My first viewing of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) was shattering. I was upended by its dislocated narrative rather than the body horror of its denouement, – where image extrudes into reality and bodies develop erogenous control surfaces or explode into cancerous larvae. I could not see how this unreality emerged from the film it initially seems to be – a paranoid thriller unconventionally crossed with an s/m romance involving Max Renn, a director of a cable TV station specializing in soft porn (James Woods) and a masochistic radio psychiatrist, Nicki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry).
My psychotic blip was aptly mimetic as it turns out for the Videodrome of the title is a snuff TV signal which causes brain cancers and reality-warping hallucinations.
Retrospectively, it is easy to see that Videodrome is never realist. Its cinematic world is potent with disaster from the first. This is evident in the early scene where Max and Nicki meet on a television panel show hosted by Rena King, whose topic is sex and violence on television. Rena challenges Max to justify the erotic content on his station. He responds that it’s a “harmless outlet” for his subscribers. A defense which seems to draw interest the third guest, “Media prophet” Professor Brian O’Blivion.
In a subsequent scene, Max is informed by O’Blivion’s daughter, Bianca, that the Professor invented the Videodrome signal to facilitate our “evolution as a technological animal” and that he had been quietly killed by fascists hoping to use Videodrome to purify North America. Rena’s guest is thus only a recording from Bianca’s video vault.
Despite this reduced ontological status, O’Blivion “responds” as Max speaks. He turns in a baronial chair, stroking his pencil moustache. When Rena asks him about the effects of erotic TV, he again “returns” her glance from the monitor. The content of the interview scene here is less important than its formal erosion of the frames distinguishing the real from its electronic simulacra. Cronenberg’s cinematic world will deliquesce like old film stock (Browning 2007).
The de-framing is reiterated in the gun scene in Max’s apartment. He is watching a recording of O’Blivion stating that the video-induced cancers are new organs of perception:
I think that it is not really a tumor, not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling part of flesh, but that it is, in fact, a new organ, a new part of the brain. I think that massive doses of Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain, which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality. After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there? You can see that, can’t you?
At this O’Blivion’s face fills the screen – effacing the cinematic partition between virtual and real. There follows a reverse shot of Max’s face and naked torso. He has been absently stroking a sore patch on his abdomen with a gun, which has now opened into a wetly dilating vaginal slit that will double as his data port (Wilson 2016). Max is becoming the incarnation of the “new flesh”.
This brings us to Debbie Harry’s Nicki.
During O’Blivion’s video monologue on the Rina King show, Max asks her out. Back at his apartment, Nicki looks through his VHS’s for “porno” to get her “in the mood”. She picks up the Videodrome tape. He warns her that it depicts a constant round of torture and murder: “It ain’t exactly sex”. Nicki, meanwhile, is “turned on” by its representation of a women being flogged in a bare room with wet clay walls. She’s concerned only by the poor quality of the pirated tape. (14.39)
Nicki wears an off-the-shoulder top which allows her to show Max incisions on her neck when lifting her hair. She invites him to cut her with his Swiss army knife. Max is unsettled by Nicki’s insouciance, though he later accedes to her desire for pain. The exchange segues to an incongruously tender scene: Max and Nicki naked together on a rug; Videodrome torture images washing over them while Max perforates Nicki’s ear with a needle.
The effectiveness of the sequence relies on the vulnerability both leads bring to their characters. The pornographer is revealed as a considerate lover, concerned for Nicki and her desires. Harry, meanwhile, convinces us both of Nicki’s vulnerability but also her intelligence and self-possession.
These s/m scenes are the erotic core of Videodrome. They pivot around a secret – Nicki’s “desire” In a later scene, Nicki tells Max she’s been assigned to investigate Videodrome in Pittsburgh, where she intends to audition for the show. When he warns that its owners play “Rougher than even Nicki Brand wants to play” she asks him for a lighted cigarette, with which she burns her left breast.
Nicki’s sexuality remains opaque, however. It could be interpreted as a literal death-drive – for we subsequently see her executed on Videodrome for erotic entertainment. However, this is premature: we cannot know whether she always wanted to be killed on the show, whether her statement was foreplay and bravado; or, again, whether, like Max, her desires and fantasies have been accentuated by exposure to Videodrome signal.
At the same time, the ontological catastrophe incipient in the ‘Rina King’ scene’s subtle ‘debordering’ renders these implied depths irrelevant.
Bianca later shows Max video footage of Nicki being strangled in the room with red clay walls (1.10.31). But, like O’Blivion, she persists in an ontological half-life as image – though by the end of the film the border between image and reality has eroded. As Nicki’s video avatar tells Max near its end, she has learned through Videodrome that “death is not the end” – or that the death drive was never the literal desire for death but a far more monstrous ontological derangement. For Videodrome does not allow Nicki – or perhaps anyone – to die. Instead, she is co-opted as a kind of muse for the new flesh.
Max first hallucinates her in this form as a hooded torturer. After showing her garrotting O’Oblivion in a coda to one of his video logs, the television tumesces with black veins like an auxiliary sexual organ from one of James Ballard’s machinic reveries.
The scene ends with enormous video lips enveloping Max – a hyperreal fantasy of sexual availability. The ambivalence of desire is lost, overwritten.
But what is the new flesh? Its ontology mixes two contrary ingredients: a neuro-reductionism for which experience is a technically manipulable brain process, and a mad dog idealism, in which reality is plastic because nothing (including brain processes) is real. However, these converge in hyperplasm. Boundaries between desire, fantasy and flesh crash – the extirpation of the secret, of death, and reason.
Browning, M., 2007. David Cronenberg: author or film-maker? Bristol: Intellect Books.
Wilson, S., 2016. “Death to Videodrome: Cronenberg, Zizek and the ontology of the real”. http://dx.doi.org/10.11157/medianz-vol16iss2id210