Videodrome (1983)

I wasn’t alive in the 1980s, so I can’t speak of the relevance of the film for the time it was released, but watching it in 2020 it feels poignantly prophetic. The Videodrome is a pornographic S&M television programme which Max Renan (James Woods) becomes obsessed with. The more he watches the more he hallucinates and the more he undergoes grotesque physical changes.

Reading online it seems there isn’t an agreed consensus on what Videodrome is about. Director Cronenberg said:

“It’s very hard for me to say what Videodrome is about in a sense, because it’s, I think it’s totally misleading to say that it’s a criticism of television or that it’s a, you know, an extension of network or something like that. It really is exploring what I’ve been doing all along which is to see what happens when people go to extremes and try to alter their total environment to the point when it comes back and starts to alter their physical selves.”

Interview with Cronenberg and cast .

This wasn’t my take.

Max Renan hallucinates.

I saw a lot in Videodrome that reflects how we interact with technology today. However, rather than exclusively with the screens of TVs, now more so with the screens of our phones. In the film Renan becomes more machine as his hallucinations progress; the boundary between man and machine is blurred. While transhumans would like to see this reality realised, and philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark suggest your phone could be a part of your mind, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. As this happens and as he hallucinates, Renan becomes a slave to the Videodrome, receiving orders from others, becoming its assassin. I’m not suggesting we are slaves to our phones, or that social media controls us, however, during the film I did find myself with my phone in hand and twitter open, without consciously having made that decision, such is the habit.

The film also touches on themes of truth and trusting what we see on the screen. The hallucinations are an obvious case of this, Renan seeing dead bodies in his bed where there apparently are none and losing his gun inside is stomach. We also find out that the character Brian O’Blivion, previously thought alive, was in fact dead, and his daughter was posting previously recorded videos of him to mask his reality. Questioning what we see online and on social media has been more important now than ever. Tech companies are creating better and better deepfakes, gaining the ability to make anyone say and do anything.

Videodrome is an excellent exploration of the interaction between the screen and the human mind. I do not share Cronenberg’s view that the screen or film can (significantly) change the physical state of a person directly, only via any changes it has on the mind first. It is a film that can be read a dozen ways, each one revealing an important truth about technology in the 21st century.

Long live the new flesh.

Les Raisins de la Mort (1978)

In rural France a homemade pesticide turns workers and townspeople into aggressive zombies. These zombies don’t want your brains, but they definitely do want you dead. They’ll stab you, hit you and even crucify you on a door.

The Grapes of Death (English title) follows Élizabeth, who, while travelling cross-country to visit her fiancé, abandons the train she is on after a crazed zombie murders her friend. The rest of the film tracks her through the countryside trying to work her way to her fiancés vineyard where he works. On her way she meets many zombies and a few fellow survivors.

Image result for the grapes of death
Marie-Georges Pascal as Élizabeth

The zombies themselves are gruesome; blistering skin, leaking with puss and blood. Rollin pulls the camera in often for close-ups of the infected and uninfected alike, capturing their serene despair in life and death. Sections of the film were filled with clear (erotic) religious imagery and to me, a commentary of occupied France during WWII.

I was surprised by the praise of others online; ultimately the film failed to impress me. It was unambitious and slowly paced despite its short runtime. To its credit, the beheadings and wounds are properly and suitably gruesome.

First Man (2018)

There is a joke about a conspiracy theory on the moon landing. Those in tin-foil hats claim NASA asked Stanley Kubrick, having just filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to produce a fake landing to one-up the Soviets. The joke is that being a renowned perfectionist Kubrick would insist on filming it on the moon itself, thus rendering the faked landing redundant. Such a task is now obsolete as director Damien Chazelle has given us a truly authentic production of the moon landing, more so than any other, in his latest film First Man.

First Man is a radical departure from his previous two feature films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), both centred around the throes of artistic ambition. However, there is continuity with First Man and its predecessors. Where previously Miles Teller plays an incessantly tenacious jazz drummer, sought on gaining the approval of his uncompromising mentor and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and actress respectively, striving to fulfil their dreams, Chazelle presents Neil Armstrong played by a stoic Ryan Gosling as a man driven, resolute in his mission to reach the moon. 

Throughout, the film navigates the dynamics of a family whose father and husband is to be sent into space to his possible death. Clare Foy gives a convincing performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife and the mother to their two sons. She struggles with the demands of raising her children while dealing with the emotional toll of her husband’s job. We see Neil haunted by the death of his daughter, the effects of which are seemingly absent in Janet’s narrative, which is disappointing as her role is ultimately reduced to ‘Neil’s aggrieved wife’. The depths of Armstrong’s grief are captured brilliantly by cinematographer Linus Sandgreen using 16mm film for the close-up shots, reflecting shadows on the moon in Gosling’s face often shot half covered in darkness. Gosling carries Armstrong’s despair to the ethereal surface of the moon where Sandgreen switches to an IMAX camera, allowing the heightened detail and clarity in the colour and light to be brought forward. Armstrong’s grief is brought into sharp focus with the bleak moonscape spanning the screen, void of life and score, where he starts to let go of the death of his daughter, leaving a memento of her behind.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

Although the majority of the film is centred on the events on Earth, Chazelle is best in space; the shaky camera work on Earth, although cleverly mimicking the discord in the Armstrong family, grows tiresome. Only once Gosling is hurtling through space does Chazelle reveal the full extent of his directing talent. It is the first mission; Gemini 8, that stands out. Here Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott, played by Christopher Abbott are launched into space and then tasked with locating and docking with a second vessel. On their ascent Chazelle puts us squarely in the action along with the pilots in the cockpit, avoiding any shots of the spacecraft from the outside. The result is a tumultuous cacophony of noise, the camera shaking violently as the astronauts are rocketed through the atmosphere into space. And then they break through, into an elevated state of tranquillity after the violence of their ascent. For First Man Chazelle has paired again with composer Justin Hurwitz (whose entire filmography is made up with collaborations with Chazelle and with two Academy Awards after three films has established himself as one of the standout film composers of his generation ), and once again the result is spectacular. For the Gemini 8 mission, Hurwitz gives us a sublime waltz (Docking Waltz) as Armstrong and Scott drift through space just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the curve of which is gracefully reflected in Armstrong’s helmet. 

First Man is an excellent portrayal of a lost man, buried by grief, seeking remove from his anguish in the perilous missions which have claimed so many of his friends’ lives. Ultimately, however, it is just another biopic centred around a tortured man and although it is beautifully crafted and technically sound, unlike the Gemini and Apollo space missions it makes no new ground in the already bloated genre.