Long Live the New Flesh! Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre present VIDEODROME!

Posted on: Mar 6th, 2014 By:

Splatter Cinema presents VIDEODROME (1983); Dir. David Cronenberg; Starring James Woods, Deborah Harry and Jack Creley; Tuesday, March 11 @ 9:30 p.m. (photos and merch booth open @ 9:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s one of those great instances when a bloody, nightmarish horror flick gives you something important to chew on afterwards. Splatter Cinema is back at the Plaza Theatre to take a mind-bending trip into the head of David Cronenberg with what may be his best film to date, VIDEODROME!

I’ve got something I want to play for you.

There are horror movies, and there are horror movies. And then, there are David Cronenberg movies. Easily one of the most facile writers/directors in blending the highbrow and lowbrow, his films typically explore themes and concepts that appeal to the art film crowd while simultaneously delivering the kind of gut-level shocks and bloody special effects that made his movies a mainstay in the pages of FANGORIA. And while other films of his may have appealed to broader audiences and been more financially successful, or even dealt with headier concepts (like the nature of humanity itself in THE FLY), nothing compares to his masterpiece, VIDEODROME.

I’m looking for something that will break through. Something tough.
–Max Renn

It’s 1983 Toronto, and Max Renn needs new programming for his TV station, channel 83 or CIVIC-TV. (“CIVIC-TV: the one you take to bed with you!”) His associate Harlan, who runs the station’s pirate satellite receiver and descrambles international broadcast feeds, calls Max down to his office to show him a curious new program seemingly originating out of Malaysia: Videodrome. It’s nothing but brutal violence. No plot. No story. And if it’s faked, it’s very realistically done. But it also carries a strange mind-control signal, and Max soon finds himself hallucinating wildly and caught in a war between the two parties who want control of Videodrome.

The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.
–Professor Brian O’Blivion

Central to the plot of the movie are the philosophical statements of Professor Brian O’Blivion, one of the co-creators of Videodrome. Based upon Marshall McLuhan (whom Cronenberg had studied under at university), his in-film theories about the extension of “the screen” as a new part of how we view the world take the film far beyond just a tale of good and evil and into an examination of how we process what we expose ourselves to. In the Professor’s view, television is integral to functioning as a society, and his daughter extends this theorizing into the brick-and-mortar world by running the Cathode Ray Mission, devoted to allowing the city’s homeless to watch TV in order to better acclimate them to the world we live in. They’re not only showing their flock what the world is like, but the reality that the rest of the world is embracing so that they can better fit in. Ultimately, the Professor’s philosophy comes down to a central question: who is programming the signal you’re tuning into? Are you passively allowing others to create your reality, or are you seizing autonomy and programming it yourself?

I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual. And I think that’s bad.
–Nicki Brand

If there is a single criticism I have of Cronenberg’s questioning, it is that it’s possibly too naïve. I think he raises numerous issues that have real relevance to our contemporary media fascination, but he didn’t (and quite probably couldn’t) have predicted the extent to which the screen has come to dominate our lives. I mean, how long has it been since you’ve looked away from the screen on which you are reading this article? How long will it be before you look at another screen—a TV, your phone, your tablet, your laptop? How much screen time do you log in at your job? And, further, what is your emotional relationship with those screens? How many friends do you have whom you only contact through the screen? How many acquaintances have you made via Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr that you have never physically met? Are those people—and the feelings you have for them—any less real because they seem to only exist in pixels and sets of ones and zeroes? How much of your reality is dictated by the screen you are looking at right now? And, back to Cronenberg’s question, who is in control of what you are seeing?

But why would anybody watch it? Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome?
–Barry Convex

In the world of the film, control of the Videodrome signal is in the hands of Barry Convex, head of Spectacular Optical (“We make inexpensive glasses for the third world and missile guidance systems for NATO. We also make Videodrome, Max.”). Covex wants to toughen up North America by ridding it of the kind of degenerate low-lifes who would get off on a show like Videodrome. And it’s between the idealistic O’Blivion (who believes that the Videodrome signal can be used to create a new, direct relationship between video and our bodies) and the fascistic Convex that Renn finds himself, his programming being rewritten by both sides. From the film’s start, Max’s programming and re-programming results in violent hallucinations. We, the viewers, are never entirely sure if what we’re seeing is objective reality or Max’s imagined reality brought on by video feed. But as O’Blivion states, there is no real difference. Reality is entirely subjective, and our perceptions dictate what our reality consists of. (And, anyway, the ultimate irony is that there is no objective reality we are viewing—we are watching an imagined scenario enacted by James Woods, Debbie Harry, et al. and directed by David Cronenberg. Note how many frames we see within the film, informing us that what we are watching is constantly being framed by unseen hands.)

This film is the first of a Cronenberg trilogy that wrestles with the questions of addiction, the subjective nature of “reality” and whether the distinction between the real and imagined makes any difference. In this film, the addiction is to the screen. The other two films are NAKED LUNCH (in which William Lee’s submission to addiction and descent into drug-induced hedonism in the Interzone blur the lines between fantasy and reality) and EXISTENZ (which basically transposes the storyline of VIDEODROME into the immersive world of video games). Clearly, the issues of releasing control of your own programming to outside sources and who is ultimately responsible for crafting your own reality loom large in Cronenberg’s artistic output.

What are you waiting for, lover? Let’s perform. Let’s open those neural floodgates.
–Nicki Brand

Legend has it that Cronenberg was inspired to make this film after a viewing of Joe D’Amato’s infamous 1977 sexploitation flick EMANUELLE IN AMERICA. The film contains a snippet of an 8mm torture loop that leads journalist Emanuelle to uncover an international snuff film ring. The seemingly incongruous inclusion of this brutal footage in what was billed as a Big Sexy Movie (the matter is introduced and dropped at the tail end of the picture with no real justification) led Cronenberg to explore that juxtaposition in VIDEODROME. And while it may be easy to see the film as a criticism of the media’s exploitation of sex and violence to entice viewers, Cronenberg is more complex than that. He doesn’t really take a stand for or against it. While our hero Max Renn glibly defends his TV station’s programming as catharsis for viewers who can’t turn to the real world to vent their subconscious (interesting, given that the Videodrome signal breaks down the barrier between TV and the “real“ world and unleashes that catharsis across what becomes a false boundary), he is also depicted as a total sleaze, so it’s hard to take his explanation at face value.

But Cronenberg himself, outside of the film, has long used a potent mix of eroticism and brutality as the materials with which he crafts his films. Whether it’s the murderous hedonism of SHIVERS, porn star Marilyn Chambers spreading violent madness in RABID or the car accident fetishism of CRASH, Cronenberg has long embraced the taboo duo of sex and violence in his work. So it’s not a blanket condemnation of the raw materials he’s engaging in, but a criticism of intent. In the film, witnessing extreme violence makes the viewer more open to receiving the Videodrome signal, and thus easier for Convex’s team to control or subdue. Cronenberg isn’t asking the viewer to eschew the primal pleasure that comes from viewing sex and violence, but to question why it’s being presented; to, again, seize autonomy and control your programming.

So, yeah. This is a heavy flick. Deals with some weighty issues. But it’s also wildly entertaining. VIDEODROME handles its subject matter with a fair dose of wit and satire. While it’s ultimately a grim parable, James Woods’ high-energy performance rockets the movie along at a brisk pace. With an actor even a slight bit more leaden than Woods, the film would slow to a crawl and collapse under its own weight. Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand delivers a memorable performance that would never lead you to believe that she was a relative newcomer to acting. It’s one of the few believable “rock star-to-actor” transitions you’ll see. Cronenberg effectively captures the scenes of S&M between Woods and Harry with the right combination of disturbing frankness and eroticism, while Rick Baker’s effects work ratchets up the film’s increasingly surreal tone. (Never before has a TV cabinet been more sexual!) Some of the film’s visuals—particularly the flesh-gun that Woods’ hand becomes—evoke the nightmarish visions of H.R. Giger. It is one of the few movies that would play just as well at MOMA or in some grindhouse theater of years gone by. It’s a masterpiece from one of the cinema’s most accomplished directors. It is not to be missed.

But be careful. It bites.

Long live the new flesh.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Take a Savage Journey with Blast-Off Burlesque and the Plaza Theatre as TABOO LA-LA presents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

Posted on: Sep 17th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LApresents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998); Dir. Terry Gilliam; Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro; Saturday, September 28 @ 10 p.m. (pre-show cocktails at 9 p.m.); Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s time for Blast-Off Burlesque to tempt us with TABOO LA-LA at the Plaza Theatre! This time we venture into Bat Country with Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

It’s easy to celebrate Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for all the wrong reasons. FAR too many people see him only as a caricature: senses blazingly altered by some high-octane combination of hard drugs and bourbon, firing his guns at anything that dares blink in and out of his peripheral vision and ranting unintelligibly at imaginary phantasms. For these people, he’s become a counterculture hero not because of his accomplishments or the words he’s written, but because of a persona.

Sure, it’s a persona that he called into existence and encouraged to a large extent. Why? Because, goddammit, you need a larger-than-life personality to stand up next to those works of his. You can’t be some milquetoast beat reporter and deliver epic pieces of immersive journalism like “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” “Freak Power in the Rockies” or “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Nor can you be a typical Washington Beltway insider and compose the incredible series of articles that would eventually make up FEAR AND LOATHING: ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72, perhaps the greatest piece of political journalism ever written. No, you’ve got to be a daredevil. You’ve got to be a shaman, using sacramental substances to achieve the frenzied mental state needed to venture into the heart of darkness and divine the inner essence of a situation. You’ve got to be the kind of drug-crazed madman who is unafraid to sacrifice accuracy on the altar of journalism to summon forth the Elder Gods of Truth.

And if you’re not that person, then you need to invent that person and become that person.

Which brings us to Raoul Duke and his journey with his personal attorney, Doctor Gonzo, into the godforsaken land of Las Vegas in 1971—the story of which would become Hunter S. Thompson’s landmark novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM.

Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp find FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Thompson’s tale is actually a portmanteau of two trips into the desert city with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, lawyer and Chicano activist. The first was intended to be a retreat for the two of them to discuss an article Thompson was writing about the death of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar. Thompson used an invitation from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to write a series of photo captions about the Mint 500 motorcycle race as an excuse, and the two of them descended onto the city.

250 words. That’s all they wanted.

Instead, he spent 36 hours straight, “feverishly writing in my notebook,” describing the pair’s wild adventures in Las Vegas and creating the expansive first part of the novel. And then, after the insane experience they undertook, they went back. Thompson took an assignment from ROLLING STONE to report on the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs held a few weeks later in Vegas, and further explored an idea that manifested during the first trip: that the rebellion of the 1960s had failed, and that the American Dream was now manifest in the crass, loud and materialistic oasis of Las Vegas.

Thompson combined the two trips into one story, which ROLLING STONE published as a two-part serial illustrated by Ralph Steadman, and which was later compiled into a novel. In creating what he admitted was “an essentially fictional framework,” Thompson assigned himself and Acosta pseudonyms: Raoul Duke (a nom de plume frequently used by Thompson and originally used as his byline for the ROLLING STONE serialization) and Doctor Gonzo. As for the book itself, it’s hard to say how much of what is written about is strictly accurate. It’s easy to say that the whole thing is true. What may have appeared at first as a wacky drug-fueled adventure turned into a work mournful of the failure of the ‘60s revolution, furious at the insane excess of artifice and celebration of the futile pursuit of money that is Las Vegas, and aghast that Vegas survived the revolution to stand in representation of the American Dream.

For years, the thing was regarded as being as unfilmable as NAKED LUNCH. Surreal, hallucinatory and depicting any number of illegal and violent acts by its protagonists, it just seemed to be too much to exist on a movie screen. Sure, they tried. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone both gave it a shot, but only one movie wound up being made in the wake of those early efforts. WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (which attempted to shoehorn “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” and LAS VEGAS into one movie) starred Bill Murray, and was widely panned, particularly by Thompson himself. He praised Murray’s performance, but said the movie was saddled with “a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script.”

A direct adaptation eluded filmmakers for years, but that ended in 1998. After Rhino Films went through protracted tangling with director Alex Cox (whose screenplay Thompson viscerally hated), Terry Gilliam was brought on board to helm the film adaptation of the novel, and his surreal vision was a perfect match for the material. Though Gilliam had never used drugs, he researched the effects of all the chemicals used by the characters to create a series of visual effects that would mirror how the drugs would have affected their perception. The end result, while not exactly matching the horrifically ugly darkness of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, stands on its own as a fully-formed take on Thompson’s subject matter.

Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro were cast as Duke and Gonzo, respectively, and both underwent extensive preparation for their roles. Del Toro gained 45 pounds and immersed himself in studying the life of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Johnny Depp spent four months living with Thompson at his Woody Creek ranch. Depp assembled his wardrobe from Thompson’s clothes of the time, wore a pendant of Thompson’s that was a gift from Acosta, and shaved his head in imitation of Thompson’s own male pattern baldness. The research and work paid off in spades. Depp and del Toro inhabit their roles perfectly. While they may come across as slightly cartoonish exaggerations of both Thompson and Acosta, it must be remembered that the Duke and Gonzo of the novel are slightly cartoonish exaggerations of Thompson and Acosta.

More gonzo antics by Depp and Del Toro in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Terry Gilliam stated that he wanted the film to be polarizing—that he wanted it to be known as both the greatest and worst film of all time. And, thusly, it sharply divided critics: it currently holds a 50% average on the review aggregator ROTTENTOMATOES.com. Meanwhile, the film was a huge commercial failure. Filmgoers wanting to see the handsome Depp and del Toro got presented with a pair that were deliberately ugly. Filmgoers wanting to see a modern drug comedy wound up with something less a comedy and more a tragedy. And filmgoers wanting to see the Thompson perpetuated by DOONESBURY’s Uncle Duke character (and practically every other mass media depiction of the author) wound up with the only-slightly-fictionalized Thompson of the book, which is far closer to Thompson the man than Thompson the caricature.

Thankfully, due to home video releases, the film has built up a large, faithful audience, and it’s that crowd which is invited to the Plaza Theatre as Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LA brings us a screening of Gilliam’s adaptation. The pre-show kicks off at 9 p.m. with complimentary cocktails served up in the lobby, and then things kick into high gear with a live stage show from Blast-Off Burlesque featuring special guests Tom Jones, Elvis (somehow I’m guessing that these might not be the actual Tom Jones and Elvis) and Batastic. There will also be a Gonzo Costume contest and an Ether Walk contest with prizes from Libertine and the Cherry Blossom Salon, as well an art display of Lucy’s Barbara Streisand portraits! So come down and enjoy one of the greatest films of the 1990s while celebrating Hunter S. Thompson for all the right reasons.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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