Images and Flesh:
Videodrome in the 80's
Webster’s dictionary defines hallucination as “a sensory experience, as of images or sounds, that does not exist outside the mind.” 1 In other words, a perception that is not real. But since our idea of what reality is is composed only of all we perceive, how can we ever truly know if an event is “real” or not? There are (at least) two ways to look at this question. The first is this: since our perceptions of events or images clearly affect what we think of them, we can accept our subjective views as flawed, proposing that there is another, “objective” perception of the event or image. The second is this: since all events and images must be perceived before they can be thought of as real (or even fictional), we can say that not only does perception influence reality, but perception is reality. If we take this view, then the term “hallucination” is meaningless, since reality itself exists only inside the mind.
This issue of the spectator/image relationship has been as complex as this (and undoubtedly more so) for as long as the human race has had eyes with which to see, and the issue remained only this complex until about a century ago. Recently, with the global dominance of television and the advent of what Andrew Britton calls “Reaganite entertainment,” 2 the issue is even more potentially unfathomable, reducing “reality” to a debatable quantity. And it is these connections between spectator and image, between reality and hallucination, and between technology and the individual, that David Cronenberg’s 1982 film Videodrome explores, with no small degree of success.
Videodrome’s protagonist, present in every scene, is a man named Max Renn. We have no choice but to assume we are seeing every event in the film through Max’s eyes. Max is head of programming for a small cable network, channel 83. To attract viewers despite the station’s diminutive size, Max seeks out shows to broadcast that surpass the norms of pornography and violence. Classy programming, expensive programming, he says, is “soft.” Is he then searching for something hard---hard-core violence, hard-core pornography? Not exactly. According to him, he’s “looking for something...tough.”
Max finds the program of his dreams in “Videodrome”, an hour-long show in which there are no plots and no characters, just torture and murder, in the same red room, by the same masked oppressors. He wishes to purchase it, but little does he know that the violence of “Videodrome” is not faked, not done for effect, but real...and it’s dangerous to him, as well as its “contestants.”
That’s one way to look at it.
If the above sounds a bit like a description of the film that one might read on the back of a video box, or in TV Guide, that’s to mimic the fact that this aspect of the plot---the authenticity of “Videodrome”---is introduced so in keeping with horror film convention that the instant Max, watching a pirate satellite broadcast of the show, mutters “How do they get it to look so realistic?”, we the audience know that the violence is real, not faked. From here it is a matter of only a little conjecture to determine the overall structure and outcome of the film: Max, upon learning the truth, travels to Pittsburgh, where “Videodrome” is being broadcast from, confronts the bad guys behind it, and teaches them that it is wrong to kill by killing them. The initial immorality of Max, his obsession with sex and violence, would only form the perfect basis for his redemption at the end. Such would prove the film a typical example of the aforementioned Reaganite entertainment.
None of this happens. Well, actually, some of it does happen, but in a different way and for different reasons than it should, and even then, we’re not sure it really did happen. This film defies every narrative convention of the 80’s by spiraling in on itself like a corkscrew until the audience has no idea what actually happened, and the very concept of “happening” seems to be ridiculed. But before I go any further with Videodrome, I think it’s necessary to include a short description of exactly what I mean by “Reaganite entertainment.”
The term, as Andrew Britton means it, is not directly reflective of any action or intention of Reagan himself. Rather, Reaganite films---prime examples are E.T., Return of the Jedi and Poltergeist---are defined by their repetition and predictability as a source of pleasure for the audience, and by their relentless solipsism, as evidenced by their derivative nature and constant references to themselves and other Reaganite products. Britton also links the claim meant to defend Reaganite films (voiced by both the makers and the viewers of these films)---that they are “just entertainment”---to this solipsism. He suggests that these films create a world governed by laws completely different from those of our own, and that world’s lessons and principles are therefore inapplicable to our own.
For instance: the concept of “the good guy” was never less in question than in a Reaganite film such as Star Wars. Indeed, the message of this film seems to be that if you are “the good guy” you will “win.” But in what way can you, the spectator, incorporate this philosophy into your everyday life? You can’t. Moreover, you’re clearly not meant to. Hence the dividing line between reality and fantasy, between spectator and entertainment, that is being drawn by the entertainment, not the spectator.
What Videodrome is about is the erasure of this line. And as a piece of 80’s entertainment which quite obviously seeks to rebel against convention, it makes a conscious effort to force you, the viewer, to recognize your perception and how it is being altered, even as Max undergoes the same process/progress.
Scene after scene after scene of the film involves a spectator and an image on a television screen. More often than not it’s Max at home, so I’ll use him as an example. When Cronenberg gives us a POV shot of Max, in order to show us what he’s watching, he has a choice to make. Does he give us only the image that is being seen on his TV, so that our TV screen mimics Max’s (I recently rented the film on a pan-and-scan videocassette and viewed it on a television; in this environment its themes are undoubtedly more at home than on 35mm in a movie theater), or does he give us the border surrounding the image, that of Max’s TV, so that our television has another one inside it? Either method would draw our attention to the fact that we are, like Max, a spectator receiving preconceived entertainment, but Cronenberg does something different. First, he cuts to Max, sitting on his couch, staring ahead, making us anticipate the POV. Then he does cut to the POV--and we see a glitch, the image flickers and wavers, and there is an audible burst of static. We unconsciously conclude that the glitch is on the videocassette Max is watching, and that our image is therefore his. But no; when the static clears, we can see Max’s large wood-panelled set surrounding the image he sees. The glitch was in the movie.
In my opinion, what Cronenberg is doing is far more complex than simply reminding us that we watch. He is saying that what we watch is as subject to error or hallucinatory nature as anything the characters within it watch, or anything we might watch elsewhere. He is telling us not to trust what we see. And yet we must remember that this message comes to us only through what we see. It contradicts itself.
This cyclic self-defiance is how the film’s narrative operates, under the guise of “hallucination.” Once it has been revealed that “Videodrome” causes hallucinations (and, eventually, death) in anyone who watches it, Cronenberg is free to employ all sorts of horrific surrealistic devices to portray Max’s spiral into insanity. But his descent is so complete that he, and therefore we, cannot separate the hallucination from the “reality.” There is no outside diegetic reference point, no length of time into which the hallucinations are easily contained. It is not exactly that Max never “wakes up” from his hallucination---he does, more than once---but that after he has woken up is when most of “the freaky stuff” (to quote Barry Convex---more on him later) happens. Furthermore, the revelation of “Videodrome”’s detrimental (should we say “evil”? No, I don’t think we should) nature, and the explanation that Max’s life is “already half video-hallucination” comes only within the context of what we must assume is a hallucination. Brian O’Blivion gives Max this information, but Brian is long dead. He speaks from a videocassette which Max watches and somehow he is able to address Max by name. Max’s hallucination and reality are already inextricably linked. But Cronenberg does not stop here: Brian is shortly thereafter murdered, on the tape, by one of the masked torturers of “Videodrome”, who reveals herself to be Nikki Brand, Max’s lover. Nikki left for Pittsburgh to audition on “Videodrome” only days ago. She, too, addresses Max by name.
The viewer is forcibly restrained from somehow squeezing this event into the plot. Max quickly dismisses it as a hallucination, triggered off by the tape. As he does the event that followed, which no viewer could accept as “real”---the first in a series of man/machine hybrids. This was not a cyborg, not a mechanical man, but an organic machine. Max’s TV, with the image of Nikki on it, whispering seductively, came alive, bucking and breathing like a living thing. He buried his head in the ballooning screen of Nikki’s lips. He had sex with his television.
J. G. Ballard, whose novel on sex and technology Crash was adapted into a film by Cronenberg, shared with him this identification of the television with the organism. Ballard’s analysis, in a short story entitled “The Secret History of World War 3” 3 , related much more directly to Reagan and his confusion of fantasy with reality. He creates a near-future in which Reagan has been reinstated as President in 1994, and to alleviate the fears of the nation over Reagan’s ailing health, his heartbeat is broadcast across the nation’s television screens, to the near-exclusion of all other news. Hence, World War III (lasting all of 4 minutes) goes unnoticed by every US citizen but our narrator.
Once the reader is able to look past the Vonnegut-esque satire in which everyone but the narrator is necessarily profoundly stupid, this story can be read in a couple of different allegorical ways, simultaneously. One is that Reagan was always in tune with the nation’s heartbeat--that he always knew what people wanted to see and hear, and they were entranced when he gave that to them. Another is that Reagan as president was a product of television, and including his bodily functions in the broadcast of his image simply encapsulates him within the box that was his home. At the core of both these notions is the idea that our perception of Reagan (and his perception of himself) was completely determined by the television and its own redundant, cannibalistic nature. For instance, Reagan was never a soldier in war, but he was an actor in countless war movies, and both he and the nation confused this image with reality, assuming that someone who played this role in fiction was adequately prepared for a position of military leadership in real life.
Reagan was capable of confusing even Reaganite entertainment, with its clearly delineated fantasies, and real life. In fact, he specialized in it: he nicknamed his missile defense system “Star Wars”, to the extreme irritation of George Lucas, and repeatedly referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” This easily allowed him to cast us, the US, as the heroes, in a war that (amazingly) never happened.
So what does this mean in relation to Videodrome? Reagan’s confusion, and the public’s infatuation with it, indicating that we were all to eager to reciprocate it, shows that even though the elsewhere-inapplicable laws of Reaganite entertainment (as Britton tells us) are clearly defined by the entertainment, the viewer is not always quite so willing to let these laws stay fictional. It may be ridiculous and useless to tell yourself that you are a hero by birth, and therefore rightfully destined to be victorious (for, of course, in real life there is no final battle to be won, as in the movies), but it is far too late to relay this message to the dozens of millions of Americans that voted for Reagan over the years, and they wouldn’t have listened anyway. In Videodrome, for once, the entertainment is adopting a warning stance, stating that not only do people incorporate these impossible alien images into their lives every day, but that it is an act equivalent to (and possibly leading to) madness.
This is the extent of the message that I get out of watching Videodrome. Beyond this position of caution, it’s extremely difficult to speculate exactly what the film thinks we should do about the distorted state of affairs. It doesn’t offer any kind of solution for Max’s hallucinatory reality---or does it? Let me quickly recap the events leading to the end of the story.
Max discovers that the evil madman behind “Videodrome” is named Barry Convex, head of a corporation, Spectacular Optical, which makes “inexpensive glasses for the third world and missile guidance systems for NATO.” Convex wishes to use Channel 83 to broadcast “Videodrome” nationally, poisoning the world. He forces Max to assassinate his partners, to transfer control of the station to him. But Max turns on his oppressor. He murders Convex, and his associate Harlan, who first introduced “Videodrome” to Max (the pirate satellite broadcast was in fact a prerecorded tape). Then, in an abandoned boat on the edge of the city, he shoots himself. The credits roll.
Am I saying that Cronenberg is suggesting suicide as the only escape from this world of confusion? Probably not. The plot description I have given contains only events which appear “real”, and is therefore exclusive of the methods behind most of those events, which would undoubtedly cause you to see them in a different light. Additionally, I have related none of the philosophies concerning “video-hallucination” and “the new flesh” that Cronenberg devotes an almost insufferable amount of screen time to. Like the dogmas in his version of Crash, we don’t know whether he expects us to take them at face value or scoff at them, but they undoubtedly drive the actions of his characters.
I don’t fully understand this theory, so it’s tough for me explain it to you, but suffice it to say that Max killed himself because he believed it was the final step on his path to becoming a new kind of organism. He had already evolved, technologically, in two important respects. A giant vertical slit had opened in his stomach, enabling him to receive organic videocassettes and play them back in his head. (This is how he was made to murder his partners, against his will.) Secondly, his gun had merged permanently with his hand through a number of hooks, until flesh grew over it, and it simply became the organ at the end of his arm. Yet it would only appear when he needed it to; his hand would be normal again whenever he wished.
Forgive me for digressing; my point is that while it is difficult if not impossible to determine one philosophy which Videodrome claims to abide by or profess, the film certainly carries and contains numerous (and conflicting) philosophies within it. It has been opined that the film is a formalistic enactment of the solipsism of Reaganite entertainment. I would disagree, somewhat. I think with its myriad of messages which can only be perceived as a whole as a discontinuous jumble, it echoes a medium of Reaganite entertainment, and not the thing per se---television.
We, as critics in this course, have studied only films as a single distinct category of art which reflects (or rejects) the themes of the Reaganite era, but we must remember that television programming has always been as morally trite and redundant as the films of the 80’s were, and that Reagan himself used the television to win the hearts of America. His history in the movies was equally important, though, he channeled the one medium through the other. (This was made much easier by the fact that movies live forever on television.) Videodrome works in reverse; it channels television (no pun intended) through a film. And yet this method seems wiser, for Videodrome appears to have been made with its future as a videocassette or TV-movie of the week in mind. It does not hold itself “above” television; as we’ve already seen, it encourages the viewer to doubt itself by demonstrating its potential for error and misuse.
Jean Baudrillard, in his article The Evil Demon of Images 4 , attempts to apply a Reaganite black-or-white outlook to this complex confusion of reality and image. And strangely, he attributes the “demon” to his own delight: “There is a kind of primal pleasure, of anthropological joy in images, a kind of brute fascination unencumbered by aesthetic, moral, social or political judgements. It is because of this that I suggest they are immoral, and their fundamental power lies in this immorality.” Baudrillard does not really explain why he finds the fascination and confusion of reality and image “immoral”; he only implies that it makes him anxious. And he does not acknowledge a difference between his personal morals and some moral absolute; which in this case is critical. For while you or I or Videodrome may believe that the loss of distinction between reality and fantasy in Reaganite entertainment is unhealthy, the entertainment certainly does not. And indeed, the blurring is quite prosperous for the entertainment, and for Reagan, who was beyond death before inauguration, because he will live forever in so many video-images.
Perhaps this is what Videodrome meant by a state of evolution, by cheating death. Then again, perhaps not. As the film ends at the end of the moment of Max’s death, we have to speculate whether his death was beneficial to him or in fact the end, and all the philosophizing was just a hoax, or a hallucination. Then again, some might say that the very fact that there is no story left to tell beyond the moment of death is an answer to the question. The ambiguity is the key. Cronenberg’s message, if he has one, is that the video world has none.
1 Random House Webster’s School and Office Dictionary
. page 203. Copyright 1995
by Random House
, Inc. New York
2 Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment
by Andrew Britton
3 The Secret History of World War 3
by J. G. Ballard
. Copyright 1988
. From War Fever
4 The Evil Demon of Images
by Jean Baudrillard
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