Videodrome is a 1983 science fiction/body horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg (who just two years earlier wrote and directed Scanners). It stars James Woods, Debbie Harry of Blondie, and Sonja Smits; it costars Peter Dvorsky, Les Carlson (who also played a man tracing telephone calls from the killer in Black Christmas), and Jack Creley (whom we may recall as the teacher from that old Glosettes TV ad from two years before this film).
Videodrome was Canadian Cronenberg’s first film to get backing from a major Hollywood studio. Though it had the highest budget of any of his films at the time, it was a box office bomb. It did, however, receive praise for its special makeup effects, for Cronenberg’s direction, and for the performances of Woods and Harry. It’s now a cult classic, and is regarded as one of Cronenberg’s best films.
Here is a link to quotes from the film.
Since Videodrome (“video arena,” or “video circus”) is about a broadcast signal, “Videodrome,” showing snuff films, a signal that lures its viewers into a hallucinatory world of mind control and paranoia that ultimately kills them, the film can be seen as an allegory of how the media in general is used to manipulate us, the people, into believing anything the media’s corporate owners want us to believe, and to act on those beliefs, no matter how harmful they may be. Such manipulation includes manufacturing consent for wars, which can be seen as symbolized by the violence of the snuff films seen in the movie.
What’s so alluring about Videodrome is precisely this video aspect, for the TV screen can be seen as a metaphorical mirror reflection of the viewer, analogous to the mirroring back and forth between one person and another to whom he or she may be talking at one time. We see an example of such an analogy at the beginning of the film, when Bridey James (played by Julie Khaner) wakes up her boss, Max Renn (Woods) through the use of a TV to remind him of a meeting he is to have that very day with Japanese pornographers about a film to be shown on his Toronto UHF TV station, CIVIC TV, which specializes in showing extreme erotic content.
Her talking to him on a TV screen, rousing him from his sleep is meant to look almost like one side of a conversation. As Professor O’Blivion (Creley) will tell us later, “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye.” Seeing Bridey on the screen is like seeing her eye to eye; the worlds of fantasy and reality are blurred and fusing.
If looking at someone on a TV is hardly to be distinguished from looking at someone in real life, in front of oneself, then we can extend this idea to what I’ve discussed before of the dialectical relationship between the self and the other, of how there’s a bit of the self in the other, and vice versa. One could relate this idea to how Ian Anderson once introduced the Jethro Tull song, “The Minstrel in the Gallery,” as being about the performer not just being watched in his performance, but also him watching the ‘performance’ of his audience, for “he saw his face in everyone” after “he threw away his looking glass.” As I said above, the TV in Videodrome is a metaphorical mirror, or looking glass, in which the viewer sees his face in everyone on the screen, and narcissistically identifies with each of them.
The point is that Max projects his own unconscious desires onto the screen when he watches Videodrome, and the violence of his resulting hallucinations is a reflection of what’s inside of him. Then Videodrome in turn projects its violence back onto him, making him consciously act out his unconscious violent urges.
He watches the TV…and the TV watches him, so to speak, at least in his hallucinations. There are, or seem to be, two-way conversations going on between him and whoever is on the TV screen. This sense becomes more explicit when Max sees the Marshall McLuhan-like O’Blivion address him on the video he watches, the video when we see O’Blivion killed.
One establishes one’s sense of ego, as a distinct self, by seeing oneself for the first time as an infant in front of a mirror. One sees oneself, but the self is ‘over there,’ as if another person. One establishes oneself, yet is alienated from that self, hence conversely, there’s the sense of the self in the other, and vice versa.
Metaphorical mirrors exist in people we face in two-way, dyadic relationships, as with the infant held by his mother, them looking into each other’s eyes. An analogous two-way relationship is felt between the viewer and the person being viewed on TV.
When the media successfully manipulates our emotions, making us feel what its corporate owners want us to feel, this manipulation is the TV watching us back, like those two-way telescreens in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s significant that O’Blivion is meant to represent McLuhan in Videodrome, for recall what McLuhan said about the modern media: “The medium is the message,” or “the massage,” or the “mass age,” or the “mess age”; how the message is presented is, if anything, more important than its content.
Yes, the medium also massages us–that is, how the content is presented, in the case of Videodrome, via TV videotapes, is a visual form that charms us as a mother does her baby, she being one of those metaphorical mirrors; and through this charming, this massaging, the media gets us to do its bidding. It is the mass age because we’re in an age in which the media does this charming and manipulating of the world’s masses, interconnecting us all to the point of creating a global village. The medium is also, by making a mess of our age, a mess age.
Such manipulating is why some are concerned about CIVIC TV. Max appears on a TV show to defend his channel by rationalizing that, by giving his viewers an outlet to release their dark fantasies onto, they won’t feel the need to vent them on non-consenting people in real life. It is at this TV show where he meets Nicki Brand (Harry), and he immediately finds her attractive in that red dress.
That the two quickly begin a sexual relationship, all while Max has been watching his first samples of Videodrome, is significant, for she in her seductive beauty personifies the allure of Videodrome. The show presents plotless, realistic scenes of sadism, while Nicki is a masochist, enjoying being pricked with pins and burned with cigarettes.
That a masochist should personify a show featuring sadism, the dialectical opposite of her desires, is reconciled with a quote from Freud: “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”
Nicki is so taken with Videodrome that she decides to go and “audition” for the show. That she so quickly becomes part of Max’s hallucinations on his TV screen shows us how much she is, and has always been, at one with Videodrome.
Another character, one closely associated with Nicki as I’ll point out soon, is Masha (played by Lynne Gorman). She, in about her mid-fifties, is old enough to be 34-year-old Max’s mother (“Masha” could be heard as a pun on “Mama”), which is significant, because he occasionally flirts with her, indicating a transference of the Oedipus complex.
That Masha is associated with Nicki is made clear in the scene when Max hallucinates first whipping tied-up Nicki, who masochistically enjoys it, then realizes he’s whipping Masha, tied up and in Nicki’s place, even wearing red, as Nicki was. Max wakes up and hallucinates seeing Masha lying next to him in bed, still tied up and gagged, and dead from the beating; this indicates further his Oedipal transference onto her, as well as her association with Nicki (i.e., her involvement in the erotic fantasy).
If ‘Mama’ Masha is associated with Nicki, then Nicki is also a kind of displaced Oedipal transference, which can be seen in the earlier scene when Max hallucinates seeing her on his TV screen, and she says to him, “Come to Nicki,” which almost sounds like, “Come to Mommy.”
Therefore, Masha represents his good mother, and Nicki represents his bad mother, to use concepts from Melanie Klein. Masha is the good one because, apart from submitting ‘nice’ porn to CIVIC TV, she also warns him against looking further into Videodrome. Nicki is the bad mother because, of course, she lures him more and more into Videodrome.
This splitting of Max’s mother transferences into good and bad objects reflects what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position: paranoid because of his fear of the bad internal object possibly persecuting him (which Nicki does, of course); and schizoid because of the splitting of his world into absolute good and bad, black and white. Trying to reject the bad, through projection, will result in bizarre objects, Wilfred Bion‘s term for hallucinated projections of the bad objects. Such projective identification is why Max is hallucinating.
One crucial thing to understand about his Oedipal transferences is that they are narcissistic in origin. Seeing that mirrored other face in front of oneself, be it the mother’s, a maternal transference, or a face on the TV screen, is a participating in a dyadic relationship with the other (only one other person), as opposed to Lacan‘s Other, meaning the many other people of society in general. The one other is a mirrored reflection, or an extension, of the narcissistic self, and that other is selfishly hogged, never to be shared with other people.
In his being sucked further and further into the dangerous world of Videodrome, Max is isolating himself and regressing to an infantile state where fantasy and reality have a blurred boundary. The removal of the societal Other, as represented by a father figure (here in turn represented by O’Blivion, whom we see killed, reduced to oblivion, on the videotape), is what Lacan called foreclosure, which leads to psychosis, Max’s break with reality, leading to more hallucinations and more delusions.
The media’s manipulation of us, beguiling us with those seductive images on the TV screen (or, in today’s world, our computer screens or smartphone screens; and incidentally, McLuhan predicted the internet) and twisting our minds with propaganda, is doing basically the same thing to us as Videodrome is doing to Max. In mindlessly supporting imperialist war after imperialist war, we’ve become as narcissistic, violent, delusional, and paranoid/schizoid as he is.
Max asks Masha to find out more about Videodrome for him, and as I said above, she tries to warn him to stay away from it. She insists that these snuff films show real murders, not faked ones. Of course, any producer of snuff films, in his right mind, would never risk being charged with murder when he could just fake the killings, as is done in mainstream films. Videodrome, however, doesn’t fake the killings because, as Masha tells Max, it has a philosophy.
When Max asks for a name behind this philosophy, she tells him that it’s Professor Brian O’Blivion. I would say, however, that the name behind this philosophy is that of the Marquis de Sade, who in his erotic writings merged pornography with philosophy, anti-religion, a glorification of cruelty and crime, and an ironic commentary on the oppressive power structures of our world–the Church, the state, and class antagonisms.
Right after learning about O’Blivion, Max goes to find him, and it’s significant that the building he goes to is a place where the homeless are made to watch marathon sessions of TV. Here we see a parallel of the relationship this film makes between sex and violence: the pleasure of watching TV, of being seduced by images on the screen and being put in that infantile, dyadic, almost Oedipal relationship, is associated with the structural violence of being reduced to poverty.
The rich and powerful, like Sade’s wealthy characters, his politically influential sex criminals, are torturing and killing the weak and poor. The people behind Videodrome represent these powerful people, at least the corporate media faction, indulging in transgressive, pleasure/pain jouissance and getting the surplus value of what Lacan called plus-de-jouir. Sadomasochism in the film represents the pleasure the ruling class gets from oppressing the working class.
Just as there are competing capitalist, imperialist interests, so are there competing factions for the control of Videodrome: there’s the agenda of O’Blivion and his daughter, Bianca (Smits), and there’s the agenda of Barry Convex (Carlson) of the Spectacular Optics Corporation, and of Harlan (Dvorsky), the operator of the CIVIC TV satellite dish who, though feigning subservience to Max, his “patrón,” nonetheless has lured his boss into his obsession with Videodrome by getting him to watch a broadcast of it at the beginning of the film.
Before meeting with Convex, Max has had a particularly disturbing hallucination in which he sees a yonic slit appear on his belly. He has a handgun with obvious phallic symbolism, for he puts it in the slit, along with his fist. This scene reinforces the thematic link of sex and violence in the film. It also suggests an internalizing of the combined parent figure, an infantile phantasy based on a child’s witnessing of the primal scene, of his parents having sex, which looks painful to the child and arouses Oedipal jealousy, a feeling of being left out.
Connected with this unconscious phantasy (recall Max’s maternal transferences onto Masha and Nicki) is his feeling of lack, as symbolized by that yonic slit, in turn a symbolic wound from castration. A lack of being able to be, or to have, the phallus for the mother (Masha or Nicki) gives rise to desire, which is the desire of the Other, to be what Masha or Nicki desires, these two being manifestations of Max’s objet petit a.
Consider in this connection a scene not filmed, but in the novelization by “Jack Martin,” pseudonym of Dennis Etchison, in which Max sees a TV rise out of his bathtub like Botticelli‘s Birth of Venus. If you recall the myth behind the painting, Venus, or Aphrodite, appeared from the foam after Uranus‘ severed genitals were thrown into the sea. As I discussed in this post, the castration of Uranus leading to the birth of Venus can be allegorized as Lacan’s notion of lack giving rise to desire.
Max’s desire, fueling his growing obsession with Videodrome, puts him in such a vulnerable state that he can now be easily manipulated and exploited by Convex, who comes in right on cue and has Max driven over to a branch of Spectacular Optical, a seller of eyeglasses. Since, as O’Blivion informed us, “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye,” then these glasses, through the association of TV with one’s eyes, are a metaphorical television in themselves. And since Convex is Videodrome’s producer, as a member of the eyeglasses company, we see a stronger link between the glasses and TV.
In his self-introduction to Max in the car on the way to the Spectacular Optics branch, which is done fittingly on a small TV screen in the car, Convex explains that the eyeglasses company makes cheap glasses for the Third World, paralleling Bianca’s having homeless people watch TV. Convex’s company also provides missile guidance systems for NATO, so we can see a sinister link between his use of media manipulation via Videodrome, his eyeglasses (as I suspect) controlling and shaping what the poor of the Third World see, and imperialist capitalism.
It is at the back of the eyeglasses store that Convex has Max wear a device on his head to record his hallucinations of whipping Nicki, then seeing himself whip Masha. His inner fantasies of dominance and control, over the two representing his objet petit a, are being manipulated and exploited (and therefore in turn dominated and controlled) by Convex.
When Max later learns of Harlan’s involvement in luring him into Videodrome, and of Harlan’s association with Convex, Harlan tells him of the need for the West to toughen up against its toughening Eastern enemies, who I suspect were the communists. We’ve seen this Western toughening up since the time Videodrome was made, suggesting how prophetic the film was in linking media manipulation of the masses with the neoliberal counterrevolution starting in the 1980s with Reagan and Thatcher.
Another surreal moment comes when Convex puts a videocassette into that slit in Max’s belly. Since, as I said above, that slit is yonic, Convex is putting the cassette in Max against his will, and the insertion is done to control Max, it can be seen as a symbolic rape, another fisting.
Convex wants Max to give CIVIC TV to Videodrome, and to kill his two business partners. Here we have a pun already seen in American Psycho: murders and executions for the sake of mergers and acquisitions. Videodrome is an example of big capitalism swallowing up small capitalism–CIVIC TV. Once again, I must give that quote from Marx: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)
Max holds his handgun, which merges with his body and becomes an extension of his fist, a phallic fist, like those hands that put organic videocassettes into his vaginal belly.
He does as commanded. He goes into the CIVIC TV building and finds his two business partners, Raphael (played by David Bolt) and Moses (played by Reiner Schwarz; since Videodrome was filmed and set in Toronto, I wonder if this second business partner was named after Moses Znaimer, head of Citytv at the time). Max kills both of them, then flees the building, having pretended also to be wounded and therefore supposedly not guilty of the attack.
Here we see Max no longer just unconsciously getting his kicks from snuff films. And no longer is he just being manipulated by and hooked on Videodrome, as if it were a drug. Now he is an assassin for Convex. Just like those of us who start off enjoying transgressive, taboo pleasures (jouissance) brought about by Lacan’s lack and a narcissistic wish to be mirrored by a mother substitute (objet petit a), then are manipulated by the media to channel our aggressive, violent urges on specific, political targets, so is Max being used to wipe out Videodrome’s enemies.
Next, he is to find Bianca and kill her. She, however, has been expecting him, and she shows him a video recording of Nicki being murdered by the people in Videodrome, Bianca’s purpose being to sway Max over to the O’Blivion side. (But has Nicki really been killed, or is the recording yet another of Max’s hallucinations, an attempt to manipulate him into working for Bianca? Indeed, for that matter, was even her father really killed, or was his assassination, apparently done by Nicki, yet another hallucination?)
In any case, just as the killing of Professor O’Blivion represents the Oedipal wish to annihilate the father figure so as to have the mother transference (Masha/Nicki), so is the killing of mother figure Nicki a reflection of an unconscious Electra complex in Bianca (her “father’s screen”), a wish to protect her father…or at least to protect his legacy. With Max under her control now, him having seen a hand/pistol emerge from a TV, and having been shot by it (projective identification from the TV back to him, and we furthermore see bullet wounds in the ‘chest’ of the TV screen, indicating once again the mirrored, two-way relationship of the viewer and his TV), he is now to destroy Videodrome.
He recovers from being shot like a resurrected Christ, the bullet wounds being his stigmata. Accordingly, he is now “the video word made flesh,” and so, “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” As a brainwashed, quasi-religious zealot for the manipulative media, narcissistically flattered to be associated with Christ, he will go off to kill Harlan and Convex.
His switching to the O’Blivion side mustn’t be seen as him being any better than before. The Videodrome/O’Blivion conflict is just symbolic of controlled opposition, as far as it represents media manipulation of the public. The two sides just represent competing capitalists.
Harlan puts another videotape–this time, a surreal, fleshly one–into that vaginal slit in Max’s belly; but now that Max is working for Bianca, the symbolic wound of castration that that slit has been is now a kind of castrating vagina dentata that closes up on Harlan’s hand, his fisting, symbolic phallus, and bites it off, leaving the remainder of his arm vaguely resembling a mixer’s beater. Max has gone from feeling powerless, like a eunuch, to powerful. His Lacanian lack feels fulfilled.
After killing Harlan, Max finds Convex at a Spectacular Optics convention on the theme of Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom the following two quotes are (erroneously) attributed: “Love comes in at the eye” (actually from WB Yeats‘s poem, “A Drinking Song“), and “The eye is the window of the soul” (not definitively attributable to any one source).
Apart from being, as it seems, a mere error on Cronenberg’s (or Convex’s) part, could there be any deeper meaning behind associating these quotes with the Italian Renaissance statesman, banker, and patron of the arts? Perhaps the point of linking Lorenzo de’ Medici to Videodrome is to say that he was, on the one hand, the McLuhan/O’Blivion of his day, and the art of men like Botticelli and Michelangelo (whom he sponsored) was the TV of the time; and on the other hand, his political power was like that of Convex, Bianca, et al.
In any case, Nicki’s love surely has gone into Max’s eye, which is the window of the soul that he’s lost to Videodrome.
We see Convex come on a stage after a dance performance, and he says to the audience, “Well, you know me, and I sure know you.” We also hear a member of the audience say, “Yeah, we know you.” This exchange reinforces the theme I discussed earlier of the reciprocity between performer (e.g., Jethro Tull), or person on TV, and audience, or TV viewer.
With his hand-flesh-gun, Max shoots Convex, who falls to the stage floor with his body tearing to pieces in a manner reminding us a bit of the climactic scene in The Evil Dead. This over-the-top death is explained in the novelization as being the result of Max not shooting Convex with normal bullets, but rather with “new flesh” ones.
Max’s ever-increasing madness is, of course, resulting in his ever-increasing isolation. He escapes to a derelict boat in the Port Lands. He has a hallucination of Nicki on a television set there. Recall how I’ve characterized that mirror-like reciprocity between TV image and viewer as a narcissistic one, how the ego is established in what Lacan called the Imaginary. Alongside this experience has been Max’s traumatizing, maddening experience of the Real, these surreal, hallucinatory states that cannot be symbolized through language (how the novelization managed such verbalizing is anyone’s guess); in other words, the psychologically therapeutic realm of the Symbolic is absent here. Max can only get madder and madder; he cannot return to the social world.
Accordingly, Nicki tells him that he must “leave the old flesh” to destroy Videodrome once and for all. This means he has to kill himself. In his narcissistic imagination, Max thinks that doing so will raise him up to a higher level of existence (“the new flesh”), rather like Christ’s death and resurrection giving Him a ‘spiritual body.’ Since Max, in his insanity brought on by media manipulation, is bordering on psychological fragmentation, such narcissistic imaginings can feel like a shield against said fragmentation.
He sees himself on the TV screen putting a bullet in his head, then he immediately does the same to himself. He and the TV are one, a mirror of each other, because the media, in controlling him, have made him destroy himself…just as today’s media, in manufacturing our consent for war with Russia and China, are making us all destroy ourselves through escalation and raising the threat of nuclear war.
Like Max Renn, we are all mesmerized by the images we see on our screens, be they TV, tablet, computer, or smartphone. Neoliberalism has caused us to feel a particularly gaping lack, a hole in our lives like that slit in Max’s gut. We’ve been propagandized to see things in a split-up, black and white world, with ourselves narcissistically as the white, Christ-like good, and other nations as the black, absolutely evil enemy. Political parties, like Videodrome vs. O’Blivion, pretend to be at odds with each other, when actually they push for essentially the same agenda. And we are driven to support aggressive, violent policies that could end up killing us all, like Max the flesh-gunned assassin.
Media manipulation is making us see a world so divorced from reality, so distorted a version of the truth, so surreal, that we could be understood to be hallucinating. If we’re not careful, we’re all going to “leave the old flesh.”
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