We Never Leave That Room

A Watcher’s Guide to Videodrome

illustration by Dani Manning

“I do not believe that a dream should necessarily be taken for reality, or reality for madness.”
—Adolfo Bioy Casares,
The Invention of Morel

BLUE
SAMURAI DREAMS / THE LIVING ROOM
(MAX)

EXCERPT FROM THE WATCHER’S GUIDE TO THE CATHODE-RAY TUBE TELEVISION: SEE THE WORLD, WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR ROOM BY FAUSTINE PHOSPHOR, PUBLISHED BY VISIONA PUBIS MANUALS, 1983:

“…the heart of the television is a gun. An electron gun, contained within the long and thick cathode-ray tube, which via that gun ejaculates beams of electrons upon the screen. This powerful thrust of beams consists of three colors—blue, green, and red. These colors form a series of repeating dots, or pixels, that then coat the screen. When looked at closely, individually, these disparate, repeating sections of blue, green, and red may seem random, or even haphazard and nonsensical in their arrangement. Only by standing back, opening oneself, and taking them so very deep into your eye whole, can one see that a carefully arranged and unified vision coheres when these sections are layered side by side…”

~

Videodrome is a film that begins as it ends, or ends as it begins. It is a strange, cathode-tubed ouroboros—the ancient symbol for the cycle of destruction and rebirth—in which the film’s ending repeats and then destroys and then possibly rebirths its beginning, a phosphorescent loop of UHF philosophizing, pixelated eroticism, and goregasmed genre Grand Guignolitry.

It begins with a flush of beams exploding across a television screen in a dark living room, cohering into the image of a woman (Julie Khaner) coyly, then more emphatically, urging her lone viewer to “slowly, painfully ease yourself back into consciousness,” and assuring him that she is not a dream—she is, instead, an assistant on a videotaped wake-up call, recorded to Betamax in order to push her one watcher out of sleep and back into waking life.

It ends with a startle of pixels intercoursing throughout a hallucinated television screen in a dark dying room, gelling together into the image of a woman (Debbie Harry) serenely urging her lonely viewer to suicidally “go on to the next phase” of consciousness beyond the trappings of the physical flesh, assuring him that death is not the end—claiming that she has herself physically died and electronically transcended into a new state of being, and is now a guide to push her only watcher out of the old flesh and into a state of more real, purely televised life.

Between those twinned moments of dubious potential transcendence lies the illusory/elusive meaning of Videodrome, a contradictorily compact cinematic expanse of carnality and carnage. It is a film somehow penetratingly direct yet queasily diffuse, in which competing thematic signals of media studies, transhumanism, sexuality, conspiranoid political commentary, metaphysics and ontology, and the potential effects of televised hyperviolence blur together like hazily received UHF broadcasts into a singularly strange electronic collage of late-20th century savagery—all as it hungrily views the effects of the above on the flesh and the mind of a singular voyeur.

That lonely viewer is Max Renn (James Woods, at the height of his rawboned and nervy, reptilian intensity; all nicotine-thin, sleep-sucked eyes, and galvanic cheekbones dotted with lunar pockmarks), the president of the CIVIC-TV corporation, a gleefully lascivious Toronto-based cable television station that specializes in “everything from softcore pornography to hardcore violence.” And while these opening and closing sequences with Max take place in different locations, they truly are located within the same room—a voyeur’s cave, dank and shadow-flit, centralized around a television set whose flickering light dances across the walls like firelight and pulses within its viewer’s wet, hungry retinas like electric lifeblood. Max is flattened against the cushions directly opposite the TV in both places, purely a receiver of signals programmed just for him, signals loaded with sexualized flattery that appeal to his hungers and his vanity but also with an unyielding, unflinching insistence that he obey, which he does. Because Max, for all his dreams and longing for ‘tougher’ CIVIC-TV programming, for all his radiating antenna waves of flaunted sexual desire, is a man of inaction, one who must be directed by his visions, rather than the other way around. He is a true voyeur, one whose desire to skirt consequential acts of meaningful intimacy is superseded only by his desire to watch the superficially graphic sex and violence he sees as cathartically replacing them.

~

EXCERPT FROM A CHILD’S ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO TELEVISED RACING CRASHES, DISASTERS, AND WRECKAGE (4th EDITION) BY DR. ROBERT VAUGHN, PHD, PUBLISHED BY SPERMOLINE BOOKS, 1996:

“…the Rennmax (a collision of the German word for fast, ‘renn,’ and ‘max,’ the shorthand for maximum) racing motorcycle was invented in 1952 (the same year that television made its debut in Canada) as an extraordinarily compact racing vehicle, all narrow framing and spindly body, marked by an almost sensuously organic metal tubing for increased thrust, designed to be pushed harder, faster, tougher than its predecessors—though dangerous engine instability and, finally, explosive burnout was a problem early on with the model (see fig. 18.A: ‘Racer’s Abdomen Penetrated Deep By Exploded Engine Conrod’)…” 

~

A moment, late in Videodrome’s running time:

“You wanna see the monkey dance?”

Max Renn—his brain so overdosed on a weaponized television signal that it has either grown a fleshy new organ of heightened perception, or simply a malignant tumor that broadcasts delusions of sexualized violence to his corroded cerebellum—has become a kind of street-skulking, programmable assassin, a gun-flashing/fleshing samurai wandering throughout what he perceives to be a hallucinatory TV dreamworld in which he has been told, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

“You wanna see the monkey dance, you pay the piper.”

Prepping for his next assassination, he encounters a ranting homeless man standing next to a battery-operated TV, the screen phosphor-burned with images of Max’s face and news reports of his recent murder spree. Unlike a busker who plays music for spare change, the homeless man allows passing citizens to watch his TV—in this case Max, to whom the homeless man offers the chance to see himself on television, to thus see himself as more real than reality. The homeless man gestures towards the flickering black and white unit, and then the coin plate atop it.

You know how much my monkey’s batteries cost?

~

As a kind of 89-minute devil’s advocate thought experiment, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is itself a voyeur, one that rewatches and ruminates upon the psychosexual holocausts of the Cronenberg films that preceded it. Fascinated by the criticism that his filmography might contain enough bubbling, burbling horrors of eroticized violence/violent eroticism to metabolize actual violence within his audience, Cronenberg crafted a Canadian tax-shelter Molotov cocktail of satire, snuff, and sex as a means to examine the potential cost of viewing the kinds of cinematic extremes that cabled throughout his work up to that point.

So much of his first seven films1 are given over to the penetrant study of the human body, its restless hungers, its mutagenic horrors, its chemical cascades resulting in horrors as thrilling as they are destabilizing, its capacity for disease and pleasure and pain and the strange physiological borderlands in which those elements intersect, flowering into growth, addiction, and/or death. As such, his work is an on-the-surface compendium of transgressive sex and violence, from the apocalyptic horrors and pleasures of diseased sex that traverse Stereo (1969), Crimes of the Future (1970), Shivers (1975), and Rabid (1977), to the psychological ravages created by aberrant biology in The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981). Beneath the surface, though, is an inquiry into how all of those disturbing, genre-smuggled elements layer together like pixels on a screen to form within a biological being—you, me, them, us, Cronenberg—an identity. How that cell clump that is the brain, sheathed within a thinboned skull and racked with oscillating currents of electricity, is like a gun firing forward the strange wants and needs and hurts and desires that make a person a person, always growing, always looking for more ammunition. 

His is a dreadsplattered body of work about the flood of increasingly extreme sensations that the human body and consciousness can not only withstand, but enjoy, or even use to transcend into more exalted states of consciousness and being.

As a counterbalance, Videodrome is—among so many things—about the act of watching those sensations, of rendering oneself a void, a screen to be projected upon by visions of another, to hunger for transcendence yet be unable to press beyond the watching of others who attain it.

Videodrome asks: what, ultimately, does it mean to watch? What can (and what does) it achieve?

A moment, early in Videodrome’s running time:

Well, it’s a matter of economics, Rena. We’re small. In order to survive, we have to give people something they can’t get anywhere else. And we do that…I care enough, in fact, to give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a socially positive act.

Despite being a deeply first-person subjective POV film couched solely within Max’s increasingly warped voyeur’s perspective, it’s in keeping with Videodrome’s intensely cryptic, contradictory nature that the sequence that acts as a key to understanding the film’s structure and goal(s) is not found buried, like some subcarrier frequency, in one of Max’s indelibly disturbing hallucination setpieces—from the vaginal Betamax slit that wounds/wombs his belly, to the biomechanized hand-gun that erupts from his wrist—but is instead portrayed in plain sight amidst the harsh lighting and fake plastic trees of a TV talk show. The satirical Rena King Show sequence, a skewering of the banality and ideological irony of a pseudointellectual daytime TV show itself attacking TV, is where Cronenberg establishes (while slyly subverting) the characters, themes, and storytelling devices that will pixelate together to form his liminal study. 

There’s Max: glib and smarmy as he’s interviewed about CIVIC-TV’s dedication to exploitation extremity, flippantly dismissing host Rena King’s concerns about sex and violence. Always a watcher, he cannot fathom why others don’t wish to watch as well. He is Cronenberg’s study of voyeurism, quite literally, embodied. And just as that voyeur’s passivity will render Max a pawn to the potent subterranean power-players that lurk within the film, so too does it transform his body for the film—into a canvas to display all manner of graphic and geysering horror VFX while his addled mind allows for his director to cinematically probe the act of watching. It is through Max that Videodrome’s requisite and shocking Cronenbergian genre elements are smuggled, as well as the themes of voyeurism they engender and explore.

“The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye…That’s why I refuse to appear on television, except on television. Of course O’Blivion is not the name I was born with. That’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode-ray tube to resonate.”

There’s “media prophet” Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley): if Max is the walking-talking totem for the glib dismissal of the potency of television, this cold, hyper-cerebral Rena King Show guest is the film’s critical counter-programming to Max’s hotshot overload of genre thrills. Modeled after Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan, O’Blivion is both the face of Cronenberg’s philosophic inquiry into the nature of television’s effect on the viewer, and a parodic undercutting of it. O’Blivion’s statements about television’s effect on the evolution of the human mind (and thus the mind’s effect on the evolution of the flesh that contains it) are frequently as comically insane as they are labyrinthine and insightful; in keeping with the film’s constant doubling-back on itself, he may be the face of Cronenberg’s thought experiment, but he’s also the director’s seemingly sly admission that this experiment itself is something of a dark existential joke. He is Videodrome’s scholarly and ontological motor, its super-ego to Max’s ego—O’Blivion has purely intellectualized our relationship with watching to the point that he has transformed himself into someone who can only be watched, since he will only appear on a television screen. Not the screen that contains the Rena King Show; rather, O’Blivion only appears on a small TV set stationed between Rena and Max. Max’s opposite, O’Blivion—for all his zonked, quiet strangeness—has self-realized himself into a being to be seen, while Max is one who can only watch.

Well I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional, or sexual.

There’s radio personality Nicki Brand (Blondie singer-songwriter Debbie Harry, channeling her steely punk sexuality, new wave cool, and extraterrestrial luminance into a character so arresting that she and her pixel-red dress seem to heat-warp the film that contains her): if Max is Videodrome’s id, and O’Blivion its super-ego, Nicki is the ego, the middle-ground balance between these two extreme vantages. Her radiating hypersexuality (“I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation”) as well as her condemnation of it (“and I think that’s bad”) act as a kind of thematic fusion between the voyeuristic genre kinks of Max and the contradictory and satirical philosophizing self-critiques lobbed by O’Blivion. With each repeated viewing (make no mistake, Videodrome requires repeated viewings; even then, its slippery channel surfings between coherent meanings render it a relentless mystery-loop), Nicki more and more seems to be the key to the entire enterprise. Her commentary on her own need to consume sex and violence and yet condemn it…her voracious sexuality…even the nature of her reality within the context of the film (note how she is first glimpsed in a Rena King Show camera monitor before then being seen on the set in “reality”—is this simply a clever visual nod to her thematic position between the televised O’Blivion and in-the-flesh Max? Or, in a film in which multiple characters will appear as hallucinations within television sets, is it a more sinister implication about the nature of her reality?) all seem to locus within her the skeleton key to understanding, or at least beginning to understand, Videodrome, its self-reflexive voyeur’s tale, and what it asks of us, the voyeurs who watch it.

Together, with Max and O’Blivion, Nicki completes the thematic beams that coalesce into Videodrome. Before a trite television setting of unreality, with its cheap cardboard backgrounds and fake foliage, they blend and distort together to form the throughlines of the film’s complicated motifs and competing perspectives—its confusing double meanings, all jacketed with shocking genre elements, and perfumed with an overwhelming sexuality and sensations that it gorges upon.

GREEN
UNCONTROLLABLE FLESH / THE CATHODE-RAY MISSION
(O’BLIVION)

EXCERPT FROM THE WATCHER’S GUIDE TO THE CATHODE-RAY TUBE TELEVISION: SEE THE WORLD, WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR ROOM BY FAUSTINE PHOSPHOR, PUBLISHED BY VISIONA PUBIS MANUALS, 1983:

“…your television can not only be inseminated by the programming beams from the satellites above; indeed, you can manually stimulate your own unit with the technology called home video. Currently, there are two mediums of home video competing for the dominance of your device: 

  • VHS: larger, clunkier, but far less costly; 
  • Betamax: while far more effective and featuring a greater clarity, it comes at a much higher cost…”

There is an almost unbearable tension that permeates every level of Videodrome like buzzing static, as if the contradictory nature of its creation—a filmmaker whose work is aesthetically and thematically driven by sexual and violent elements, then creates a sexual and violent film that inquires as to whether sex and violence in film and television create deleterious effects in the voyeurs who kink-watch them—has eternally burned a circuit in its core, creating a neverending signal loop at war with itself, continually beginning, then ending as it began with a kind of destructive rebirth, forcing itself to begin again.

This warring feedback loop touches everything in Videodrome—even the portrayal of reality itself:

  • On one level of “objective” reality, Videodrome is the story of Max Renn, an unscrupulous cable TV network owner driven to find tougher and more sexually extreme and violent programming to slake his own dark thirsts to watch such savagery from a safe remove, a voyeur who believes the rest of the world/his viewing audience needs the same. Constantly watching this subversive tele/video content (coupled with the potential fallout from an attempted sadomasochistic relationship with Nicki Brand that may—or may not—have occurred) drives Max insane, and he goes on a mass shooting spree before killing himself.

  • On another, more “subjective” level of reality with which we are directly presented (Videodrome makes involuntary voyeurs of all its viewers, allowing us to see the world exactly as Max’s mind perceives it), Max discovers a vast conspiracy for control of the mind of North America, and it is called “Videodrome.” Videodrome is a television signal created by Professor O’Blivion and his organization of liberal intelligentsia, the Cathode-Ray Mission, and is designed to generate brain tumors in those dosed by the signal. The tumors then induce hallucinatory visions dictated by the televised content delivering the signal; these visions, O’Blivion believes, are a higher form of consciousness and the next step in human evolution beyond the flesh.

  • Meanwhile, representing another coterie of the film’s oppositional forces, conservative ex-partners of O’Blivion known as Spectacular Optical (“We make inexpensive glasses for the Third World and missile guidance systems for NATO”) assassinate O’Blivion and begin using the Videodrome signal to program Max, and later the entire viewing audience of CIVIC-TV, into assassins to destroy their enemies and prep North America for the ideological conflicts of “savage new times.” Ever the screen to be projected upon, both the Cathode-Ray Mission and Spectacular Optical begin dosing Max with competing Videodrome signals as he becomes a passive subordinate in the war between both (a beta Max, if you will), before his contradictory programming becomes so hard-looped that it invites him into suicide as a form of rebirth beyond the constraints of his flesh.

~

TRANSCRIPT FROM WORDPLAY: THE MEANINGS AND ILLUSIONS OF LANGUAGE, HOSTED BY DR. ALEXANDRE MOREL, ORIGINALLY BROADCAST ON THE PUBLIC BROADCASTING STATION ON APRIL 1, 1983:

…take, for instance, the word ‘oblivion.’ What do you think it means? What illusion have you made of this word, what false projection to house the fugitive definition on the island of its real meaning? Do you think it means violence? You’d be wrong! ‘Oblivion’ derives from the Latin for ‘oblivious’; that is, to be unable to see. It means to end, to pass into an unseen state—what could be worse than to not be seen?!? Yet it also contains another meaning, somehow contradictory and at war with the first definition: archaic usage of the word defined it as a form of amnesty and pardon for sins committed—a kind of rebirth. Can you imagine such a word? One that means to end…but also means to begin again?…”

~

The oppositional forces within Videodrome, both driving it to its conclusion (or beginning?) and  pushing it to a dangerous edge of implosion like a faulty Rennmax engine, can be found everywhere in the film, within every element, hazing the story with its scrambled glow. It’s even seen in the film-within-a-film softcore porno that Max refuses to purchase for CIVIC-TV from his pornographer acquaintance Masha (Lynne Gorman), dismissing the film as “too naïve, too sweet.” The film is a Greek romp called Apollo & Dionysus—named for the dialectical sons of Zeus: Apollo (he of logic and order) and Dionysus (he of passion and chaos), with Videodrome’s everlasting feedback loop of opposites even arcing throughout its porn. But the softcore flick could have just as easily been called O’Blivion & Renn, with their twinned (and yet wildly divergent) pursuits of meaning within the Videodrome arena.

Max first receives the Videodrome signal when it’s intercepted by CIVIC-TV ‘signal pirate’ Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) in the form of a bootlegged TV series (also called Videodrome) in which men and women appear before an electrified wall of wet red clay and act as if they are being tortured, mutilated, and murdered. Max is intrigued by the few seconds of static-snowed imagery and immediately craves more—this is the toughness, the extremity for which he has been starving. But when he tasks Masha with investigating the production forces behind it in exchange for broadcasting Apollo & Dionysus, she refuses to divulge anything other than the following:

  • Videodrome the TV series is not faked. It is legitimate snuff filmmaking, in which men and women volunteer to be tortured and murdered on film.
  • Videodrome the TV series should not be bought and aired on CIVIC-TV like so much of Masha’s softcore exploits, despite Max believing “it’s what’s next” in voyeuristic consumption. As Masha warns, and Max will learn, it’s “more political than that.” And when Max, despite being even more drawn to Videodrome now that he knows it’s real, expresses bewilderment at why anyone would risk filming torture and murder when faking it is easier and cheaper, Masha explains, “Because it has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous.”

Max is a void, without politics or philosophy—he wishes to watch, with deeper and deeper levels of hunger, new and more hardcore versions of extremity as he becomes desensitized to each successive thrill. He is the Dionysus to O’Blivion’s Apollo, a man and mind of pure philosophy. And yet, even as O’Blivion functions as the film’s inquisition into the nature of television, he is also undercut by the film, as unreliable a critic as Max is a protagonist. While he serves as counterpoint to Max—as well as Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), the head of Spectacular Optical’s conservative movement—and acts as Cronenberg’s running commentary on the nature of televised life at the end of the 20th Century, O’Blivion is also portrayed as ridiculous and misguided in his desire to be “more real” by only being seen on television, just as Max is by wishing to feel more alive just by seeing television.

We never leave that room?” Max asks Harlan while watching a clip from the Videodrome series, as a man screams and dies against the omnipresent red clay wall. And as much as Max’s mind is now as trapped in Videodrome’s room, so too is O’Blivion’s trapped in his own prison—that of the Cathode-Ray Mission.

A kind of temple to the worship of television and the potential for transcendence that it can bring with the Videodrome signal, O’Blivion’s Cathode-Ray Mission is a ludicrous soup kitchen of the mind for Toronto’s homeless, a place where they can go and watch free television. But it also houses, in a sense, the “consciousness” of Brian O’Blivion, a man who died at the hands of Spectacular Optical’s Videodromed tumor 11 months prior. And instead of the true transcendence to “the new flesh” that he prophesied Videodrome would bring, instead of becoming a true televised being of sentience and power within the Videodrome signal, O’Blivion’s only remains are but thousands of home video recordings of his one-sided monologues (“his preferred mode of discourse”) held in the attic of the Cathode-Ray Mission. He found no catharsis with death, no rebirth into new flesh. His philosophy of becoming a purely seen being was as unsustainable as Max’s pursuit of Videodrome.

Because if Videodrome the series truly is snuff TV—the furthest extremity that exploitation filmmaking can reach (as well as a wink at Cronenberg’s critics, who believed that this is where his films were leading)—there is nothing but emptiness beyond. Videodrome the series offers no form or content; it is simply the final extreme, which no voyeur can evolve beyond. Like O’Blivion with his Videodrome signal, Videodrome the series can only leave Max’s mind a hollow room filled with tape, but no genuine transcendence—which seems, perhaps, to be the haunting notion that Videodrome the film ultimately grasps at.

As Cronenberg himself said in an interview during filming, “It’s very hard for me to say what Videodrome is about, in a sense, because I think it’s totally misleading to say that it’s a criticism of television, or that it’s an extension of Network or something like that. It really is exploring what I’ve been doing all along, which is to see what happens when people go to extremes and try to alter their total environment to the point where it comes back and starts to alter their physical selves.

And if the environments of Max and O’Blivion—the living room, the Cathode-Ray Mission—are ultimately empty, unfulfilled, unable to transcend their trappings of seeing and being seen, what does that do to their physical selves? And what alternatives remain to achieve the new flesh?

RED
TOTAL TRANSFORMATION / THE CONDEMNED VESSEL
(NICKI)

EXCERPT FROM THE WATCHER’S GUIDE TO THE CATHODE-RAY TUBE TELEVISION: SEE THE WORLD, WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR ROOM BY FAUSTINE PHOSPHOR, PUBLISHED BY VISIONA PUBIS MANUALS, 1983:

“…of course, there are some who for reasons unknown may be unhappy with ‘just’ their television unit, and those hungry consumers now have a plethora of add-on options with which they can modify their device—Pay Per View, the aforementioned videocassette devices, video game consoles, etc. It’s simply a question of how far are they willing to go to change the device they began their home entertainment journey with…”

Despite their schismic approaches towards enlightenment, Max and O’Blivion (and Barry Convex, and Harlan, and the Cathode-Ray Mission, and Spectacular Optical) both fail at that enlightenment by attempting to alter their environments in the hope that they will then transcend the trappings of their flesh (O’Blivion’s attempt at building a “brain” to outlast his body results in a sterile video storage room; Max’s voyeuristic yearnings leave him alone in an art deco tomb of a living room, locked within a Videodrome hallucination that he is penetrating the vagina in his abdomen with a handgun, literally fucking himself with his obsessed-upon avatars of sex and violence), and both men end up the sole, tumorous occupants of lonely rooms. Rather, it is Nicki Brand who, in the end, appears to network into some form of transcendence. 

Maybe.

At the very least, Nicki attempts to transcend the banality of the everyday not by transforming her environment to alter her flesh, as Cronenberg highlights the men of Videodrome doing, but rather by altering her physical self to achieve a heightened form of consciousness within her environment. While Nicki contains elements of Max and O’Blivion (she enjoys watching both pornography and clips from Videodrome, seeing no difference between the two; she also enjoys being the centralized figure watched by Max’s hungry eyes), she also seems to have bridged a connection beyond what either man is capable of understanding, or willing to risk. 

Perhaps.

 ~

TRANSCRIPT FROM WORDPLAY: THE MEANINGS AND ILLUSIONS OF LANGUAGE, HOSTED BY DR. ALEXANDRE MOREL, ORIGINALLY BROADCAST ON THE PUBLIC BROADCASTING STATION ON FEBRUARY 4, 1981:

…of course, there are many words for the modification of the flesh, and why shouldn’t there be? The flesh is that which encases and protects us. The flesh is that which, cabled as it is with its network of nerves, we filter and process and experience the sensations of our world, our environments, with. The flesh is that which invites us to experience ecstasy, it is that which devastates us with pain. It is the flesh that fills our mind, like antennae to a television, with the programming that is our lives. So of course, what the flesh incurs inspires a cavalcade, an explosive, gushing, throbbing rush of words and terms. Marvel at the variety! ‘Nick,’ for instance. As a noun, it means a small cut or notch into the flesh. As a verb, it means to cut and open that flesh. Or ‘Brand’! Not only can a brand be a type of product or company—such as our fine sponsors at Spectacular Optical, whose newest Medici line reminds us that ‘love comes in at the eye’—but as it relates to the flesh, ‘brand’ refers to the act of deeply burning the flesh…”

~

Nicki Brand—or, perhaps, maybe, “Nicki Brand,” since the film enigmatically makes uncertain the nature of Nikki’s existence within its own reality from the moment she first appears onscreen, thus also making any form of catharsis she achieves as suspect as every other element portrayed in Videodrome—is a sadomasochist, achieving sexual pleasure and a heightened state of consciousness via the infliction of pain upon her flesh. Her pleasures are rooted in genuine action, and she experiences both the thrill of being watched and the thrill of watching the pain inflicted upon her. Her need to alter the flesh via action is a journey that seems, if not outright advocated by Cronenberg or his film, at the very least posited as a better, more effective alternative to Max’s lonely, dead-end spectatorship and O’Blivion’s magnetic tape mausoleum.

Throughout the film, Nicki subverts the needs and aims of Max and O’Blivion. From her first libidinal entrancement to Max in his apartment, glowing with the light of his TV—“You wanna try a few things?”—she pulls both him and the voyeurs watching him into a world of consensual sexual violence that isn’t exploitative, but intimate, almost too intimate; a swirlingly dizzy Cronenbergian landscape in which the exploration of the possibilities of flesh in the here and now, and the emotions that exploration can loose, is the only pursuit that matters. And notice how Max, and even the film, recoils in fear:

For all his dickswagger posturing, Max is shaken by the appearance of tiny, healing nicks that mark Nicki’s collarbone like vertical color bars. When she invites him to pierce her ears with a needle while they fuck on his living room floor, all serpentine bodies smooth and glowing against the light of the TV, the red wrinkled blanket they lie upon resembles the mottled red clay wall of the Videodrome clips Max has already begun to watch, and his vision begins to pixelate like a low-res TV signal—he is unable or unwilling to leave that red clay voyeur’s cave and be present with Nicki in this moment, instead retreating to the “safety” of the empty Videodrome room he prefers to watch. Later, while suggesting she’d like to audition for Videodrome with a line that may contain multiple meanings (“I was made for that show”) and Max insists she not, Nicki asserts her power by demanding Max watch as she puts out a lit cigarette on her breast, branding herself. She then hands the cigarette to Max, a silent demand that he burn her next—as if challenging him to understand she needs something that a mere watcher of Videodrome cannot understand. Before Max can act, the film hard-cuts to a scene in which he has a business meeting in a kitsch restaurant full of sweatily gyrating but silly belly dancers—as if both Max and the film are unable to commit to what Nicki is capable of experiencing, and must look away to more conventional media portrayals of soft, naïve sexuality.

Finally, there is a moment after Nicki has disappeared from Max’s life—has she gone to Videodrome? Did she ever have a relationship with Max in the first place?—and he is hallucinating while watching one of O’Blivion’s home movies. As the professor begins to ramble directly to Max about his visions becoming “uncontrollable flesh” and manifesting upon his body, a hooded Videodrome torturer arrives onscreen to strangle and silence the half-mad media theorist. And when the hood falls from the torturer’s pixeled face, we see that—at least in this hallucination—it is Nicki who has killed O’Blivion, finally silencing his insipid madness.

EXCERPT FROM TV GUIDE: JANUARY 29 – FEBRUARY 4, 1983 (FEATURING THE COVER STORY “TV VIOLENCE: MAKING AMERICA STRONGER?”), PUBLISHED BY TV GUIDE PUBLISHING GROUP (A SUBSIDIARY OF VISIONA PUBIS AND SPECTACULAR OPTICAL)

“FRIDAY, 12:30 AM – 1:30 AM: THE NOCTURNE REGION (orig. airdate: 11/14/56):
‘The Invention of Oblivion’

This mostly forgotten episode of the long-running sci-fi anthology series acts as an unofficial adaptation of Spanish novel The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. In it, a lonely fugitive stows away on what he believes is a deserted island, only to discover that a mysterious group shares the locale with him. The mystery deepens as he falls in love with a woman in the group, one whose potentially illusory nature hints at both the fugitive’s desperate inability to connect as well as broader and unanswerable questions about the human condition and our relationship with reality. Unlike other episodes of the series which end with firm conclusions and decisive moral statements, this episode presents more uncertainties with every new development, with logic and socially-instructive lessons falling unseen into oblivion as the episode seems far more interested in simply asking of itself and its viewers, ‘What is it that we want? Why do we want it? Why do we watch others struggle for the same?’ ****/****”

~

Videodrome is a film that, finally, Nicki invites to end as it begins, or begin as it ends. It is a strange, cathode-tubed ouroboros—that ancient symbol for the cycle of destruction and rebirth—in which the film’s ending repeats and then destroys and then possibly rebirths its beginning, a phosphorescent loop of UHF philosophizing, pixelated eroticism, and goregasmed genre Grand Guignolitry.

There is the empty room. There is the television. There is the watcher. And there is the watched. Nothing else in the room matters.

It began in a living room. It ends in a dying room.

Max began this story lying on a couch, listening to a tape made by his assistant to wrench him into consciousness. Max ends this story lying on a mattress following his shooting spree in which Spectacular Optical programmed him to kill members of CIVIC-TV, and the Cathode-Ray Mission programmed him to kill members of Spectacular Optical. He is a feedback loop, locked and bouncing between opposing circuits. He ends this story on a piss-swollen mattress, hiding in a condemned vessel at the Toronto docks, hallucinating or perceiving a televised Nicki inviting him to kill himself in order to escape his tainted, tumor-ridden flesh and to transcend.

Max watches while Nicki guides him through a watcher’s guide to suicide, showing him a filmed version of himself putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger, his televised self whispering, “Long live the new flesh.” The TV explodes with shockwaves of bloodied entrails radiating outward.

The real Max, after watching, emptily or meaningully follows. He puts the gun to his head. Whispers, “Long live the new flesh.” And pulls the trigger, ensuring his body will remain unfound, in this abandoned room, forever. A condemned vessel.

What does any of it mean?

What do you do besides stay in this room, and watch again?

~

I don’t really have a message that I feel that the world must hear,” Cronenberg once mused. “To that extent, my films are entertainment in the fullest sense. I’d like people to entertain my films, rather than my films entertain them. To entertain the ideas in the film.”

So much of the thought experiment that is Videodrome seems far less interested in answering any of its own myriad questions about television, violence, sexuality, philosophy, evolution, or the potential transcendent possibilities of existence; rather, in the end, it functions almost as a kind of watcher’s guide to the act of watching in life—presenting situations, offering a description therein, but leaving it to the viewer to do the work of actually looking. One can view Videodrome the film by simply watching it; but to experience Videodrome, one must wrestle with it, allow it to cut and brand one’s mind. As Max describes a particularly virulent Videodrome video: “It bites.”

There is a sense in the film—in all of Cronenberg’s films—of humans as lonely creatures, driven by needs we hardly understand and can barely look at, hungry for a catharsis we can’t describe that is attained by means we almost invariably corrupt or confuse, with characters mistaking dreams for their reality, and mis-viewing their reality as a kind of madness. So many lives become consumed by the act of watching alone, while others become static within a need to only be centralized and seen, with both poles of that desperation rendering the watcher and the watched wholly alone. 

Is this the point of Videodrome

Maybe.

Is there a point of Videodrome

Probably.

Are we the point of Videodrome?

~

During the making of the film, Cronenberg noticed an extra who portrayed one of the victims being tortured, whipped, beaten, electrocuted, and murdered on the Videdrome TV series set while the crew watched and filmed her. The next day, despite not being scheduled, she came back. And the next day. And the next.

And the next. 

And the next.

And the next.

The woman kept coming back, trying to sneak into that red clay-walled set, trying to get back to that room. Cronenberg found that the woman, who had to be forcibly removed, could not let go of being watched on Videodrome, and could not let go of watching herself on that set. Like a signal caught in a neverending loop, she could not leave that room.

  1. While most would discount 1979’s Fast Company (a drive-in B-movie tribute to Cronenberg’s passion for auto racing) as an outlier, its repeated focus on men strapping their bodies into heaving, mechanized death cars as a means of transcending the banality of everyday feels like a preview, albeit neutered, of the work to come.