Dial ‘V’ for ‘Vagina’

Videodrome: written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring James Woods (Max Renn), Sonja Smits (Bianca O’Blivion), Deborah Harry (Nicki Brand), Les Carlson (Barry Convex), Jack Creley (Brian O’Blivion) and Peter Dvorsky (Harlan) (1983): David Cronenberg’s career-long obsessions with bodily transformation, sex, and altered states of consciousness pulsate through this movie.

James Woods is razor-sharp as a Toronto television programming director at a thinly veiled version of early 1980’s City TV (here ‘Civic TV’, complete with boss ‘Moses’ [Znaimer?]). One of Cronenberg’s unexpected strengths as a film-maker has been getting career performances out of actors in what would once have been considered second-tier genre movies: Viggo Mortensen, Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, and Jeremy Irons have all benefitted from the Cronenberg touch, as does Woods here. Blondie’s Deborah Harry holds her own in scenes with Woods, but it’s clear he’s the star of the show.

One of the in-jokes in Videodrome involves the early City TV’s fondness for late-night ‘Baby Blue Movies’, softcore porn the Toronto station showed to boost ratings after the kiddies had gone to bed. Woods is basically searching for new sources of these things when he comes across Videodrome, a mysterious television signal emanating from deepest, darkest…Pittsburgh.

Videodrome broadcasts violent sexual fantasies that may or may not be staged. Woods has to find out who’s really making and distributing this stuff. And woven through his investigation are the theoretical musings of the self-named Professor Brian O’Blivion, a guru of the new media with more than a passing resemblance to Cronenberg’s old college professor Marshall McLuhan. The reclusive O’Blivion — who can only be interacted with through cameras and TV screens — has a daughter (Sonja Smits) who runs the Cathode Ray Mission for the homeless and the indigent who have been cut off from TV’s cool, transforming light.

But there’s a really big problem. Weird things are alive, and yet another conspiracy against the human race is in the process of unfolding. Behind the TV screen there are some forms of consciousness stalking the abyss, warring ideologies on the electromagnetic frontier with contrasting plans for humanity.

And then James Woods grows a giant vagina in his stomach and things get really weird. And the vagina plays VHS tapes. Sweet!

In its concerns with bodily transformation, strange new vistas of reality, and ideologies grown real and conscious and hungry for new minds to conquer, this is perhaps Croneberg’s most Lovecraftian movie (the giant vagina sort of seals the deal). It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a darned impressive one.

Is it ahead of its time? Yeah, yeah it is. Just imagine that Facebook, Skype, texting, and endless cellphone usage are all iterations of that devouring digital leviathan Videodrome and you’ll start to get the idea. And only the new flesh can save us from an increasingly brutal and dehumanizing culture. Highly recommended.

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