David Cronenberg’s 1983 sci-fi thriller Videodrome was screened last Tuesday 6 August at Manchester’s HOME cinema. Starring Debbie Harry in one of her first acting roles, the film was presented as part of their Sound and Vision: Pop Stars on Film programme.

HOME’s screening of Videodrome began with Ellen Smith, one of the cinema’s Ushers and a member of their Young Programmers team, giving a short presentation on the movie. She informed the audience that she has a tattoo of Videodrome’s closing words ‘Long Live the New Flesh’ after seeing the movie in her formative years, and stated she related to James Woods’s character Max. She continued that she was “struck by the tactility of the imagery” and “loved the body horror, particularly the combination of flesh and machine”.

I hadn’t yet seen Videodrome and was intrigued by both the presentation and the movie itself upon seeing the listing. Upon hearing Ellen’s description I was immediately struck with the parallels to the 1927 German cult classic Metropolis and was eager to see how this played out.

Ellen continued, sharing that she was inspired by the psychological perception of reality and also concerned about the implications of the destructive elements that have arisen from the expansion of corporate techno-social development. Indeed, on top of the unfettered ills let loose amongst social media and entertainment monoliths, I believe she was correct to correlate David Cronenberg’s nightmare with the proliferation of human degradation on the Dark Web.

Furthermore, Ellen astutely pointed out the character name ‘Nicki Brand’ (portrayed by Debbie Harry) as suggesting she too was a consumable and marketable product. Nonetheless, Ellen praised her “sentient self-awareness juxtaposed with ambivalence” and “the duality of self-preservation and self-destruction”. With this, I was (or at least I thought) prepared for Videodrome.

The film begins with president of trashy television station CIVIC-TV, Max Renn (played by James Woods), viewing a Japanese pornographic movie. It opens with clear Kabuki theatre elements, before becoming a twisted distortion of itself as the doll is stripped away to reveal a phallus underneath. I felt this spoke of the twisted transition in which today’s innocent child is tomorrow’s sexualised consumer/commodity in a world where sexuality and capitalism are so inexorably linked. This duality of consumer/commodity then became realised within the film, first with Nicki, and later with Max himself.

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When Max is shown Videodrome for the first time, it’s violent, but arguably more suggestive than overtly visual by today’s standards. That itself is a paradox. Can there be such a thing as softcore domination? It struck me that what was then seen as horror is now commonplace both in mainstream pornography and fetish subculture.

In a talking heads panel with Nicki, Max, and Jack Creley’s Dr Brian O’Blivion, the latter puts forth an economic argument for “hardcore violence and softcore pornography” as a Romanesque “bread and circus” of sorts. However, the problem with fantasists is that when their fantasies involve harming others, they are not so easily cowed with a simulated rendition of their desires and wish to instead violently indulge. The unfortunate rise of the incel movement in our own time definitely speaks to this.

In the same scene, Nicki notes the negative consequences of overstimulation while Max slut shames Nicki, suggesting that her red dress too is overstimulating and that she deliberately chose it to incite arousal. I was surprised that rather than revoking his sexist assertion she admits to her desires which, while valid in terms of personal agency, are used by Max to successfully derail criticism of Max’s broadcasting of pornography through his television station.

Later, at Max’s apartment, he’s shocked by Nicki’s admission of enjoying being cut. I found the juxtaposition of him finding Nicki’s sexual agency shocking while he himself has no problem peddling the flesh of Japanese women and fetishising them incredibly hypocritical, and it speaks of the dichotomy of virgin/slut that’s unfortunately prevalent amongst toxic masculine notions of heterosexuality.

Though he’s considered the protagonist of the movie, Max’s behaviour is reminiscent of a stalker at points, such as when he turns up at Nicki’s workplace, where she’s seen delivering something reminiscent of Frasier Crane’s therapy talk radio fused with the intonation and delivery of a sex line voice actress. The way in which Nicki sexualises the delivery of her therapy felt eerily similar to the manner in which Tumblr fetishises mental illness in contemporary society.

Still from Videodrome trailer – the merging of flesh and machine

Videodrome represents the realisation of one’s perverse and insatiable desire for stimulation at the expense of one’s own wellbeing, to say nothing of the society in which one inhabits. It raises questions for our own society, particularly if this society is increasingly virtual and artificial then where can reality be found? Can real things exist in an unreal environment?

The lines “television is reality and reality is less than television” and “Max, your reality is already half video hallucination… if you’re not careful it could be entirely hallucination” speak of the hallucinogenic distortion fracturing Max’s physical reality.

The inducing of psychotic hallucinations through videotape reminded me of 1998’s Japanese cult horror Ringu, circling back the narrative in my mind to Max’s earlier commercialisation of Japanese softcore pornography.

Max’s hallucination of self-mutilation informed his conscious desire for self-destruction. The gun inside Max emanating from within him is a visual representation of the destructive sickness that was always part of him, with Videodrome merely acting as the catalyst. The tendrils that grow from the gun suggest a symbiotic nature between society’s ills and those that are purveyors of such sickness. It’s stated “Videodrome is death” and yet with the gun and Max’s stomach opening resembling reproductive organs it serves as a visual metaphor reminding us that we may give what nature gave us to either create life or be the harbingers that birth our own destruction, as Max is.

One of the film’s discussions, in which the illegality of Videodrome is seen as part of the appeal – sexually, morally and commercially (though it is essentially ‘snuff TV’) led me to ask myself: “whose philosophy IS Videodrome and what does it represent?” Within the confines of the film, it can be said to be the brainchild of Dr. Brian O’Blivion, that was malignantly appropriated by Peter Dvorsky’s Harlan and Leslie Carlson’s Barry Convex, for the benefit of the Spectacular Optical Corporation. However, it was David Cronenberg’s vision that gave birth to the entropic pornography depicted both in the film itself and its fictional representation of the Videodrome entity. 

I then stumbled upon this thought – is the movie aware that it’s a movie? If it does break the fourth wall then what is the actual truth of this movie, but an internal neurological response to exterior stimuli in the eyes of the beholder?

As the conspiracy of Spectacular Optical Corporation’s arms manufacturing unravels, it struck me that Videodrome represents a physical, psychosexual and virtual manifestation of the military-industrial complex: a perpetual cycle of consumption and destruction that must be stopped. Harlan and Barry denigrate society’s sickness with a holier than thou faux outrage, and yet actively perpetuate it through Videodrome and their arms manufacturing.

If one believes their morally destructive behaviours are in fact moral, psychologically sound, and socially acceptable, would that not inform their reality? If so, and if the villain is always the hero of their own story, how does one rewrite a destructive narrative that another has written about themselves or the world around them?

When Max tracks down Dr. Brian O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (portrayed by Sonja Smits) she’s in a Christian homeless shelter. The Christian imagery, statues and iconography in her office pang uncomfortably with today’s knowledge of the sexual abuse committed by the Catholic Church, while at the same time foreshadowing a religious reading of the film’s ending. 

If Max were to destroy the machine as the ‘New Flesh’, a transcendent merging of body and technology, while the Videodrome itself manifests from its victims hallucinations, then it could be said that this is a continuation of the Christian imagery seen previously at Bianca’s homeless shelter, particularly the cultural tenet of spiritual and psychological self-flagellation and the self-sacrifice of Jesus. The New Flesh evokes New Life, and it’s reminiscent of hellfire as Max sacrifices himself to his own creation. 

It strikes me that Max is the Anti-Neo. A chosen one whose desecration seeks to destroy an even worse desecration. If an Anti-Messianic figure holds power – what does that say about the society that has allowed them to amass such power? 

Long Live the New Flesh.


Ushiku Crisafulli

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