On Cronenberg's Videodrome and Debord's The Society of the Spectacle - Part I

Updated: Mar 7, 2021


Even this photo is Spectacle

Introduction, or "Why do I care about this enough to write?"


I recently watched the David Cronenberg trip of a movie Videodrome (1983) - and yes, I know I was quite, quite late to the party. And the experience has stuck with me ever since - and it did so in a way that made it the first movie in which I repeatedly paused the unfolding events (the remote control being an assuredly powerful intermediary here).

I found myself gasping at the brilliance of the movie and the messages it conveys, as well as furiously jotting down notes, my feverish fingers cast with a proverbial smear of digital ink. And perhaps I did so because I had just come out on the other side of a life-changing experience by reading Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle.

At least an awareness of Guy Debord's work in The Society of the Spectacle is required to understand what "the hell" I'm going on about here; and I'm well aware I'm misrepresenting Guy Debord's philosophical treaty by trying to condense it into a small paragraph. But the gist of it is this, Debord forgive me: The Spectacle is a slippery slope for humanity, whereby the forces of production and capitalism replace reality with a mere representation of it that better fulfills their aim to expound on materialism. The Spectacle, and the cults of consumerism and fame, aim to reduce human existence and human action to that of mere consumers: working ants, single-mindedly constructing and maintaining the system that keeps them prisoner to superficial constructs such as materialism (whereby personal identity is construed not of reality, but of what pieces of reality we own and their relative value) and fame (where a representation of identity is worth more than that person's actual identity).



An illustrated guide

There's more to it, but I expect that to suffice for my purposes. I'd heavily recommend a read through Debord's The Society of the Spectacle; there are some ideological hamstrings on that particular piece of his work, but these have been well explored somewhere else. Like always, I'd encourage you to be critical, and not drink ideology through a straw as if it's the last cactus water in the desert. Everything has flaws; but even with its flaws, The Society of the Spectactle is a magistral work in understanding where we are now and how we got here.

This is the first post on a three-part analysis of Videodrome, and of its relationship with Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. It is divided as follows:

Part I: On Videodrome and the Society of the Spectacle

Part II: Videodrome, Capitalism and Religion

Part III: The Reproduction of the Society of the Spectacle

On to the first part. Welcome for the ride.

 

Videodrome Movie Poster, signaling the link between mind and body

The Videodrome Premise

The basic premise of Videodrome is this: Max Renn, the Director for the privately-owned CIVIC TV television on Channel 83, is looking for new products that can increase the channel's viewers. The channel requires growth, as does everything under a capitalist market society, and Max Renn has achieved limited success by including pornography and violence in its programming (on a Channel called Civic TV, no less).

The ball on the movie's conflict starts rolling pretty early on, as an apparently inconspicuous engineer working for Renn (Harlan) shows him a program he has managed to pirate from the airwaves, captured in a seemingly random frequency and satellite dish configuration. The program's name? Videodrome.

And what is Videodrome? Videodrome is a snuff channel - a series of disturbing sequences of torture, mutilation, and murder absent of any narrative. The only focus is on the violence, and violence is the narrative itself. Interestingly, we never do see anyone actually dying on the show - we never see the conclusion for any one scene in the Videodrome program. However, the only natural assumption and conclusion in watching it is that the different people in the different scenes all end up dying at some point. In some ways, the absence of a definite answer to the final ending of the victims adds to the horror - our imagination has a tendency of going overboard.




Max Renn feels electrified at watching this program; as he says, "you can't take your eyes off it". And thus begins his saga for Videodrome: his intention being to include Videodrome, which he describes as "the next big thing", in his Civic TV programming.

We then watch Renn as he struggles to find answers to his Videodrome questions, as he descends into insanity and is rendered little more than a robot, manipulated by Videodrome's producers at one time and the forces apparently working against them in another. We discover that Videodrome actually produces brain tumors in the people that watch it, and that that's the origin of the hallucinations Renn experiences; we see the main character murder people that are close to him, hallucinate about killing others, and finally... A descent into darkness which I won't spoil here. If you're interested in watching the movie already, I urge you to do so now; interrupt the reading of this piece and experience the movie firsthand. It's spoiler and analysis-heavy territory from now on.

 


On Videodrome and The Society of the Spectacle

Professor O'blivion is introduced at a Morning Show which Renn attends - a snarky, in-your-face play on the word Oblivion, which stands for being unaware, oblivious, to what surrounds us. Professor O'blivion's name isn't his original name, of course - it's his "television name", the name he uses in his public persona. He argues that in the future, we will have special names, "names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate". Doesn't that sound a lot like usernames, Instagram profiles, YouTube channels, and artistic, stage names? Sir Elton Hercules John (yes, there's a Hercules in there), for example, was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Barely any of us remember his given name - and truth be told, we likely wouldn't remember it even had he used it and not his "special name", as per Professor O'blivion.



The central tenet of Videodrome

Professor O'blivion represents culture and humanity as a whole, and thus he goes on television itself to alert to its dangers. But he does so not physically, but via a recording on a cassete tape. In this action, and as we understand somewhat later in the film, Professor O'blivion and his representation of culture and humanity paint him as the first victim of the Spectacle himself. He alerts to society's television addiction, to its subrreptitious way of becoming "more real than reality itself"; its ability to change our way of thinking and even, he warns, the physical structure of the human brain. And yet, he does so exactly via television - he's not even physically present.

In this Morning Show, Cronenberg depicts humanity and culture, manifested in the Professor, as having been consumed by the Spectacle, becoming an integral part of it. Even O'blivion's warnings have been weaponized by the Spectacle as a way to satisfy our hunger for fear - our hunger for intelligence and commentary being constrained to a small viewing screen. Video killed the radio star, as they say; in this case, television killed the television doomsayer. This is how Bianca O'Blivion, professor O'Blivion's daughter, describes her father's appearance via a television screen: "At the end, he was convinced that private life on television was more real than private life in the flesh". Professor O'blivion wasn't afraid to let his body die: he knew he would live on, digitally, in the cathode ray tube. This sets the tone for another one of Videodrome's grand ideas, which Professor O'blivion states: "Videodrome is the next step in humanity's path as a technological animal".


A play on humanity's oblivion regarding the effects of technology

In this same Morning Show, Max Renn is asked whether his channel showing soft porn and hardcore violence doesn't contribute to society's "malaise of violence", and whether that even matters to him. Renn answers that yes, he does care - and that he cares enough to offer people "a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations", construing it as a socially positive act. The deflection here is evident, and as we know from the film's previous scenes, the only motivation behind Renn's actions and CIVIC TV programming is the search for more viewers and thus, more profit. There is no social interest, in his part; no motivation for the greater good. His answer is a sign of the times, where amoral motivations are polished with a micrometer-thick, easily-peeled veneer of good intentions so as to seem easier to swallow.


Nicki Brand, the radio personality who is introduced in the same scene, perhaps offers a better answer to this question; she (who will become the agent of temptation for Renn to explore his darkest side) says that "we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional or sexual". And that's the type of desire that Renn's actions and choices are playing to, with the end of achieving material, economic gain through the feeding of this state of permanent craving, overstimulation, and permanent dissatisfaction.

Driving this point home and following their Morning Show interaction, Nicki Brand and Renn watch Videodrome as a percursor to sex. And Nicki even goes as far as saying that violence and murder are akin to sex - immediately asking Renn to cut her shoulder with a pocket knife. They then proceed to have sex on the floor, while Videodrome images of a woman being brutalized and tortured play in the background - violence as a stimulation. The television screen presents content in such a way that there is no space for empathy. How to empathize with something that is going on in a metal and glass box, so distant from our own reality?




And then suddenly they're transported to the Videodrome room, and are having sex inside their fantasy world of torture. The lines separating violence from what is arguably the final frontier of physical and psychological stimulation - sex - rendered obsolete.

Max Renn himself bows to masochistic tendencies throughout the movie: Television and the Society of the Spectacle have already infiltrated the deepest recesses of the human condition and psyche. Max Renn goes through the masochistic ritual not as a masochist - he is merely a man interacting with the spectacle of masochism as it is generated from the false reality of the Television. In this sense, Cronenberg is perhaps referring to how most of our experiences will leave the realm of the flesh, the real world, and into the digital world.

After watching Videodrome for the first time, and deterioratingly through the film, Max Renn starts hallucinating in televised forms; hallucinates in the shapes and sounds and static of television. As Guy Debord states of The Society of the Spectacle, "It has become more real than reality itself". There is a scene where the television changes and becomes all feminine lips, and the cherry red lipstick of a femme fatale (those of Nicki Brand). Nicki appears on television as sensuous and desirable and desiring him above all else - a sign that the spectacle of Television loves him, thus hinting at the existing and proliferation of an equivalent tumor within him as a human being. And Renn can't help it but enter the television and its lips, thus accepting his own devouring.

The television set in Videodrome thus welcomes its part as a reality keeper - whilst actually being a reality distortionist. The television in Cronenberg's film grows a literal and metaphorical tumor in viewer's brains via the viewing of the Videodrome channel; the appendice from where the hallucinations Max Renn faces are generating from. An appendice which serves the purpose of adding depth and three dimensions to the effort of interpreting the hallucinations. Going full-circle to our Professor O'blivion and his representation of culture and humanity in general, the premise here is that human culture created the television and The Society of the Spectacle out of a tumor: cancerous cells that are nothing more than the usual course of events, of development and growth and maintenance, gone erroneous - gone amok. And as is the case with cancer cells, it's in their nature to convert and devour the same body that gave them life.

The location of the tumor isn't coincidental; our brains directly perceive reality through our senses, converted into electric signals traveling our bodies in an instant - at the touch of skin to skin, at a mere gaze, the smell of burnt flesh and the vibrations of a whispered "I love you". As Professor O'blivion states in the movie, "The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye, and therefore is part of the structure of the human brain". Vision traverses directly into the brain, which is also the source of psyche and identity: and thus the television tumor, the spectacle tumor, infects the brain through images of violence - through Videodrome. Violence which gives us a sense of wrongness, which rattles our perception and Max Renn's with discomfort, but from which we can't turn our eyes from.


There is a reason why the warnings "viewer discretion is advised" and "shocking content" no longer seem to be used as a warning to allow us time to choose to change the channel and thus preserve our senses; they are used as propaganda, as a flag painted with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in cardinal letters. They're used as a way to invite us to stay lest we miss the most important, graphic part of the news reel or program we're witnessing.

"North America is getting soft, patron. And the rest of the world is getting tough", says Renn's technician Harlan, when his manipulation and betrayal is finally showcased. Here, Videodrome is exposed as a ploy (governmental or not) to change the minds of humanity. It speaks to the dangers of a pervasive, worldwide phenomenon such as television working as an echo chamber, a tool, a weapon, employed by the government or any entity with access to it to condition human responses and psychological well-being (or even stability). This is an inversion of George Orwell's 1984, with the television not being used to allow someone to look into our lives, but as a monologue-based indoctrination technique that works by itself.

Close to the ending of Videodrome, we witness an explosion; and after this explosion, Renn exits a hole in the wall towards the street, where we see a child and her mother passing by what the girl calls "the big ka-boom". She wants to see it; she's curious about it. She literally asks mommy to see "the big ka-boom". An indication by Cronenberg on how from a tender age we are trained to be sensitive for violence, to look out for it, to see it not as something to despise and delete from our minds and the world - but as horryfiyngly entertaining.



Cute

Can any of us really deny how we've become accustomed to horrifying stories of violence, psychological or physical, that are conveyed by the mass media? And can any of us deny how they're frequently juxtaposed with stories about celebrities or a new soap opera? When - and why - has this become the new normal?

Part II will explore the connections between Videodrome, The Society of the Spectacle, Capitalism, and Religion. Stay tuned.

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