Cronenberg's Cathode-Ray Puzzle Boxes

by Arthur B

Arrow Video's rerelease of Videodrome and David Cronenberg's early work revives both an old classic and some long-lost enigmas.
Videodrome is far and away one of my favourite horror movies, not least because I am fairly sure that the movie is smarter than I am and I don’t feel equal to the task of giving it a really full, in-depth breakdown of it that doesn’t get bogged down into obsessive and unintelligible clucking over its nested layers of realities.

Luckily, for the purposes of providing a chunky Ferretbrain article, Arrow Video recently rereleased Videodrome in a big fat boxed set that also includes an accompanying collection of short films by Cronenberg - his 2000 piece Camera, two film school shorts, and two of his absolute earliest movies - Stereo and Crimes of the Future. (These and the film school shorts have since had a solo release as David Cronenberg’s Early Works, with Camera accompanying Videodrome on a single-disc release too.) One could go very, very deep into any of these waters, but for these purposes I’d prefer to give just a few brief impressions of each of them rather than claiming to fully understand any of these, since between them they amount to Cronenberg’s most enigmatic works.


Max Renn (James Woods) is the boss of Civic TV, a sleazy cable TV station dedicated to beaming gourmet transgressive trash into the living rooms of its subscribers. Always on the hunt for fresh, new, shocking material to excite a jaded audience, Renn hustles for new shows like a drug kingpin tracking down a new heroin supply. I’m not coming over all William Burroughs there; an early scene in which Renn meets up with some Japanese distributors of a low-budget pornographic TV serial in a dingy, out-of-the-way apartment makes the whole process look exactly like a drug deal.

As part of this process, Renn sponsors electronics whiz Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) to monitor transmissions of both legal and extralegal origins to try and track down juicy leads. One day, Harlan shows him something truly shocking - Videodrome a torture porn show, apparently broadcast out of Malaysia, in which two sinister figures brutalise and murder a helpless victim in a strange, red room - and Max can’t look away. As he sets his various aides to track it down, Max also begins a relationship with Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a radio psychiatrist who finds Videodrome a decidedly handy accompaniment to her own enjoyment of a little cutting, piercing, and branding in her sex life.

But even as they’re getting to know each other, Videodrome is getting to know them. Soon Max is discovering all sorts of information that doesn’t add up. Is Videodrome really headquartered down in Pittsburgh, or are its controllers even closer to home? Why did Nicki disappear, shortly after she claimed to be trying to become a “contestant” on Videodrome? Why is his expert pornography-procurer Masha (Lynne Gorman) so afraid of Videodrome? And why, for the love of God, has Max started to be plagued by more and more hallucinations the more he is exposed to the show? Just who is pulling the strings behind Videodrome, what are they trying to do to Max, and can the strange Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) and his televisual cult - the Cathode Ray Mission - help Max change the channel before it’s too late?

Max seems to live in a near future where television is even more pervasive than it ever became in reality, but which seems to be an apt prediction of the utility and ubiquity of the Internet - for instance, the first thing we see in the film, after a Civic TV ident describing the station as “The One You Take To Bed With You” - is a personalised televisual message to Renn from his secretary, recorded to videotape and set up to play when it’s time for Max to wake up in the morning. This is the sort of thing which would be awkward and burdensome to do using the videotape technology presented here, but would be far, far easier with Internet technology and Smart TV.

Likewise, Harlan scanning the airwaves for pirate transmissions and unscrambling encoded broadcasts feels much like a televisual equivalent of computer hacking. Once the mask comes off and his fascist affiliations become clear, you could totally imagine Harlan donning a Make America Great Again baseball cap and growling that actually, the whole conspiracy is about ethics in television journalism. O’Blivion’s schtick, in which all his public pronouncements are actually made up of re-edited extracts from things he’s already recorded, basically makes him a sort of hand-crafted take on those Markov chain twitter bots, and his rhetoric about using a special screen name which resonates with the medium likewise reflects the era of screen pseudonyms, in particular the early BBS days when using such things seemed exciting and revolutionary rather than absolutely par for the course.

Such features make Videodrome a cyberpunk allegory constructed for the TV generation, predicting the networking revolution in terms which a television viewer who knows nothing about computers might understand. This is necessary because, as we now know, the revolution was so complete that to understand our society, we need to understand at least something about the Internet, otherwise a substantial proportion of modern discourse and discussion is not merely closed off to us, but entirely unintelligible.

The cyberpunk aspects are most apparent when Videodrome conspirator Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) shows Max the “prototype” of Videodrome, and it’s what we would these days instantly recognise as a virtual reality headset. (It also adds a further nested layer of hallucination to the dense multilayered irrealities of the film - much as in the later eXistenZ, though I think they are handled more artfully here.) It also shows up late in the film when Max becomes physically attached to his handgun in a union of flesh and machinery which prefigures all sorts of cyberpunk bodily modifications in later fiction - another instance of the line between human beings and the technologies they use being entirely erased, just as the distinction between Professor O’Blivion and the masses of taped lectures he produced fades away.

The movie is also interesting for the motivations of its antagonists. At one point Max makes the point that doing snuff films for makes no commercial success, since faking it is both easier and cheaper. Marsha responds by pointing out that the controllers of Videodrome unlike Max, have a philosophy. When we learn the fascist plot behind Videodrome - to use the show, and its tumour-inducing secret properties, to draw in and eliminate “degenerates” - the underpinnings of this become clear. It is ideologically important to them that the snuff show be real, because then it is ideologically acceptable both to destroy those who would agree to participate in the show and those who would agree to watch it. If the murders were not real, the viewers would not be complicit in a real crime; moreover, the vital distinction between a fictionalised depiction of an act and the actual act itself eludes these fascists due to their simplistic, black and white worldview. A fake murder - and killing people for their complicity in a fake murder - is a shade of grey too far for them, a nuance their ideology would not allow.


Camera (2000)

Leslie Carlson plays an aging actor, who sits in his kitchen and gives a monologue about how one day “the kids brought home a camera” - in this case, a small crowd of kids bring a big old-fashioned professional movie camera into his home - and ruminates about aging and death as the kids keep bothering him. Whilst he insists that “when you record the moment you record the death of the moment”, the kids can’t get enough of their new toy, and set about filming the actor in a very professional manner.

This was a short thing commissioned for the 25th Anniversary of the Toronto film festival, and as far as I can tell it’s a big visual metaphor for the future and past of cinema (as represented respectively by the child production team and the aging actor). It doesn’t seem especially germane to any of the material here, save that it’s the latest collaboration between Carlson and Cronenberg and Videodrome was their first time working together, but eh, if you’ve got the space left on the disc what’s the harm in throwing it on?

Transfer (1966)

A short film which opens with a psychiatrist brushing his teeth out in the wilderness - “hundreds of miles from civilisation”, as he says, where he seems to be living entirely outside, with all his indoor furniture set up on the middle of a snowy plain. He has been tracked down in this “exile” by one of his patients, Ralph, who is in love with him; however, the doctor insists that “communication is the original sin” and wants nothing to do with others. Very much a student film, the cast deliberately overact in order to do justice to the overblown script and to play into the surreal tone of the thing. Fun but a little insubstantial; we’ve all seen better from amateurs on YouTube.

From the Drain (1967)

We open with two men sitting in a bathtub fully clothed. One man attempts to begin conversation with the other, under the impression that this is the “Disabled War Veterans’ Recreation Centre”; the other only clasps his hands together and smiles at the other fellow, occasionally pointing at the drain. The first man flips out and complains that he’s never paired with anybody interesting, just “speechless idiots”; the speechless idiot manages to utter “tendril”, and then begins to speak, and a conversation begins.

Tonally, it’s very similar to Transfer, to the point where one wonders whether Cronenberg had plans to get into comedy; whilst there’s some spooky aspects to the whole thing, it feels more like a surreal satire rather than horror for the most part. In both cases, the conversation between the two characters seems to be on some level a homosexual flirtation, with the sexuality intensely sublimated - here a strange consummation is reached when the complainer feeds the speechless one to the thing in the drain, in Transfer a therapy session serves as a substitute for sex. It is the concluding sequence here, in which the speechless individual is attacked by the thing in the drain and the complainer reveals his complicity in it all, that an element of true horror enters Cronenberg’s work.

Early Films

Stereo (1969)

Cronenberg’s first sort-of feature (it’s just over an hour long, making it much more substantial than his short films but not really feature length by most standards) is shot entirely in black and white and with no soundtrack bar a narration by various contributors. The piece itself is designed as a university-level educational film from the future - a restricted film, specifically, whose viewing is governed by the “Canadian Plastic Forms Act”. For the purposes of the film Cronenberg transforms his university campus into the centre of a research project into neurological and sexual extremes; specifically, a program to surgically induce telepathic capabilities in receptive individuals, in order to see what sort of relationships evolve between them in place of the old monogamy-centric heterocentric norm, which is described as being defunct. As the project progresses, we note how habitual behaviours of one subject become shared amongst others, but what will become of the subjects once the project comes to an end?

The film develops a range of ideas which would see further light in later Cronenberg works - the narration relates an anecdote about one subject trepanning himself in his distress after being cut off from his telepathic soulmates, which corresponds interestingly to Revok trepanning himself to try and cope with the ceaseless torment of being a telepath in Scanners. Indeed, the more general idea of scientifically-induced telepathy and the status of being a telepath being both a curse (here it is explicitly compared to drug addiction) and the key to establishing an entirely new type of societal organisation is pretty much the key to Scanners, which can be seen as a spiritual sequel to this.

There is also a type of horror here, developed in between the academic detachment of the narration and the increasingly odd behaviour we see onscreen. For instance, we learn about how all telepathic conglomerates end up under the psychic domination of the strongest will present (which again makes us recall the power struggle at the climax of Scanners), and we also learn that the surgery to induce telepathy also included deliberate damage to the speech centres of the brain in order to encourage the telepaths to rely less on verbal communication and more on their new telepathic faculties. One of the more chilling subplots involves a subject who develops a secondary personality as a decoy - something for the other telepaths to interact with whilst her original self remains isolated and untouched, as she wanted - only for this secondary personality to end up consuming the original, in a psychic crisis that also has an unhappy effect on those with a telepathic bond to her.

The absolute lack of any diegetic sound, and the long stretches of silence between doses of narration, does make the film somewhat challenging to watch; it would be greatly improved had Cronenberg tacked on some suitable soundtrack, which would then make Stereo go down much more easily - becoming something of a compromise between the extremely experimental format of La Jetée and a more conventional movie. Still, the imagery used in the film is often fascinating Cronenberg throwing in some really compelling shots and the silent interactions between the actors a source of genuine fascination. There’s quite a clever motif where several of the members of the commune are toting around babies’ dummies which they occasionally suckle on (apparently Cronenberg had future visions of rave culture), and at one point a clever shot creates a connection between the shape of these dummies and the symbol of the ankh, making the dummies in turn symbols of life; a bit later, the destruction of one character’s dummy underscores the entry of a morbid, death-oriented element into the telepathic gestalt.

Cronenberg also sees the sexual experimentation of his time leading not to an end to the normative demands of society, but merely a shift in them, the narration (being as it is the “voice” of the institute performing the experiments) insisting that an “expanded bisexuality” it refers to as “omnisexuality” is the desirable, normative model both amongst its telepaths and in the wider world and insisting that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are perversions of this. However, the narration also admits that they have had to produce inhibition-dropping drugs in order to get people to go along with this, raising the question of whether this was really a consensual act. The parallels to real-life attempts at "curing" people of having the wrong type of sexuality are obvious, and whilst Cronenberg risks tipping over into suggesting that evil bisexuals want to make us all bisexual, I think he just about remains in the territory of using the institute's prescriptive view of sexuality as a funhouse mirror version of societal disapproval as it existed at the time. This idea of compulsory sexuality would be explored further in Shivers.

Crimes of the Future (1970)
A riff on the same format as Stereo (it even has a similar running time), this time with an avant-garde musical soundtrack popping in here and there to make it a little more interesting to watch. Crimes of the Future follows protagonist-narrator Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik), the director of the House of Skin - a clinic to treat those affected by various conditions induced by modern cosmetics. Tripod’s former mentor, the “mad dermatologist” Antoine Rouge, has disappeared in the wake of a horrendous plague sweeping the world, carried on cosmetic products and killing off the entire population of sexually mature women. In the wake of the death of the House’s final patient, Tripod goes on a strange journey through a series of different institutions to track down Rouge, and in the process of doing so becomes acquainted with a range of avant-garde therapeutic techniques and discovers how men are adapting to a world without women.

On the one hand, this is a plot concept which kind of has a sexist joke at its very heart. On the other hand, it’s a concept which also opens the door to a lot of playing with ideas about gender and masculinity and people’s capacity to redefine and explore both. (For instance, the plague - Rouge’s Malady - now affects some men as well as post-pubertal women.) As with Stereo, the movie plays with a bunch of ideas which would later find their full flowering in more developed Cronenberg works. For instance, Rabid deals with a plague that arises from an experimental plastic surgery technique, which recalls the origins of Rouge’s Malady in dermatological products here, whilst the bit here with a patient who grows new organs inside himself not only recalls the “psychoplasmic” therapy process in The Brood but also the idea that the supposed brain tumours induced by the signal in Videodrome are not, in fact, tumours, but new organs allowing their host to adapt to living in the strange new world of the New Flesh.

Cronenberg’s knack for inducing discomfort in the audience is more developed here, though at points it is undermined by the inaccessible format. For instance, the concluding section revolves around Tripod joining a cabal of pedophiles intent on kidnapping and impregnating a five year old girl, because he believes that Rouge might have something to do with them, but this ends up managing to be simultaneously disturbing to contemplate and yet boring to actually witness (though it is quite interesting that Tripod’s narration shifts to the third person at this point, as if to dissociate himself from what is happening). There’s also the punning names; “Rouge” we can unpick fairly easily as a dual pun on both the cosmetic product and, via a common misspelling, the word “Rogue”, reflecting Antoine’s status as a renegade. “Tripod” suggests a thing that a camera is placed on, which reflects how the film is conveyed entirely through Adrian’s subjective point of view; it may also be a filthy joke about Adrian having a big ol’ cock, which ties into the piece’s sexual themes.

Ultimately, I tend to agree with Kim Newman’s assessment that this and Stereo prove that it’s “possible to be boring and interesting at the same time”; I’m glad to own them in this set and they’re worth watching once, but even on a single viewing you are likely to find your attention ends up wandering. I would say it’s worth getting these pieces if you’re able to get them as part of the gorgeous boxed set with Videodrome, but had I bought them as the separate release I probably wouldn’t have held onto them.

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