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Videodrome (1983)

David Cronenberg is that rare breed of filmmaker who is able to create art that is universal in appeal while being unabashedly regional in its narrative specifics. In other words, Cronenberg is a world class filmmaker because he is first a Canadian filmmaker, and one who understands that all art is local. His early films - They Came from Within (aka Shivers, 1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Scanners (1981) were paranoid thrillers admixed from equal parts speculative science and Gothic horror, flavor sealed with a blast of subarctic wind chill. Canada's ethnically diverse and socio-politically divisive populace became Cronenberg's raw material for thinking through his themes of infection and mutation. They Came from Within and Rabid offer a Hobson's choice of worst case scenarios for the future; in the former, society wins for losing while the opposite is true in the latter. While writing Rabid, Cronenberg separated from his wife and child; in The Brood, one is sensitive to an exorcism of the demons spawned by a protracted divorce and custody battle. In his first two films, Cronenberg dealt with the attack on the human body from parasites, opportunistic feeders that changed the makeup of civilization on the atomic level. In The Brood and Scanners, change came from within through an externalizing of inner torment and an acceptance of latent psychic abilities.

With such films in his curriculum vitae as the race track drama Fast Company (1979) and Crash (1996), an adaptation of J. G. Ballard's autonecromantic novel, it should come as no surprise that David Cronenberg is an auto enthusiast. In his films, the human body is never finished, never complete, always ripe for after-market modification. By the time of Videodrome (1983), his fifth feature, the artist was exploring the long term effects on the fragile, pulpy human physique from the absorption of the world's sum total of dread, envy and hatred. In Scanners thoughts can literally kill and the film's money shot is the slow motion explosion of a man's head in all its fruit salad splendor. In Videodrome, the medium of television is depicted as a window into a world of limitless fantasy and guiltless transgression, then revealed as a bait-and-switch by forces seeking to enforce order by dint of enslavement and addiction. Cronenberg got through principal photography without a completed script and yet the film's catch-as-catch-can aesthetic works in its favor, thwarting easy answers. They Came from Within ended with the dawn of a new race devoted to the pleasures of the flesh; Videodrome ends with the jihadist declaration "Long live the new flesh" as hero James Woods gives himself over to a new existence that sloughs off its investment in the physical world in exchange for a shot at freedom.

Something seems to have broken for David Cronenberg with Videodrome, or perhaps he simply felt that he had come full circle. It marked his last original script until eXistenZ (1999) almost two decades later. The filmmaker's realized projects were, through the rest of the 80s and through the 90s, remakes and adaptations of novels and stage plays. While no less vital and challenging than his seminal work, these films merely run with themes already firmly established in the Cronenberg canon and never more passionately than in Videodrome. Lauded and dismissed as a wildly enjoyable but improbable ride, a technophobic freaks and geeks show, Videodrome primed the foresighted for the advent of so-called reality television, so-called "torture porn" and the habit-forming advent of all-in-one communication and information storage devices that have become as melded to the human palm as Max Renn's biomechanical "handgun." In his essay "Medium Cruel: Reflections on Videodrome" (written at the time of the film's 2004 inclusion in the prestigious Criterion Collection), writer Tim Lucas hailed Videodrome as "nothing less than a prophecy of the CGI era; concepts that it could not afford to realize on-screen in 1983 are now the stuff of rock videos and television commercials the very wallpaper of twenty-first century living."

Producers: Claude Hroux, Pierre David, Victor Solnicki
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Music: Howard Shore
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Art Director: Carol Spier
Special Make-up Effects: Rick Baker
Cast: James Woods (Max Renn), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Sonja Smits (Bianca O'Blivion), Peter Dvorsky (Harlan), Les Carlson (Barry Convex), Jack Creley (Brian O'Blivion), Lynne Gorman (Masha), Julie Khaner (Bridey), Lally Cadeau (Rena King).
C-89m. Closed Captioning.

by Richard Harland Smith

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