Monday, April 27, 2009

Definitely Not For Public Consumption

North America’s getting soft, Patron, and it’s certainly not helping that we now have a VIDEODROME remake to dread. It was just announced, or maybe I should say threatened, by Universal. Is there even a reason for this? Is this really a title that has any market value? Has the original film even gone into profit? I can’t write about every pointless remake that gets announced just like I can’t write an obit for every notable person who dies. It’s just too demoralizing by a certain point. But this one seems worth a mention not just because of the absurdity of the whole thing but because it almost seems to cross a line in the question of why some people seem to feel that these remakes are necessary anyway. Without David Cronenberg, what exactly are you remaking? And yes, I’m very aware that even he directed a remake, THE FLY, and it was the biggest box office hit he ever had. What he brought to that film made it totally valid. According to Variety, this new remake “will modernize the concept, infuse it with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.” Which of course is just what everyone always felt was missing from the original version of VIDEODROME. Back in ’03 when Variety ran an announcement that another remake of THE FLY was happening (fortunately, it never did) it quoted the would-be director who shall go unnamed (just like I’m avoiding naming the scribe behind the new VIDEODROME) as asking in regards to his big plan for the movie, “Why, in both films did the fly never fly?” Now, ask yourself, was that something that troubled you after viewing the Cronenberg version? Do you really consider that to be a notable omission? And did you ever wonder why VIDEODROME didn’t have more car chases?

The story of cable TV station manager Max Renn (James Woods) and the mysterious signal he stumbles across, VIDEODROME barely played two weeks when it was released at the beginning of 1983, though its influence has undeniably rippled through the years. Some people love it, some despise it (“I can’t cope with the freaky stuff”) and some acknowledge what it is going for, yet still don’t think it works. That’s the thing. VIDEODROME, just like what he did with his version of THE FLY, is such a product of the mind of David Cronenberg that it can’t be remade. Not unless that remake was being created by a filmmaker willing to put their creative self as much on the line, which would of course turn it into something else altogether. And then it wouldn’t be VIDEODROME. It’s what separates the sort of person who would make VIDEODROME in the first place from someone who decides to remake it for reasons that, money aside, totally escape me (“It has something that you don’t have. It has a philosophy.”). If it’s just money, I don’t want to know. If it’s something else, I still don’t want to know.

I’m not saying that VIDEODROME is the director’s masterwork (that might be DEAD RINGERS) but it definitely stands apart as a key work in his career, one that acted as a bridge between the lower-budget genre films he was making before (there’s a vague early 80s Avco-Embassy feel to some of the setup) and his later work which would see him going further and deeper than it is normally felt that one can go in what are usually thought of as ‘horror movies’. The film had a protracted production and post-production process as the director tried to figure out the story he was trying to tell and it’s sometimes difficult to ignore the paths the movie chooses not to go down (Deborah Harry is the female lead, then she disappears. So what really is the nature of her role?), particularly because a number of the official stills that have always been out there are of scenes that do not appear in the final cut. The film’s refusal to help you along in that sense, to be what you think it will be, even what you may want it to be, adds immeasurably to repeat viewings. I can remember long ago watching a rental copy of the film twice over one day, almost as if I was trying to figure out, what is this movie, really? What is it trying to say? What in it is real and what is just a hallucination? Is any of it real? Is there any difference? That compulsive desire continues to this day still with the occasional viewing as I find myself pondering the journey of Max Renn, thinking more about how the world has caught up with this tale and maybe even surpassed it (still, to hell with “modernizing the concept”). Of course, I look forward to the odd bits of dialogue throughout (“You know me.” “Yeah, we know you.”) and no matter what I always finding myself laughing when James Woods takes a moment to try on a pair of glasses at Spectacular Optical and looks exactly like David Cronenberg. That right there probably says more than I’ve ever fully realized.

Maybe this announcement of a remake is somehow meant to be. It’s simply part of the evolution that VIDEODROME--loved and hated, admired and despised--was supposed to go through (“You’ve gone just about as far as you can with the way things are”). More than ever, those who care will know to seek out the correct film and they’re the ones who will be willing to listen to what it has to say. Still, the idea of a remake—and we can always hope it still doesn’t happen--makes me wonder how I’m supposed to feel about the films that get made today. Do I really want to pay money for these things? Do I want to spend my time seeing them? Will I someday wind up going to films solely at the likes of the Egyptian and the New Beverly in search of something that I know won’t just consist of empty calories? Maybe this is my own form of mutation, just like in the film (“You’ll see that you’ve become something quite different from what you were”), and I’m splitting off from the type of person that would ever defend remaking this film or for a second consider viewing it. It’s a rationalization, it’s an attempt to understand someone who thinks so differently from the way I do. It may be the truth.

Long live the New Flesh…I hope.


Sinaphile said...

As ALWAYS, sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar. I *love* this piece...Couldn't agree with you more...

Unknown said...

I agree, it touches some sort of nerve to think that this of all movies would get developed to be remade.

Revisiting the film again recently left me impressed at how counter intuitively the story plays out. At first you expect it's going to be some moral statement on violence in the media and then it becomes something so wildly different. It's a deeply provocative movie, and one of the most unique in its genre. Why it seems so crazy to remake it I think is because there's a quality to the film that is so obviously personal. It's as if you heard BLUE VELVET was being remade. It's not that the world doesn't need another remake, it's that these texts get their power from being so clearly from their makers versus a movie that broke through with a great genre idea or something. I mean, what is the concept of VIDEODROME? Part of the point of the film is to never be able to answer that question.

As you know, the back story of how the film was made goes a long way to explain why it's so unusual. Cronenberg improvised much of it. At that time in his career, when he finally had the chance to go really far with an idea because he was trusted made for this brilliant film that just poured forth these stunning ideas. It was this great voice in cinema for the first time, in this uncensored arena. There would seem to be so little correlation to the way films get made now. The original is unfinished feeling in the way that a thought might be. But no one was being asked to finish that thought -- the gift is the moment, preserved for us. And that's why the things that are dated in VIDEODROME (the technology) have become this remarkable gift to it.

Cronenberg would make more fully realized movies later on, but I still think this is his best, because it explodes forth in a way that is entirely unique to its own closed system. Maybe someone feels they can sell the title again. But there's got to be some other movie for these brain dead executives to remake. Didn't they even watch the movie and see what happens to suits? As Max Wrenn says before he blows Barry Convex away: "Death to VIDEODROME!"

Ed Howard said...

This is one of Cronenberg's very best two or three films, right up there at the top. Nicholas is right that a big part of what makes it special is how fluidly the whole premise of the film shifts over its length; the audience is dragged in right along with the protagonist. It's a powerful film, and there are so many images from it I'll never be able to forget. They're seared into my brain as though Debbie Harry had placed that cigarette right against my gray matter.

I can't imagine the logic for a remake, since it's not like most people are even aware this movie exists. It sounds like it'll be an entirely unconnected film anyway. Whatever, I'll just steadfastly ignore it and rewatch Cronenberg's original -- and maybe, best case scenario, this will draw new attention to Cronenberg's film.

Unknown said...

As we all know, Hollywood is littered with unrealized projects that are announced and then never happen for whatever reason. I sure hope this happens to this one.

I would definitely agree with Ed that VIDEODROME is among Cronenberg's best and is eerily prescient in that it anticipates the torture porn sub-genre and, to a certain degree, reality TV. I also love that Cronenberg doesn't hide the fact that he shot in Toronto. I get wistful every time I see shots of the ol' TTC streetcars whizzing by and, of course, Max Renn's TV station is a reference to CITY-TV in Toronto.

I remember picking up Criterion's excellent deluxe edition of this film (the packaging esp. is fantastic) and really enjoyed watching the film again after years of not seeing it. It still holds up, IMO and definitely does not need to be remade.

Thomas Pluck said...

It's too bad they didn't remake this in the early 90's, so we could see them jam a 3.5" floppy into his belly.
Now we're gonna see an iPod Touch in his navel. I foresee lots of jump cuts to crazy flickering shots of the actor going crazy to show the split between reality and fantasy.

The Mad Doctor said...

For what it's worth, VIDEODROME fanatics should know you can see several additional scenes that aren't in the theatrical cut, including more Debbie Harry, if you track down a copy of the "TV cut". Of course this extra footage was cut out for a reason, but it's still interesting to watch if you're a fan.

There's some bootlegs out there that are composites of the unrated and TV versions, adding about 15 mins to the overall running time.

You can see the radically different opening/closing credit sequences here:

Anonymous said...

It's instructive as to how the town's marketing madness presupposes that a film that died at the box-office has "brand" value. VIDEODROME is in a lot of ways my favorite Cronenberg and IMHO the one most representative of his work and bio-metaphysics. And an iconic James Woods performance.

Anonymous said...

The first thing that came into my mind was that infamous interview with Cronenberg on MTV Europe.

That stupid asshole from MTV (excuse my language) hated Cronenberg very obviously - and also admitted it later..

And what did David? He played that guy like a devil's harp and enjoyed every second of it!

No, you can't fuck up art by a genius - even if you try to remake it out of idiocy and greed.


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks to everyone for the impassioned comments. I love learning how much this film means to other people. It makes me think that it will stay alive no matter what happens.

Anonymous said...

"Videodrome" is a brilliant film. It boggles the mind that someone, anyone (least of all a major studio) would try to remake it. Then again, it such an outlandish, insane (& stupid) idea that I applaud the decision. I see Shia LeBeouf in the James Woods role.

"Come to Nikki."

- Bob

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

If only the insanity inherent in the idea could produce something worth seeing. My guess is that it'll just be dull. I wonder how close the reality will come to your casting idea.

PIPER said...

So are you mutating right now?

It's an interesting idea that the film Videodrome could mutate into something else. That would have been an interesting trilogy with Cronenberg at the helm.

Cronenberg was originally to direct Total Recall with Richard Dreyfus in the lead and I always thought that would have been interesting to get his take on that.

But all that aside, I'm not surprised by this news. Videodrome and eXistenZ both have been way ahead of their time. And now that their messages have ultimately come to fruition, they will get remade. It's an easy decision for a greenlighter to make, plus it makes him/her look like a cinephile that they would ultimately know that Videodrome exists.

But, like you said, there's really no remaking this. Not in the true sense. They'll call it a "re-imagining" which is the biggest piece of bullshit I've ever heard.

The remake won't creep like the original. It was the creep that made this film. But with action and car sequences it will be the Paul Verehoven version of Total Recall, instead of Cronenberg's original vision.