David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is the Network of participatory media. Where Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s celebrated 1976 masterpiece rather accurately predicted televised sensationalism and infotainment, Videodrome’s ideas about media’s dissemination and our relationship with it continues to reveal its incredible foresight nearly thirty years after its initial release.
Just as Network is now hardly satire, Videodrome seems less and less a work of science fiction. Sure, digital technology has brought many of Videodrome’s ideas into stark realization more so than the analog technology depicted throughout the film (a disconnect literalized by Criterion’s clever faux-Beta DVD packaging of the film), but the film’s many astute (and foreboding) observations about our evolving relationship to media technology is nothing short of profound.
Yes, underground media certainly went viral in the age of analog technology, but not with the rapidness and thoroughness that has come to characterize media circulation in the 21st century. The foreboding “Videodrome” that Max Renn (James Woods) encounters contains many characteristics consistent with contemporary viral media: its source is ambiguous and uncertain, which brings the nature of its content into question (is this real or staged, amateur or professional?); its content is not subject to the rules and restrictions of traditional media forms (it neither fits the narrative structure running time of a film or conventional television show, nor does it have to follow any set of standards and practices), thus its appeal lies in the fact that it can represent events in ways that other media forms can’t; and finally, “Videodrome” spread like a virus rather than like broadcast media, which permits its exhibition and circulation to take place through social activity (to be seen, “Videodrome” must be shared, which means that the people who have seen it join something resembling an exclusive club of knowledge – think “Two Girls, One Cup”).
Of course, as with all media forms and functions that Videodrome explores, the film literalizes the phenomenon of the “viral video.” After all, Cronenberg is often credited as the king of “veneral horror.” “Videodrome” penetrates its users, getting inside their body and their psyche. Once Max exposes himself to the virus, it drastically alters his perception of the world. Depending on your interpretation of the film, Max either finally sees his world as it really is or engages in an inescapable fever dream/paranoid fantasy.
Either way, it’s not only the “video” of “Videodrome” itself that spreads like a virus; the individual’s psyche is also affected. And this points to the more nuanced ways that the standardization of viral media has changed our perception of it – we become less patient with long-form media, our work lives are regularly interrupted by these viral representations which changes our routines, and our social lives are often characterized by the inclusive/exclusive practice of disseminating viral media, which makes for a rather different form of water cooler socialization than, say, traditional media like the last episode of MASH.
Blurring Between Hot and Cool Media
Cronenberg has never shied from famous Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan’s influence on Videodrome. In fact, one of the film’s “villains,” Dr. Brian O’Blivion, is based off McLuhan. The author of Understanding Media was noted for introducing several important concepts into our understanding of how media determines ourselves, including the logic of media’s design as extensions of our bodies (taken to the literal extreme in the film) and the phrase “The medium is the message” (the “medium” and “message” in Videodrome’s case being the “new flesh”).
McLuhan was also known for distinguishing between “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media engages in a single sense and ostensibly requires little participation of or imagination from a viewer (for example, watching a conventional narrative film in a movie theater). Cool media, by contrast, requires more participation: a seminar discussion is a cooler form of media than listening to a lecture or reading a book, for example. But McLuhan’s conceptualization of these terms was never medium-specific. Watching film or television is not always or necessarily hot or cool.
As new forms of media get introduced, their specific utilities – and the changing functions of older forms of media – can come into question. The way that a form of media technology is designed is not necessarily the same as how it is ultimately used. In Videodrome, no medium is fixed in its utility. Television sets made for observing from a distance can suddenly transform into breathing automatons readied for one-on-one interaction rather than as vessels for mass broadcast.
This readymade understanding of media technology speaks more readily to our current digital moment than to 1983. We no longer think of technologies or media artifacts as a given in terms of the way they’re presented to us: smart phones can be retooled for unintended use, movies can be re-edited and distributed on the web, and the supposed obsolescence of “older” technologies and media delivery formats only provide more opportunities for rethinking them. Thus, hot and cool mediums become more and more difficult to distinguish. The option for participation is not so much determined by the design of the media itself, but whether or not we choose to activate our own agency.
Henry Jenkins defines convergence as the drawing together of previously discrete media. That means our portable phones are not only phones, our television sets do not only broadcast television, etc. No technology is homogenous; everything is transformed into a broad conceptualization of a “media device,” whether physically mobile or stationary. Convergence doesn’t only refer to our technological formats, but the media we consume as well. Instead of watching a film in a movie theater, we can view it on a DVD, stream it through a website, or watch it on our phone. Everything is mobile and nothing is fixed.
Convergence is inseparable from the other two categories previously discussed. Media texts can circulate readily as a result of an array of devices that they can travel through and between, and this greater circulation is enabled and emboldened by the blurring between hot and cool media: a film is no longer “hot” if I can touch the screen on which it plays. But convergence has profound implications on the ways in which our bodies navigate the world. Our fingers become adept at touching digital devices in a specific way (for the generational implications of this, watch this baby attempt to turn the pages of a magazine). There are no longer distinct spaces for digital interaction like the desktop; we have all become, to a certain extent, mobile media devices ourselves (especially if Google gets their way).
But as Cronenberg is a filmmaker deeply concerned with the relationships between the body, technology, and culture, the implications of convergence go a long way in Videodrome. Technology is not only modeled as an extension of the human body; it is the human body. Renn’s fingers become an abject flesh-machine hybrid that fires bullets, and his lower chest is transformed into a vaginal cavity for both consuming and delivering media. Now, while the reign of all things Apple may not mean that we’ll all develop electromechanical chest-vaginas, that distinctions between flesh and technology will continue to blur is certain, and this fact has both hopeful and strange implications.
Videodrome is no doubt a dystopian film. It posits the ubiquity of media as a condition that can fry our minds and destroy reality. I would hesitate to say that Videodrome is a pessimistic film (it’s far too intelligent for that), but it’s views of viral media, hot and cold media, and convergence do not match the optimism by currently assigned to supposedly “democratized” media. But that’s why Videodrome is more important than ever. It’s a portending signpost, a cautionary tale about the illusion of control that asks viewers to never confuse agency with independence.