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Videodrome, 1983 (Home Video Review)

Boo Tube

When I pulled up the Videodrome IMDB page—as I often do for quick reference when writing reviews—I noticed two entries for the film. The first was for the original 1983 movie, directed by David Cronenberg; the other was an “in development” notice for what I can only guess is a remake, slated for 2011. From a brand recognition standpoint, I totally understand; while Videodrome isn’t at the forefront of the public’s conscience, it is certainly known enough that it could reasonably attract enough viewers to have a decent opening weekend—with none of that pesky originality that studios seem to dread these days. From a creative standpoint, however, there’s absolutely no reason for Videodrome to be “re-imagined”. Cronenberg had a bleak vision of the future twenty-six years ago, and we are still moving towards it.

As a sidebar, I’d like to thank God, Buddha, Allah, and Gaia for Netflix. Not only has it saved me from cabin fever during this nightmare illness, but I no longer have an excuse for not having seen classic movies.

Videodrome is the story of Max Renn (James Woods), a small-time cable channel executive whose carved a niche in the market by airing risqué programming (soft-core porn, violence, etc.). He’s constantly on the lookout for the next big thing in edge-creeping entertainment; when one of his friends, Harlan, pirates a broadcast called Videodrome—which depicts the torture and rape of faceless women—Max becomes obsessed with finding out who or what has created it. As you might imagine, his quest leads to no good, and Max soon discovers that the Videodrome signal acts as a drug on anyone who sees it; one that induces severe hallucinations that blur the line between reality and television.

Videodrome is a cult classic for a reason: David Cronenberg created a prophetic anti-TV movie that is just as notable for its philosophical musings as it is for its gore, sex, and graphic instances of Debbie Harry trying to act (she plays Max’s girlfriend, Nicki, and from the outset she comes across as having fallen victim to the signal—or perhaps a handful of Quaaludes). The most remarkable thing about Videodrome is that its message about the effects of too much television are still relevant, and can easily be applied to today’s obsession with constant, easy access to information, via Twitter, 24-hour cable news, and even the iPhone (hell, there are people at my day job who have a second computer monitor at their desks, solely to stream television shows all day).

Looking at the film now, it’s easy to see Videodrome’s influence on other movies of the last quarter century, from UHF to The Matrix to The Ring to Surrogates, and at least twenty others (the film's spiritual predecessor is Sidney Lumet's Network). What Videodrome has over many of them is the boldness of its ideas, and a string of instantly quotable lines. When Max encounters a mysterious doctor who appears to hold the secret to Videodrome, he is cautioned that, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television” (the doctor, incidentally, says this on a TV talk show in which he appears on-stage as an image broadcast through a television on a stand). Movies like this question the effect of media on the mind; the better ones ask us to evaluate how we allow the images and messages that we take in to shape our worldviews and even our identities.

By the time Max has disappeared down the rabbit hole, he has become a confused, mass-murdering acolyte of a new world media order. His need to see things he should not have seen and to know things no one should know are dramatized with eerie images like a gun fusing to his hand and an eager vagina sprouting on his torso (which receives videotapes, naturally). But, psychologically, does this differ from our need to be involved in the private lives of celebrities or to watch footage of wartime beheadings?

Fortunately, Videodrome has aged pretty well (aside from the aforementioned Debbie Harry problem), and might even appeal to modern audiences—that’s always an iffy proposition: one generations groundbreaking special effects is the next generation’s drinking game cheese-fest. This is an important movie that should be seen by anyone who is interested in making smart, effective entertainment.

Somehow I doubt the remake will qualify.

Note: This movie has something that I haven’t seen a lot of, but that I think could absolutely help a lot of “near-future” films: Cronenberg introduces ideas that were futuristic—for 1983—by integrating them into the natural rhythms of what audiences of the time would consider modern-day living. For example, the opening image is that of a video wakeup call by Max Renn’s secretary—the equivalent of a clock-radio alarm. It’s a weird idea, but one that is not mentioned or pointed out as being special; rather, it’s just part of the fabric of Cronenberg’s 1983.

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