On the couch: Leader streaming reviews

‘Videodrome’ was created to comment on TV in 1983, but offers vital insights on the internet today

Posted 5/20/20

With some degree of social distinction continuing to be the order of the day, we’re all spending a lot more time online lately, not just to consume media, but to carry on the sorts of social …

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On the couch: Leader streaming reviews

‘Videodrome’ was created to comment on TV in 1983, but offers vital insights on the internet today

Posted

With some degree of social distinction continuing to be the order of the day, we’re all spending a lot more time online lately, not just to consume media, but to carry on the sorts of social interaction we once took for granted we could conduct in person.

This makes it more important than ever that we understand the internet, and while there are a number of more current and fashionable films about the internet I’m sure spring to mind, if you really want to understand the internet, you need to watch “Videodrome.”

David Cronenberg, a.k.a. the David Lynch of Canada, wrote and directed “Videodrome” in 1983 as an explicit commentary on how television affects everything from our society to our personal perceptions of reality. But what’s eerily prescient about this film is that its insights and predictions apply even more accurately to the development of the internet-to-come.

Cronenberg gives us a world in which people are so dependent upon television that homeless folks without TV sets can still watch their favorite shows at the “Cathode Ray Mission,” a sort of Union Gospel Mission for television addicts that, in retrospect, bears an uncomfortably striking similarity to all those coffee shops that offer free Wi-Fi, even to non-customers.

Cronenberg also predicted online bots, after a fashion, in the form of a “talking head” TV pundit who appears on roundtable discussion shows and seems to engage in spontaneous conversations with the hosts and his fellow guests, even though all of his responses have been pre-recorded onto a library of video cassettes.

Perhaps the most relevant parallel between “Videodrome” and the internet era comes from Prof. Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who freely admits “O’Blivion” is not the name he was born with, but the name he chose for television, as he prophesies that, “Soon, all of us will have special names — names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.”

How many of us have chosen “special internet names,” designed to stand out and become our own name brands online, on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube?

A word of warning: “Videodrome” is not for everyone. Fellow writer-director Guillermo del Toro has frequently praised Cronenberg for his ability to capture the horror implicit in “the betrayal of the flesh.” As one would expect from the man who delivered such visceral films as “Scanners” in 1981, the remake of “The Fly” in 1986, “Naked Lunch” in 1991, “Crash” in 1996 and “eXistenZ” in 1999, this film’s special effects tend to get a bit … squishy.

As with so many of Lynch’s films, the plot of “Videodrome” ultimately serves as little more than a launching pad for Cronenberg’s concepts and quirks, albeit while also affording plenty of room for his talented actors’ performances to breathe.

Aside from appearing in her own music videos and bit parts in 1978’s “The Foreigner” and 1980’s “Union City,” “Videodrome” was the first onscreen acting role of Debbie Harry, lead singer of the New Wave band Blondie. She sets the screen ablaze as sadomasochistic radio talk show host Nicki Brand, whose terrifying experimentalism makes her utterance of the words, “Wanna try a few things?” the most thrillingly dangerous sentence in the English language.

Because yes, Cronenberg is unflinching in his depictions of, shall we say, unorthodox sexuality, and that’s your other warning.

And while James Woods’ skills on stage and screen were already well-established before “Videodrome,” his performance as as Max Renn, the shamelessly exploitative network president of Toronto UHF channel CIVIC-TV, is second only to his starring turn in Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” in 1986 for the relentless intensity and versatility he demonstrates.

I feel like saying too much more would spoil the experience of seeing this film for the first time, aside from noting a few of its visual puns (Leslie Carlson plays a character called “Barry Convex,” head of the Spectacular Optical Corporation). But trust me when I say “Videodrome” seeded the ground for films ranging from “The Truman Show” in 1998 to “The Matrix” in 1999.

Check it out, and I’ll see you in Pittsburgh.

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