When I first started writing installments of "Shelf Life," I mostly targeted films that I either was fairly certain I already liked and wanted to watch again, or was just purely curious about whether or not they were still good and/or resonant. As the column evolved, and perhaps traffic devolved, it occurred to my considerably-smarter editors, and eventually, me that readers might find more appeal in having me explore titles that had a greater sense of immediate relevance – stuff that was in the filmography of an actor or director with a new project coming out, or perhaps slightly more crassly, a film that was being released that week on Blu-ray or DVD for the first time in whenever, or ever.
But after a year of drawing in millions and millions (if not billions) of readers who pore over every word and opinion with rapt interest, I decided to tackle something just for me. Specifically, I'm a huge fan of David Cronenberg, and was elated to revisit one of his most bizarre films, 'Videodrome,' for absolutely no other reason than to see if it still invigorated me, entertained me, messed me up. (Never mind the fact that the good people at Criterion released it on Blu-ray in a glorious new set just a few weeks ago.) As such, this week's film is 'Videodrome,' and I hope you enjoy this little personal, end-of-year detour; rest assured we'll be returning to our regular programming next week.
The Facts: David Cronenberg's 'Videodrome' was first released on February 4, 1983, and was commercially unsuccessful during its theatrical run, earning only $2 million in receipts against its $5 million budget. Although the film won only minor awards, including a Best Cinematography award from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, it has endured as one of Cronenberg's most-admired films, enjoying an 80 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: As a work of science-fiction surrealism, 'Videodrome' is unparalleled in terms of its weirdness, without even considering what that imagery means in terms of its plot. Thankfully, Cronenberg's staggering intellect suffuses the material with such a powerful sense of cohesion and perhaps more importantly, consideration, that the audience never feels like they're watching something purely for weirdness' sake, even if some of that weirdness may be as motivated by the director's preoccupations as the demands of the story.
Although standards for sex and violence in entertainment was already a subject of frequent debate in the preceding decades, Cronenberg's examination of an audience's reaction to certain kinds of media functions as a bizarre but indelible intersection between technology, psychology, and physiology. He creates a world where it is theoretically possible for the TV shows to hypnotize, influence, and control people who watch them, and manages to preserve the thematic and metaphorical undercurrents of that concept while exploring it in a completely, fascinatingly unrealistic way. And as he has done many times in other films, Cronenberg visualizes a physical and biological world that is disturbingly relatable, making the main character's transformation alarmingly sensual (or sexual) and repulsively clinical at the same time.
What Doesn't Work: The really fascinating thing about 'Videodrome' is that even though it possesses all of the qualities described above (and then some), and it's certainly understandable that someone might find those qualities distasteful or offensive, everything in the film feels like part of a whole piece. Whatever you think of all of that borderline-insane imagery, it's all there for a reason, and it all connects to the rest of the film, be it strictly part of the story, a metaphor for its ideas, or a reflection of the larger themes Cronenberg has revisited multiple times throughout his career.
What's The Verdict: 'Videodrome' holds up like a mother, but it's absolutely not for everyone, and folks perhaps more acclimated or comfortable with the decidedly more straightforward structure of science fiction and horror films of today may balk at its oddball, sometimes repellent depiction of a world that is in some ways quite literally transformed by technology and its effects. Although it focuses on a media format that is now obsolete, Cronenberg uses videocassette technology (specifically Beta) and cable broadcasting to underscore our reliance and assimilation into a network of influences, many of them man-made, which ultimately control us for more than we do them. And that remains relevant even today, and applies in many ways to aspects of our current technology and things like social networking, and 'Videodrome' cautions its audience in a fantastical way while retaining its real-world relevance.