Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Lobby Card #9: Videodrome

david curcio

Lobby Card: Videodrome (woodcut and drypoint with stitching and embroidered edges)

In the great canon of body horror, David Cronenberg invented his own sub-genre, aptly dubbed venereal horror by an early critic (source? not handy).  His first film (Shivers, 1975) depicted a sexually-transmitted parasitic slug that turns a deluxe, self-sufficient condominium complex into a hive of ravenous, murderous sex fiends.  From here his films grew  ever-more visceral: a rabies outbreak in Toronto spread through bites and sexual contact (Rabid); a clinic wherein emotional disturbances are manifested into grotesque, physical, sometimes murderous forms (The Brood); bad pregnancy pills that imbue offspring with mind-controlling abilities (Scanners); a meditation on  decay and  disease (particularly the AIDS epidemic) in the gruesome remake of The Fly; twin gynecologists who develop tools for use on the deformed (Dead Ringers); a gorgeous, surreal swipe at Burrough’s The Naked Lunch (with a typewriter, part insect and part asshole, who talks like an old Jewish man)… and the list goes on.
And there’s 1983’s Videodrome, perhaps the best of the lot.  James Woods plays Max Wren, a sleazy but likable (when is Woods not likable?) partner at a cable channel specializing in pornography and giving the audience, in his words, “a healthy outlet” for their perversions.  Forever in search of the next shock, he is transfixed when his technician shows him a pirate broadcast depicting brutal rapes and beatings with an “almost no production value” snuff-like quality.  Max is indeed interested.  In fact, he can’t stop watching it.

david curcio

James Woods as Max Wren: Despite his character’s penchant for sleaze, he gives into his hallucinations and the blurring of realities with conviction and a smarmy dignity.

He and his new girlfriend Nicki (the smouldering poster girl for cool, Miss Debbie Harry), a masochist and the host of a radio call-in show called Emotional Rescue, begin watching Videodrome together (Nicki finds it particularly arousing and addictive).  So begins for Max a new dalliance with S&M involving cutting, skin-piercing, and plenty of rough sex.  All the while the inimical Videodrome signal is corrupting his brain by causing a tumor that brings on disconcerting, often terrifying hallucinations, distancing him ever more from reality.  We soon learn that an evil corporation (a favorite Cronenbergian device) is at the root of the signal, which can be applied to any kind of imagery or content, not just porn.  Imagine the possibilities…

Debbie Harry with cigarette and breasts.

Debbie Harry with cigarette and breasts.

Maybe the VHS technology looks ancient by today’s standards (though Woods does have an espresso maker in his apartment), but this was 1983.  While no one outside of the field would have predicted the digitalization of television and the death of physical media (video cassettes, etc.), the tale could easily be updated to the present day.  Alas, our love of technology, shortening attention spans and compulsion for thrill seeking and voyeurism still go hand in hand (internet porn or our compulsion to flip through billions of cable stations shows this to be the case).  And therein lies the film’s prescience: how quickly we are willing to surrender our will to second-hand, manufactured stimulation.

david curcio

It is a standout genre film in a decade of tightened censors and strict adherence to the ratings system.  With its unique take on the medium of television, it is miles away from other 80s films dealing with television at the time, which often revolved around critiques of the newsroom and politics (Network, Broadcast News and Soap Dish). The only other film of the decade that comes close to showing us television’s perverse and hypnotic effects is a brief scene in 1984’s  Repo Man where Otto’s parents sit transfixed by a TV evangelist.  Replete with special effects, we are privy to Woods lashing a television showing a bound and writhing Nicki on the screen; burying his head in a throbbing television suggesting cunnilingus and a clamoring return to the womb; and a new, vagina-like orifice on his stomach into which he accidentally misplaces his gun.  It is technological terror on a level we have not seen since, and certainly hadn’t seen before.


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