Nathan Jurgenson
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David Cronenberg’s Prophetic Videodrome

David Cronenberg's vision of technology as the "new flesh" in 'Videodrome' isn't so shocking anymore.

Videodrome is the best movie ever made about Facebook.

What felt “vaguely futuristic” about it in 1983 is prescient today: technology and media are ever more intimate, personal, embodied, an interpenetration that David Cronenberg’s film graphically explores.

Videodrome offers a long-needed correction to how we collectively view and talk about technology. As the anti-Matrix, Videodrome understood that media is not some separate space, but something which burrows into mind and flesh and can control your mind. The present has a funny habit of catching up with David Cronenberg.

Still, Videodrome is deeply of its time and place. It’s set in Toronto, where Cronenberg was born and studied at the same time as University of Toronto superstar media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Beyond McLuhan’s reputation, Toronto was also known as a wired city; among other things, it was an early adopter of cable television.

In suit, Videodrome follows a Toronto cable television president, Max Renn (James Woods). He becomes involved with a radio psychiatrist named Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry, of Blondie fame), who reminds us of popular criticisms of television culture: we want to be stimulated until we’re desensitized, becoming (at best) apolitical zombies and (at worst) amoral monsters. Television signal saturates this film. The satellite dishes, screens, playback devices, and general aesthetics of analogue video are on glorious, geeked-out display. Although Videodrome’s operating metaphor is television, this film can be understood as being a fable about media in general. And what seemed possible with television in 1983 seems obvious today with social media.

Over the course of the film, Max comes to know a “media prophet” named Professor Brian O’Blivion—an obvious homage to Marshall McLuhan. O’Blivion builds a “Cathode Ray Mission,” named after the television set component which shoots electrons and creates images. The Cathode Ray Mission gives the destitute a chance to watch television in order to “patch them back into the world’s mixing board,” akin to McLuhan’s notion of media creating a “global village,” premised on the idea that media and technology, together, form the social fabric. O’Blivion goes on to monologue, “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen appears as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality; and reality is less than television.”

This is Videodrome’s philosophy. It’s the opposite of The Matrix’s reading of Baudrillard’s theories of simulation, and it goes completely against the common understanding of the Web as “virtual,” of the so-called “offline” as “real.” O’blivion would agree when I claim that “it is wrong to say ‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.”

This logic—that the Web is some other place we visit, a “cyber” space, something “virtual” and hence unreal—is what I call “digital dualism” and I think it’s dead wrong. Instead, we need a far more synthetic understanding of technology and society, media and bodies, physicality and information as perpetually enmeshed and co-determining. If The Matrix is the film of digital dualism, Videodrome is its synthetic and augmented opponent.

As P.J. Rey illustrates, fictional Web-spatiality is the favorite digital dualist plot device. Yet more than fiction books and films, what has come to dominate much of our cultural mythology around the Web is the idea that we are trading “real” communication for something simply mechanical: that real friendship, sex, thinking, and whatever else lazy op-ed writers can imagine are being replaced by merely simulated experiences. The non-coincidental byproduct of inventing the notion of a “cyber” space is the simultaneous invention of “the real,” the “IRL,” the offline space that is more human, deep, and true. Where The Matrix’s green lines of code or Neal Stephenson’s 3D Metaverse may have been the sci-fi milieu of the 1990s, the idea of a natural “offline” world is today’s preferred fiction.

Alternatively, what makes Videodrome, and Cronenberg’s oeuvre in general, so useful for understanding social media is their fundamental assumption that there is nothing “natural” about the body. Cronenberg’s trademark flavor of body-horror is highly posthuman: boundaries are pushed and queered, first through medical technologies in Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Scanners, then through media technology in Videodrome and eXistenZ, then, most notoriously, in The Fly, where the human and animal merge. If The Matrix is René Descartes, Videodrome is Donna Haraway.

Cronenberg’s characters are consistent with Haraway’s theory of the cyborg: not the half-robot with the shifty laser eye, but you and me. In the film, the goal is never to remove the videodrome signal that is augmenting the body, but to reprogram it. To direct it. As Haraway famously wrote, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” “Natural” was never a real option anyways.

Max Renn is especially good at finding the real in the so-called “virtual” because he is equally good at seeing virtuality in the “real.” From the beginning, he understands that much of everyday life is a massive media event devoid of meaning. The old flesh is tired, used up, and toxic. The world is filled with a suffering assuaged only by glowing television screens. As the film progresses, the real and unreal blur, making each seem hyperbolic: hallucinations become tangible, while the tangible drips with a surrealism that’s gritty, jumpy, dirty, erotic, and violent—closer to Spring Breakers than The Wizard of Oz. As such, Cronenberg’s universe is always a little sticky: an unease which begs the nightmares to come true, so that we at least know what’s real.

Videodrome’s depiction of techno-body synthesis is, to be sure, intense; Cronenberg has the unusual talent of making violent, disgusting, and erotic things seem even more so. The technology is veiny and lubed. It breaths and moans; after watching the film, I want to cut my phone open just to see if it will bleed. Fittingly, the film was originally titled Network of Blood, which is precisely how we should understand social media, as a technology not just of wires and circuits, but of bodies and politics. There’s nothing anti-human about technology: the smartphone that you rub and take to bed is a technology of flesh. Information penetrates the body in increasingly more intimate ways.

This synthesis of the physical and the digital is mirrored in the film’s soundtrack, too. In his book on Videodrome’s production, Tim Lucas calls Howard Shore’s score “bio-electronic” because it was written, programmed into a synthesizer, and played back on a computer in a recording studio while live strings played along. Early in the film, the score is mostly those strings, but as time passes the electronic synthesizers creep up in the mix, forming the bio-electronic synthesis.

The most fitting example of techno-human union in Videodrome is the famous scene of Max inserting his head into a breathing, moaning, begging video screen; somewhere between erotic and hilarious, media and humanity coalesce. There isn’t a person and then an avatar, a real world and then an Internet. They’re merged. As theorists like Katherine Hayles have long taught, technology, society, and the self have always been intertwined. Videodrome knows this, and it shows us with that headfirst dive into the screen—to say nothing of media being inserted directly into a vaginal opening in Max’s stomach, or the gun growing into his hand.

Thirty years after its release, Videodrome remains the most powerful fictional representation of technology-self synthesis. This merger wasn’t invented with the Internet, or even television. Humans and technology have always been co-implicated. We often forget this when talking about the Web, selling ourselves instead a naive picture of defined “virtual” spaces which somehow lack the components of “real” reality. This is why The Matrix and “cyberspace” have long outworn their welcome as a frame for understanding the Internet. It should be of no surprise that body horror is as useful for understanding social media as cyberpunk.

Videodrome

Technology invades the minds of millions in Videodrome, as a television show seduces and controls its viewers. James Woods plays a cable programmer looking for the ultimate in viewing thrills, but instead he becomes caught up in the horrific television reality.

Other David Cronenberg Films

Cronenberg was one of the originators of the body horror or venereal horror genre. These films explore people's fears of bodily transformation and infection, and intertwine the psychological with the physical. Videodrome isn't the first or only film of Cronenberg's that explores these themes. Cronenberg's other films are just as thrilling, but are they as prophetic? 

A History of Violence

One of Cronenberg’s least alien and alienating films, at least on the surface, A History of Violence ditches the pus-filled prosthetics and far-fetched science fiction for a formalistic portrait of small town America. Tom Stall, our handsome, affable hero is just a regular guy with an “aw, shucks” expression and a modest diner to run. Could this really be Cronenberg going straight on us? Well, sort of. Tom may be a quiet man, but this is the movies, and quiet men on the silver screen thankfully always have a few secrets to share. Longtime fans might bemoan the absence of a monster (or a horribly disfigured protagonist, as the case may be) but Cronenberg manages the difficult task of fashioning a deeply sinister tale with all the thematic trappings of his body horror films, and (almost) none of the viscera. The instrument disfiguring our protagonist this time around is violence, used, like television in Videodrome or computers in eXistenZ, as an invasive monster that is capable of both seduction and evolutionary transformation. Insidious and frightening, A History of Violence is a disguised Darwinian fable with guns, Cronenberg’s answer to the unflinching and often ruthless “survival of the fittest” principle. Naked self-interest never seemed so necessary.  

Crash

Forget the 1994 Oscar-winning clunker of the same name. Movies titled Crash begin and end with this kinky piece of psychological trash cinema. Adapted from the J. G. Ballard novel of the same name, Crash glibly associates risk with pleasure, pornography with philosophy, and sex with death through a disturbing series of erotically charged car crashes. It’s not an easy movie to love. Cronenberg films his sex scenes with all the warmth of a scientist observing the mating habits of a captive ostrich in a holding pen, and you could drive a smashed-up car right through most of the dialogue. Undeniably, though, the most repellant thing about Crash is the sight of its battered and bleeding characters compulsively fucking beside an overturned automobile, its wheels still spinning. But Crash isn’t just pornographic fodder for voyeuristic perverts. It’s as much a film about definition and transformation of the mind through mutilation of the body as The Fly or Videodrome. The pursuit of our destructive proclivities in exchange for moments of genuine sensation is a sad reminder of 20th century boredom and dissolution, but Cronenberg is never one to moralize. He just points the camera toward the wreckage and says “let’s see what happens.”

Dead Ringers

Marking the point where Cronenberg swaps his trademark bucket of blood, ooze, and gore for a (relatively) subtle meditation on the melancholy of the human condition, Dead Ringers still manages to go tête-à-tête with every stomach churner in the auteur’s back catalogue. His troubled relationship with sexual taboos and psychic scarring is almost jarringly intact here, despite a total lack of exploding heads or slime covered body parts. Instead, mutually dependent twin fertility doctors Elliot and Beverly Mantle pop prescription drugs, ambivalently swap lovers, and invent gruesome gynecological torture instruments in their downtime. Their lurid, primary-red surgical cloaks look like they were rummaged from the set of Suspira and their clinic is a malpractice lawsuit waiting to happen. Despite all the shenanigans, Jeremy Irons (playing both siblings) delivers a real tour de force performance, with all the bitterness and alienation we’ve come to expect from a Cronenberg thriller. Although the film can at times seem like a gender studies class for the criminally insane, underneath all the creepiness is a surprisingly tender, heartbreaker of a film that leaves a trail of tears in its quietly disintegrating wake.

The Fly

Cronenberg’s mature masterpiece hits the peaks (and extremely deep valleys) of body horror in the most well known phase of his career. The Fly is easily his most notorious creature, a grotesque, hulking symbol of decay and mutation. Jeff Goldblum geeks out for his performance as the titular fly in only the way that he can, giving his character a dash of shy charm before switching on the mad scientist. His transformation is truly stunning. In only a matter of days, scientist Seth Brundle goes from adorable genius to hotshot asshole to what must have been a gruesome master class in prosthetics for the special effects team. Here, as in many of Cronenberg’s films, development of instinct and mutability in the body become ambiguous evolutionary traits, capable of both imprisonment and empowerment. In other words, we all simultaneously fear and crave our own annihilation. Reflecting back the AIDS panic of the 80s, abortion rights, and sex as a supremely alienating force, The Fly is somehow still Cronenberg’s most direct hour, a cerebral slice of pure, giddy horror that manages to please both traditionalists and revolutionaries as one of the most terrifying 80s sci-fi movies

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