Max Renn is president of Toronto’s Civic TV, “the one you take to bed with you.” He’s always looking for the next provocation to broadcast: sex, violence, and mayhem are all welcomed. Screen shock is victimless, he claims, saying “I give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations.” But Max wants more for his meager Channel 83. He’s “looking for something that will break through.” He finds the ultimate shock in the form of a pirated video: a dramatized snuff-film called Videodrome, shot in a small red room, with black-garbed torturers and their female victims.
Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s classic 1983 film, is perfect viewing for 2017 — the year a man baptized by television becomes president. The film is an homage to all things small screen: local-access, low-budget, low-resolution. Max, played by a smirking James Woods, will do anything to titillate his viewers, but he’s a sneaky moralist. “Better on TV than on the streets,” he says of violence. Max thinks that he’s controversial, but he soon learns that other provocateurs have what he lacks: a philosophy.
In response to criticism of his network’s programming, Max appears on a television talk show, where he flirts with Nicki Brand (played by Debbie Harry), radio host of The Emotional Rescue Show. They go back to his apartment, and he jokingly asks if she wants to watch Videodrome to get in the mood. He’s taken aback when Nicki likes it, and further unsettled when he sees gashes on her neck. Max prefers fantasy, but Nicki’s flesh has been wounded. When she later jokes that she’s going to audition for Videodrome herself, Max pleads for her to stay away from those “mondo video weirdo guys.”
Max soon learns from an agent who secures programming for the station that Videodrome is an actual snuff film. Partially because he wants the show for Civic TV — but mostly because he fears for Nicki’s safety — Max tries to find the origin of the video. The trail leads Max to the Cathode Ray Mission, its red and blue sign complemented with the Sacred Heart. A crowd of homeless people sift into the building, where they kneel in front of televisions. They suffer from the disease of electronic disconnection: “watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing-board.”
Max is there to find Brian O’Blivion, who is described as a “media prophet professor.” The mysterious professor is absent. “I am my father’s screen,” his daughter Bianca says. She recognizes Max from the show, quipping “you said some very superficial things: violence, sex, imagination, catharsis.”
In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” — a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated.
McLuhan earned his doctorate from Cambridge with a dissertation on 16th-century satirist Thomas Nashe. He once sullied the comic strip Blondie for its representations of masculinity. By the time Cronenberg was enrolled at the university, McLuhan was that now rare commodity: a public intellectual. An honest-to-God pop philosopher. Jefferson Pooley notes that McLuhan underwent a “metamorphosis from pious agrarian to media mystagogue.” By the time of The Medium is the Massage — now a half-century ago — McLuhan was giving presentations to IBM and General Electric, and regularly appearing on television.
Tom Wolfe visited McLuhan, and narrated with disbelief: “he sits in a little office off on the edge of the University of Toronto that looks like the receiving bin of a second-hand book store, grading papers, grading papers, for days on end.” Douglas Coupland thinks what is most endearing about McLuhan is that he was “a classically trained scholar realizing that there’s this thing coming down the pipe — the Internet — yet because he didn’t understand the ultimate interface, he was frustrated in his inability to describe it clearly.” Here was a digital Johannes Gutenberg, suited up as “this fuddy-duddy guy in 1950s Toronto.”
How do we expect our prophets to appear? McLuhan was old school. He was the oldest of institutions, in fact; a Catholic. A convert by the way of G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain. McLuhan said converts enter the church through the back door — “coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.”
McLuhan considered prayer “constant, nonstop dialogue with the Creator.” He attended Mass daily; he was known to sometimes shorten his classes to attend midday service. His son recalled they would say the rosary as a family at night. Like many converts, McLuhan was conservative in his approach toward the Vatican II reforms. He was not particularly fond of the institutional church, and was surprisingly critical of the Jesuits — those fellow global-villagers.
From the outside, these contradictions might seem to denude his identity. Yet paradox is not only endemic to Catholicism, it is downright Christological. Here was an old man telling us about new media. McLuhan taught us that the difference between aphorism and bumper stickers depends on the medium. He was misunderstood, appropriated, re-mixed. He said of his own work “I don’t pretend to understand it.” No sola scriptura here.
Hugh Kenner once wrote “Like Andy Warhol, whose works we don’t need to see to appreciate their point, McLuhan is the writer his public doesn’t need to read.” Of course the reference to Warhol — a fellow eccentric Catholic, who called Videodrome “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” — is apt. No doubt that Videodrome is a McLuhan-drenched film, but does the film share his Catholic ethos? (For McLuhan, Catholicism was the medium, the message, and the massage).
McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, 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.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave — real violence — and then incapacitate them into submission.
McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan — but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.