Along with several colleagues, I helped put on the “Our Digital Humanity: The Film Series” last month. Based on the university theme, we chose films that connected and supplied new ideas for viewers. While the other films typically took a more direct look at technology, like “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World”’s documentation of technology’s effects on humanity, and “Her”’s romanticism in regards to technological interaction, “Videodrome,” the film I chose, was the obvious outlier.
David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” is easily the most unique of the films in the series due in no small part to its content and style. It’s a hallmark of the visceral horror genre, focusing on a fusion of psychological and physical horror. It tells the story of Canadian TV executive Max Renn (James Woods) who stumbles upon a pirate broadcast titled Videodrome. Initially drawn to the hyperrealistic torture and violence in the show, Renn begins to search out the origins of the broadcast, and falls into a web of hallucinations, mind-control, ultra-violence and corruption. Unlike the other films like “Lo and Behold” and “Her,” “Videodrome” is deeply rooted in surrealistic symbolism and allegorical commentary. Utilizing his trademark visceral horror style, Cronenberg crafts an uncomfortable and dark take on the future of media consumption.
There are two lines in the film which are of particular importance. The first is spoken by Brian O’Blivion, which ends up becoming the backbone for the majority of the plot: “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” In “Videodrome,” this is shown literally. The tapes that Max Renn and others watch cause visual and physical hallucinations, quickly increasing in prevalence and complexity to a point where reality and fantasy coexist. However, Cronenberg’s point wasn’t meant to be taken so literally. The real focus here is on our internal changes due to media consumption, specifically the violent ones.
‘Videodrome” sets up the argument that what we watch on television or other formats changes who we are on the inside. Today, the vast majority of these shows are riddled with violence, tragedy, and scandal. If you were to turn on the news, I guarantee there would be something about a violent or offensive act in some form. The most watched TV show on air today, “The Walking Dead,” is also one of the most consistently gruesome. We, as humans, are drawn to violence by our base curiosities. To many of us, it’s something that we’ll never see in actuality, so to fulfill those inclinations we turn to television. In essence, violent television is nothing more than a form of masochistic voyeurism via technological means.
As far as its effect on us, “Videodrome” keeps it purposely vague and open-ended. Though Max Renn’s life seemingly ends in tragedy, the consistency of his hallucinations allows for doubt to seep in. This uncertainty is crucial to “Videodrome” thematic ties to the university theme. Technology is an ever changing and ever evolving field, and as such, our understanding and ties to it change with remarkable frequency. However, by using it to fulfill our darkest fantasies, we can unintentionally allow it to change our thoughts and our minds. In essence, it creates disillusionment and disconnection with the actual tragedy and effects of violence in society.
However, I would not say that “Videodrome” is arguing that violent media needs to disappear completely. The film itself is riddled with grotesque body horror and twisted, violent permutations, which is the exact violence that the film is seemingly arguing against. Instead, the film is arguing a more simple and approachable message: If we are to continue on with our connection to violent media, we must learn to adapt and separate ourselves from what we are viewing. Letting the violence take hold will change us as individuals, and in an increasingly visual and connected society, this idea is imperative to our development.
The second quote from the film is a repeated one: “Long Live the New Flesh.” Often used by people affected by the “Videodrome,” the quote implies a direct correlation between technology and the changing nature of humanity. This ties back to an older point, but instead of looking at a more specific medium (i.e. television), this quote is more open-ended. The film seems to make the argument that technology is, in a sense, the next form of humanity.
Evolution has existed as long as life has existed on the planet. As Charles Darwin initially stated, species change over time to adapt to changes in their environment and lifestyle. Now, while this is predominantly in a natural sense, technology as it exists today hasn’t been around long enough to be considered an evolutionary trigger. But looking around you, isn’t it already changing us as a species? “Long Live the New Flesh” can be considered a call to the future of humanity, as we take advantage of technology in its various forms to help us survive. Limb and organ creation, information sharing, visual editing and changes…any and all of these concepts could help change the development of mankind, and set us on a path toward the ultimate technological singularity.