Saturday, 6 January 2018

1,001 Films: "Videodrome" (1983)

In the 1970s, television - as represented by Sidney Lumet's Network - merely drove its makers and viewers out of their minds. As we stepped into the 1980s, David Cronenberg saw that it was beginning to get under our skin, too. Working under the Universal banner at the moment of the Reagan investiture, Cronenberg adapted his previously chilly outsider methodology to propose Videodrome, a commercially oriented thriller about a successful business model that falls under threat from without and within. Having made his lowly reputation peddling softcore smut to the masses, public-access channel huckster Max Renn (James Woods) stumbles across the pirate broadcasts of the title - gonzo depictions of rape, torture and murder - which suggest there are sicker, more jaded souls out there than even he. Naturally, Renn's first response to these spooky nocturnal interruptions - which pre-empted Max Headroom by a year or so - isn't revulsion but compulsion, mixed with a certain professional admiration: "Brilliant - there's almost no production costs!"

Unflashily, and with what was becoming his usual tremendous economy, Cronenberg pulls us into a skeezy netherworld - something like noir, only in tawdry living colour - where a no-holds-barred show such as Videodrome might be conceivable in the first place, and where a dyed-in-the-wool sleazeball such as Max Renn might start to resemble first a voice of reason and conscience, then some kind of disruptive tapeworm in the body corporate - a scab unlikely ever to clean up. Three decades and multiple Twitter tirades later, and this still looks like one of the great maggoty performances of 1980s cinema: suffice to say it may now be easier than ever to buy Woods as the arse-fondling letch of the film's opening act, using a chatshow appearance primarily as an excuse to hit on fellow guest Debbie Harry, but he's also convincingly rattled as the images Renn exposes himself to take on lives of their own. 

In part, that's because the director is so unsparing in showing us the effects of those images: first making it increasingly hard for his anti-hero to distinguish fiction from reality, then softening him up - literally, in the application of squidgy latex welts about his person, and if some of these gruey analogue flourishes have dated in our age of ultra-photorealistic VFX, the ideas behind them really haven't. By the end of this most image-obsessed and body-conscious of decades, the notion there might be a link between the media and other tumours was so commonplace it could be treated comedically in Bruce Robinson's scabrous satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Yet the doubts and fears Cronenberg was channelling about the power of the image would assume new forms in the virtual realities of The Lawnmower Man and this director's own eXistenZ (Videodrome 2.0, effectively), at the dawn of the DVD age in the Ringu films, and in a run of millennial dotcom thrillers about websites claiming to peddle the most deranging content imaginable. None of these were quite as warped in their conception, or as visceral in their impact, as this, though.

Videodrome is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Video.

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