The Video-Autopsy of David Cronenberg's Videodrome
Throughout most of the history of human civilizations, the insides of the body were left to the Gods; to probe too much beyond the surface of the skin seemed dangerous and violated deeply held spiritual and moral taboos. The first dissections didn't take place until around 300 CE, when Alexandrian physician Herophilus started his work splicing up animals and human cadavers (and possibly some live bodies too) and writing the first anatomy of the human body; the term given to this once-forbidden work, from the language of the ancient Greeks, was "autopsia"; meaning to "see oneself", to "see for oneself", the "self-view". Centuries later, David Cronenberg, a deeply subversive, self-taught director who emerged in Canada in the 1970s brings his own speculative and experimental ideas on seeing the self and the inside of the body to the screen in his 1983 classic Videodrome.
A filmmaker with no heed for taboos or prohibitions, the OG of body horror Cronenberg pushes the plastic special effects of the time to turn bodies inside out on-screen, probing his fascination with the secrets hidden in the depths of our flesh, and forcing us to look at them in graphic detail. Why are we so afraid of the very stuff we're made of? What part of it disgusts us the most? These questions are asked in Videodrome through extreme scenes such as when its protagonist Max Renn, a cisgender man, develops a large vaginal opening on his stomach (subsequently penetrated by his hand, a gun, and a videotape)."Long Live the New Flesh" is the slippery phrase that echoes famously throughout the film as bodies becomes infested with dark thoughts and technologies - it is also the shadowy insides of the human mind that interest Cronenberg, and Videodrome deals in the moral ambiguities, kinks and perversions of individuals, as wider authoritarian conspiracies take shape around them. Max is a grubby peddler of 'low-budget porn and hardcore violence' on "CIVIC-TV, Channel 83" whose business logic is "to give people something they can't get anywhere else". His lover Nicky Brand, a radio host, has an S&M kink she's looking to feed. Following a scrambled signal that his assistant says he's picked up on the channel's clandestine satellite, Max's quest for an extreme form of entertainment leads him to pursue a snuff show called Videodrome, where he sees a half naked woman being tortured, beaten and strangled. Whilst Max is trying to acquire the programme, Nicky seeks to become a participant; it becomes quickly apparent that Max and Nicky are into something far more sinister and powerful than either of them.
Made less than a decade after the advent of home video, and still in the nascent days of mass media, Cronenberg makes the most of the paranoia and conspiracy theories that surrounded new technologies from the 1970s, writing into the transformative impact of VHS and satellite television on the production of pornography, at a time when urban legends about snuff tapes and murderous pornographers abounded. Videodrome orchestrates fears around violence, transmission, subliminal messaging, mind-control, and the threat of technology and humans fusing and mutating, to create a horrific speculation in which the worst of human nature and evolving technology drive along the path of desire towards inescapable death.
Reproducing questions of seeing and being seen through the television screens and videotapes, Videodrome is punctuated with deadpan lines dabbling in the media theory and philosophy of the day, such as "the television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye". The character of 'Media Prophet' Professor Brian O'Blivion is a pastiche of the Canadian media theorist and 'High Priest of Pop Culture' Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message") but the film also drinks from the ideas of the 'High Priest of Postmodernism', French philosopher Jean Baudillard, who worked on the idea of "simulacra" as representations of realities that substitute the real as they proliferate, leading to a hyperreality where the real and the simulated are indistinguishable from one another.
Cronenberg sets up a number of disorientating and interweaving premises that intensify and unravel throughout Videodrome, creating a profoundly unsettling cinematic journey (and a film that in the words of critic Robin Wood "wraps itself in so many ambiguities that it is very hard to read"). As Max undergoes his grisly transformations, the film lurches between psychosexual thriller, sci-fi, conspiracy theory and body-horror, making it hard to know exactly what we're seeing; a nightmare, a series of hallucinations, or a different reality altogether. Whatever it is, Cronenberg seems to suggest, the greatest horrors of all lie mostly within ourselves.
Ana Naomi de Sousa
Ana Naomi de Sousa is a film director and journalist. She directed the documentaries The Architecture of Violence, Angola - Birth of a Movement, Guerrilla Architect and Hacking Madrid - all of which were shown on Al Jazeera English. Collaborated with the Forensic Architecture agency on Saydnaya and on an interactive documentary about a Syrian military prison for Amnesty International. Has collaborated with Decolonising Architecture on several films and installations. He writes about post-colonial, spatial and cultural politics for various platforms, including The Guardian, Al Jazeera and The Funambulist.