Magnificent Obsessions is a monthly column featuring close readings by our resident formal analyst, Veronica Fitzpatrick. Each month, she takes a bite-size snapshot of a cinematic moment summoned by the issue’s theme: this is love as scrutiny.
It wouldn’t be David Cronenberg if we weren’t held in the uncertainty of whether something freaky could feel good. In Dead Ringers, Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) is trussed to an iron footboard with rubber tubing and surgical clamps. Gasping in her nightshirt, she clutches at the ligatures. At the end of Crash, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) lies bruised on the highway median with her skirt around her waist. Her husband hovers, kissing her jaw as she cuts her eyes away. Focused offscreen in the grass or the air above it, her flat, tapered gaze is key to our not knowing—whether she’s turned on, whether she’s in pain, or how sensation enhances or subtends the scene of desire. Equally suggestive and inconclusive, it could be the stare of someone who suspends visual stimulus in order to come, or the studious avoidance of a person getting stitches.
That we’re left wondering is Cronenberg’s calling card. Not the visual extremism for which his films are typically known, but the commitment to embodied ambivalence that courses throughout his career, and the particular, memorable forms—the tight grip, the flat look—that ambivalence takes. He cuts the template with 1983’s Videodrome, a convoluted tech conspiracy that develops the incorporation horror of Shivers and Rabid, and presages the programmed resistance plot of eXistenZ. In an essay republished for the Criterion release, Carrie Rickey spells out the formula: “In a Cronenberg film, pure pathology is often indistinguishable from pure pleasure—and their common source is the body.” Meaning, the trappings of mutation and disease, long of interest to the former science student, tend to look and sound like the transformative symptoms of desire.
Accordingly, the moment I always return to isn’t one of Videodrome’s spectacular set pieces—the invagination of Max’s wiry abdomen, or Barry Convex’s gurgling decomposition on the trade show floor—but it is what I consider the film’s Cronenberg turn: the instant you understand that that’s what you’re watching. Where the film admits its appetite for what bodies can stand and do.
Cable exec Max Renn (James Woods) curates late night programming for Civic-TV. Early in the film, an arty Japanese screener titled Samurai Dreams sets off his disappointment with the pallid landscape of contemporary porn. Watching a geisha ceremonially unsheathe a dildo, he sighs (sans irony), “It’s soft. There’s something too soft about it. I’m looking for something that’ll break through. Something tough.” Naïve from the start, Max imagines softness and strength as diametrical poles, self-evident and mutually exclusive. His wish for incontrovertible toughness is answered by Videodrome, the minimalist snuff show his lackey Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) pirates from a scrambled transmission. In the initial clip, a pair of hooded figures in blue hazmat suits wrestle a naked woman against a clay-like wall. Max isn’t sure the footage is “real”—as in, not acted— but he’s instantly convinced of its extraordinary potential.
Likewise, his infatuation with radio personality Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) is sudden and a little scary. As guests on a live talk show, they’re meant to be opponents: he the libertine insisting media provides a safe outlet for hardwired violent impulses, and she the kittenish self-help guru, suspicious of mass media’s ubiquitous flow. When Max suggests her choice of a red dress undercuts her critique, Nicki simply absorbs the feedback, proving her own point. “I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation,” she drawls. Immediately, he asks her out.
Back at Max’s apartment, Nicki sifts through stacks of VHS tapes. She’s traded the red dress for a one-shoulder batwing blouse: pink, knit, soft. Cool light slants through the blinds as Max pours a drink under a spray of gladiolas; the scene, in other words, is tacky, a noir precedent to Silk Stalkings. Searching for porn, Nicki raises a cassette. “What’s this, Videodrome?” Max demurs, “Torture, murder…ain’t exactly sex.” “Says who?” She smiles.
If his early dismissal of Samurai Dreams as too soft to be sufficiently hardcore displayed a certain failure of imagination, Max’s reluctance to screen the tape for Nicki confirms his double standard. The Videodrome program is porn insofar as it appeals to the cutting edge late-night audience, but it’s not sex, where sex—not porn—is presumably what women, even the ones in red dresses, want. Unsurprisingly, then, Max loses the plot entirely as Nicki responds to the tape. On the diegetic screen, staticky footage shows a screaming woman restrained, suspended, flogged. When Nicki springs forward, Max mistakes her incredulousness for contempt.
As Nicki Brand, Debbie Harry sucks incandescence from the Teleranger screen. Her teeth press her lips perpetually apart in an expression unclassifiable as strictly pouting or smirking; on someone else it’d be a parody of sexiness, like an impression of a blow-up doll. On Harry, it’s an insouciant demonstration of just how good someone can look in your periphery. How light on the right person’s chin or cheekbones is what makes “watching a movie” a timeless euphemism.
When she says she can take it, and asks Max to cut her at the clavicle—just a little—is he disgusted or aroused? Unnerved more by her predilection for blood play, or by the healing lines that indicate someone’s beat him to it? Asked whether she really let someone cut her, Nicki replies, “What do you think,” and the question isn’t so much a challenge as the onset of an invitation. As usual, Max doesn’t know what to think. The scene comes to a head in the next shot, where Nicki, amused and undeterred, hazards the question that underlies so much of what we do to one another’s bodies: “Wanna try a few things?”
It’s a small moment, and its smallness obsesses me. When Springsteen murmurs he’s gota bad desire, I feel it in my sternum: no desire but bad desire. Nicki Brand’s question works in much the same way, hailing the viewer to exit the scene of familiarity and re-enter the room as if transported, which is exactly what the camera does, not waiting for his answer.
We cut to a position near the apartment entrance. Here, the conversational shot-reverse shot pattern of the previous scene gives way to liquid movement as we survey Max’s dirty dishes and drift forward over the back of the couch. Max and Nicki lay naked across the floor with their backs to the screen, spooning over a pool of ruddy fabric that echoes the arena’s red walls. Howard Shore’s strings rise as Max traces a long black needle over the arc of Nicki’s hip to her ear. In close-up, he uses both hands to guide the needle to her lobe. We see the visible pressure of entry: the skin’s resistance and implied rupture. In an even tighter shot, his fingers pull the needle through, and it drags for a second before popping loose, leaving a bead of blood. Max lifts the needle to his mouth. One side down.
Rewatching this procedure, I think of another ear piercing-as-date, this one in Ana Lily Amirpour’s seductive vampire Western, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Early in the film, actual vampire The Girl (Sheila Vand) meets mock vampire Arash (Arash Marandi) somewhere between home and a costume party. Instead of draining his blood, she takes him to her basement bedroom and they share an achingly inert slow dance under disco ball light. Another night soon after, she meets him parked outside a factory, which they face side-by-side as if watching TV.
Arash presents her with a pair of diamond earrings. He’s noticed her ears aren’t pierced, but in the interest of accepting his gift, she produces a safety pin. Surprised but unfazed, he baptizes the pin with his lighter for a few moments before moving in close. The pin’s precise progress is lost to shadow in A Girl’s black and white chiaroscuro, but we hear a soft pop as the Girl whips away, her full fangs briefly visible. She recovers from the reflex, pinches the stud into place, and turns to expose the other ear. Arash lifts his fingers to her neck once it’s done; silent, she submits her face to his examination. “What lucky earrings,” he says.
In Amirpour’s hands, the scene is acutely, nostalgically romantic: the young couple at a secluded lookout, the shy silence, the symbolic intimacy of jewelry that isn’t simply placed or clasped, but implanted. It’s also necessarily perverse. Painful, but not torture; not exactly sex, but aspirational in its inexactness.
For Max and Nicki in Videodrome, the piercing may seem like a bit of overly analogical foreplay—especially when, after he does her other ear, they end up basically grinding on the floor in a recognizable and not particularly innovative approximation of sex. Yet formally, the scene continues to mutate: the wet sounds of their kissing turn swampy in distortion; their limbs overlap until close-ups of skin fill and flatten the frame. When the camera finally pulls back, we see the tangle of Max’s living room has vanished, replaced by the vacant Videodrome arena. The surreal transition may remind us of something Max observed earlier—watching the footage, marveling at the show’s singular focus—“We never leave that room.”
So we don’t. Not when the body is the room where we go to be radically permeable, where softness is the ability to survive what it withstands. “There is no getting away from the monstrosity of the body, or from the violence with which it is transformed,” writes Steven Shaviro. We can’t get away. But do we want to?