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.
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.