Can violent media have a definite effect on society? It’s an issue that has been around since visual media’s very inception with censorship following tow in worrying about everything from desensitising the young to influencing copycat acts. Though the fears are more based around the internet and computer games these days, in the early 1980s it was the video revolution that was scaring the hard right. This sleazy, dusty aesthetic is captured best, not any of the official Video Nasties of the era but in David Cronenberg’s political horror satire Videodrome (1983).
It’s a film of many layers, some obvious in parallel with the controversial issues of the time, others in Cronenberg’s personal interests in change, both mentally and physically. The idea that violent media leads to violent society is one that seems plausible but one with very little proof. The wave of violent films supposedly finding their way into the hands of children that sparked the original Video Nasties bill from Thatcher’s Conservative Party (and Mary Whitehouse) is something well documented and used as a starting point for Videodrome.
Max Renn is the president of a late night TV station Civic TV; a cheap and nasty channel that pumps out “soft-core pornography and hardcore violence”. On intercepting transmissions of a secret television program called Videodrome, Max becomes obsessed with finding out about it in aid of putting it on his channel. The program itself is very simple; people are taken into a room and tortured which is just what Max is looking for. James Woods plays a complex and believable character, one whose life is a summation of the 1980s; dusty video cassettes, empty food wrappers and pictures of underground porn. It’s the uncomfortable side of humanity that takes centre stage, the side that often occupies the most interesting films from the era.
Dr O’Blivion (Jack Creley) is a man who only exists in a collection of video tapes. He initially appears on a talk show that Max is a part of, addressing the issue of violence on Television. The character is interesting, not so much because of his ambiguity as to his existence but more his stance on the medium of TV itself. He won’t appear on the talk show unless he’s on a TV himself, hence why there’s a television set on stage with Max and radio host Nicki as they are interviewed. What’s more interesting is his take on names. His name, he admits, is a Television name as that’s eventually going to happen to everyone; we are all going to be on television and all have Television names. Fast forward thirty years and everyone does have a new name surrounding technology. We all have online names, screen names and other titles for Twitter, Tumblr and other social sites. It is perhaps understandable that the film is currently being remade; its themes are horribly foreseeing.
What makes Videodrome so timeless is its paranoia over entertainment venturing into virtual reality and then reality itself which is an issue that’s more prevalent than even when the film was originally made. After Max first watches Videodrome, he begins to hallucinate but his life was already filled with equally wild practices. The idea of virtual reality is something that is present through the relationship between the viewer and the television set; the voyeur and the watched. This relationship comes to a peak in one of the film’s most celebrated sequence as Max hallucinates his TV coming to life and seducing him by showing his recent sexual partner Nicki (Deborah Harry).
When the film introduces the Videodrome machine ( a sort of virtual reality helmet that records the hallucinations of the viewer) it seems quite amazing that Cronenberg predicted the paranoia of modern day escapisms such as computer games, even before the medium had found its footing in violence. The characters seem to be aware of this too and deliberately mirror the casual viewer’s reaction to the film itself with lines such as “You’ll forgive me if I don’t stay around to watch. I just can’t cope with the freaky stuff” and “Television is reality, and reality is less than Television”.
Though the social commentary of the film is what gives its edge, Cronenberg fills the other parts of the film with his usual sense of clinical disturbia and some quite stunning visual effects. As soon as Renn starts hallucinating, the effects team have their hands full with an array of disgusting imagery. The torture in the film is provocative but in the film’s use of gore, Cronenberg presents a final irony to his film’s narrative. Renn begins to worry that he can’t tell the difference between the real and virtual world. Videodrome is in his head, turning out to be a scheme to remove the people in society who enjoy the pleasures that the program provides. The show has a hidden signal which causes a brain tumour in the heads of its viewers which results in the hallucinations.
The film is not for the faint of heart. When Max initially hallucinates, a vagina like orifice appears on his stomach where he pulls a handgun from. Later on this is used to show him being “programmed” to kill people by inserting increasingly biological and graphic video tapes into his stomach. This in itself is a disturbing visual but playing on the irony of the TV president being programmed (just as he programs his channel), adds a horrific juxtaposition.
This paranoid fear of the technology is wonderfully subverted and is used by the people in society who sort to ban such things in reality. “Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome?” is their reasoning behind putting the signal into the programs. This is North America’s defence against the “cess pool” of the extreme side of creativity and they plan to snare all of its viewers, use them and kill them with the Videodrome signal. All manner of conspiracy theories are rolled into the one film and instantly makes the viewer paranoid about casually taking in media of all sorts. Could news channels be influencing their viewers to feel a particular way? Or the printed media, could they? If they can implant a belief, could they implant instructions, actions or other ideas? It’s a scary and believable thought in 24 hour digital life.
In using extreme forms of eroticism and violence, blended together in a sickly mix of political paranoia and groundbreaking effects, Videodrome is a shocking and visceral exploration into the right wing paranoia over public entertainment. In an age of overly popular reality television, addictive social media and increasingly violent video games, it’s a film that still has a lot to say about society’s consumption of violence and sex as well as the extreme knee-jerk reaction of powers that be.