Home Video Hovel: Videodrome, by Scott Nye
Here’s a fun challenge – find a decently-sized, retrospective piece of critical or appreciative writing about Videodrome that doesn’t use words like “prophetic” or “prescient” or more generally ascribe those qualities to it. I can tell you right now that all three of the essays in Criterion’s release of the film do. The approach is as ubiquitous for David Cronenberg’s definitive film as it is for Sidney Lumet’s comparatively-white-elephantine Network. As with that film, though, I am less interested in what Videodrome told us about where we were going than in what it tells us about where we were in 1983, and where we’d been.
For practically as long as they’ve existed, there have been underground networks dedicated to exploiting the airwaves. The rise of cable television and independent station operators – first in radio decades prior, and then especially in the 1970s in TV – gave way to hobbyists on both ends putting all manner of stuff on the air; some of it sanctioned, some not. Its unifying, divisive, addictive, and just plain strange possibilities were explored throughout the late 70s and 80s in films like Poltergeist, Starman, Brazil, Being There, The King of Comedy, They Live, Scrooged, and UHF.
And yet none of those were as bold, outrageous, and frankly thorough as Videodrome. If any other film was, it’s certainly not as notorious or lasting. In Max Renn (James Woods), the president of a Toronto-based UHF stations whose discovery of a snuff films broadcast gradually drives him insane, Cronenberg captured the curiosity that drove many television pioneers, and the dark underbelly all of them dreamed or feared might be out there, just beyond their reach, maybe in a place they don’t want to find but can’t resist trying.
This sensation, while certainly still prevalent in the internet age via the dark web, had a different type of draw in the TV age. Much of what is done online now is done abstractly, via a computer, into “the cloud.” TV pirating was a physical endeavor. Sure, you could pick up the occasional stray broadcast, as Cronenberg himself talks about doing in Canada from New York-based stations, but Videodrome offers a compelling portrait of that physical effort, of banks of wires and antennas and equipment that must be molded in just the right way to continue the search for the strange and dangerous.
Moreover, TV is, or at least was, a reflexively anonymous medium. Any anonymity found online has to be carefully maintained. TV just comes to you; whatever you find is yours. Cronenberg gets at that via the character of Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a mysterious abstraction of his own, directly, but as the film goes on, more and more characters are revealed to be untraceable figments of the Videodrome program, to the extent that Max can no longer even trust his own identity.
Woods, as repugnant as he has become personally in the ten years since he last had a film role of any significance, is brilliant in the film, which came right as his career was taking off (on the supplements, he says the producers later expressed surprise they got him for so cheap). Many lesser actors would posit Max as a sort of victim to a vast conspiracy, but Woods chases and foregrounds the elements of the character that become his unraveling – his pursuit for sensation at any cost, his ego, and most especially a sexual deviancy that ultimately consumes him.
Forty years later, we’re at a very different place with sexuality – there’s a lot of acceptance for different types of sexual expression personally, but widespread hesitation in bringing that to the screen. Following the spread and awareness of AIDS, the late 80s would explode with films directly equating sex and danger, but for 1983, Cronenberg was tapped into the very initial emergence of sexual activity. The sadomasochism Max and Nicki (Debbie Harry) explore following exposure to Videodrome could be read as an expression of that anxiety and fear.
While Videodrome is in some ways a very heady, theme-driven film, it’s also just a thrilling experience. Cronenberg can sometimes get lost in this morass, though many of his admirers disagree on where (I know many think Naked Lunch and A Dangerous Method are far too dense, but both are among my favorites). Few seem to take much issue with Videodrome. The interplay between fantasy and reality, the specificity the cast lends to their increasingly-abstract characters, the still-staggering special effects work, and Cronenberg’s talent for finding the dialogue and narrative to fold this all into are all intensely at work.
Criterion’s new 4K UHD release utilizes the same transfer as Arrow Video’s release last year. That one contained both the unrated director’s cut and the theatrical version, while Criterion only carries the unrated. The transfer is very good, with the Dolby Vision in particular bringing out the strong colors in the film (red’s looking real, real good). I flipped it on and off at various points in the film, and didn’t notice any significant loss of detail in the darker areas of the frame, which Dolby Vision renders closer to pure black and seems to escape the risk of losing material. Grain is well-managed without flattening the image.
Arrow has some supplements Criterion doesn’t, including an audio commentary by the great Tim Lucas, but Criterion has two exclusive tracks, one with Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the other with Woods and Harry. The commentaries split along predictable lines, with Cronenberg and Irwin keener on the production aspects and Woods and Harry discussing how the film fit into their careers and what they tried to do with the material. Both are well worth listening to, and Woods is particularly eloquent in his appreciation of the film.
Two of the other supplements – “Forging the New Flesh” and “Effects Men” – focus on the special effects for the film, sporting interviews with makeup designer Rick Baker and his team, which are worth diving into, but as a collection of archival works, can be a little repetitive. You also get the full footage of the underground and Videodrome broadcasts presented in the film, which you may or may not actually want to sit with. A roundtable discussion from 1982 between Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and John Landis, hosted by then-future filmmaker Mick Garris, is just as engaging as that panel would suggest. Finally, a very cool and very year-2000 short film by Cronenberg called “Camera” rounds out the disc supplements. All of the non-commentary supplements are only on the Blu-ray so the UHD disc can devote its space to the picture.
Finally, a full booklet houses a long essay by Carrie Rickey, a shorter piece by Gary Indiana, and excerpt from Tim Lucas’s book on Videodrome, drawing from his exclusive set visits, with added commentary by Lucas as bookends.
Videodrome remains a landmark film, one Criterion has supported through several iterations, starting with a DVD in 2004, then a Blu-ray upgrade in 2010, and now a 4K edition. While it’s a film worth producing new supplements for, their collection from 2004 that they’ve ported over with each edition – most especially the commentary tracks – still make this a valuable purchase. I especially appreciate that they’ve kept the “VHS” design to the disc package that they first put together for the DVD; even if the size of the case is no longer quite as accurate, it’s still a fun approach. The transfer won’t revolutionize the experience for those who have the Blu-ray, but for those who never bought it or are particularly fond of the film, I would strongly recommend it.