In Videodrome, director David Cronenberg brings the media theories of Marshall McLuhan to screen in a film that depicts television as a hallucinatory tumor that feeds on the mind. It stars James Woods as Max Renn, who operates a television station that specializes in sexual and violent content. Andy Warhol called Videodrome "the Clockwork Orange of the '80s." The BBC called the film "repulsive" and refused to let actress Deborah Harry give interviews to promote it. Some find Videodrome dated, but I disagree. There are some dead technologies depicted, but they all have modern equivalents. McLuhan's theories have never fallen out of favor or been disproven. Those who control the media use them as a battleground for our hearts and minds now more than ever.
McLuhan's theories on media's role in shaping human awareness are the subject of the film. He is represented onscreen by the character Brian O'Blivion. McLuhan examined the changes caused by the development of the printing press and concluded that the technology of media changes our civilization. All media are extensions of human faculties, and electronics are an extension of the brain. Technology then becomes more important than the actual message it carries, so that "the medium is the message." Television holds a special place in McLuhan's theories, and he believed that it will lead to a sixth stage of civilization, a "global village" in which world society will unify and individualism will die out.
McLuhan's concept of technology as an extension of the human being is depicted in many ways. Numerous characters make their initial appearances as images on video screens. Harlan is first seen holding a screwdriver in his teeth, the tool a technological extension of his body. A hallucination recording device extends the central nervous system and is able to record its data. When Barry Convex's evil intent is revealed, the tape used in an attempt to reprogram Max takes on a diseased appearance.
Video becomes its own reality, while physical reality becomes less defined. Brian O'Blivion appears on a television show as a videotaped message, yet interacts with and responds to the other panelists. He really lives in the medium and is not just a recording. When Max spends the night with Nicki, a flesh-and-blood woman, he is scolded by Bridey, who had been unable to contact him through her video feed. It's as though the electronic lover is jealous of the live one, and it suggests surveillance. As Convex says to his trade show audience, "I sure know you...every one!"
This new reality is suggested from the film's opening sequence. The credits roll over the voice of Renn's assistant, Bridey, who urges him to "slowly...painfully...ease yourself back into consciousness" and briefs him via video on the day's agenda. Her language is more appropriate for someone who has access to another's sleeping space than it is for a professional's assistant, and her delivery sounds more conversational than recorded. The Civic TV logo consists of the words "The One You Take to Bed with You" and a graphic of a grinning man in bed with a television on his lap. It is a kind of crude suggestion of the man-machine connection that is going to be explored later.
Renn expresses dissatisfaction with his station's softcore content and seeks something edger. He finds it in "Videodrome," a mysterious program that his tech, Harlan, picks up in a descrambled satellite signal. It consists of nothing but realistic depictions of torture and murder. The signal is spoofed to appear to originate from Southeast Asia, but is discovered to originate from Pittsburgh.
On the panel of a televised talk show, Renn meets a like-minded personality in Harry's character, Nicki Brand, who lives "in a highly excited state of overstimulation." Nicki hosts a radio talk show on which she gives advice to distressed callers, whom she addresses in personal terms although they have no relationship or contact except over the airwaves and phone lines. Professor Brian O'Blivion, also appearing on the show, says that the television screen has become "the retina of the mind's eye." For this reason he only appears on television as an image on a television monitor, using his "television name" of O'Blivion.
Brand turns out to have a taste for pain, and is so fascinated with Videodrome that she goes to Pittsburgh to audition for it. Max meanwhile learns that Videodrome is not staged but it is real, has a political agenda and is connected to Professor O'Blivion. O'Blivion's Cathode Ray Mission is a honeycomb of television-equipped cubicles that teaches that television is necessary to connect people with reality and with the world. Bianca, his daughter, runs the mission and acts as his spokesperson, as he makes no public appearances. By the time he sends a videotaped message, Max is paranoid, hallucinating, suffering from headaches and playing with guns. When opened, the videotape breathes in Max's hands and sighs with Nicki's voice. O'Blivion's message has three points:
- Videodrome is the arena in which the battle for North America's mind will be fought.
- Television is the retina of the mind's eye and therefore an extension of the human brain.
- Events seen on television are therefore processed as experience, which makes them reality.
O'Blivion speaks of a brain tumor that he believes was caused by visions that he experienced. When removed, the tumor became Videodrome. The Professor believes that the tumor is actually an extension of the brain, a new area produced by Videodrome. Bianca confirms that the Videodrome broadcast contains a signal that induces brain tumors. O'Blivion himself is dead and exists only as videotaped recordings.
Max then develops a pulsating, vaginal opening in his stomach large enough to hold videocassettes that can be used to reprogram him. Barry Convex, whose Spectacular Optical produces Videodrome, introduces himself and provides Renn with headgear that will record his hallucinations. Videodrome's agenda is revealed as a plot to eliminate the viewers of violent programs, who are a "rot" infecting our society. Max's TV station is to be the launching point. Convex uses the video recording of Max's hallucinations to program Max to kill Bianca and his partners at the station. Max's transformation into the "video word made flesh" is completed at the Cathode Ray Mission, and Bianca reprograms him to instead kill Videodrome.
The fugitive Max, a "condemned vessel," holes up on a boat marked "condemned vessel" where a televised Nicki explains that to fully destroy Videodrome, Max must commit fully to the new flesh and kill the old flesh. The film ends ambiguously, and we never see whether Max continues to live in some electronic form or whether the whole thing was a hallucination.
The various characters have trouble coming to terms with the new reality. Max says "better on TV than in the streets" of his show's violent programming, but according to the film's premise the two are the same thing. Convex meanwhile is concerned about what kind of people would watch this violent content, yet he broadcasts a signal that kills people and so is actively involved in murder. Mass murder. Mass media murder.
James Woods and Deborah Harry are well suited to their roles. Woods' smirking, smartalecky persona makes for a realistic Renn. The detached quality that gave Harry's Blondie vocals their ironic sense of cool is perfect for a role in which she mainly appears as an electronic image.
Connections: The bent reality and concept of people as electronic devices that can be programmed and reprogrammed are revisited in The Matrix. The concept of living electronically was combined with elements of another Cronenberg film, Scanners, into the Max Headroom television series that was briefly popular during the 1980s.