Monday, October 22, 2012

Making Monsters #21: Videodrome

Videodrome is the first film directed by David Cronenberg that fully realizes the director's ideas, preoccupations and fetishes. Cronenberg takes the premise of a bootleg cable broadcaster (James Woods) who discovers a sadistic, ultraviolent underground program that carries a signal which mutates the viewer's mind and body and runs with it - the movie is like a Marshall McLuhan essay brought to life with more fleshy orifices and sadomasochistic sex than McLuhan might have envisioned. The film anticipates the digital era not with a single thesis statement but by illustrating the notion of video as a constantly mutating, malleable, living organism that can be manipulated to serve any ideology. That it realizes this idea through James Woods discovering a vaginal video player in his torso, hallucinating himself whipping a bound Debbie Harry in the clay-walled Videodrome set and killing one character with a flesh grenade not only makes this the most entertaining media studies lecture ever; it's also a clear view into the mind of a filmmaker who is at once highly intelligent and fascinatingly kinky.

Cronenberg's video hallucinations were brought to life by Rick Baker, who does a great job of bringing the director's most extreme concepts to life with a tactile, often squishy believability. Baker does an incredible job, in particular, of realizing the idea of video technology as a living, breathing thing. A videotape's sprockets suddenly protrude like bulging eyes, and TVs breathe, pulsate, get aroused and ooze blood and guts when they're injured. In the movie's most memorable scene, a TV featuring Debbie Harry's character, conservative pundit/masochist Nikki Brand, purrs seductively at Woods' character, Max Renn. It's not clear, at this point, whether Brand is working for Videodrome's makers or if Videodrome is masquerading for Brand; either way, it's quite a sight when a close-up of Harry's lips protrudes from the screen, urging Max to "come to Nikki." As Max presses his face against the screen, the lip envelop his head in an image that is both freakily sensual and just plain freaky. Baker created the effect by replacing the TV's screen with a large dental dam that he could stretch and manipulate while a rear projection of Harry's lips played on the screen. I can't recall another movie where the monster is media itself - Cronenberg's villains are often concepts that he doesn't always feel a need to personify - and certainly not another filmmaker who could make such a cerebral notion of horror so viscerally unnerving


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