by Tony Dayoub
What's got two thumbs, hosted the Cronenberg Blogathon, and has never seen the director's most representative film, Videodrome? A week ago, I would have responded, "This guy." But Criterion sent me a review copy of their new Blu-ray of Videodrome last week, and I can now say I've seen all of Cronenberg's feature-length films. And boy, did I wait too long to catch this one! Criterion's wonderfully appointed package is a mixture of featurettes concentrating on the physical effects by the legendary Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London), extended sequences which appear as pirated S&M transmissions in the movie, and a fascinating panel discussion featuring Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis (with then-unknown Mick Garris), all supplementing a high-def transfer supervised by cinematographer Mark Irwin. Part surrealist nightmare, part political satire and more, Videodrome is clearly the key film in the Canadian filmmaker's oeuvre.
Videodrome is also a startlingly personal film. At least James Woods is aware of this fact if not Cronenberg. Woods' performance as Max Renn, president of the low-rated Civic TV is patterned after the director to an extent. At one point, while trying on some glasses, the sinewy Woods even resembles the bespectacled director. But while Cronenberg stands a healthy distance away from his often times perverse subject matter—the venereal deterioration of man as a result of the misapplication of science—Renn seems to actively seek involvement in it, ostensibly to spike the ratings but in reality, looking to give his own lonely, humdrum life a jolt. The wet, warm-hued hallucinations Renn experiences after exposing himself to a pirated transmission of Videodrome are at once fully capable of engulfing him even as their repulsive quality serves to keep both Cronenberg and the viewer distant enough to observe Renn's story with some objectivity.
This objectivity yields a storyline which is often muddled (and not deliberately, given the film's sloppy genesis, as some of Criterion's behind-the-scenes featurettes bear out). Cronenberg competently overcomes this by framing the confusion as a result of Renn's increasing dementia. Stunning imagery such as a stomach slit in which Renn is able to insert a videotape, a gun, even his hand, is complemented by Woods incredulous expression, the reaction of a man who knows what he experiences is weird, but doesn't realize he's in a dream which he can wake from. And perhaps he can't. The intertwining or reality with unreality is such that one wonders at which point Videodrome descends into Renn's unhinged dreams or whether most of what one sees is just one of Cronenberg's alternate realities where organizations with names like the Cathode Ray Mission are as common as The Brood's Institute of Psychoplasmics.
Real or not, Videodrome has proven prescient enough that the film's vast right-wing conspiracy seeking to use television to eliminate those viewers not in sync with its prescription for society echoes another right-wing cable channel popular today. Personages such as Barry Convex and Brian O'Blivion duke it out for the hearts and minds of the North American public and find their corresponding figures in Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann (Glenn Beck is closer to Bixby Snyder in Robocop, who"'ll buy that for a dollar"), each ramping up the rhetoric in an effort to wear down the viewer to a point where acquiescence is easier than critical questioning of their motives. Even Renn—now revealed as representative of Cronenberg's fear of becoming corrupted by the dark ideas he traffics in—soon surrenders his mind to the manipulations, or programming, of one side against the other, a pawn in the battle between O'Blivion and Convex.
Ultimately, Videodrome's tropes would resonate throughout Cronenberg's work, reflected in the jumbled mindscapes of the protagonists in Naked Lunch and Spider, the (d)evolving body of Brundlefly, and the fetishism of Crash and eXistenZ. Flawed as it is, Videodrome is essential to understanding Cronenberg's filmography.