In 1983, Canadian director David Cronenberg made a science fiction thriller called "Videodrome." Although only employing the technology available at the time — Betamax cassettes, terrestrial TV signals, and the like — "Videodrome" remains a salient and timely essay on the effects of media and technology on the human consciousness. In "Videodrome," James Woods plays a character named Max, who's made a living picking up stray, often pornographic TV signals from around the globe — signals that were completely unregulated — and broadcasting the pirated signals on his late-night TV station.
Although dubiously legal, Max goes on daytime TV talk shows to defend his business, and to have McLuhan-inflected conversations about the grasp modern media technology has on the mind. He talks with a curious intellectual named Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), who only appears on TV sets (asserting, "the television screen is the retina of the mind's eye"). He also begins having an intellectually inspired, rough-sex-infused affair with media star Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry).
Max finds a rogue TV signal called Videodrome, and it seems to broadcast nothing but real-life torture 24 hours a day. When he watches it, something happens to Max's mind, and he either begins hallucinating, or he actually becomes involved in a bizarre media conspiracy where assassins are stalking around the margins of the airwaves. Max grows a video cassette slot in his abdomen, and strange MIBs insert living, organic cassettes into him.
There is a lot of talk about how Max, in watching violence on his pirated TV station, was having his brain chemistry altered. Consuming violent media, it seems, makes one more inured to violence. Or perhaps people who are already inured to violence seek violent media. Change the technology, and the conversation can be had today.
More Blood, Violence, Sex Than Ever Before
David Cronenberg is sharply aware of the use of violence and sex in media, and how such aspects are discussed when it comes to art. His latest film, "Crimes of the Future," contains a good amount of sex, although it takes place in a future where humans are evolving, and people are randomly growing novel internal organs. Surgically removing said organs has come to replace sexual intercourse. Such films can feel like distant outliers when one looks at the general cinematic landscape, seeing massive financial success awarded to not-too-violent, not-at-all-sexy PG-13 action flicks.
Cronenberg, now 79, sees a dichotomy in the media landscape. In a 2022 interview with i-D Magazine, the filmmaker talked about the more extreme forms of art that one can now easily find on streaming, but also how the same audience will occasionally seek something safe. There's no reason an adult audience, he feels, can't feel an equal thirst for, say, "Ant-Man" as well as a curious surgery-as-sex sci-fi contemplation like "Crimes of the Future." He said:
"[B]ecause of streaming, you're seeing a lot more blood, violence, sex than ever before — but to me that's fine. It means there are fewer controls on artistic expression. Whether you want that or not, well you can switch it off! You have control, it's not forced on you. It's convenient for regulators to claim we're numb to violence, but I honestly don't buy it. People are interested in being comfortable with their entertainment, but they're also interested in being pushed to the edges of their perception and understanding. Both of those things have always been there."
In short, no person is only one thing. We are large. Each member of the multitudes contains multitudes.
Of course, even for Cronenberg, there are limits. Including sex and violence may be an important part of art — even unpleasant, aggressive violence can a vital role in an artistic discussion — but that doesn't mean that all audiences are going to want to watch it. As the filmmaker said above, one is always welcome to turn off a film or TV show that goes too far over the edge. Cronenberg's edge, he has found, is violence against children. And while the plot of "Crimes of the Future" surrounded the murder of an eight-year-old and the barter of his corpse, the director felt that, in most cases, kids and violence don't mix. He said:
"I really am sensitive to violence against children. There are a lot of stories, nowadays, of people coming forward about child abuse and how they were affected by it, and then movies and streaming services [make content from it]. It's just because, I assume, I'm a father and grandfather. It's not like I would want to ban that from discussion — on the contrary, I think it should be discussed — but I don't want to watch it. It hurts."
Critic Gene Siskel, one might recall, tended to give poor reviews to films wherein children were put in danger, feeling such images to be irresponsible. One might also note that, even in the most horrifying horror movies, kids and pets — for the most part — often survive. Killing adults is par for the course, but even the most jaded horror fan may wince at the death of a dog. Cronenberg is comfortable with pushing the envelope and knows full well what he is doing when wielding physical harm at his characters, but everyone has a limit.
Read this next: Horror Movies That Even Horror Fans Could Hardly Finish
The post Even David Cronenberg Isn't Immune To The Impact Of On-Screen Violence appeared first on /Film.