Terence H.W. Shih
David Cronenberg's Videodrome
May 24, 2000
An Outlet for the Media-Constructed Society: David Cronenberg's Videodrome
In Videodrome (1983) David Cronenberg attempts to designate how video technology brings about a serious threat to human society and even to provide the viewers an outlet for the media-constructed society. In the developed countries nowadays, video has become a dominant force in the people's lives. As shown in Jim Carrey's films The Cable Guy (1996) and The Truman Show (1998), for example, the issue of the media in Videodrome also centers on the crises of watching TV. Take Americans for example. On average they watch television almost seven hours a day. In addition, the concerns about the danger of violence and sex that are revealed in this film through Cronenberg's grotesque metaphors. If we are unwilling to live without the media or even technology, we, at least, should learn how to dominate the given information. As a believer of futurology, I prefer to examine Videodrome from more positive perspectives. In this short essay, I'll focus on the analyses of the two characters, Max Renn and Brian O'Blivion, to account for why I consider Videodrome an outlet for the media-constructed society.
Max Renn (James Woods), cable TV operator, who desires for Videodrome, in which there is much torture, murder, and sex, is an embodiment of every single viewer who longs for more pleasure from the media. Cronenberg in this film exposes an amount of human vice by means of grotesque metaphors to let the viewers rethink about their positions in the media-constructed society. Of course, he attempts to tell the viewers how the media influences their perception. Like his another horror and sci-fi film The Fly (1986), Videodrome, however, is manifested on the screen mental distortion and hallucination rather than probably realistic happenings. For example, the vaginal-like wound in Max's belly, a cyborg-like hand, and a sexually excited TV are strikingly seen as metaphors that represent human's underlying desires, such as torture, murder, and sex. The viewers, like Max, start to experience the vivid visuals through Cronenberg's visual effects. When Barry Convex (Les Carlson) gives Max a head set to record Max's hallucination, the viewers seem to have seen the plot and vision as real. At last, with the encouragement of Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), Max commits suicide and finds out his very self. His self-recognition and self-destruction make him obtain a rebirth, that is, an escape from the control of the media or even technology.
Professor Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), on the other hand, is the incarnation of David Cronenberg himself, who is eager to convey his ideas on screen. At the scene of Rena King Show, Prof. O'Blivion refuses to appear on television but "on television" and says that "O'Blivion is not the name I was born with. That's my television name." Cronenberg suggests that the visual world on television is not where we really exist but a place where human minds freeze, like the meaning of "O'Blivion," a state of forgetting. Therefore, David Cronenberg, like Prof. O'Blivion, wants his viewers to forget his real existence and just to think about his words and his philosophy. When Max is watching the second tape from Bianca (Sonja Smits), daughter of Prof. O'Blivion, Prof. O'Blivion, in this tape, is talking about how a human brain grows and changes after massive doses of Videodrome signal. No doubt, the visual stimulus will influence our perception of reality. Like the media prophet professor Brian O'Blivion, Cronenberg seems to be worried about that if the viewers are glued to the virtual world long hours without thinking, they would be "programmed." At the scene that a video tape is implanted in Max's belly, he acts like a puppet and is guided to murder his partners because he is now controlled by videodrome, designed by Barry Convex and Harlan (Peter Dvorsky). To some extent, Cronenberg seems to disclose a certain cyborg, a hybrid of the hand and the gun, for example, as a metaphor of human desire for technology. Nevertheless, as Prof. O'Blivion claims that "there is nothing real outside our perception of reality," Cronenberg seems to worry about the negative influences from media's transmission. At the scene that Max's belly cuts open vividly while he is watching his girlfriend, Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), on television, Cronenberg's visual effects, no doubt, deceive the viewers' perception and scare them even though the viewers at that moment try to tell themselves that scene is not true. Prof. O'Blivion thinks that "[t]he TV screen is the retina of the mind's eye" and "the TV screen is part of the physical structure of the brain." Therefore, while the viewers are watching that scene, their reality is, in fact, half video hallucination. As a media guru, Cronenberg is hoping to be immortal behind his films.
Cronenberg in this film connotes that the viewer's self-awakening will form a kind of power against the media's fantasy. To analyze how Barry Convex and Harlan die will demonstrate Max's phoenix-like rebirth. Similarly, the viewers will be purified by the horror scenes. Barry Convex, on the surface, runs a glasses store to make people have good sight, but his subterranean business, in fact, is for videodrome, which exposes sex and violence. In addition, Harlan's melted hand and death in explosion are chiefly because Max has a strong mind against the seductions of the video. Like Oedipus's blinding himself, Max's shooting himself implies that self-destruction will bring a rebirth of perception and transformation. In a word, David Cornenberg indicates that his philosophy, articulated by Prof. O'Blivion, will redeem the viewers from indulgence in the media.