Monday, November 24, 2008

Movies: The old new flesh.

First and foremost, even for it's early 1980s timeframe, the animated trailer for Cronenberg's 1983 flick Videodrome may rank as the single worst trailer in the history of film.

When I was young, one of the local theaters used to have this trailer for their on-going "Midnight Madness" screenings. It was a late-night showing that was always a double-bill of some shock-schlock thing followed by the The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

In practice, everybody watched the first flick and then walked. It wasn't that the budding pyschotronic film cultists of my hometown disliked Rocky Horror. It was just a bad structure. If you really wanted to see TRHPS, then you got all dap, slid on a comfortable pair of fishnets, and slathered on your momma's best lipstick. Assuming you did all that, the last thing you needed to do was sit through some other flick, especially one that might have attracted a fair share on non-Rocky types not dressed like ten buck under-aged rent boys during Fleet Week. Consequently, except on the extremely odd nights when some large pre-planned party of Time Warpers would descend en masse and fill the seats, the film spooled out to a mostly empty theater.

That projectionist must have sat through Rocky Horror some four hundred thirty times. I suspect that there are special clusters of neurons storing every second of that film, coiled up like sleeping brain worms, in the gray matter of that poor projectionist. I wonder if he killed himself eventually.

But I digress.

To advertise this thrice-weekly cultural extravaganza, the theater had a customized cartoon trailer featuring a guitar-wielding rockstar who looked kind of like a neon green stalk of broccoli with a voice like a poor man's Wolfman Jack. He'd thrash out some bad pseudo-Zep riff and then howl. He'd give some banter about how rad Midnight Madness was. When it came time to say the names of the movies, his animated mouth would freeze open for a second and an obviously other voice, often one registering a clear gender disparity, would say, in the bored voice teenaged employees reserve for answering the phones of workplaces that pay minimum wage, the title of the first flick. Then Wolfman Whack's animation would kick back in and he'd threaten the audience with yet another showing of Rocky Horror. Behind Wolfman Whack, for the entire length of the trailer, was a visual effect that I'm pretty certain was achieved by filming a lava lamp for several days and then speeding up the result.

I bring his up because I feel the trailer for Videodrome would have made the creators of the Wolfman Whack spot, previously the most cringe-inducing bit of film marketing I knew, hesitate.

"Should we turn this in?"

"Maybe we should shoot another spot and go with another rocking piece of neon produce? That tested really well with Rocky Horror fans. There's that neon pink Swiss chard we storyboarded . . . "

"Who are we kidding? We don't have time to make a new trailer."

"Damn! If only we hadn't wasted all that time on that tongue animation bit! That was like twenty-six hundred man-hours. We're screwed. Do you call Cronenberg or do I?"

"Paper, scissors, rock?"

I just had to get that out of the way before the review proper.

Trailer not withstanding, Videodrome, an early entry in the now legendary output of David Cronenberg, is amazing.

I saw it ages ago and, when it arrived in its jaunty little red Netflix envelope, I was briefly concerned that time and tide, which wait for no film, will have dated the film, turning the brilliantly imaginative horror film I remembered in a time capsule museum piece.

More than two decades have passed since its premiere, and Videodrome is still as creepy, surreal, and puzzling as I remembered it.

As I suspect that many Screamers and Screamettes may be familiar with the flick already, let's make quick work of the traditional plot summary:

Max Renn, despite having one of those "cyberpunk" names that sound like they belong to sub-Robert Hill stable porn stars, is a high level executive at an on-the-rise television channel that has made a name for itself broadcasting extreme sexual and violent content. In his never-ending pursuit of new lows, Max stumbles across a scrambled broadcast of what appears to be snuff television: an endless series of men and women tortured and dispatched in a orange and black room. The show's called Videodrome.

Convinced that this insane show is the future of entertainment – at least until the masses coarsen again and need even more extreme shocks to get their kicks – Max attempts to hunt down the makers of Videodrome. The search becomes even more urgent when Max's lover, a radio help line host with a pain fetish and the even pornnier name of Nicki Brand, vanishes in her attempt to land a guest spot on the show.

Max's search leads him to a fanatical cult of television worshipers, lead by a dead charismatic media philosopher who communicates with the faithful solely through prerecorded prophecies and McLuhan-like aphorisms. From them, Max learns the truth about the mysterious torture show: it hides a mysterious signal that transforms the mind of those exposed to it. As Max's mind begins to disintegrate under the influence of this mutating signal, and his body begins to sprout new orifices and defensive mechanisms, his quest leads him to Spectral Optics, the mysterious creators of the signal. Trapped between the media-madness of the Cathode Mission and the techno-terrorism of Spectral Optics, Max becomes a pawn in a mad conspiracy to control the future of human evolution. Death, explosions, tummy-mounted vaginas, and techno-human biomechanical splatteriness ensues.

Now I'll be the first to admit that there's a lot about Videodrome that hasn't aged well. The fact that the plot's Philip K. Dick style nightmare centers around videocassettes and television broadcasts feels dated. Ironically, I don't think it is a tech issue. The cassettes that carry the toxic signal here seem no less sinister for being slightly archaic. They seem like the beta version of the contagion-carrying cassettes that would later be the viral medium of choice for Samara. In fact, the datedness of the tech kind works in its favor. In a way that, say, the 8-track and the vinyl record don't, the videocassette still has an aura of shoddy, illicit simplicity. Somehow an unlabeled cassette seems mysterious – anybody could have shot anything. An unlabeled DVD or CD-ROM just looks like a drink coaster. Rather, the datedness has to do with television as the metaphor of the ubiquity of media. There was a time, from say the late '40s to the early '90s, when you could think television represented the nth degree of media penetration. Now, in the age of Blackberries, Twittering, and Youtube, the idea that broadcast television represented the end of the real and the tipping point that tossed humanity into a completely Baudrillardian hyperreality seems, if not naïve, then at least a tad premature. Max, baby, you ain't seen nothing yet. There's also a few gaps in the narrative structure that jar once the shock of initial contact has worn off. (Admittedly, one could, I guess, claim these gaps were intentional products meant to communicate Max's deteriorating state of mind, but that seems like a cop out as narrative weirdness is regularly and overtly credited to Max's rising level of insanity, but simple lacunae aren't.)

Still, those flaws are minor compared to what works. First and foremost, the look of the film has actually grown on me. I like the look of this pic better than I did when I originally saw it. The flat, seediness of the images on the screen was unimpressive the first time I saw the film. I thought what Cronenberg managed to do was more notable in spite of the crappy production values. Now I've come around to thinking that the washed out, dead-feeling, aggressively unattractive look of the film is not only intentional, but an integral part of that crucial Philip K. Dick vibe he's getting at. Part of the crucial craziness of Dick's dark fantasies was the idea that these world- and century-spanning conspiracies could come to a head in the shoddy living room of some strung-out nobody junkie in a clearance-worthy suburb of a dead town. Videodrome has the same feeling. The sinister, perhaps apocalyptic media virus is product of this cruddy little lens grinding shop in a crap section of Toronto – not a bunch of suits in a skyscraping corporate HQ or a bunch of lab coats in some underground max-security research facility. And the opposing force, the fanatical church of television-worshipping postmodernist, is headquartered in a flea-bag homeless outreach facility; it's the kind of place that makes nice neighborhood get all NIMBY. It's also a prefect visual match for the acting of James Woods (doing an early version of the thing that Peter Weller would later ride into parody in Robocop and Naked Lunch) and Blondie's blunted affect depiction of a pain junkie.

Most importantly, Videodrome remains one of the few truly original horror films out there. Even if its media politics have aged slightly (and I'd make the case that this is not because the film was wrong, but that we've grown more naïve about media effects), it remains an example of what a new horror template might look like.

Pop horror, it seems to me, has a peculiarly nasty relationship with its own history. On one hand, the genre is overdetermined by a handful of master archetypes that artists and fans compulsively, almost neurotically return to. While, at the same time, the extensive depth that even the average horror fan brings to the table means that every new work is expected to innovate these archetypes, even when the ground is thoroughly and utterly eroded. The result is, too often, a massive body of stunted visions and a genre that proceeds into the future with a half-hearted, shuffling stagger. Innovation can't get too innovative, or we break what tepid magic these rest-home worthy phantoms still lay claim too. So, instead of new ideas, we simply pack more and more "relevance" into the same six or seven images. Archetypes like the vampire may be able to carry the anxieties of each successive generation, but we've piled them so high with ideological baggage at this point that they look less like dangerous predators of the dark id and more like comically overloaded bellhops.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg spawned new mythologies for new anxieties. He gave a new age its own monsters. And his template is so innovative that, even now, it has the nervous hum of the urgently new. Is it a sci-fi flick? The "mysterious signal" would seem to give the strange visions and surreal manifestations of Max a naturalistic explanation. But does it? The scientific explanation so defies the rules of physics and biology that the mystical ramblings of the TV church are equally sensible and (un)explanatory. So is it a supernatural horror film? The events in the film certainly aren't "realistic" in any sense, nor does Cronenberg seem particularly interested in convincing us that he's playing by any restrictive notion of the real. But what, then, of the possibility that Max is simply going bonkers? A possible interpretation, but not one that Cronenberg bothers to make certain. It is as if Davy boy says, "Hey, if it helps you sleep, then think what you want." The insanity defense is potentially valid, but neither definitive nor, most importantly, comforting. Even if Max did go nuts, wasn't that the point of the videodrome signal? Cronenberg built a movie where even realizing the main character made it all up doesn't mean that the monster isn't real.

Videodrome is mutant genre fiction at its finest. A hopeful monster of a flick that waits for a new generation of creators to spread its brilliantly adaptive qualities throughout the horror genre.

Honestly, y'all probably don't need me to say tell you this, but Videodrome is freakin' awesome.

Except for the ultra-shitty trailer.

PS – special thanks to the boys of Canadian Horror Cinema. The gents behind this young, but equally hopeful monster of a blog dropped a Videodrome in-joke into their blog the other day, sending me back to this awesome flick. Long live the new flesh: Support your up-and-coming horror bloggers!


Anonymous said...

Watched this one recently again myself - it is creepy and disturbing and does get under your skin because so much is left unanswered.

Another film that I think belongs in the same category - Brain Dead (1990) with both Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton has always been a favorite of mine because it has that same tilting reality and unanswered questions.

Sasquatchan said...

PKD is the right description of this movie..

Unsure how ground breaking the plot is .. Sounds a bit like Halloween 3, "use X to corrupt the minds/bodies of everyone". Heck, I think there's a few Bond plots that follow it too.

spacejack said...

Yep, it's a real classic. I saw it for the first time myself only a few years ago.

The Toronto location is about as perfect as it can be, for its time. It's either at or very near the original location of the then ultra-low-budget TV station CityTV (which I have to think provided some inspiration for Videodrome, with their late night softcore porn showings and other assorted low-budget offerings) on the edge of Cabbagetown, which to this day still hasn't been fully gentrified. I had a summer job a few doors down from there a few years after Videodrome was filmed, and the feeling of the movie was exactly like that area.

I find this movie much more contemporary than Existenz, which seemed like an unfortunate attempt to "update" Videodrome.

Much like early vs late cyberpunk fiction, I think the early stuff is more interesting when the technological concepts were described in much more hazy, abstract, general ways - before our real world technology started to resolve into focus. I think Videodrome still works because we can still project its ideas on to our modern media and technology.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

That's the kick of the plot. It isn't that the videodrome signal corrupts people - it's that it start mutating them. Assuming that it isn't all a paranoid fantasy, the signal was meant to weed out cultural undesirables by Darwining anybody who would watch a show like Videodrome. But there's an unintended consequence, people from the Church realize that what was meant to kill you might actually be the next step in evolution, not death.

But then you get the damned if you do, damned if you don't choice of siding with the cultural genociders or the end of humanity via the new flesh religious fanatics.

That's more nuanced than Bond villain plots (mirroring only Moonraker in the "pure race" theories of the villain - but lacking the whole is-the-signal-blessing-or-a-curse ambiguity) and, unlike Halloween, relatively amoral. Despite the intention of the signal creators, the signal seems more like a virus than a conspiracy.

That's just my take.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

I better you're right about the CityTV connection. Even the name of the fake station is CivicTV.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Abby,

I've never seen Brain Dead. I'll have to queue it.

Anonymous said...

I do have to point out that the Criterion Edition DVD of Videodrome comes in a case that is printed to resemble a blank VHS cassette with VIDEODROME written on the label with a Sharpie marker. Just for that sheer level of marketing awesomeness, it's worth buying.

In a not-necessarily-strictly-in-retrospect way, I am compelled to defend the genuinely horrible trailer. While I acknowledge the Commodore-64-quality processing of the animation may very well have been The New Thing for representing cutting-edge artist's tools being made available on the market, isn't that the point, intentionally or not? The graphics are clumsy, forced, stupefyingly demonstrative, and garishly amateur, exactly what one would expect if you were to plop a seventh-grader in front of a 286 workstation and ask him to make a commercial for a business you don't want fellow adults who have a functional sense of the legal system to know that you're doing on the side. That's a whole new strata of disturbance to contemplate.

-Troy Z

when is evil cool? said...

i never saw videodrome. it's just one of those movies that kind of slipped through the cracks and i missed it.

and i have to disagree. i like the preview. it has a weird, strobie, fruit by foot commercial look to it.

it's sort of hypnotic in a dark room and yer half asleep.

CRwM said...

Troy Z,

Sadly, in the era of Netflix, I get films sans casing and miss out on cool package dealies. I'll have to keep my eyes open next time I'm down at the media emporium.

While I'm feeling the whole childlike/punky innocence = disturbing ptich, I'm standing my ground. Videodrome was released a year after Tron, so it wasn't like the world hadn't seen computer animation yet. I just think it's half-assed, even given the historical context.

C. L. DeMedeiros said...

is a very disturbing movie
I wish somebody do a remake soon
with so many awful choices for
remakes this one could be interesting