Tagged Media

Videodrome: Medium, Message, Metaphysics

Videodrome. 1983. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwarz, David Bolt, Lally Cadeau, Henry Gomez, Harvey Chao, David Tsubouchi, & Kay Hawtrey. Canadian Film Development Corporation/Famous Players/Filmplan International/Guardian Trust Company/Victor Solnicki Productions.
Rated R. 87 minutes.

POSTER The films of David Cronenberg are wonderful metaphors for the modern world. He often seems to navigate our brain waves, collectively as a society. His screenplays examine the fears and paranoia of modern people, taking us away from the classical film perspective on science fiction and horror. Perhaps single-handedly he gave birth to the body horror genre. While many people after him tried attaining the same level of horror on a physiological level, none have ever been able to match both his disturbing gruesomeness, nor his sophistication as a writer. Others might say Cronenberg is not nearly as good of a writer as he is a director. However, I completely disagree. Even his first novel, Consumed, is a buffet of well-written madness.
But above all his work, Videodrome may reign supreme. Definitely the most hotly debated film of his catalogue, up there with eXistenZ. But its implications are some of the most interesting, some of the realest and most unnerving of all the stories he’s chosen to tell. Inspired by the teachings of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Cronenberg crafted this tale of futuristic media gone insane to dive headlong into how media affects us, its purpose, as well as why our connection to media seems to have become so visceral overall as a society. Offering no answers, only a vision of what may come to pass someday – looking more likely as the years roll on – Videodrome shows us a world of our making should we continue a dangerous relationship with media, its various mediums, the images it puts into our brains.
Max Renn (James Woods) is a small-time cable man, running CIVIC-TV which deals in a lot of softcore pornography and violent material. He searches out the best, sleaziest content in order to satisfy his viewers. He wants something groundbreaking. CIVIC-TV’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) then shows him a program called Videodrome, seemingly broadcast from somewhere in Asia, which is a show without plot, senseless torture and murder in a bare clay-like chamber inflicted upon a struggling victim.
From there his life becomes more complicated. After meeting Nick Brand (Deborah Harry), a psychiatrist and radio host who also happens to engage in BDSM play, things get even more murky. He comes in contact with Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) and also a man named Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), both of whom expose him to very terrifying new aspects of reality.
No longer will the things you watch on television be on television, in that they will no longer be fake. They will be an authentic, real experience. You’ll watch everything on a television screen. Because everything will be television. It will all be real. No more are there then shows or films, real life is media. Media is real life. Our minds will become so synonymous with media in its many forms that there’ll be no need to tune in on a box in your living room, as the technology will literally be us; the human body. Such is the large fleshy slit, the media orifice which Max Renn sprouts later on in the film – a VHS tape is inserted directly inside him, as there isn’t any middle equipment to separate flesh from objects.
Even further, media will influence is, as it already does. We see this very clearly at one point early on when Renn receives his secretary at his place; he believes to have hit her, seeing it lifelike and raw. Although, nothing like it has happened. He even sees himself switching from his secretary to Nicki. And like Renn, whose body ingests a gun and makes it a part of his bodily makeup, this influence of media will become a part of us, ingrained in our memories, in our touch – “Television is reality, and reality is less than television,” just as Brian O’Blivion tells us. Similar to how The Brood concerned a manifestation, a physical and living manifestation of rage, Videodrome is a body horror in regards to the infiltration of media into our minds, as well as our bodies.
One thing, though, which must be remembered – this is a first-person narrative. We see as Max sees. So, even while things seem as they do from O’Blivion’s perspective, the madness and the hallucinatory body horror is a part of Max’s delusion. All these things before are still true, in a sense, as they’re part of the way media has ultimately influenced him. Through an elaborate plot, Renn becomes a tool of violence after his exposure to so much sex and violence. It gradually grips him tight until he’s seemingly a part of some grand war between different factions of a two-sided conflict over media and its proper use.
So all the metaphorical bits and pieces of Videodrome are great. Even better are the fascinating practical effects, courtesy of designer Rick Baker – one of the legendary effects artists in the movie business. Here, he helps Cronenberg realize the terror of this media affected world in which lives the screenplay. There are so many that it’s hard to touch on them all. Some of the best then. One favourite is when Renn is sitting on his couch, he slowly starts to itch at a sore spot on his lower stomach. Until finally it’s an open, gaping, vagina-like orifice, and then his gun gets lost in it. Later, after he manages to get hold of the gun inside him, he pulls it out and the things grafts into his hand; or at least, that’s what Max sees anyways. Often people will talk about the television screen extending out. My favourite is later when Renn is shot in the chest and stomach, then we cut to a television with its screen looking like Renn’s body, blood oozing from bullet wounds. Such a great effect. Of course the nasty death of Convex is a rough one, shockingly well executed. Baker is truly one of a dying breed, those who are capable of bringing to life horror with their hands and making it real. The Criterion release has lots of nice stuff on the effects and everything else, so that’s a highly recommended purchase for those who are fans of this film.
Added to the effects, Howard Shore, longtime collaborator of Cronenberg, provides us with an eerie score that has lots of synthesizers, as usual. Also there are these organ pieces, which casts everything in such an ominous tone. What I enjoy about this is how the film is a modern horror, but Shore infuses it with this old school, classic horror feel using those specific organ compositions. It’s a real mindfuck, in a sense. As usual, Shore adds his solid punch to Cronenberg’s hypnotic, twisted images, and the film is all the better for it.
James Woods does a fantastic job as Max Renn. He is so confident and sure of himself at the start. As time goes by, Renn devolves into a paranoid man, more and more. Until almost coming full circle, as he embraces “the new flesh” and starts to take matters into his own hands, then he is confident once more in a new sense. The charisma of Woods works well with the beginning of Renn’s character arc. He’s capable of playing those edgy, crazy sort of characters, so the evolution of Max becomes an interesting thing to see.
Along with Woods, Debbie Harry is awesome here. She plays a disturbing character, but everything from her look to demeanour fits Nicki appropriately. Her eerie calmness throughout some of the more vicious moments is definitely unsettling. Also, she sort of plays Nicki like this blank canvas, a veritable open book upon which violence is written, and she becomes this kind of muse for Renn, in a macabre way. Her and Woods have chemistry together that’s dark and dangerous, which serves their characters’ relationship well.
Cronenberg is not for everybody. He is not the sort of science fiction or horror that anybody will pick up and just get into. Certainly not for date movies, unless you’ve got a really cool partner like yourself. But Videodrome particularly is probably Cronenberg’s best work. It is visceral, filled with explicitly graphic violence, body horror, lots of sexualized violence. Yet every last drop of it has a purpose. This is a metaphorical, metaphysical story of our relationship with media. So strap in, take a ride with this one. Maybe you’ll think twice about watching those clips of beheadings on the dark side of the web next time.

Haneke’s Cache: White Colonial Guilt Under a Voyeurist Microscope

Caché. 2005. Directed & Written by Michael Haneke.
Starring Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Annie Girardot, Maurice Bénichou, Bernard Le Coq, Walid Afkir, Lester Makedonsky, Daniel Duval, Nathalie Richard, Denis Podalydès, & Aïssa Maïga. Les Films du Losange/Wega Film/Bavaria Film/BIM Distribuzione.
Rated 14A. 117 minutes.

There is no other director like auteur Michael Haneke. His films, admittedly on his part deliberately, are resistant to giving us answers. Haneke has famously stated films aren’t meant to provide those answers, any answers, merely to be the questions. And when you consider his body of work as a whole, even in the movies where the plots are more intricate than others, all of it is impressively evasive. Not in a bad sense. I don’t walk away from a Haneke picture feeling cheated or falling off my enjoyment for his style. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. I want to go back, sit down, and take in another viewing. I want to get to the bottom of what he’s trying to do, I want to figure him out.
When first I saw Caché, I wondered if maybe Haneke had seen David Lynch’s Lost Highway. But the premise of having videotapes anonymously sent to a house, showing only the outside of said house, goes somewhere completely different. This act sets off a series of events which simultaneously take the form of a mysterious thriller, and also form a labyrinthine, Hanekian tale touching on everything from the role of an audience in experiencing a film to white colonial guilt. To a certain point, I’m still not sure about what Haneke’s saying, or hoping to say, or asking. Or who knows. I have watched and re-watched this movie more than ANY other film out of the 4,200+ I’ve seen to date. I own a copy that’s been paused and rewound so many times that soon it may just evaporate into thin air or fry itself into a DVD doughnut.
Bottom line is, that if the trailer had you hoping Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche were starring together in a twisty little dramatic thriller, you’re sort of right. You’re also totally wrong.

Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil/Juliette Binoche) begin receiving videotapes on their doorstep, wrapped in a plastic bag, usually accompanied by a strange, crude drawing involving stick figures spitting out blood. Strangely, the tapes only show their house, even them leaving, coming. Yet they can’t figure out where the camera is taping from, nor can they determine who may be sending the tapes.
Once the drawings get stranger and the tapes change slowly, Georges finds himself drawn into the mystery, further, deeper. Eventually, it leads him back to a boy, now grown like himself, that he knew from childhood – an Argentinian man named Majid (Maurice Bénichou).
When the two men meet it changes Georges life completely. Not in the least for the better.
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The film opens and closes on a moment of voyeurism. Long, uninterrupted takes make us a voyeur into the world of Haneke’s picture. Much like the voyeur behind those tapes stares into the life of Georges and his family. Above all else this sets up the viewer’s role in the story because the story is more than plot fodder for a film. Behind the characters and events of Caché lie intriguing bits of social issues, the concern about colonialism in relation to the 1961 massacre in Paris (re: FLN Algerians). It isn’t so hard to figure that out. But Haneke deflects, deflects, deflects. He passes us off onto the mystery of the tapes, so that we’re concerned with working out some thrilling aspect of the plot. And yes, the tapes are part of everything. Just not the most intricate, important part.
What matters most is the relationship between Georges and Majid. Only four years before this film did the city of Paris fully acknowledge the atrocities of the massacre forty years prior, and even then it’s only a commemorative plaque; even the highest of the high never took actually responsibility, so to say it’s an admission is generous. The childhood experiences of a young Georges and the little Algerian Majid who was nearly adopted by the former’s family frame a reference, a parallel to the Paris massacre. This film serves as an analogy – the past cannot stay hidden. Events from our past, our history will not, like Georges, crawl away under the covers, the only place they can be naked, and stay uncovered. And once everything comes out of the past and haunts Georges in the present, Haneke’s analogy is perfectly clear. An act by Majid can be seen as analogous to how many people feel about the Parisian response to the ’61 massacre – it may just take an outright brutal moment of clarity for any true, genuine response to those events. The most important piece to the relationship between Georges and Majid is that Georges, his actions, the guilt he feels for its repercussions, comes as a direct representation of white colonial guilt. Furthermore, when Georges talks with his wife about his past, he ends up saying: “What should I call it? A tragedy? Maybe it was a tragedy, I dont know. I dont feel responsible for it. Why should I?” If that isn’t a perfectly written line in regards to ideas about Parisian guilt over the Algerian deaths, then I don’t know what else is.

Also a note: have you noticed any of the interactions Georges has with anybody who’s non-white are always negative, filled with threats, confrontational? Could be that ugly white guilt rearing its head in aggressive ways after so much repression.
Back to the media theories. The cameras, the tapes, all the media and recording devices in this film almost serve as a representation of how the media treated the Paris massacre. Many American and British media sources stood by and watched, effectively making the Paris government out as not totally compliant in what had happened, trying to lessen the blow on their allies. If we consider this, Haneke’s inclusion of the cameras and his obsession with the act of voyeurism, it parallels the various media during ’61, and afterwards, who stood by, recording, letting the tapes run, but ultimately doing nothing except creating a documentation of events without meaning.
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The performance by Daniel Auteuil is phenomenal and understated. He does everything at the right time, in the right manner. His acting is stellar most of the time, anyways. But everything from the more heated moments to the subtle scenes come off perfectly here. Auteuil brings out the repressed guilt and buried emotions of his Georges. There are a couple times he weeps by himself; most of the time I don’t get drawn into actors crying, unless it is really good. Here, his cries are unbelievably filled with impact – specifically, in one scene he tries to get a baguette and some butter, then breaks down before he can manage to even tear the bread. This might not have the same impact in another film, nor in the hands of another actor, but Auteuil makes this a heavy moment, and you feel for him. In fact, despite some of his faults the Georges character is highly sympathetic, though, he also feels stubborn, closed off, filled with the burden of repression and responsibility; all of which Auteuil presents in fine fashion.
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Haneke’s writing gives life to the characters, yet its best quality is how we’re drawn into several different directions, all culminating in a film full of symbols and themes and analogy. It isn’t easy to write such intricate stuff and, on the outside, have it look like a typical mystery-thriller. Haneke weaves a tale of social issues through the eye of thriller mechanisms and creates a haunting piece of cinema that is not easy to forget. On top of that, the cinematography is spectacular. It is rich and beautiful to look at, even while plumbing the depths of some eerie subject matter. In general, Haneke has a solid eye as director for the composition of shots. A lot of times there are things in frame you may not realize are important or hold significance in any way. Others, the frame holds only the basics. In that way, Haneke crafts a measure of suspense and tension that’s able to cling to us, refusing to let go. Like the red herring or MacGuffin so well-executed by Alfred Hitchcock, the unease Haneke creates has a similar effect, and we’re always left pondering what exactly are his intentions.
Absolutely a 5-star bit of work. That finale wide shot is telling, as it holds pieces to the Algerian analogy, or maybe it has other significance that people can tell. Either way, the effects of Haneke are always the same, somehow always different, too. He leaves me filled with wonder, even in the darkest of moments. And he always, always keeps me questioning the content of a film’s frame, start to finish. His best qualities are not as a director, nor as a writer, but as a man asking questions about life, humanity, media, history, and everything in between.

Nightcrawler & the Vulture-like News Media

Nightcrawler. 2014. Directed & Written by Dan Gilroy.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, and Riz Ahmed. Elevation Pictures.
Rated 14A. 117 minutes.


Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is a bit of an unusual film. First off, Gilroy has never directed a feature film, or anything else to my knowledge. His start came with screenwriting. The only particularly worthy bit of writing Gilroy has the credit for would be an interesting 2006 film called The Fall. Other than that his screenplays have mostly been for box office fodder like Real Steel or more recently The Bourne Legacy. Yet out of nowhere Gilroy both writes and directs a small film like this.
With not only Jake Gyllenhaal but also veterans such as Rene Russo and Bill Paxton. I say small because this film only had a budget of $8-million. Believe it or not that is actually small compared to most movies you see at the theatre. Compared with the $125-million budget of Gilroy’s previous screenwriting venture The Bourne Legacy an $8-million film is an indie. However, what Nightcrawler lacks in budget it makes up for in heart and storytelling.
nightcrawler-jake-gyllenhaal1-600x400 Gyllenhaal is a tour-de-force in Nightcrawler. His character, Lou Bloom, is a wayward young man. The first we see Lou it is in the early dark of night on the edge of the city. He has a trunk full of stripped copper wire, and is currently in the process of cutting out a section of chain link fence. A security guard confronts him. He claims being lost. After decking the guard, and stealing his watch, Lou visits a construction site where he proceeds to auction off the fence and wire. Right away the message is clear: Lou is a scavenger. Through mere coincidence he ends up witnessing a brutal car crash. As two police officers try rescuing the injured driver, Lou watches a guerilla television crew trying to get exclusive, gruesome footage of the accident. Lou asks a member of the crew (Paxton) if he could get a job, but is shooed away.
On the morning news the following day, Lou sees the same footage he witnessed being taped the previous night, and is in awe. It brings a smile to his haunted looking face. This chance encounter leads to a new obsession Lou sets his sights on.

Essentially, the film is a look at modern society. Gyllenhaal plays a seriously motivated and possibly (no, definitely) very unstable young go-getter who only wants to find something at which he can be successful; something at which he can excel. I believe Gilroy is attempting to present a look at not only how the media is a cutthroat and vicious business, but how we as modern viewers are also demanding more and more of this extreme footage. We, as much as we may hate it or try and deny it, are a part, a big part, of the process. No longer are news channels simply a NASDAQ scroll on the bottom of the screen while reporters talk about elections and local events, global news, the like. Today the news is almost like a horror film reel at times from images of war to school shootings to all sorts of awful, terrible stuff.
Lou Bloom represents the younger generations today and how we widely hold the view that anything can be a career. Even in this case, where Lou risks his own safety and the safety of those around him to get even 60-seconds of footage to auction off at the highest price for different television networks competing against each other. In a day and age where the grotesqueness of reality television dominates ratings it isn’t hard to imagine there are already plenty of Lou Blooms already out there exploiting car crashes and victims of gun violence (et cetera) for money.
Point being: Nightcrawler is highly relevant to the day and age its been released, no doubt it will probably come to be – unfortunately – even more relevant as the role of the media and technology in media changes over the years ahead.
Night-crawler Most reviews of Nightcrawler have been positive. I cannot disagree at all. It is a cracking good film. Technology aside, it reminds me of a movie we could very well have seen in the late 1950s or 1960s. It’s like a creepy noir-ish style thriller. Gyllenhaal himself is worth the price of admission. He physically embodies the character of Lou; the way he walks and talks all frame him as a ghoul, out in the night to find dead bodies and other nasty business, or even dig up the damn graves if he has to – whatever it takes. It’s really remarkable to see the young kid from Donnie Darko continually choose challenging, unique roles now that he’s older.
Another thing I particularly liked about this film is the lack of a forced in love story. Gilroy utilizes Rene Russo, playing a television network executive, here as a strong female character who is both complicated and flawed. He does not write her as a typical love interest so common in a lot of other mainstream films. Although there are a few sexually charged moments between Gyllenhaal and Russo, the film never falls prey to pushing anything in our faces, and stops very short; the plot never gets bogged down with unnecessary love scenes of any kind. It’s refreshing to me.

I can’t help giving this a full 5 star recommendation. Though I often try to avoid nitpicking a film to death because it ruins the fun, I’m definitely capable of admitting when a movie is not the greatest. Even if it’s one I personally enjoy. But there is nothing about Nightcrawler I can pick apart. It’s a great film with a tight script, beautiful camerawork, and a genuinely starmaker performance from Jake Gyllnehaal. Get out and see this. Now.

For another stellar review of Nightcrawler, see Thy Critic Man’s review here.