David Cronenberg and the Political Underground

When one watches a film from director David Cronenberg, it is always a unique experience. A true auteur, Cronenberg’s stamp on a film is hard to miss with his always shocking, violent, and imaginative films messing with a viewer’s mind in ways that few films can. From parasites and sex zombies meeting in a high-rise Canadian apartment in Shivers to a mother giving birth to deadly dwarf children in The Brood, it became clear that Cronenberg was a man unafraid to bring the grotesque to the big screen. His films often unfold akin to a nightmare, always revealing their true insanity at the very end with viewers left to wonder if the film they watched actually existed or was just a figment of their own imagination.

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Mostly known for its use of body horror, Cronenberg’s work from the 1970s through the end of the 1990s can be easily identified through its futuristic technology and the bone-chilling blending of the human body with weapons. This originality often defines the visuals and plots of the films. Yet, under the surface, Cronenberg’s films from this era consistently displayed an obsession with underground political movements, particularly in a corporate setting. An inherent mistrust of business is certainly implied, but Cronenberg’s exploration of this element goes far greater than this. His films Scanners, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, are perfect examples of these ideas.

Through these four films, Cronenberg creates works of pure paranoia. The films often present an unassuming character who volunteers or stumbles into this world of chaos. Not only is their body irrevocably transformed and their mind forever damaged, but their life is in danger. They are surrounded and know about a movement that no one else seems to realize is there. Are these movements or cults a figment of their imagination, or are they reality? Is there truly a global conspiracy pushing some unknown agenda? The hidden hands that guide society are explored in these films. Yet, as in the real world, whether or not these hands are really there or not are all part of the films’ hallucinatory quality, dropping viewers into a world of absolute paranoia and chaos, leaving them to wonder where the confusion ends and reality begins.

Videodrome

Thrusting audiences into the mind of Max Renn (James Woods), Videodrome follows the events that occur after Max learns about a mysterious show called “Videodrome”. The owner of  controversial television station Civic TV, Max prizes himself in marketing his shows to the “subterranean market”. With violence, pornography, and any other form of “entertainment” that most mainstream networks turn away from, the channel proves quite incendiary. As he pushes the envelope, he comes across across a transmission of “Videodrome” in which people are whipped and tortured, later discovering that the show’s violence is real. From there, the film falls right into the rabbit hole as the show impacts him in ways he never anticipated.

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The underground movements at work in Videodrome wind up using Max for their own purposes. A company known as Spectacular Optical – who make glasses for consumers and missiles for NATO – are revealed as the producers of “Videodrome” and reveal their intent to warp the minds of consumers via the content. Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) runs this company and winds up running Max as well, using him and his channel with the intent of broadcasting the show nationwide. The company sees a weakening North America and hopes to suck in viewers attracted by sex and violence on television in order to remove their influence on society. They view these individuals and Max as being responsible for “rotting America from the inside”; thus they aim to solve the problem by ultimately killing or manipulating them to the movement’s advantage. By the admission of one of Max’s business associates, Masha (Lynne Gorman), the people behind “Videodrome” are very powerful, refusing to give up due to the political agenda underneath the surface. This, to them, is not just a show, but a way to regain the soul of the country.

However, Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits), the daughter of a reclusive man who fought against “Videodrome” while alive, fights back and uses Max to counter Spectacular Optical’s mission. She even uses similar means to do so, utilizing Max’s lust for Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) to draw him into her world and carry out key political hits on members of the opposing movement. It is hard to not see Max yelling out, “Death to the Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” on screen without viewing Bianca’s movement as somewhat cultish and Max as wholly brainwashed. Yet, he was always susceptible to this brainwashing: Spectacular Optical sucked him in with the transmission of “Videodrome”, and Bianca similarly sucks him in with a television image of Nicki calling out his name.

Max is a man who has spent his entire life being reliant on television, both professionally and personally. In the film, he explains that his work at Civic TV was to ensure that people would not perform the deplorable actions in his shows, but rather to use the shows as an outlet for those deepest desires. By the time the film ends, it is clear this is impossible. As the dead Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) had warned, television is the “mind’s retina”, hence why he predicted it would be used by political entities to wage war for control of that retina. It is this war that Videodrome depicts. While Bianca may claim she wants to deprogram people from their television obsession, she nonetheless brainwashes Max in the same exact way that Spectacular Optical had done. Either she is hypocritical or lying, but regardless, she is clearly aiming for power and views Spectacular Optical as her main competitor. The goal for both? The exact thing her father had feared would be fought over: the thoughts, actions, and beliefs of those who watch these shows.

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Yet, Max is just a microcosm of society. In his typical body horror fashion, Cronenberg showcases Max becoming a human VCR, growing a gaping hole in his chest, and engaging in S&M with television images. The “new flesh” alluded to by Max comes to mean something far more sinister than its weird language may suggest. For Cronenberg, it is the very embodiment of his own paranoia, taking it even one step further than Brian O’Blivion had. As Videodrome shows, television is not just the mind’s retina, but the entire human body. It is, as the film explains, how people experience things, often leading to little differentiation between actually lived experiences and what one has seen on the screen. Humanity is becoming the television, and the television is becoming us. Max is the literal embodiment of this in Videodrome, but the paranoia that Cronenberg shows is in how this makes viewers malleable and easily deceived. He sees a society with views and beliefs that can be changed as easily as one changes a television channel.

Just as the television merely shows whatever the cable box tells it to without regard for who is in control, society has little regard or knowledge of the movements fighting for this power. Instead, political candidates take the focus or, in the case of Videodrome, Spectacular Optical busies themselves with sales and showcases of their upcoming Spring line of sunglasses. All the while, the average consumer has no idea that Spectacular Optical busies themselves by making missiles and underground television shows that both accomplish very different political ideologies. There is a certain mistrust of business and television imbued by Cronenberg in Videodrome, but a far more dire message is also communicated. That message is that society is controlled by hidden forces with unimaginable agendas and inconceivable tools at their disposal . For Spectacular Optical and the organization led by Bianca O’Blivion, television is their weapon, their businesses are mere distractions, and their goal is to point the country in whatever direction they see fit.

eXistenZ

Though separated by 16 years, eXistenZ often feels like a direct follow-up to Videodrome. Portraying the world of virtual reality and video games, eXistenZ shows the confusion ensued when reality collides with the world of a game. The film opens with a scene of a game testing session. As the session begins, a man in the crowd attempts to assassinate Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), a famed video game designer, with a gun made out of bones. Through this, the film makes the existence of its competing political movements known right away. As a game designer, Allegra is seen as a “goddess” by those who love games but as a “demoness” by those who are part of the realist underground, a movement aimed at ending the influence of “virtual reality” on actual existence. The film thrusts her together with marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) as they try to save her life and save her game. The game, “eXistenZ”, purposefully mimics life as the characters can die at any moment, are guided by things they do not understand, and must deal with the inevitable feeling that they are accomplishing nothing or have no idea what they are working towards. Never truly revealing the line between reality and game, eXistenZ is another complex, hallucinatory, and disorienting work from Cronenberg.

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However, just as in Videodrome, eXistenZ shows two competing movements fighting for power to further their own agenda. The “realist underground” fights back against the developers, while the game companies push back, attempting to retain control over the game and its gamers. The underground force – this time exerted by the designers rather than television executives – from Videodrome remains. Using names such as “Antenna” or “Cortical Systematics”, the mission remains the same: thrust players deeper into a world created for them by the company and warp their minds to the point that they can no longer tell what is real and.

Allegra and Ted frequently change sides in this battle, never holding one firm ideology. All the while, the game directs their movements. Early in the film, Ted is startled as he tells Allegra that something he just said was not something he intended to say, only for Allegra to explain that the game forced his words. In the game, to advance the plot, certain lines need to be said. Thus, players are often forced to say something unconsciously. So, in the interest of playing, Allega advises Ted to just let these moments happen. This demonstrates the exact issue with control that Videodrome had expressed, except now companies can use virtual reality games to tap into the minds of the player and guide their actions to whatever goal they desire.

As such, the characters all behave as the game tells them, unable to turn off that influence once they return to what they believe to be reality. Without an ability to realize when one is in reality, every character winds up becoming a mere pawn in a larger picture. They either infiltrate the game to carry out the “realist” agenda or they fight back on behalf of the gaming companies. Never sure of where they themselves are in this political spectrum, the characters wind up being entirely influenced by the world created within these games. It blurs reality such that they experience their own “reality bleeds” – moments or ideas carried from within the game to reality or vice versa – bringing with them the agendas programmed into their minds and unable to realize that they are no longer in the game. In this, Cronenberg warns of the same influence that he warned audiences about in Videodrome. This is a war for the mind and control of the individuals. Whichever company is able to create the game has all the power- they just have to be willing to use it for something.

This is very much akin to what Cronenberg depicted in Videodrome. In eXistenZ, he shows the full realization of the “new flesh”. The players in the game have plugs in their back where the living tissue making up their “game pod” is plugged into, as they themselves become the console while the game itself is alive. Even in “reality”, the characters wear headsets that program right into their eyes the game they are playing. In Videodrome, Max and the television became one, easily programmed by whoever had the controller. In eXistenZ, the ideologies and beliefs held by Allegra and Ted are similarly programmed, as they themselves have become one with the game. They are told what to do by unknown forces in the game, hold the beliefs the game tells them to, and carry out revolutions and wars created by the game. The players, just like the viewers in Videodrome, have become one with the game they play and their thoughts can be influenced as easily as a line of code can be edited.

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