C-4 Chapter 4: Long Live the New Flesh

David Cronenberg's Videodrome is a thinking man's (or woman's) movie, as much about Intelligence and awareness as previous films we've discussed were about Cool and Empathy. The dense plot is filled with twists and turns, the main character slipping in and out of hallucinations so quickly that it's difficult for him, or us, to know exactly what's going on. It's a film that begs to be watched twice, or thrice, but certainly at least once.

Max Renn, the film's anti-hero protagonist, is played by James Woods in what is probably the first role anyone remembers him for, a dispassionate media/corporate type who slowly gets sucked into the seedy underbelly of underground television. His dry wit and monotonous voice fit his character perfectly. (One has to wonder what would happen if you got James Woods, Lance Henriksen and Christopher Walken in a room together. Would their voices combine in some bizarre Weirding Way?)

Anyway, Max Renn is a corporate scumbag who runs Toronto cable TV channel 83 along with partners Moses (Reiner Schwartz) and Raphael (David Bolt). His job is to find the smuttiest, most controversial shows he can find, in order to feed the needs of an audience who's growing increasingly disillusioned with what's on television. One day, while looking around for more soft-core porn to put on his station, his media/techie friend Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) calls him aside to show him a pirate TV show he managed to descramble off the satellite. The show is called Videodrome.

Through a wall of static, Max makes out a woman being beaten by masked men as she is tied to an electrified clay wall. Instead of being horrified, Max is enthralled. Torture, murder, mutilation... this is exactly what he's been looking for. And as it turns out, it's not being broadcast from overseas. It's coming from Pennsylvania (which just goes to show you what those Amish folks are really up to).

After a brief appearance on the Rena King (Lally Cadeau) TV show, Max meets and gets to know Nicki Brand, played by Debbie Harry (aka Blondie). The two of them agree that they live in overstimulated times, and as it turns out Nicki is even more into violence than Max is. When she says "Wanna try a few things?", you might want to turn away for a few minutes. There's cutting and needles through ears and all sorts of icky nasty yucky gross squeamish sex things happening.

Nicki has to go away, however, on an assignment to Pittsburgh, PA, where Videodrome is evidently coming from. In spite of him trying to keep her away, Nicki is determined to get on the show herself. Trying to track down more about the show on his own, Max calls on his friend Masha (Lynne Gorman) to do some investigative work for him. What she discovers is that Videodrome's sex and violence and death is not acting--it's real. Videodrome is apparently a snuff program. Max presses for more information, not believing that it's really real. Masha gives him the name of the reclusive doctor, Brian O'Blivion.

Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley) loves doing television interviews, but never appears anywhere in person. His philosophy is that the television has become an extension of the retina, and thus an extension of the human brain itself. So much so that he runs the Cathode Ray Mission, where he provides homeless vagrants not with food or shelter, but with television. Unfortunately for Max, Brian is not available when he first arrives, and his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) acts as his "screen" in more ways than one. Max is turned away without a face to face meeting, and heads home.

As he waits for word from Brian O'Blivion, his secretary (Julie Khaner) arrives with news and some videotapes. Suddenly seeing Nicki before him, Max enters a hallucinatory state and slaps her in the face, but when he snaps out of it, it turns out he really hasn't struck anyone. The reason for his headaches and hallucinations is about to be revealed; Bridey has brought him a tape from Brian O'Blivion.

The tape, which briefly comes alive in his hand, explains that a battle is being fought for the mind of North America, and that Videodrome is changing reality itself for those who watch it. Max's reality has now become half video hallucination, because Videodrome has begun to cause a tumor to grow on his brain, a tumor which causes the hallucinations. Max watches with horror as, on the tape, Brian is strangled by Nicki, who then takes over the television and brings it to life. Max ends up with his head stuffed into the television set as it throbs and moans. Sex in the City, eat your heart out.

Wanting to see for himself if Brian O'Blivion is really dead, Max heads back to the mission to visit with Bianca, where she reveals more dirty details. Videodrome is just a means of broadcasting a signal which can be easily concealed beneath any other program, or even a test pattern. The signal induces a brain tumor which causes the hallucinations, and eventual death. It even caused Brian O'Blivion's death--he's actually been dead for nearly a year, living on through his extensive videotape collection.

As the tapes explain, the tumor is actually a new organ of sorts, a new part of the brain capable of receiving special signals from Videodrome. For example, one such signal evidently causes Max to hallucinate that he stuffs his gun into a hole in his stomach, a hole which then heals over completely. But Max has no time to ponder where his missing gun is; Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), the head of Spectacular Optical, the company behind Videodrome, wants to meet with him.

Spectacular Optical is your typical megacorporation; they make eyeglasses for third world countries, optical guidance systems for NATO missiles, and Videodrome, of course. Convex apologizes for exposing Max to Videodrome, explaining that it was an accident. He offers to record one of Max's hallucinations, to study it in the hopes of finding a way to cure Max of his tumor. All Max has to do is think about violence to kick off a hallucination, since violence opens up the necessary receptors in the brain. Convex leaves Max to his fantasies, which involve whipping a television set featuring Nicki on the screen.

Evidently, Max passes out and gets home somehow, because he wakes up with Nicki dead in bed next to him. Scrambling for the phone to call Harlan, he shuts off the television, thus turning off the signal that's causing his hallucination. By the time Harlan arrives, the body is gone, and Max starts to realize it's all been just a hallucination. But he insists that Videodrome has something to do with it, and demands to meet Harlan in the video lab in an hour.

When Max arrives, he's stunned as Harlan reveals that Videodrome was never a pirate broadcast; it was all just a way of sucking Max into the experiment. Harlan is working for Barry Convex, who enters the room and explains that it's time for a change. The world is getting tough, and America is getting soft, and Videodrome hopes to change that. And they're going to start with Channel 83, and Max.

Pulling out a videotape, Barry forces Max to the floor and stuffs the tape inside his stomach (VHS, alas; Betamax would probably have hurt less). The tape is a hallucinatory implant, a subconscious suggestion for Max to kill his partners, turning control of Channel 83 over to Barry Convex. Reaching back into his belly, Max pulls out his missing gun, which fuses itself to his hands with organic cables, turning him into a killing machine, an assassin for Videodrome.

Unable to do anything but comply, Max wanders into the office and shoots his two partners (three shots to one, two to the other). He escapes by pretending to be wounded, and then walks over to the Cathode Ray Mission to kill Bianca O'Blivion, as per his new orders. She, however, is expecting him--she's been expecting an assassin, and when Max showed up she put the pieces together. Bianca is smart, however, and has a few tricks of her own. She uses her own subconscious suggestions to make Max hallucinate that a television set comes alive and shoots him. She then implants her own orders in Max's brain, causing him to become the video word made flesh.

With a rallying cry of "Death to Videodrome, Long Live the New Flesh!", Max stalks off on his mission. First he confronts Harlan, somehow turning his hand and wrist into a grenade which explodes Harlan through the wall and all over the street. Hallucination? Perhaps, but the end result is the same--Harlan is dead, Max is free to go after Barry Convex, who he finds at a convention in Toronto. "The eye is the window of the soul," says Barry, quoting Lorenzo deMedici. "Love comes in at the eye." Then Max steps onstage with his nifty hand-gun-thing and shoots Convex four times. As Max walks calmly away, Convex explodes into fleshy chunks all over the stage.

It's all over for Max now, and he knows it. His picture is all over TV, and he's wanted for four murders. There's nothing left but to kill himself. Hiding out in an abandoned tugboat, he sits down and hallucinates that Nicki is speaking to him from a television set. Max's time here is, indeed, finished, but that just means that it's time for him to become the new flesh, to go all the way. He watches himself on the television screen as he calmly raises the gun to his head and fires, causing the TV to explode into chunks of bloody flesh. And then ever so calmly, he raises the real gun to his real head, says "Long live the new flesh," and pulls the trigger.

You will absolutely not "get" Videodrome the first time you watch it. There are layers upon layers of subtlety buried beneath the slick effects (done by master effects man, Rick Baker, who also worked on Star Wars and American Werewolf in London). Many of the same themes and elements would crop up again several years later in the more widely-known Max Headroom, but it takes Cronenberg to do it in such a way that really leaves you squirming in your seats.

The wonderful thing about this story is it's the perfect way to incorporate characters like Corporates and Medias into a truly exciting and disturbing storyline. No longer will your Corporate characters be stuck sitting in leather chairs watching stock returns, and no longer will your Medias be running around chasing down interviews with Boostergangs. They're going to be sucked into the thick of the story, hard, and staying alive will take all of their cunning and skill.

The keys to incorporating this storyline are as follows:

1. A gray organization. Max's own corporation, Cable Channel 83, is a sleazy operation dedicated to delivering pornography, violence and even snuff films to a willing populace. Max and his two crony partners sit back and casually review porn movies to see if they're scandalous enough to run on television. Max is hardly a nice guy. Joe Lieberman would have a field day with the stuff they call entertainment.

2. Another gray organization. In this case, we don't even learn the name of the corporation behind Videodrome until halfway through the movie. And once our protagonist does discover who's pulling his strings, Spectacular Optical, there isn't much he can do about it on his own. These guys are nasty, so nasty that they don't even have to make a lot of noise to influence a lot of people. They just sit back and run their Optical stores and rule the world.

3. Still another gray organization. Brian O'Blivion's little operation, Cathode Ray Mission, is evidently nothing more than a way to brainwash beggars and thieves into becoming part of "The New Flesh." How else would Bianca be able to so easily subvert Max's Videodrome programming and implant her own orders? Max is nothing but a pawn, sucked into a corporate war.

4. Have I mentioned the color gray? Good. Nobody and nothing in this movie is black or white. Everyone has got their own agenda, everyone is everyone else's enemy, and nobody's going to get out of this without blood on their hands. Corporate warfare is messy no matter which way you look at it, and let's not even discuss the word "friends". Who are Max's friends? let's review: Nicki (sadomasochistic media who lets herself get killed); Harlan (implants Videodrome's suggestions into Max's brain); Max's partners (Max kills them in cold blood); Bianca and Brian O'Blivion (instead of healing Max, they simply counteract his assassin programming with their own). Now imagine that each of the characters you're playing around with is one of these characters. Now sit back and have yourself an evil laugh. You've earned it.

Normally at this point in the column, I give you a peek at the stats for one of the character types in the film. However, there's truly nothing special or different about the people in this film; they can all be accurately portrayed using the standard Cyberpunk character templates. Max and his cronies are all Corporates, Harlan is a Techie, Brian O'Blivion is either a Netrunner or an AI (depending on what you believe) and there are obviously a few Medias running around. Just goes to show you that you can have a pretty interesting Cyberpunk experience without Solos and Nomads and Cops around.

But if your characters include more than just Corporates and Media types, don't fret; it's still easy to suck them all into the plot. Whether they're Solos or Nomads or Rockerboys, they all have one thing in common: they all watch television. And if they watch TV, they can be programmed and turned into little corporate assassin pawns. Then watch them squirm around as they try to figure out what's real, what's hallucination, and who they can trust. Will they count on each other? Will they betray each other? Will they sell out to the biggest corporation or help the underdog? Do they have a choice?

Keep in mind, however, that Videodrome is not at all the bloodbath it sounds like. There's lots of nasty ickiness, but through the entire movie, there are only 11 gunshots: five to take out Max's partners, four for Convex, and two for Max himself (one of which is only fired on a television as part of a hallucination). There's no need for characters to wade through buckets of blood and heaps of spent shells in order to get themselves into trouble, even in the midst of a corporate war. The most dangerous battle is being fought in their minds.

Nexy week we enter the year 1984, which as everyone is well aware is the year that William Gibson's Neuromancer was released, changing the way everyone would look at Cyberpunk and truly giving a name to the whole genre once and for all. But 1984 is also the year that another movie changed the way we looked at action films. It was purported to be a horror movie, but its combination of sci-fi, action and romance gave it a unique twist that made it a true cult classic, and rocketed its stars to fame, despite the fact that the film's biggest star had only one real line: "I'll be back." I'm speaking, of course, of The Terminator, the subject of next week's C-4 column.

As always, let me know what you think by dropping me an email or three. Your feedback thus far has been helpful and encouraging, and has helped give more direction to this column. Thanks for the support!