The Disc Jockey 

Technological terror, downloaded desire and futuristic fantasy inform a quartet of recent releases about man and machine

Technological terror, downloaded desire and futuristic fantasy inform a quartet of recent releases about man and machine

One of the most perverse and provocative films ever released by a major studio, David Cronenberg's thriller Videodrome bewildered audiences and critics when it was dumped into theaters in 1983. It played only a week at the old Capri Twin in Harding Mall, and the film burned up during a late show. As pustules of burning nitrate erupted onscreen, viewers looked around as if to say, "Is this part of the movie?"

Their confusion was understandable. On an outstanding new Criterion 2-disc edition of Videodrome, Cronenberg says he eschewed technical gimmicks to make the movie's gruesome hallucinations seem as real as a waking nightmare. The result is deliberately disorienting, a surreal exploration of high-tech voyeurism, shape-shifting sexuality, the deranging effects of new media and the politics of porn. Videodrome stiffed in theaters, but like its antihero—a cable-TV hustler (James Woods) who falls prey to a snuff channel's hallucination-inducing mind-control signal—it went on to a new life on television.

Woods gives a typically electric performance as Max Renn, a Canadian cable entrepreneur who discovers an oddly alluring transmission of graphic torture and sadism. The more Renn and his lover (played by Blondie's Deborah Harry at her kinkiest) tune in, the more the signal triggers warping effects in their minds and bodies: in one agonizing sequence, the lovers enact an erotic rite of ear-piercing by the firelight glow of satellite snuff. Soon body modification is no longer a kick: Renn sprouts a sort of vaginal VCR in his stomach that fuses the organic and synthetic.

Videodrome advances many of Cronenberg's ever-present themes: the ongoing war between mind and flesh, the evolving fusion of humanity and technology, the revolting/revolutionary power of transgressive sex. ("Sex is the invention of a clever venereal disease," goes a saying in Cronenberg's early feature They Came from Within, and Videodrome's initials are no accident.) Seen now on DVD, in better condition than its initial release, the movie amounts to a scrapbook of obsolete technology in the service of ideas that remain prescient, even visionary. Atari controllers and the VCR—Beta, at that—represent the cutting edge, while the movie's ever-present televisions look like Classic Macs tuning in a moon broadcast.

But Cronenberg's black-comic take on the intrusive, reality-scrambling role of TV anticipates shows like Survivor by two decades, and ideas that seemed far-out 20 years ago—such as broadcast signals used to mask a hidden agenda—aren't unlike the invisible information-gathering now used by Internet providers and cable companies. Cronenberg later directed a nervy, impressive adaptation of Naked Lunch, but in this film's witty, splattery, sploogy excesses—flesh guns that fire cancer bullets, the VHS-compatible labia—Videodrome somehow seems more Burroughsian.

The care Criterion has put into its Videodrome edition starts with the packaging, designed to resemble a bootleg VHS tape. (The same wit extends to the menus: a sampling of raw footage comes with a guarantee that the Videodrome signal has been carefully removed.) An entire second disc of bonuses includes a 26-minute roundtable with Cronenberg and fellow horror directors John Landis and John Carpenter from 1983; the unedited "Samurai Dreams" soft-core porn video that appears in the film; and the movie's various trailers, among them an animated international clip that's one of the most bizarre promotional items ever devised.

Best of all is the commentary by Cronenberg, whose tracks on previous discs have been uniformly excellent. No reticent artiste, the director dishes engaging specifics about the actors and crew, unpacks his themes and technique, and even explains the movie's famously ambiguous closing line, "Long live the new flesh." A second commentary track by Woods and Harry confirms that the director's sets are as relaxed and playful as his films are dark.

After hours in his uncomfortable latex stomach vagina, Woods grumbled that he'd ceased to be an actor, just "the bearer of the slit." Retorted Harry: "Now you know what it's like."

There is irony in preserving a tale of home entertainment run amok on the shiniest, glossiest home-entertainment format currently available. That only proves Videodrome was ahead of its time, and may prove to be ahead of ours. "Twenty years later, I'm still thinking about what transpired in Videodrome," James Woods says. Long live the new flesh.

—Jim Ridley

Olivier Assayas' Demonlover, which did pretty well for a polyglot 18-and-up subtitled art flick when it played locally at the Belcourt last Halloween, is several different creatures at once. First and foremost, it is a thriller of espionage and uncertainty, though it is equally effective as a Twilight Zone-like satirical shocker and a video-game adaptation (even if it isn't directly based on a video game). Much of Demonlover deals with pornography, but not just the glimpses of hentai we see at the movie's TokyoAnime offices or the film that fascinates leads Connie Nielsen and Charles Berling separately in their respective Tokyo hotel rooms. The world this film inhabits is fetishized with the porn of success: private jets, the freshest fruit, limo rides with stocked bars, the latest breed of cell phones and palm-sized DV cameras.

It isn't a new thesis that power and money, in extreme doses, lead to extreme habits. Pasolini delivered a fairly definitive statement on the subject with Salo, as did good old Aristide (Joe d'Amato) Massacessi with Emanuelle in America. And Emanuelle in America, so the legend goes, begat Videodrome, and from there we dabble in some of David Lynch's pair of psychogenic fugues (Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive). These form the skeleton around which Assayas' film grows: an intersection between the degradation of the individual by an established industry and a vast conspiracy intertwined with the depiction of sadistic violence.

As an attempt to get at the fragmented nature of modern life, Demonlover is spot-on, illustrating the way that much of modern thought moves in expansive leaps rather than in linear progression (much like the difference between analog and digital sound). It is certainly one of the first films to comment on the way that DVD has changed the relationship between film and audience, as anyone with a remote can now unmake aspects of films, dive deeper into them, reshape their context, or just leave them sitting on the shelf in their appropriately fetishized boxes—just like the lovely ladies currently featured on the movie's interactive torture site, the Hell Fire Club. In accordance with Assayas' expressed wishes, Demonlover is eerily relevant to how life is right now. It haunts, thrills, and acquires you; it's a shiny baubled collection of snapshots from right now, and, miracle of miracles, a film that digs into the soft flesh of the brain and stays there in the hippocampus, where nightmares live and fever dreams flourish.

Palm Pictures' initial DVD release of the film earlier this year featured several interviews with Assayas and his three leads and a great presentation of the film in its "R-rated" cut. There has been some controversy about what a complete version of this film should look like and how long it should run: when the film premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, it was 129 minutes long and presented in a "mostly finished" version. Director Assayas trimmed about 14 minutes from the film (mostly the Hell Fire Club sequences) and released the film internationally in the version on the U.S. R-rated disc. This version features optical pixellation or blurring on the film's graphic excerpts of hentai and pornography—but as these sequences occur during the film's scenes in Japan, where pixellation of hardcore material is enforced, the blurring is appropriate. However, the new "director's cut" presents these sequences unpixellated. It does not restore the material deleted between the film's Cannes premiere and its European release, though it features much of the deleted Hell Fire Club sequence as an easter egg.

The new deluxe set also features a 6.1 EX-surround mix that is among the finest I've ever had the joy of experiencing. Between the enervating and unsettling Sonic Youth score and the meticulous sound design, this is a demo disc for home theatres if ever I've seen one. Also, there's a great documentary on Sonic Youth and the recording of the film's score on Disc 2 that is essential for any of the band's fans, and the behind-the-scenes and making-of footage offer precious glimpses into the creative process of such a deliriously strange and maddening vision. There's also an interview with Assayas following the film's American premiere that is quite enlightening.

The only thing missing from this set is the Assayas commentary found on the film's French DVD, though it is of no use to non-French speakers. (A word of advice to someone who thought my high-school-and-cursory arthouse-viewing French could help me figure out what was being said in the commentary: it doesn't.) Still, along with the Criterion Videodrome, this is the go-to DVD for film freaks and freaks in general in the current marketplace.

—Jason Shawhan

♦ When I was six, my parents chose the night before a family vacation to watch a TV movie called Duel. Bad idea. It's the story of a lonesome desert traveler (Dennis Weaver) who picks up an unwanted companion: a menacing 18-wheeler that engages him in a hair-raising game of cat and mouse. Whether the movie had inspired every trucker on the road to drive like a Peterbilt predator, or simply made us all exceedingly paranoid about our fellow travelers, we spent the long ride on the interstate white-knuckled, peering anxiously out the windows.

Duel would have vanished like the vast majority of movies ground out round the clock for 1970s network TV, but for two reasons. One, the largely wordless movie remains the last word in motorized terror, expertly pitting the unstoppable mechanized hulk of the truck against Weaver's tiny car for comically giddy thrills. Two—and this explains the first—the director was 24-year-old Steven Spielberg, who used the film as his stepping stone to...well, you know.

The single-disc Duel special edition has been a long time coming—the supplements carry a 2001 copyright—but it's worth the wait. In place of a commentary, there's a triptych of featurettes by Laurent Bouzereau, the king of the DVD supplement, that renders the standard yak track irrelevant. The making-of doc is unusually illuminating, with a jovial Spielberg offering a crash course in fast, cheap action filmmaking. (To create the illusion that a truck is moving fast, Spielberg advises, just shoot it from a low angle or against the cliff walls that speed by.)

There's also a fascinating feature covering Spielberg's TV career, from a Joan Crawford episode of Night Gallery to the very first Columbo episode (see "Remote Control"), as well as a talk with horror/sci-fi legend Richard Matheson, who provided the lean, muscular script and the ingenious man-vs.-machine central concept. Just as noteworthy (if irritatingly skimpy on extras) is the concurrent release of Spielberg's criminally underrated theatrical debut, 1973's The Sugarland Express, a tragicomic road movie with a gritty texture unlike anything else in the director's portfolio—except for Duel.

♦ Kristin Gore, the daughter of former Vice President Al Gore, was in town this week to promote her comic novel Sammy's Hill. Normally, that wouldn't sound too enticing—anybody catch the Bush girls' stand-up act at the Republican convention?—but Gore honed her chops as a story editor for one of the funniest and sharpest TV shows of the past decade, Futurama. Squandered by Fox in a fluctuating time slot before creator Matt Groening's other show, The Simpsons, the animated sci-fi sitcom never found the audience it deserved on network TV. It wasn't until the Cartoon Network began airing its reruns that the show's popularity exploded—long after the series had been canceled.

With the show's fourth and final season now available in a beautifully designed, fittingly elaborate DVD package, Futurama can now been seen on disc in its entirety. And it's marvelous—densely imagined in every throwaway detail of 30th-century life, genuinely speculative (thanks to a phalanx of science-geek writers, whose arcane in-jokes are the treat of the commentary tracks), and poignant in the manner of the early Simpsons. Indeed, the show's fourth season matches that of The Simpsons, then arguably at its creative peak, for comic invention tinged with melancholy.

Thus the new set includes belly-laugh wonders like "The Why of Fry" and "Where No Fan Has Gone Before"—the ultimate (one hopes) in Star Trek fanaticism—alongside episodes as wrenching as "The Sting" and "Jurassic Bark." (The latter, about whether to clone the protagonist Fry's fossilized mutt, ends in a coda that affects most fans as emotional trauma.) It also includes a cameo by Gore's dad in a priceless storyline involving the power-crazed head of President Richard Nixon.

As with The Simpsons, the episodes actually improve with repeat viewings, as the characters, the plot threads, and Groening's bittersweet satiric vision take hold. And like The Simpsons, it's far funnier to watch than describe. Both reasons make DVD the ideal format for Futurama, allowing viewers to savor favorite episodes and scan backgrounds that teem with throwaway gags and ingenious flourishes. Most sci-fi shows date on arrival; Futurama is one for the time capsule.

—Jim Ridley


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