Videodrome: A Psycho-Sexual Thriller by David Cronenberg
Videodrome is a profound psycho-sexual thriller directed by David Cronenberg in released in 1983. Max Renn (James Woods) is a programmer for a cable TV channel that specialises in soft-core pornography and hard-core violence. He’s looking for something ‘tough’, something that will ‘break through’. He discovers test transmissions of a programme called Videodrome, a show of unknown origin that consists of nothing but sexual torture and murder. Max wants Videodrome for business purposes, but he also desires it for pleasure because he has latent sadistic desires.
It transpires that the Videodrome signal induces hallucinations in the viewer. For example, Max hallucinates that he puts his head through the TV screen. This image suggests that the human subject is immersed in television. This is a metaphor for the pervasiveness of the media in our lives. The Videodrome hallucinations disorient the viewer and erase the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The film gives a demonstration of this effect because everything is seen from the viewpoint of Max, who is totally scrambled. We cannot tell whether we’re seeing reality or Max’s media-induced hallucination.
Videodrome depicts the media as a ubiquitous and identity-threatening force. The threat is that of information overload: the constant bombardment of information leaves us scrambled and our identities begin to disintegrate. This is made literal in the film: exposure to the Videodrome signal is fatal because it causes the viewer to develop a brain tumour.
Max encounters a media prophet called Brian O’Blivion. He’s a crazed intellectual who preaches that TV has displaced reality. O’Blivion argues that TV images are now so widespread and so penetrating that they can’t be distinguished from reality anymore. Human experience is becoming vicarious because people are living through television. He states that ‘Television is reality and reality is less than television’. The character of Brian O’Blivion is a pastiche of Marshall McLuhan, a genuine media prophet. He also echoes the arguments of the postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, particularly his classic text Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard argued that TV has replaced reality. Our lives are now nothing more than parodies of what we see projected on the myriad screens that surround us; we compare everything we do to these idealised portrayals.
Brian O’Blivion invented the Videodrome signal, but he also became its first victim, because he contracted a brain tumour from it. However, he thinks that the growth in his brain is not a tumour, but a new organ of the brain that can receive and generate hallucinations. He believes that the new organ will allow us to live in a completely virtual world. He thinks this is the next stage of human evolution: we’re evolving to exist in a new media reality.
The film sees information overload as negative. In the confusion of images, desires and compulsions the self disintegrates. This reflects the loss of identity associated with postmodernism. O’Blivion personifies this process because he’s literally dead and only exists in the form of videotapes. O’Blivion no longer needs to exist because his essence has been captured by technology – he‘s able to disappear into the network and live on as a purely digital being.
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