For me and David Cronenberg, it was love at first sight. Strangely enough, the first film I ever saw of his was Crash. No, not that Crash, but the 1996 film based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. I say "strangely" because it is one of the hardest to find, and probably one of his weirdest. Still, one serendipitous day a few years ago I was lucky enough to walk into a Hollywood Video and buy it at a VHS sale for 1 dollar. It was actually a great introduction to Cronenberg's films, as it contains all of his favorite things: a moody score by Howard Shore (before he was enlisted to accompany hobbits and elves), some dark mis-en-scene, some oozing orifices, some sex, and some violence.
Despite the overtness of his themes, I never feel like Cronenberg is pontificating. More often, I feel like he is playing with his audience. There is a B-movie quality to many of his films, which all utilize gross-out horror (taken to extreme measures in the Fly), and performances that seem deliberately understated. Rather than criticizing our present tendencies, it is more as if Cronenberg is simply preparing us for an unavoidable future. And seemingly it is a future he is simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by.
As Crash reflects on the human relationship with the automobile, Videodrome reflects on the human relationship with television and information technology. Existenz is another film that explores somewhat similar territory, in the form of virtual reality. In both films, technology actually becomes part of the human body, as if the two are organisms that have begun to co-evolve. In each case, violence, sex and technology are inextricably entwined in shocking and perverted ways.
In Videodrome, small-time network producer Max Renn (James Woods) becomes obsessed by the shocking violence of a program called Videodrome, which he intercepts from a satellite. As it turns out, the program contains a signal that causes the growth of brain tumors, and triggers nightmarish hallucinations--hallucinations that slowly take over reality. Some of Max's more colorful hallucinations include a heaving, moaning television set, the opening of a gaping vaginal VHS drive in his chest, and the transformation of his hand into a gun. Don't even get me started on the implications of that particular image. I think you can all insert your own thoughts on this.
The violent world of Videodrome is hermetic and self-contained. Perhaps it is a manifestation of the collective imagination. To Max it is, nevertheless, impossible to access. Its signal cannot be located, and Max cannot ever seem to determine whether the violent acts portrayed on Videodrome are simulated or not. It is almost as if the images within the broadcast exist in a metaphysical plane all their own, in a place where there is no distinction between the real and the simulated. In the film, this televisual plane becomes equated with the after-life. Where man and film technology meet, a new being is created.
Seemingly, the first to achieve this digital nirvana is television personality, Professor O'Blivion (Jack Creley). Max seeks him out, only to find that he can only be reached through the television screen; he no longer exists in the flesh, but through his recorded video tapes. And as the omniscient O'Blivion notes,
"The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television."By extension, the hallucinations that are induced by Videodrome necessarily become Max's reality. It sort of makes you wonder what might happen if you were to watch this film one too many times.