Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Videodrome": a VHS-days view of "Second Life": maybe too much TV really is bad for you


On the same day that MSNBC aired a report about cell phone use and the remote and undocumented possibility of brain damage, I watched this old David Cronenberg film “Videodrome”, which is predicated on the idea that the television video screen turns the retina into the “mind’s eye.” The film dates back to 1983, carries the full Universal brand, and came out just as VHS and Beta were coming into being and creating legal copyright issues.

I remember back in “junior high school” in the 1950s that teachers said “read, don’t watch television” – maybe afraid, to quote this movie, that “public life on television is much more real than private life in the flesh.”

Max Renn (James Woods, always a tense actor in his time) gets interested in the hardcore stuff, maybe even snuff, that he thinks is coming from Malaysia. He gets into cahoots with this weird professor Brian O’Blivion (Peter Creeley) who drags him into the world of video-induced brain tumors. Pretty soon, and after wearing some head contraptions intended to immerse him into a humiliating alternate reality, he pretty much loses it. His torso is opened up to play the video itself, and for this purpose it must be hairless. (His torso can also store weapons. And eventually, well, it becomes receptively female, like in the Roadside Attractions horror film “Teeth”.) Pretty soon, we learn that there is a “plot” to infect all the “riffraff” of society with videos in order to get them to self-destruct.

What’s interesting about a film like this now is the boxy technology, in the days before CD’s, no less the Internet and Second Life. We have touch tone phones but no cell phones or blackberries.

There’s a great line, “See you in Pittsburgh” – but not at the Andy Warhol Museum. The film, if classic Cronenberg and Canadian horror, has elements of David Lynch and even Warhol himself. The film, in one climatic scene, even expresses the concept of body parts integrating with tumor to produce weapons (an idea that occurs in the “Alien” franchise).

I remember that Roger Ebert gave this film a curious review back in the 80s. I would see Cronenberg’s “Spider” at a special screening with the director in the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis in 2002.

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