Monday, February 4, 2008

Long Live The New Flesh: 25 Years of VIDEODROME

“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. 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.”

There are a lot of filmmakers who take some time to find their voice, but David Cronenberg has always been David Cronenberg. If you go back to his student films STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE, you'll find the same themes of biological change and the melding of body and machine that have persisted throughout almost all of his work. Still, there has been a critical consensus to separate Cronenberg's earlier work up to SCANNERS, which is often seen as more commercial, from his later work, which is regarded as more personal. I find this idea interesting, as if Cronenberg the filmmaker has been growing since he was "born" in 1966 and started making films fresh out of the womb. The early work is more adolescent, with its fixation on sex and violence (and in the case of FAST COMPANY, cars) while the later work more mature and character-driven. This is all well and good in theory and while there are certainly "old Cronenberg" and "new Cronenberg" camps, I think that all sides can agree that the film that turned the corner for Cronenberg, from Grindhouse director to arthouse auteur, was 1983's VIDEODROME, his "coming of age" as a filmmaker and his first of many masterpieces.

Interesting thing about VIDEODROME is that even though it's considered by many to be a classic today, it's taken a long ass time to get there. Although it was Cronenberg's first studio film (the success of SCANNERS brought Universal a-callin'), it was dumped into early February (a movie wasteland even then) and barely lasted a month in theaters, making absolutely no money (its box office failure led Cronenberg into a "director for hire" phase that gave us THE DEAD ZONE and THE FLY, two more masterworks). Horror fans and Cronenberg aficionados picked up on it throughout the years, as did the odd intelligentsia (apparently Warhol was an admirer, quoted in the ads calling it, "The CLOCKWORK ORANGE of the 80s"), but it took quite some time for VIDEODROME to become what it is today. The rising of Cronenberg's stock on the international film scene made a big difference, but even more so was something that no one could have ever predicted: VIDEODROME became downright prophetic. This movie isn't just 25 years before its time, it's 25 years before the rest of time, a movie that may not have predicted the internet, iPods and iPhones, mini-DV cams, YouTube and the like, but god damn if it doesn't feel like it played a role in their development. Although it's filled with plenty of outdated technology (Beta tapes and Atari 2600s), it feels like an incredibly relevant film today, 25 years to the day after its original release.

“I believe that the growth in my head-this head-this one right here. I think that it is not really a tumor... not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling pot of flesh... but that it is in fact a new organ... a new part of the brain.”

Cronenberg claims that he wasn’t trying to be visionary with VIDEODROME and that any similarities to the reality of the film and the reality of today is nothing more than coincidence, but it’s downright eerie when you think about it. TV monitors are everywhere, from phones to supermarkets to the backseats of cars to, yes, the Internet (you’re not reading this in a magazine, are you?), and seemingly every moment of our lives is being recorded in one way or another, whether we’re aware of it or not. More so than ever we’re living in a televised age and the manner to which this has altered our reality and our perceptions of reality (“After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?”) has turned Cronenberg’s vision of “The New Flesh” into real flesh. Of course, many of Cronenberg’s ideas were inspired by Marshall McLuhan, but the manner to with which he took those ideas and made them into something so truly unique, so Cronenbergian, if you will, makes VIDEODROME a truly original film. I love how the force behind Videodrome turns out to be a conservative force out to destroy society’s dregs with the sleaze they so desire (“What kind of person would want to watch a scum show like ‘Videodrome’?”); VIDEODROME may have been a reaction to early 80s conservativism, but once again, in the age of Bush, it feels like it’s a concept that’s never left us. It’s in every porn site, every place for online gambling or gaming, anywhere that’s going to give the dregs of society a place to destroy themselves from within while the morally upright wait for their opportunity to seize control. Again, Cronenberg insist that it’s not meant as any kind of warning sign, but VIDEODROME can’t help but feel like a warning: Your freedom isn't as free as you think it is.

I mentioned before how VIDEODROME was an important transitory film for Cronenberg, but just as important, is was also the film where he and his collaborators all started to find their grooves and began to do some of their best work. Howard Shore’s score is positively haunting throughout and a perfect mixture of orchestral and electronic; Mark Irwin’s cinematography is beautifully dark and oppressive, while Carol Spier’s production design is note-perfect, especially the world of Videodrome itself, which couldn’t have been conceptualized better. This is also the film that set Cronenberg on a long run of brilliant lead performances; who else could have played Max Renn except James Woods? This may have been one of those roles that typecast Woods as a sleazebag for the early part of his career, but he’s so perfect in this part, and he plays it so smart (the guy’s not an idiot), that this is unquestionably Woods’ best roles. Cronenberg was also wise to cast Debbie Harry, one of the most desirable women of her time (and one of the most adventurous), as Nicki Brand, and she's honestly never looked better than she did here, nor was she ever as seductive, either, and she was a pretty damn seductive woman in her time. Sonia Smits and Les Carlson also supply solid backup. Simply put, everyone involved in VIDEODROME is working at the level of quality that Cronenberg needs them to be, and they all share in the film's artistic success. This is unquestionably one of the best films of the 80s and one of those movies that defines just what kind of cinema fan you are: safe or adventurous? It's become a major favorite of mine and I make sure I view it at least once every five years not just to re-visit its qualities but to see if I can get a glimpse into the future. It's going to remain relevant for a long motherfucking time to come.

"Your reality is already HALF video hallucination. If you're not careful, it will become TOTAL hallucination. You'll have to learn to live in a very strange new world."

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