Friday, October 23, 2009

In the flesh: Cronenberg on Videodrome

The story goes that when Roberto Benigni met David Cronenberg he got down on all fours and kissed the director’s shoes. This was Toronto, many years ago, and it seems Benigni was in a state of euphoric relief. Cronenberg’s films, he explained, made him afraid to visit the city. It came as a surprise to discover that Canadians really were as polite as they say, that head-combusting telekinetic killers weren’t terrorizing Bay Street, that our televisions behaved. Cronenberg told the story when he dropped in on a screening of
Videodrome at Jackman Hall last night. He reminisced about his stars, fondly recalling James Woods as the only actor he’s ever yelled at, and explaining how his work with Deborah Harry was essentially a matter of shrinking her performance down from rock-theatrics exaggeration to the eerily sexy hush it became. The film was presented as part of the Cinematheque Ontario’s Toronto on Film series, so Cronenberg was also there to talk about the city. There was something strangely warm and fuzzy about sitting in a capacity crowd to immerse ourselves in Max Renn’s descent into the sadomasochistic, surreal and cancerous world of Videodrome while taking note of the many glimpses of Toronto circa 1982. So much has changed since then, but it was oddly comforting to note that local legend Reg Hartt’s black and white photocopied posters for his “Cineforum” home screenings of classic films, which can still be found on lamp posts all over Toronto, looked exactly the same.

A filmmaker who truly aims for the guts

I have no idea how many times I've watched Videodrome in the last 27 years, but I can honestly say that even after multiple viewings as a child, a teenager and an adult, the movie remains absolutely fucking bananas. In his introduction to Cronenberg’s introduction Adam Nayman recalled the extra layers of taboo the film accumulated by having to be smuggled into his family home on VHS. Indeed, the film’s resonance as a home video product is a central element in its legacy, yet seeing it on the big screen with an audience reminds you how enduringly discomforting—and kind of hilarious—an experience the film offers. “It has a philosophy,” one character warns another about the titular underground torture porn, “and that’s what makes it dangerous.” That’s also what makes it deliciously goofy. The walls are electrified wet clay, the wizard is nothing but a library of videocassettes, and Renn feeds a gun to his stomach vagina cavity. The film wasn’t prescient on purpose, Cronenberg emphasized. In fact it looked backwards to some degree, to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who haunted the University of Toronto when Cronenberg was a student there. And it responded to what was in the air in the moment, like the presence of soft-core porn on Canadian television, and fears of the medium’s potentially corrupting powers that had been circulating for decades. “All you have an artist that makes you original is your antenna,” asserted Cronenberg, whose own antennae have been picking up often brilliantly perverse broadcasts from the collective Id for nearly four decades.

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