Long Live The New Flesh: Videodrome At 40

David Cronenberg's masterpiece speaks to our fragmented reality more than ever 40 years later, finds Cici Peng

In Videodrome, technology professor Brian O’Blivion, famously based on media academic Marshall McLuhan, says, “The television is the retina of the mind’s eye. Whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it.” In many ways, technology, from streaming services to doom-scrolling on Tiktok to VR and the Dark Web, has facilitated our new reality. We believe that the screen is “raw experience” and we position our physical bodies in constant relation to our virtual realities. We curate our Instagram feed to reveal who we are, Twitter is our stream of consciousness, we repeat stock phrases learned from viral trends. Brian O’Blivion appears like a prophet, as he imagines the “new flesh” of the world, where our bodies will become futile and humans will elevate their consciousness to a higher plane in the digital arena, a hyperreality – something that seems completely plausible now, 40 years after the film’s release.

Running a Catholic-style inner-city project called the Cathode Ray Mission, O’Blivion and his daughter Bianca decide that the best way to help homeless people get reintegrated back into society is through television exposure. The church’s atrium is divided into different TV booths where each person receives access to their own video stream and is physically demarcated and isolated from their community. As Bianca looks down from her balcony at her work, she says, “Watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing board.” Getting patched back is like learning the language of the internet and pop culture in order to have a conversation with other people: learning the lingo of what is ‘trendy’, what products are being consumed, what political ideas are correct – gorging on images without questioning them, but fitting yourself within them. The Cathode Ray scene emerges in the middle of the film, yet it crystallises Cronenberg’s prophecy on the dystopian reality of living through and with our screens, where our phones are fused to our thumbs as part of our evolutionary “progress”. We look to media in order to exist, assimilating the world through the performance of the media landscape.

Videodrome is Cronenberg’s investigation into the ideological shaping of reality through the bombardment of images and videos, continually examined in his filmography with 1999’s eXistenz and Crimes Of The Future last year in a loosely connected trilogy. Often, Cronenberg’s shots in Videodrome begin within the diegetic television in the film before panning out to reveal the characters, showing the loose borders between our reality and the screen. The screen seems to be porous, as we immerse ourselves within our protagonist, Max Renn.

Cronenberg examines the effects of continual images of sex and violence on Renn (James Woods), a director and operator of a small cable television station that specialises in softcore pornography. We watch him watch TV from the first moment he wakes up. The opening shot is a TV within our screen, with the ad, “Civic TV, the one you take to bed with you,” making the screen the first source of intimacy already, before a recorded VHS clip of Max’s secretary (Julie Khaner) plays, a wake up call, informing him that she is “not a dream”. The camera pans out and Max’s day begins: in his bachelor pad, he picks up a collection of photographs of naked women, flips through them, bored, a half-chewed slice of cold pizza in hand. Max desiring something more extreme than ‘normal sex’, complains, “It’s too soft. There’s something too… soft about it. I’m looking for something that will break through. Something tough.”

His tech assistant, Harlan, says he’s found a pirate satellite broadcast called “Videodrome”, a show consisting torture and snuff – the first shot of Harlan’s broadcast is a woman getting flogged. Instantly captivated, Max believes this is what his TV channel needs to attract more viewers. However, Max doesn’t realise that the “Videodrome” signals cause an aggressive brain tumour that incites hallucinations and madness. Cronenberg reveals how pornography itself is an addiction that seeps through your mind, making you desire more extreme images to be aroused as time goes on. Yet, what’s most shocking is that this show captivating Max because of its illicit violence is almost mainstream content today: proliferating on unregulated porn sites, in Andrew Tate’s vile discourse and in the devastating news cycle on continual male violence against women.

After Max’s initial encounter with Videodrome, he appears on a talk show to debate the damaging effects of pornography, and is instantly enamoured with the red-haired beauty Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a self-help radio host. After the show, they watch Videodrome together on a date as she says, “It turns me on.” When Nicki decides to enter Videodrome as a participant and never returns, she appears on the screen to Max in a hallucination and says, hands tied up, “Let’s perform,” beckoning Max to whip her. Throughout the film, Cronenberg focuses on the damaging modern realities of constant performance, seeping from what we see on TV (performed porn, reality TV and social media) to real life, where the way we live is dictated by what we’ve seen on screen. In Max and Nicki’s first meeting on-air, Max looks away from the camera in an aside to Nicki, saying, “I’d really like to take you out for dinner tonight,” swapping a form of public performance for a stereotypical performance of courtship.

Nicki’s form of masochistic desire unravels out of her ennui with her continual performance: while she offers up a motherly form of advice on her radio show, her eyes almost roll with boredom, yet when we watch her watch Videodrome, she is absorbed by the lack of narrative and the visceral cries of pain – yet she absorbs the desires as her own.

Throughout the film, this is one of the only instances during which she isn’t filtered through a screen of performance – previously she’s seen through the camera of the talk show and through the window of her recording studio’s glass. On a meta-level, Nicki cannot be separated from her fame as Debbie Harry, the iconic lead of Blondie, who remains timeless through her early music videos as a sex symbol. As Nicki, Harry plays into the existing cultural fantasies of her seductive image, she plays into Nicki’s submissive fantasies only to reveal her self-reflexive performance of the public imagination of ‘Debbie Harry’, the rock star.

Seeking to reproduce the excitement that the show incited in her, Nicki asks Max to cut her with his Swiss knife, “just a bit” on her shoulder, re-engaging in their sexual performance. Their evening ends with Max piercing her ears mid-sex with a sewing needle and a cork in a slow, sensual prick in close-up, all while Videodrome’s tape runs on loop, with echoes of women’s cries in the background. As the camera creeps into the room and peers over at their bodies, there’s a complicity from the audience as voyeurs, entranced by Max and Nicki as they were by Videodrome. Then, Cronenberg cuts to a close-up of Nicki and Max, eyes closed in pleasure, before zooming out to reveal that they are now within the Videodrome red-and-black dungeon, and the viewer effectively submerged within their pornographic fantasy, immersed within the screen of our screen with them. Here is Max’s first hallucination, where reality and sick fantasy blend together, and we are taken into his hallucination with him, unsure of what’s real and what’s not, minds faltering with the Videodrome signal just like Max. Performance is reality, merging into one in a feverish instance. Perception is real, and the way reality is shaped through continual exposure to violent images is real and corrosive.

After Nicki decides to go on Videodrome, she’s seen only through the TV, an extension of the male gaze, as she commands Max’s attention and desires through her performed presence. As Laura Mulvey argues in Visual Pleasure, “the only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” Yet, in a reversal, Max is controlled by the siren-like images, as the TV comes alive, moaning and bulging with vein-like growths. Max ends up putting his head into the TV’s screen, while the TV moans in pleasure with Nicki’s voice. Max’s desire for the images of women on TV is transposed to the machinery itself – Max wants to fuck the TV. As Max loses his control over his reality, Videodrome metaphorically castrates him, makes him female and other – just as he’s watched torture and sadistic porn, watched women being whipped and controlled, his ultimate loss of self-control is observed through the growth of a vaginal orifice on his abdomen.

As Max seeks out the truth behind Videodrome, he discovers that a global monopoly called Optical Spectacular wants to distribute the show widely in order to control the masses. The power of the Videodrome signal is that a ruling class has found a new way of controlling individuals through fabricating new realities. Literalising how we internalise different forms of propaganda, Optical Spectacular inserts different tapes into Max’s orifice to program him and dictate his actions.

Videodrome is horror, sci-fi, prophecy and harbinger of our era – it presents a lucid imagination of how society is fed and gorges on a diet of images that seep through our minds, metastasising the darkest thoughts and dangerous avenues of the mind the exists in all of us, controlling the way we behave with others and pushing the realms of acceptability. All Cronenberg’s films are interested in the ideological structures that create reality, interested in how they feed into human behaviour. Max’s final words, “Long live the new flesh,” call into our present like a prophetic message.

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