Forbidden Fruit Flashbacks: as Seen on TV!
“Long live the new flesh” are the final words of the protagonist in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Max Renn (Cronenberg 1983). The idea of “the new flesh,” is that through consumption of the next evolution of television, Videodrome, the viewer experiences TV physically. From the first time the viewer watches a program with the mind-altering signal, they begin to change carnally. Much like the users of Chew-Z in The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer, upon consumption the user will never be the same again; they also experience periodic hallucinations. The film argues that some people tend to explore the dark parts of the human condition. To a ruling class, these people are dangerous. Religion and heads of state have often tried to squelch the depraved minds of the masses. Several of the characters in Videodrome had preoccupations far removed from what would be considered normal. These desires warped their minds, and led to their deaths. Niki Brand wanted to explore the sexual sadism illustrated by the Marquis de Sade in Justine and the 120 Days of Sodom; thus, furthering her career in the public eye. Max Renn wanted to show the world something edgier than people could get on other television networks, and keep people watching. On the other hand, Spectacular Optical (like the monks in The Name of the Rose), aspires to control the knowledge that can be consumed by the public. Each of the characters who interacted with Videodrome saw the new media as a gift, and desire to use the show for their own gain. However, in Videodrome, the road to Pittsburgh is paved with rapacious desires and self-serving intentions.
When Videodrome was being filmed in 1982, the world was changing because of home video and cable television — never before had movies been so readily available. The prices for VHS and Betamax players had fallen to a level that allowed the average consumer to consider buying one. Videocassettes allowed the owner to record television. Tapes are also easily duplicated, unlike 8mm film. This allowed for the easy distribution of amateur films. Max points out, “in Brazil, Central America, those kinds of places, making underground videos is considered a subversive act. They execute people for it.” Films that before could only have been seen by traveling to a location that was screening the film, could now be purchased in a magazine. Pornography, which airs on Max’s Civic-TV, is also made more readily available by the creation of the videocassette, and eventually decided the fate of Betamax.
The TV show Videodrome is always seen with a grainy, and a distorted picture. The quality of the broadcast is so poor, Max assumes it has to be fake. There is no plot, it just seems like a fantasy of the Marquis de Sade. The program shows women being dominated by men with whips, chained to walls, and eventually murdered. The sexual brutality displayed on Videodrome satirically mirrors the changes created by cable television and video cassette in the 1980s. Snuff films (once the stuff of legend) and pornography could be easily obtained on cassette. Faces of Death (a snuff film collection), was first published in 1978. When Videodrome was being filmed, the creators of Faces of Death had already published a sequel. These disturbing videos were peddled in magazines, and found in the dark recess of video stores. Pornography, like every other type of film found a wider audience in the home market. Instead of a person having to feel public shame when screening a porn film in a movie theater, the video cassette gave the viewer more privacy and intimacy. Pornography became so engrained into the home media market that when Sony announced that they would not permit the distribution of pornography on Betamax, the media was effectively given a death sentence. The product of the marriage of these two subversive genres is Videodrome. Neither of these genres would exist if there were not people to watch them, and they have never had issues finding viewers.
Niki Brand, despite her public persona is the target audience for pornography and Videodrome. When Max and the viewer first encounter Niki on the Rena King Show, she talks about how the world is overstimulated. “We live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual, and I think that’s bad.” Niki is a radio talk show host, helping abused women. However, the second Niki is behind closed doors; she is a different person. She wants to be used, she wants to watch pornography. She digs through Max’s cassettes and comes across a tape of Videodrome. Max tells her it is “Torture, [and] Murder.” Niki’s reaction is not to keep looking for something else, instead she says, “sounds great,” and puts the tape in. Max says, “well, it’s not exactly sex,” and Niki says, “says who?” This scene is crucial in understanding Niki as a character; she is into sadomasochism. Niki asks Max to take out a knife and cut her. She then shows him the scars on her shoulder. As the scene progresses, the couple has sex, and during the act, Max pierces Niki’s ear. This is also the moment where Max’s hallucinations and reality start to merge. During the act, they are seen on the set of Videodrome. This illustrates the sadomasochistic merger of the pair with the show. Shortly after because of her desire to be a star on Videodrome, the real Niki ceases to be, and she becomes a manifestation of the program. Niki is converted to Video.
Max’s involvement with Videodrome comes from a salacious need to find the next wave of sexual and violent programing. Civic-TV (of which Max is the President), is everything that Cinemax and HBO have become; Max would have jumped all over the opportunity to air Game of Thrones. When the viewer first sees Max scouting for a new show, he is meeting with some Asian men in a seedy motel. He asks the men to show him the thirteenth tape of “Samurai Dreams,” instead of the pilot episode. This illustrates his desire to get right to the climax, and skip the foreplay. He shoots down the idea of airing the show at a board meeting, by saying the show is too soft. Immediately before Max is introduced to Videodrome, he tells them: “I’m looking for something that will break through, something tough.”
Max is instantly fascinated with Videodrome, and inevitably seals his own fate. He asks all of his contacts for insight into getting access to the program and the show’s creators. Max eventually finds that show is created in Pittsburgh. A place so despicable in the film’s world that before killing Harlan, Max says, “see you in Pittsburgh.” This is a clear association to the pit of Hell. After Max watched Videodrome for a while, his hallucinations become very vivid, and what looks to be a vagina appears on his chest. Max begins to dig at the new orifice with his gun, at which point the gun is swallowed up by the cavity. This is a blatant illustration of the combination of violence and sex found in Videodrome. Once the gun disappears, the void vanishes, and Max is left to wonder what is real. This stomach vagina, is later shown to be a cassette player for Videodrome tapes — a way to reprogram Max.
The show was set up with a signal that would alter the mind of the viewer, and create a brain tumor that would induce hallucinations indefinitely. When Max’s body grows another orifice, this is the first time the movie has actually shown “the new flesh.” The new flesh, is a hallucination of a new human epidermis. However, this novel skin is altered by the Videodrome signal, and to the person hallucinating, it is real. The new flesh allows the user to experience Videodrome physically, and due to the continuing hallucinations afterwards, they get to experience the fun again at random intervals later. At one point in the film, Max’s previously lost gun appears to sprout from his hand, and integrate with his body. According to Bianca O’Blivion, “the tone of the hallucinations is determined by the tone of the tape’s imagery, but the Videodrome signal, the one that does the damage it can be delivered under a test pattern.” Max’s visions are violent because the tape he watched was sadistic. Bianca’s father Dr. Brian O’Blivion, helped to create the Videodrome signal. He thought it was the next evolution of television. Dr. O’Blivion, was snuffed out by his partners. Bianca O’Blivion is the only character who knows about Videodrome, and does not die because of it. This may be due in part to the fact that she desired nothing from the new media. She was also pure of heart in a filthy world. She ran the Cathode Ray Mission, giving homeless people food and access to TV (she felt it would “help patch them back into the world”).
There is a blatant parallel between Dr. O’Blivion and Max Renn. Both originally thought that Videodrome was the next wave of television entertainment. They both became obsessed with the innovative media. They were made pawns by the media’s creators, and eventually both would become martyrs after having worshiped the new flesh (Dr. Oblivion was the first victim, and Max was the last). Dr. Oblivion became obsessed with life on TV, he felt that life on television was more realistic than reality. He refuses to be seen on television, except on a television screen. This is in part to create an undying image himself, and become immortal. In a hallucination, Max has while watching a recording, Dr. Oblivion says: “The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena, the Videodrome.” The quote also parallels a quote later in the film by Harlan and foreshadows the inevitable external conflict of the film.
During an eye-opening scene, Max finds out Harlan (who introduced Max to Videodrome) was a plant at the Civic-TV station for two years. In response to the sudden revelations, Harlan says: “North America is getting soft, patrón, and the rest of the world is getting tough… We’re entering savage new times and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” The antagonists of the film, Spectacular Optical, want to censor ultra-violent films, and pornographic material. They see these types of cinema as degrading the American culture, and values. Instead of killing Max, they turn him into an assassin against his will. Using Max’s stomach vagina, they reprogram him and force him to kill his partners at Civic-TV.
When Max tries to assassinate Bianca O’Blivion, she reprograms him (because he is just a walking Videodrome cassette player now), and turns him into “the video word made flesh.” This is a blatant reference to Jesus. According to the Apostle John, Jesus was the “word made flesh.” So, Max becomes the messiah of Videodrome. He then kills Harlan, who tries to give him new orders. When Max kills the head of Spectacular Optical, Barry Convex, and screams: “Death to Videodrome, long live the new flesh.” During this moment, he is essentially saying, “down with the program, and the plan of Spectacular Optical, but long live the signal.” Which leads to the ambiguous ending that takes place on a rusty boat, whose last inhabitant did not stay there because of financial freedom.
The ending of Videodrome is confusing, especially during the first screening. Like in The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer, there is no clear-cut reality anymore — not to the viewer, and not to Max. An old wooden floor television appears in front of Max, and the Memorex version of Niki Brand tells Max that he needs to move past his current level of consciousness. She states that she is going to show him how. The TV then shows Max killing himself after saying, “long live the new flesh.” Instantaneously, the TV explodes organs and blood. Max subsequently mimics the actions shown on the screen exactly. Fade to black.
The most obvious explanation for the end of the film comes from the fact that Max was converted to “the video word made flesh.” As he was a representation of Christ (or the antithesis of Christ as Palmer Eldritch was), he had to make the ultimate sacrifice for the world. He was never going to be able to go back to his old life; he was wanted for the murder of at least four people. The tumor was going to keep growing, and the hallucinations were permanent. He is given an opportunity for transcendence, in a world that would have surely persecuted him. Max’s Pittsburgh came to reside in his own mind. Even if there was no light at the end of the tunnel, eternal sleep was a better outcome than tripping in prison. Max had seen beyond the looking glass, and he knew he had to be the final sacrifice for the new flesh.
Almost every character in Videodrome that came in contact with the malicious broadcast thought they could control it. Everyone was brought down by their own desires, because they could not see the forest for the trees. The only exception was Bianca O’Blivion. She saw what Videodrome did to her father, and was the one character with a pure heart. Her only desire was to help others. This can all be summed up with the old Chinese proverb: “Do good, reap good; do evil, reap evil.” There is some truth to the idea of not letting evil around you, because it tends to become normal. Once evil has normality, a person’s moral compass becomes skewed. Violent films may not make people aggressive. However, fantasizing about violence, or being around hostile people can often lead a person to become antagonistic. Being incorporated with violence, makes a person more likely to have savagery acted upon them; it is a slippery slope. Nevertheless, sometimes we all have a little sympathy for the devil, and most people can be easily manipulated by a silver–tongued serpent. Just like Eve was in the Garden of Eden, and Max was in a cluttered room at Civic-TV. Occasionally we all let our desires get the best of us. Though, when a person lets a desire become an infatuation; they tend to become a problem. There are many things that could kill a human in large doses, but are healthy in moderation. Even water will kill you if you lay face down in the ocean.
Cronenberg, David, director. Videodrome. Universal pictures, 1983. Blu-ray.
Dick, P. K. (1991). The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. New York: Vintage.