Crime in Cronenberg’s Videodrome: A perversion of the everyman’s subconscious

Rena King:
“Don’t you feel such shows [of soft-core pornography and hardcore violence] contribute to a social climate of violence and sexual malaise, and do you care?”
Max Renn:
“Certainly I care. I care enough to give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations…”


Videodrome stars James Woods as Max Renn, president of an independent, Canadian (more specifically, a Torontonian) television station, Civic-TV. At a time when everyone seems TV-obsessed, addicted to the emissions of the all-powerful Cathode Ray Tube, Max’s station offers to viewers sensational programming – specializing in a unique mix of illicit sex (“smut”) and violence (“snuff”) – which earns it the dubious slogan of “the one you take to bed with you.” Fearing that his station – and indeed all of North America – is getting too “soft”, Max embarks on a quest to find “tougher” material for his audience. The plot thickens when he discovers pirate tapes of an experimental show called “Videodrome”, a raw, seedy program without plot or characters, only merciless acts of violence, torture and murder. Max quickly becomes infatuated with the scrambled images from the single-camera operation – in which a screaming victim is tortured, whipped, chained and beaten to death by two hooded figures – and develops an obsession with the “purity” (simplicity) of its message.

Yet Videodrome’s gift is not without consequence: with each passing second of its viewing, the show gains more control over Max. The Videodrome signal plagues Max with a fatal tumour that acts as a mind-control device to posit the directives of its greedy capitalist creators, eventually morphing him into an obedient, media-controlled assassin. Let me first quickly clarify what I mean by ‘crime’. In Videodrome, crime takes on a specialized form. There are no ‘white collar’ crimes: money laundering, embezzlement, blackmail, or any law-bending for profit. On the flipside, there aren’t any crimes of desperation, either: stealing to avoid starvation or squatting in abandoned buildings. Rather, the crimes in Cronenberg’s film are all ‘crimes of passion’, driven by a desire for pleasure.

In the world of Videodrome, one is a criminal neither to survive nor to profit, but rather to indulge in the sadistic, self-contained pleasures of the mind’s sinful requests. Even amongst the most heinous of acts committed in the film – torture and murder – crimes are governed only by an uncontrollable, subconscious hedonism, and lack any ‘rational’ logic, intentionality or purpose. In this light, it is the protagonist’s propensity towards violence and sadistic sexuality that implicates and incriminates him in Cronenberg’s world of dereliction and vagrancy.

Although the film’s main storyline – and perhaps its primary thematic ‘mission’ – is to question the shifting role of human beings in an increasingly media-saturated society, this is not merely another science-fiction movie or ‘new age’ horror flick. Rather, the visual effects and filmic aesthetic that Cronenberg delivers suggest that he is also interested in a complex discussion of human psychology.

A visual analysis of this 1982 film may reveal some of this complexity. In the world of Cronenberg’s Videodrome, crime (in particular violent crime and sadism) is the result of an ‘everyman’s’ innate, abject desires infecting his subconscious. The film realizes this claim visually by establishing three key premises: (1) that the protagonist, Max, is the ‘everyman’, (2) that he has an interior capacity for imagination and desire (a ‘subconscious’) separate from the actuality of ‘reality’, and (3) that this subconscious has become perverted by illicit and taboo criminal desires.

The first of these premises is perhaps the most important; Cronenberg must establish the protagonist as an ‘everyman’ in order to make any universal arguments about the psychological (and visual) nature of crime. Max fits the profile of the ‘common man’ in three ways. Most obviously, he is the ‘average [Canadian] Joe’: he is a white, heterosexual, middle-class man.

Second, Max also has a connection to the ‘masses’ in his professional life, as one who makes decisions about programming content for Civic-TV. Through decisions about which programs to air, Max is both literally and metaphorically able to direct a viewer’s perception of a particular ‘reality’, and acts as an information censor, filter, or gatekeeper; Max is thus the everyman’s ‘eye’ insomuch as he controls his audience’s perception of the external world.

Lastly, the film provides many visual clues to emphasize Max’s status as everyman. He is the meeting ground of socio-cultural class distinctions – faulted, but not condemned; perceptive, but not genius: an imperfect man in an imperfect world. Unlike the richly-decorated offices and perfectly-tailored three-piece suits of esoterically-spoken Professor O’Blivion (said to be modelled on famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan) or the scruffy, tattered appearance of the many unnamed low-class ‘TV-junkies’, Max appears unremarkably plebeian in his appearance and surroundings.

One first encounters Max at the beginning of the film, in his cluttered apartment. His first act upon waking is to glance idly at some black-and-white still photos of naked women from a Japanese softcore-porn show, “Samurai Dreams”, while devouring remnants of an old pizza. Inadvertently smearing tomato sauce on one of the photos, he wipes it off absently on his housecoat. Such visual ‘mess’ and clutter testify to Max’s semi-sleazy and piggish character: while not entirely boorish in behaviour, it is clear that Max is neither well-mannered nor refined, but rather faulted and plebian by nature.

Max also chooses to surround himself in ‘blue collar’ surroundings that echo his status: he attends business a ‘meeting’ with a porn distributor at the seedy Classic Hotel, for example, where people are yelling at each other early in the morning, and the rooms are run down. Similarly, the Spectacular Optical shop and the technical suite (‘pirate’s lab’) at Civic-TV share in an old and weathered quality, offering paint-peeled hallways beset with collections of dust and litter. Throughout the film, Max displays other similar qualities that hint at his everyman-ness: he chain-smokes, indulges ritualistically in pornographic material and dresses sloppily to the point that, in one scene, the professor’s daughter, Bianca O’Blivion, comments to Max: “you look like one of father’s derelicts.”

Moreover, the whole film possesses a seedy, low-tech, retro feel (no doubt due in part to its twenty-plus-year-old film stock) in its colour and texture. It appears that the film features a war between colours: warm tints and hues of orangey, rust-like red compete with a family of dull, muted shades, vying for the viewer’s attention. (It is interesting how in some scenes this colourful ‘tinting’ or hue is so strong as to make the film appear almost monochromatic, like a Film Noir.)

The dominant hue is a kind of earthy, dried-blood orange-red: it is found, primarily, in the colour of the Videodrome show, with its electrified clay wall and scantily-clad victims in red or orange attire, but also in many other places, from the pizza stain to the rusted wreckage of the ‘condemned vessel’ (the location of Max’s eventual suicide) at the film’s end. Red and yellow suffuse the scenes in Max’s apartment, especially when Nicki Brand (Blondie’s Deborah Harry) – Max’s pleasure- and pain-seeking female counterpart – is present. Max’s ‘hallucination helmet’ pulsates in Videodrome-orange; he wears an orangey-brown leather jacket in the later scenes. Reds are combined with black in the torture chamber and Max’s night-time apartment throbs with organic shadows and coloured lights, and dominate the representation of his sadistic sexual encounters with Nicki.

There is an opposite set of colours, too, though by comparison they seem almost non-colours. The charcoals and greys of Max’s outfits, particularly in the first part of the film, signify his repressed and mechanical self (but note his black dressing gown with red pinstripes expressing his private ‘secret’ life). The spiritual O’Blivions also lack strong colour; the daughter, Bianca, dresses in neutral shades, and father, Professor O’Blivion’s, television image is washed out.

Offices and professional locations, such as the Rena King Show and the C-RAM studios, are presented in dull blues, teals and greys. Barry Convex is habitually in charcoal or grey business suits. The Spectacular Optical logo is in cool, bright yellow-greens, and there is much pale green and off-white to be seen in corridors and on walls in public places throughout the film. There is in fact a kind of regimen of opposition between the visceral “Videodrome” pigments and these denatured blacks, greys, whites and various pale shades. Max’s apartment, for example, looks grey and colourless by day, (and is decorated with wall art which is exclusively black-and-white) but comes alive at night during the scenes with Nicki, where it develops pools of colour and shadow that are in extraordinary contrast to its daytime appearance.

As Max views more of the Videodrome program, the transmission causes him to hallucinate increasingly violent and passionate scenarios, making it difficult for the viewer to differentiate between the filmic ‘reality’ and phantasm. In one scene, he aggressively slaps his secretary Bridey for snooping around his apartment – but a moment later it is revealed that he has dreamt the occurrence. In another scene, Max entertains himself with a daydream-like sexual fantasy in whip he repeatedly whips Nicki – moaning, clearly enjoying the pain – only to discover (upon waking) that he has whipped – and bound, gagged and beaten – his trusty porn-dealing associate Masha. The hallucinations are, however, marked by their vibrant, warm, orange-red hue, suggesting not only that all of Max’s sexual and sadistic ventures are illusions, but also that the presence of such colouring automatically denotes a break/distance from reality. Cronenberg’s use of colour in Videodrome echoes Body Heat, released a year earlier. Much like Videodrome, Kasdan’s film uses rich colours like red to signify decadence, sexuality, desperation, passion and sin – and more importantly, both a mental and bodily decay, similar to Max’s rust-coloured hallucinations.

The active and exiting red shade acts as an attention-grabber, stimulating a physiological response in the audience to heighten awareness of Max’s changing psychological state. The presence of his hallucinations, then, alerts the viewer to the fact that Max is waging an internal war against himself; that his mind – stricken by delusion and delirium – is in conflict with ‘reality’.

Thus in Videodrome, one may observe, in a broad sense, an inconsistency between the passionate, warm, sinful colours of Max’s hallucinations, and the dull, muted shades that represent his mechanized, repressed, normative life as an everyman. Cronenberg’s use of colour in tandem with plot lends one to speculate that there is a more important battle at hand, beyond colour. What one witnesses, rather, is a disparity between the rational, dull, and quite unremarkable happenings of external ‘reality’ and the passionate, sexual, and visceral occurrences of the vibrantly-tinted interior world of Max’s hallucinations; what the Videodrome signal has inflicted on Max, then, is much more than simple hallucination or tumour, but rather it has unleashed his taboo subconscious.

Crime is first experienced as a viral infection when – it is explained – the signal from the Videodrome TV program itself enters the mind and slowly infests the host body with both a physical tumour and a psychological one (an instruction, or ‘programming’, of the individual). Yet although Max’s sadistic and murderous desires are largely driven by his ‘infection’, he is already more susceptible than others to the signal due to his (and the ‘everyman’s’) innate addiction to and appetite for deviance – for drugs, for violence, for sex. For although the TV ‘virus’ exploits his desires and perhaps overrules Max’s judgement, Max already had a taste for, a propensity towards, sexual taboo, violence, sadomasochism, and all things passionate, savoury, ‘savage’ (primal), and unruly.

Similarly, Nicki Brand, another victim of the ‘pure’ philosophy of the hyper-violent Videodrome show and its ‘virus’, is already laced with a predisposition for the forbidden. The desire to embrace the full perversions of the Videodrome show doesn’t come as a shock to viewers – during her first sexual encounter with Max, she desires the pleasurable pain of having her ears pierced and her breasts burnt with cigarettes – as she exhibits a desire for the kinky and illicit early in the story. It appears, then, that the Videodrome signal is simply the inspiration, or enabler, of previously present – although concealed – subconscious desires.

What is troubling about the film’s foray into Max’s subconscious is not only his insatiable thirst for sexual deviance and violent pleasure; what is truly disturbing is that this thirst seems to have taken on a life, an agency, of its own. An analysis of the graphical manifestations of crime in Videodrome suggests that Cronenberg conceives of crime (violent sexuality and sadism) as an actively independent organism, a sort of parasite or disease that infects and exposes – and ultimately perverts – the latent desires of the mind.

The first case of this parasitic, criminal ‘infection’ occurs just after Max has been ‘programmed’ with psychological instructions from the Videodrome signal. During another bout of hallucinations, Max withdraws a pistol from a large, open wound in his abdomen (he had ‘stashed’ it there previously) in order to begin his first assigned task as assassin: to kill his business partners at Civic-TV. As he slowly, with great anguish, removes the weapon from his body – dripping with bodily slime – the pistol begins transforming, both organically and mechanically, forcing metal cords into his hand and wrist, fusing weapon and body. Once this semi-living OrganiGun (my choice of name, not Cronenberg’s) has spread far and deep enough into Max’s body, it appears to ‘feed’ off him parasitically, collecting blood and strength for its own use, performing actively and independently of Max. Thus although Max may have previously desired violence, murder and torture in the subconscious, it is only once he is physically infected by the ‘virus’ (the pistol) that he turns to crime.

The notion of a latent criminal entity or being is also exemplified in a discussion of the character of Barry Convex. Convex was one of the creators of the Videodrome TV show and its infectious signal, yet – as a greedy, malicious and shrewd businessman – he stands to represent ‘the man’ in corporate, capitalist America. While Convex’s character is not principally ‘evil’ in the film, he is primarily established as a ‘wrong-doer’ for his semi-possible plan for international psychological domination of the masses. When Max shoots and kills Convex during a trade show appearance, one witnesses a disgustingly-fantastical ‘cancer-death’: the skin and casing of Convex’s face and body fragment to reveal blood-covered, pulsating organism-like tumours, as if the disease-demon of crime and corruption has been physically released and spread throughout the body. Here one can see that Cronenberg (and his brilliant special effects director, Rick Baker) has brought ‘life’ – persona, agency and characterization – to the perverse ‘infection’ of illicit subconscious desire.

The ethical and social responsibility of Max’s Civic-TV channel is challenged early on in the film during an interview on the Rena King Show (see prologue). Max’s response (“I… give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations”) seems naïve –even a way to circumvent responsibility – and appears to contradict Cronenberg’s own vision. For in interpreting the filmic aesthetic of Videodrome, it appears that the director is interested in making a statement about the nature of human violence and desire, claiming (on visual terms) that crime (sexual violence, sadism, and murder, in particular) is the result of perverse, taboo and abject desires entering and ‘infecting’ the subconscious. Perhaps Max – and the ‘everyman’ he represents – is the author of his own misfortune, planting the seeds of perversion with which he will eventually be infected.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Body Heat. Dir. Lawrence Kasdan. Perf. William Hurt, Kathleen Turner. DVD. 1981.

2. Gyrus. “Psychoplasmics: Body Mutation and Dualism in the films of David Cronenberg”.

3. Ham, Martin. “Excess and Resistance in Feminised Bodies: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction.” January 2004.

4. Kipp, Jeremiah. “Flipside Movie Emporium: Videodrome Movie Review” Review published Feb 8, 2001.

5. Laing, Rowan. “A Comparison between the Theories of Marshall McLuhan and two films by David Cronenberg.” Spring 2000.

6. Ulaby, Neda. “The DVD Room: Videodrome”. October 29, 2004.

7. Videodrome. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits. DVD. Universal, 1983.

One thought on “Crime in Cronenberg’s Videodrome: A perversion of the everyman’s subconscious

  1. semi.superlative

    January 15, 2007 at 6:18am

    not cronenberg’s best, in my humble opinion…

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