Cronenberg’s film is turning 40 this year, and New York’s Metrograph theater is presenting a new 4K restoration of the “director’s cut” of “Videodrome,” so-called for the three minutes restored to it by Cronenberg for all of its home video releases following its disappointing theatrical run. This is, in other words, the way most people have seen the film and the edit that garnered it its much-deserved cult status.
Cronenberg had it all figured out at the dawn of home video: How a la carte programming would cater to and thus embolden niche communities; how consumer-grade video products would permanently alter content; how pornography is a progressive addiction not in the sense of social progress, but in the way a cancer progresses through a body, hungrier and stranger, deadlier too, as time goes on. It understood how those on the fringe of society, outcasts and deservedly so, would find fraternity and validation for their delusions along with an outlet for a humiliation kink developed through Evangelical cultures of imagined grievance and martyrdom. And how all of it would be possible because the desire for an “unregulated” marketplace of ideas necessarily allows every manner of human ugliness to proliferate.
Videodrome is a no-frills S&M and torture show on a pirate cable channel in Cronenberg’s film, discovered by what appears to be an accident by indie program director Max Renn (James Woods), who becomes obsessed with it despite of, or perhaps because of, its lack of character, dialogue, sophisticated production value nor, indeed, plot. Always looking for a way to ramp up his illicit channel’s outré selections, Max thinks he’s found it with essentially a snuff stream targeted for boutique connoisseurs of forbidden “art.” What seemed once like an extravagant flight of fancy, this “show” that is essentially a single vile act performed for no one, is almost tame now in an age where actual murder videos pop up as suggested viewing on 24-hour social streams accessed through a device essentially fused to our palms.
“Videodrome” saw the seeds of YouTube, 24-hour cable news cycles, 4Chan, and the Dark Web in the proliferation of home video. The values of the Internet are libertarian and social diseases once thought to be on the decline are thriving again. All of the cautionary nightmares of our youth have been met and surpassed in our middle age. What Max doesn’t know is that watching Videodrome gives him an aggressive brain tumor that causes addiction to its content in exchange for tripping out his pleasure centers before causing hallucinations and even madness. Among the many brilliant things about “Videodrome” is when Max imagines impossible things, Cronenberg portrays them as “real” in the body of his work, thus aligning Max’s point of view with ours and suggesting in doing so that our brains are being damaged in the act of watching “Videodrome” in the same way Max’s is in the act of watching Videodrome. The idea that a television show could change the way we perceive the world, could blur the border between reality and sick fantasy used to be alarmist. Now it’s too late to go back and we’re in bad trouble.