broadcasts adopted an “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy. Pretty soon, the culture was dominated by television in a way that it never had been before and violent and pornographic content was suddenly very accessible. Within this context arose an urban myth about snuff films and other underground videos that trafficked images of sadism and sexualized violence. Videodrome was David Cronenberg’s reaction to all of those phenomena and the movie melded the real with the fantastic to comment upon the culture of the time. In this movie, James Woods plays a television program director who seeks out the edgiest material and finds it in an underground broadcast known as “Videodrome.” The film starts out as a straight drama, similar to Network or Broadcast News, but as Woods’ character becomes increasingly obsessed with the Videodrome broadcast his perception of reality becomes slippery with the organic and the plastic bleeding into each other. That sets up the bigger themes of Videodrome. The film is an extended metaphor of the way we internalize the things that we hear and see and it suggests that we will absorb the violent and dehumanizing content that we consume. In the same vein, the characters’ obsessions take on ideological and even spiritual dimensions. The television becomes a pulpit for this new reality and a mechanism for enlightenment and indoctrination and Videodrome literalizes the way in which our sense of self is transformed by technology. Cronenberg explores all of this in a way that is often unsettling but also very entertaining.
What Doesn’t: Videodrome was released at a time when home video and cable television were new and unfamiliar commodities. The movie identifies television as a scary and invasive presence that is warping the minds of its audience. This is a rather passé position to take and fortunately Cronenberg puts an additional spin on it with Videodrome’s political and psychological themes. But at the heart of the movie is an old-fashioned plea to stop watching so much television and at times Cronenberg comes across as a finger-wagging curmudgeon lecturing us about how overstimulated we’ve become. And in that respect, the audience has moved past Videodrome. In a culture where screens are ubiquitous and extreme images are just a keystroke away, the movie’s fear of television is quaint. However, a hard look at today’s culture reveals that many of Videodrome’s predictions and fears about media have actually manifested in the digital age and so the movie remains relevant to a contemporary audience.
DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition includes commentary tracks, interviews, featurettes, a documentary, image galleries, the short film “Camera,” and a booklet.
Bottom Line: Videodrome is one of David Cronenberg’s most successful movies. It combines the visceral pleasures of a horror movie with the intellectual and artistic ambition of an art film. The result is a picture that is strange and surreal but within its strangeness is something familiar, which in itself is frightening.
Episode: #669 (October 15, 2017)