I loved A History of Violence. I did not like Crash. I did like this Cronenburg entry, part of "bizarre media and respected director week" here at Casa de PJ. About thirty minutes in, I could not shake the idea that this movie in some ways was meant to perform Marshall McLuhan's famous critique that "the media is the message". And about fourty minutes in, I wanted to kick my own ass for invoking the name of the media theorist whose pretentious rants are the subject of the funniest movie scene of all time. As it turns out, the McLuhan link is not the construction of a beer addled, sleep deprived graduate student, but what Mr. Cronenburg intended all along. Since I got the ghetto DVD from netflix instead of the sweet special edition, I was limited only to the production notes. However, even these sparse aides indicated that the director was attempting to make a point just like McLuhan's.
But first the story- James Woods plays Max Renn, director of a struggling tv station called "Civic", which shows violence and nudity in copious amounts to attract viewers. Max is awakened every morning by a tv video wake up call made specially for him by his assistant, and his everyday behaviors are saturated with media- he appears on talk shows, watches samples of shows for programming, and watches videos with his dates. One day Max has the opportunity to check out some real "promising" video tape- it turns out to be essentially snuff material that he initially thinks is broadcasting out of Southeast Asia. Later, they discover that the footage is broadcasting out of Pittsburgh! (WOOOOO GO BURGH! I'd like to take this opportunity to share a story about how people just scream out the name of a city whenever its mentioned by someone famous. There was a Ben Folds concert at Wake a month or so ago and during the performance of the heartrending song "Brick", about how Mr. Folds and his first girlfriend had to go get an abortion, Mr. Folds sings "went down to Charlotte" and the crowd goes absolutely apeshit nuts. He went there to get AN ABORTION PEOPLE! ITS SAD!. Idiots. Anyway...). Max then takes up with a young woman (played by Deborah Harry, of Blondie fame) with a fetish for rough sex and even rougher visuals, and then goes off to Pittsburgh to find her way to this station which she thinks "is perfect for her".
It is here that the movie takes a turn for the bizarre and creepy. Which is good, because it could it could have turned crappy. Max begins to have hallucinations that involve making love to the television, bizarre encounters with cloaked agents, and whips. There are characters, but their names do not really matter. They simply embody the idea that "we are what we eat" from a media standpoint. I will not rant a bunch about "The Media is the Message" because I frankly don't fully understand it. But as Max's behavior becomes more and more tangled in terms of a failureto understand the difference between reality and hallucination AND as the viewer becomes less able to discern what is really happening, the movie does make a clear point about how a powerful and immersive medium can easily control or dominate the minds and visions of those individuals who watch it. And that those individuals may not just be watching, but being in that medium all at once. The close of the movie is fascinating and shocking, and the entire narrative is filled with shocking sexual images and incredibly grotesque violence. But I believe in this movie they are not catering to prurient interests, but are called for. In order to effectively perform the point that immersion in media dulls our sense this extreme violence must continuously manifest itself so that when we are presented with absurd violence at the end of the movie we too have become desensitized to it. But the fact that the movie plays with what reality is also dulls our sense- if we don't think the violence is real, and we view it only as fantasy, we do not react to it.
This is why the beginning of the movie, when Renn seizes on the violent images on the satellite (the show itself is called Videodrome, which literally means video arena or video space) Max looks at them as entertainment opportunities, but ignores the violent content and relationships depicted. This makes it close to not just McLuhan but also Horkheimer and Adorno- the violent sexual images themselves are made to be the same as other programming because they can brings ratings and advertising dollars. The judgments that Max makes about the shows come not from an ethical perspective that can condemn or even speak to particular behaviors, but operate only in a relative frame with a baseline of ratings. Cronenburg is consistently fascinated in his work about the viewer's relationship to violence, and this movie is not the sly wink of A History of Violence but instead the brutal blow of a sledghammer, whose clang signals the complicity of the viewer in the consumption of not just violent ideas and images, but a medium who makes those ideas real where they may not have been.
I really liked this movie. It creeped me out, despite the fact that it was special effects reliant and as a result somewhat dated. Additionally, 80's movies generally have the absolute worst soundtracks of all time, since whoever invented the synthesizer was constantly blowing everyone in charge of mixing sound for any movie in the 80's. The movie slogs through that, and James Woods' performance is absolutely first rate. He plays scumbags well, and this is a scumbag who we can't help but identify with- and should (oh irony of ironies).