“”The TV Camera has no shutter. It does not deal with aspects or facets of objects in high resolution. It is a means of direct pick-up by the electrical groping over surfaces.” – Marshall McLuhan, Arts in society, 1964″
“It bites – what kind of teeth do you think it has?” – Videodrome
Videodrome’s opening sequence: the title flickering to life then fading into static, the logos for the channel protagonist Max Renn works for in a television screen. Already we are not really in a fictional, realistic narrative, but in a kind of media. The first spoken lines of dialogue that aren’t a commercial are from a woman on the screen, asking Max, and ourselves, to “slowly, painfully ease yourself back into consciousness”. We are being asked by the film to awaken to powers and aspects of the physical and psychological we never knew were there, as the telekinetics in Scanners are. We may not like what we find. Max doesn’t.
Cronenberg’s film presents consumption of media, violence, pain, pleasure, fucking, as symbiotic, even as the same exact thing. To absorb a story or what’s on screen is in itself a danger, something that can change your physical construct, fuck with your brain. The director predicts that pornography would become darker, harder, how “content” really can alter your behavior. It’s jarring now to watch the climax after recent school shootings, as a mind controlled Renn goes on a killing spree, but his overall point stands, that our minds can be molded and sculpted by consumption. Is there a huge difference between Max “kissing” the television and binge watching twelve hours of a show, a reciprocal act of performance, of service? (It should be noted too that Cronenberg doesn’t perform lip service towards moral judgment about any of the characters except Convex’s shameless corporate scheming – he has an atheist’s sense of detachment. Cronenberg’s state towards humans is of curiosity.)
If there’s anyone whose sympathies Cronenberg seems to be aligned with, it is Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), the self help radio show host who becomes willingly lost in Videodrome. We first see her on the screen of a camera – she is often filtered through a screen, appropriate for Harry, an early star of music videos, a rock star whose blonde beauty often appeared to be looking right through you in her performances. Harry’s eyes in Videodrome hold no demure innocence. She’s as blithe about her darkness as Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter, uninterested in whether others understand. “I admit it, I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation,” she tells a flirty Max on a talk show panel, her red dress violent (and instantly recalling the chambers of Videodrome itself) amid bland Eighties clothes, Max’s tan suit.
And Brand is a masochist. She intutively knows the Sublime and how pain and pleasure are only definitions of her need for stimulation, catharsis, and the film takes on that mantra as well. In the world of Videodrome, sex is based in change, violence, mutation and mutilation, psychological action. When Max and Nicki fuck the result is one of the most unsettling and genuinely sexy scenes in film – when they kiss the sounds are of squelching, lips on skin enhanced for our discomfort (as in all body horror, the physical form is turned against the audience, forced to see physical processes we take for granted as estranged and somehow very wrong.) They are already being changed by Videodrome. The sense during sex of being in a different world with your partner is literalized. Max and Nicki are transported to the Videodrome room as they couple, thrusting on a bare floor, their environment only reverting back as they finish. The film clarifies that what follows are mostly hallucinations but that never matters as the powers of Videodrome increase, terrifying and alluring.
Nicki is too much for Max. He doesn’t have her sense of imagination, her appetite. (After a certain point of the film, Nicki is only seen via television, an extension of the male gaze, an image you can speak to.) In fact its the women of the film who tend to comprehend what Videodrome is and the strength of television as a whole. Max can only up to a point. He’s amoral, shallow, heteronormative. He becomes the straight noir hero in over his head yet unlike Spade or Marlowe he never gains any control. Pornographer Masha tells him that Videodrome “has something that you don’t have, Max, a philosophy, and that is what makes it so dangerous.” Another version of this scene where a character’s downfall is so succintly put: “YOU! DON’T! LISTEN!” As I’ve said Cronenberg doesn’t place judgment on Max but the ending does make the movie a little tragedy: a man with no morality or character is all too easy to control.
In the next forty minutes of the film, a relatively convoluted conspiracy is slowly revealed, less wild in plot than in tangling ideologies and biological processes. Videodrome is American (see also: “The Superman is real, and he’s American”), part of a corporate scheme for control, the Global Village as horror show. Max’s hallucinations grow stronger. The videotape bites and breathes. His television itself becomes a sighing, breathing organism, a sexual creature with Nicki’s lips and voice as a mouth, a static succubus. The resulting scene is of Max comprehending how to kiss the television’s cooing, enormous black and white Debbie Harry lips, all glistening, Marilyn Monroe hallucinatory reflective pin up falsity, beautiful, wrong, and he dips his head into the television as it/she moan in sighs of pleasure. It is intimate and sick and true, a culmination of Western obsession with the screen, with reflection, with the obsession with looking at ourselves, with others, with simulacra, gazing back into the abyss and liking it. His new, vaginal chest organ that plays programmed tapes is simply part of the next step – why wouldn’t we eventually just have our bodies take input? Why not let media and flesh emerge, the “new flesh”?
Reality and sex, torture and media continue to bleed into each other as it reaches the gory climax. In the hallucination chambers Max whips a television screen, revealed to be transmitting Masha crying out in pain (or is it?) Masha is dead and bloodied in his bed the next day. The last twenty minutes show Max becoming a pitiful pawn between Convex and O’Blivion’s sides, a literal physical channel for the ideologies and powers at play, mind controlled into violently murdering anybody who stands in Videodrome’s way at first, then receiving a change in tape to Bianca O’Blivion’s side. Perhaps this is the future, or even the present – we are agents for forces beyond our control, the media so dominant that we have no choice in serving them, do not even know that we have no free will in our beliefs (witness how many Americans simply don’t believe there is any other political ideology beyond capitalism because they’ve never been told otherwise, vascillating between only two political parties in the same wretched economic system.)
The final scene is of Max, alone, committing sucide using his flesh gun, doing so when Nicki on the television shows him how. The ending thus repeats itself: Max putting his mutilated hand to his head, whispering “Long live the new flesh.” Is it reality or just simulation of what already happened? Or does it matter? O’Blivion’s words that reality is less than television are brought to life as the screen cuts to black.
“Long live the new flesh.” The flesh of man and media, television combined (if the medium is the message, then man is now a medium unto himself). David Cronenberg wrote this line in 1983. It has come true. My cell phone is an extension of myself. So is my laptop, my Netflix account’s preferences. What is left now but to kiss my warm, lucid television screen and see if it purrs or sighs? To open my shirt, look into my chest, and see if there’s something inside beyond organ and fluid, a tape that’s being played again and again and again?
Long live the new flesh.