***** out of *****
Every national cinema has its own unique brand of indigenous storytelling, but by virtue of its geographical proximity to the economic and cultural juggernaut that is the United States of America, English Canada has had the unenviable position of maintaining a voice and identity all its own, struggling for half a century to tell uniquely “Canadian” stories to speak to both Canadians and the world. French Canada has always been able to maintain a distinct identity because of the language issues. English Canadian culture has had a tougher time of it, but it’s not simply a more tasteful, literate version of the United States.
David Cronenberg, along with the likes of Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Peter Mettler and a clutch of other visionary filmmakers in English Canada, generated product which can be viewed as Canadian by simple virtue of the fact that both the style and content of the films could only have been made in a North American context that prided itself on uniquely indigenous qualities in spite (and perhaps even because) of the southerly Behemoth of Uncle Sam.
And though plenty of Canadian dramatic product was (and often continues to be) almost unbearably tasteful, this has happily never been a problem for any of the aforementioned filmmakers – especially not David Cronenberg. “Tasteful” has seldom reared its ugly head anywhere near his films.
Videodrome is as Canadian as Maple Syrup, beavers and the MacKenzie Brothers, but with the added bonus of almost hardcore sadomasochistic snuff-film-style torture weaving its way throughout the picture as narrative and thematic elements.
Max Renn (James Woods) is the head honcho of a tiny independent Toronto TV station which specialises in unorthodox programming with an emphasis upon lurid, exploitative and downright sensational stylistic approaches and content. This is clearly a fictional representation of the uniquely Canadian Toronto company CITY-TV which became famous for its soft-core “Baby Blue Movies” and the open concept studios for news and public affairs. Though Cronenberg denies it, Max Renn is clearly modeled upon the real-life Canadian visionary Moses Znaimer who revolutionised broadcasting throughout the continent, and even the world, due to his unorthodox approaches.
Renn finds himself looking for something to take his station and broadcasting in general in far more cutting edge directions. Via his pirate satellites, he discovers a rogue broadcast from Malaysia featuring non-stop BDSM. The actions are vicious, hard-core and clearly the real thing. He searches desperately to track down the direct source of the feed, seeking the learned counsel of Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) a “medium is the message” guru (based on Canada’s Marshall McLuhan).
Unfortunately, Renn has been exposed to a nefarious virus by watching the footage and soon reality and fantasy begin to mesh together while he engages in an S/M relationship with radio interviewer Nikki Brand (Deborah “Blondie” Harry) and discovers that his body has sprouted its own VCR within his guts.
There is, of course, a conspiracy and, of course, it’s rooted in America where the snuff station is actually broadcasting from. The goal of mysterious New World Order-like power brokers is to use Max to infect the world with total acquiescence.
To say Videodrome is prescient, is a bit of an understatement. Cronenberg brilliantly riffs on early 80s Canadian broadcast innovations and visionaries (like Znaimer and McLuhan) to create a chilling, disturbing look at how a corporate “One-World” government seeks to anesthetise the world (and destroy all those who are not susceptible to the virus of brainwashing).
Videodrome is scary, morbidly funny, dementedly sexy (gotta love lit cigarettes applied to naked breasts, a vaginal cavity in Renn’s stomach which plays videotapes and stashes firearms and, among many other horrors, masked figures exacting violent torture on-screen) and finally, one of the great science fiction horror films of all time.
I will not spoil anything for you by elaborating upon the following, but I will guarantee that you’ll be able to experience the shedding of the “old flesh” to make way for “the new flesh”. Right now, though, you really don’t want to know.
A famous Canadian TV commercial during the 60s-80s featured a variety of British tea-sippers slurping back Canada’s “Red Rose” tea and looking directly into the camera to remark (in a full Brit accent):
“Only in Canada, you say? A pity.”
It’s kind of how the rest of the world can feel about David Cronenberg and his Videodrome. It is precisely the kind of movie that could only have been spawned in Canada, but unlike Red Rose Tea, it’s available worldwide and forever.