• Cyrus Cohen

eXistenZ, Videodrome, and the Panic of Penetration

[Editor’s Note: The following essay contains spoilers for both eXistenZ and Videodrome.]

David Cronenberg’s filmography operates within a multiplicity of genres, including but not limited to science fiction, horror, romance, action-thrillers, and historical fiction. Despite his frequent genre hybridity, his idiosyncratic use of body horror ties much of his filmography together. Two of his films, Videodrome and eXistenZ, specifically operate within the science-fiction genre and the cyborg cycle, yet subtly so. While many film-goers associate the aesthetics of the cyborg film with such mechanized and futuristic designs as those seen in RoboCop or The Terminator, Cronenberg’s cyborgs are more subversive in design. The MetaFlesh Game-Pods, UmbyCords and Bio-Ports in eXistenZ connect human video game players to the cybernetic world, facilitating a mechanization of the organic body. In Videodrome, Max Renn’s status as a cyborg is less obvious. After viewing a television series entitled Videodrome, he begins “hallucinating” that a long cavern has opened up in his abdomen. He places a pistol inside his body and, later, two men insert videocassette tapes into it that control his mind. The fusion of the artificial and the organic in Max’s body positions him firmly within the cyborg cycle even though he doesn’t visually align with conventions surrounding the cinematic cyborg. The mutability of the cinematic cyborg is one of the largest reasons why Sue Short rejected ascribing a generic framework to the cyborg film and instead refers to it as a cycle. Her book "Cyborg Cinema" is the leading scholarly work on the application of cyborgs within science-fiction filmmaking and she, in a chapter on postmodernism, discusses the apoliticization of the postmodern cyborg. I would argue that where other science fiction filmmakers working within the confines of postmodernism and the cyborg cycle avoid political analysis, Cronenberg embraces it through his use of highly gendered and inherently transgressive body horror to critique and question issues such as excessive violence in media, societal overstimulation, and sexism.

While eXistenZ lacks the bodily distortion and gore that are popular in many of Cronenberg’s other films, including Videodrome, the machines that connect its human characters to cyberspace heavily embody this grotesqueness and extend body horror to non-human entities as well. The film introduces us to Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a game designer, and Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee turned bodyguard, escaping her most recent product unveiling after an assassination attempt. In order to guarantee that her new game, entitled eXistenZ, wasn’t damaged in the shooting, she and Pikul must play it. The narrative continues as Allegra and Ted play the game, coming into contact with futuristic and horrific video game consoles as well as a group of anti-game activists referred to as “realists” who try to stop them. In one scene early on in the film, they visit Allegra’s friend and co-worker at Antenna Research—the company behind eXistenZ—named Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm). There they find safety and someone who can repair Allegra’s damaged Game-Pod. The scene showing Vinokur fixing the machine more closely resembles depictions of surgery in medical dramas than a technological repair. Pikul even says, “Looks like an animal in there. Feels like you’re operating on someone’s pet dog," while the dissection proceeds. Vinokur reveals that the game pods are actually animalistic in both design and genesis. Having been grown from amphibian eggs and synthetic DNA, this human-machine interface is much more human than machine. The operation scene closely parallels a later moment in which Pikul butchers a frog, pulling out its organs in a strikingly similar manner to Kiri removing the damaged components of Allegra’s Game-Pod (the repair of the Game-Pod is actually even bloodier and more stomach-churning than the frog dissection).

Later in the film, Allegra Geller has an uncontrollable urge to port into a shriveled, diseased pod despite the obvious risks. She immediately begins feeling ill and Pikul decides to cut the UmbyCord, hoping that will cure her. Allegra’s blood flows rapidly out of the cord like a severed artery while Yevgeny Nourish, a double agent working with Antenna Research’s main competitor, burns the diseased pod with a flamethrower and releases deadly purple spores from it into the air. The many concurrent images of violence and bodily repulsion make the scene physically uncomfortable for an audience, regardless of how squeamish they usually may be. Upon returning to what they believe is the real world, Allegra notices that her pod has gotten diseased due to Pikul’s infected bio-port. The diseased Game-Pod appears identical to the one seen earlier, but in this scene the audio plays a greater role in expressing its grotesque discomfort, repulsing and physically disturbing Cronenberg’s spectators. Cronenberg utilizes a multiplicity of cinematic sensory stimuli—visual, auditory, tactile—to instill a sense of anxiousness, bodily discomfort, and horror in his audience.

Videodrome, on the other hand, chronicles the deterioration of Max Renn (James Woods) from exploitative and misogynistic businessman to monster. After watching a TV channel called Videodrome, he begins visualizing the distortion of his body and the objects around him. The most reoccurring example of this is a cavernous opening that emerges from Max’s abdomen. Somewhat vaginal in design, this hole is used by a group called Spectacular Optical to brainwash Max into furthering their interests and assassinating his co-workers. In one of the earliest scenes in the film, Max is asked in an interview why his TV Station, CIVIC-TV, promotes “soft-core pornography [and] hard-core violence.” He responds saying that he cares about these issues, so much in fact that he gives his viewers “a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations” and that “as far as [he’s] concerned that’s a socially positive act.” Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a fellow commentator, rebukes his statement saying that “we live in over-stimulated 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.”

This interview cuts to a clip of Videodrome that shows a man being electrocuted and flogged. Back at the studio, Max asks Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), the operator of CIVIC-TV’s satellite dish, when the plot will be introduced, to which he responds there is no plot. The connection between these two scenes is explicit and politically suggestive. Nicki’s comments on craving stimulation for the sake of it are perfectly exhibited by Videodrome’s senseless nature. Despite no narrative, Max becomes engrossed in these tapes of brutal violence. Bodily mutilation is depicted here in many varying forms, some of which are self-induced and pleasurable, whereas others are caused by an antagonistic force against the will of the cinematic subjects. Nicki’s masochistic tendencies contrast well with Max’s transformation into an embodiment of the grotesque. She’s seen asking Max to cut her shoulder and pierce her ear. She also, against his wishes, burns herself with a lit cigarette. Cronenberg introduces body horror in Videodrome through both realistic representations of consensual BDSM and the perverse and unethical projections others imagine when thinking about violence and sex.

As in eXistenZ, the technologies of Videodrome exhibit their own forms of body horror despite lacking a body. The videocassette tapes and televisions expand and bend as if breathing. These inanimate objects become humanized through their movement. In one instance, Max touches the TV and, in response, it initially appears to crack and then sprout vein-like embossments on the glass. After being programmed and controlled by Harlan and Spectacular Optical, Max pulls out a gun from his stomach that pierces his arm and mutates into an extension of his own body. In one of the film’s last sequences, Max turns against his programmers and murders the head of Spectacular Optical, Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson). After shooting him with his fused gun-hand, Convex’s body and organs begin to violently distort and expand, tearing apart his chest and skull in the process. Barry also becomes a cyborg of sorts after these bizarre bullets pierce his body and transform it into a bloody mess. The film’s conclusion shows Max staring into a television that shows him footage of himself preparing to commit suicide while proclaiming, “long live the new flesh.” As he pulls the trigger, the television unit erupts into a storm of human body parts. The anthropomorphism of these artificial structures contributes to the mutability of the cyborg cycle and to spectatorial anxieties about the potential threat of inanimate objects we once thought to be static and benign.

Videodrome begins with Max Renn and his colleagues deciding whether or not to air a television series featuring “oriental” soft-core pornography. Cronenberg begins his film with highly sexualized imagery, coding an audience to focus on these themes throughout the remaining eighty minutes. Max Renn is introduced as an insensitive and predatory masculine figure, seen inappropriately dismissing Nicki’s argument in an interview by asking her why she’s wearing such a “stimulating” dress if she’s against the overstimulation of society. He continues by flirting with her and asking her on a date despite their public and professional setting. He appears to be an embodiment of sexist entitlement and toxic masculinity. This interview concludes with Nicki being asked if Max is a “menace to society.” She responds by saying, “I’m not sure, but he’s definitely a menace to me.” Cronenberg constructs Max as an archetypal sexually-violent heterosexual man, so that his fall into gender inversion is all the more allegorically rife for analyses of sexism in our society and internalized homophobia.

By continually viewing Videodrome, Max’s body begins to seemingly distort. A perhaps hallucinated, perhaps real vaginal orifice emerges in Max’s abdomen. William Beard associates this moment in the film as a complete inversion of the gendered power structures established early in the film, writing “As Nicki is pierced, burnt, whipped; as [his assistant] Bridey (Julie Khaner) is viciously slapped; as [soft-core pornographer] Masha (Lynne Gorman) is gagged and whipped – and as Max has perpetrated all these things for, or as a by-product of, his own male sadistic pleasure – so is he invaginated, raped, manipulated, and programmed by sadistic males.” While Beard views Max’s bodily transformation as punitive for his sadistic or entitled nature, Max also finds a degree of strength through his physical evolution. After failing to kill Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits), a political rival to Spectacular Optical and the daughter of pop culture analyst Brian O'Blivion, she neutralizes his programming and turns him against Harlan and Convex. Max returns to Spectacular Optical where he pretends to have successfully murdered Bianca. Harlan inserts yet another tape into Max’s body, but finds that his arm is stuck inside Max. Harlan screams out as his hand starts bleeding. Max releases him arm, only for Harlan to discover that the flesh has been torn off and reduced to a bloody stump. Backing away from Max, coworkers at Spectacular Optical scream as they witness this horrific image and Harlan, inexplicably and ridiculously, explodes. This scene reflects masculine fears of the vagina dentata—Latin for toothed vagina—that was popularized in Hindu, Shinto and Māori folktales and marketed to modern audiences in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 film Teeth. Max’s transformation internally expresses fears of feminization and gender inversion, but also projects that onto others—both Harlan and cisgender, heterosexual male audience members—through the damage his yonic orifice causes.

While less consequential in the entirety of the film’s narrative than Max’s vaginal orifice in Videodrome, the bio-ports in eXistenZ also have sexual connotations, specifically when applied to Ted Pikul and other male game players. Early in the film, Allegra is shocked to discover that Ted hasn’t been fitted with a bio-port. His justification for his antiquated way of life is that he has a “phobia about having [his] body penetrated…surgically” This pause might incite a few laughs in the movie theatre, but it also codes the bio-ports with implicitly sexual connotations. While the design for Max’s abdominal orifice is rather vaginal, the bio-ports are smaller, perfectly round and positioned at the base of the individual’s back. The visual design associates it much closer with an anus and connects Ted’s comments with a fear of homosexual sex and sexuality. The varying forms of lubrication used before inserting the UmbyCord into the hole also associate the act of “jacking in” with anal sex. In his essay on eXistenZ and Spider, another Cronenberg film, Ernest Mathijs addresses the sexual tones of many scenes in eXistenZ, rather than solely analyzing visual cues. He argues that not only the design of the bio-ports, but scenes in “Gas’s gas station and Nader’s emporium [where characters jack in] overflow with sexual tension.” This combination of erotic tones with genitally evocative imagery codes eXistenZ as commentary on homosexuality, sexual violence, and homophobia more generally.

Videodrome and eXistenZ, while distinctly different in narrative, thematically and politically connect in many ways. Their concentration on body horror illuminates thematic questions that Cronenberg is posing on the overstimulation and violence present in media. His position as a filmmaker notable for crafting scenes of gory violence is mirrored in the occupations of both film’s protagonists. It seems extremely reflective for David Cronenberg to anchor these two films from the perspectives of Max Renn and Allegra Geller, creators and exhibitors of especially disturbing forms of media. Cronenberg has even gone so far as to refer to Videodrome as a “first-person film,” that “we get no information that Max doesn’t get himself.” By doing so, Cronenberg positions the audience in an empathetic position to his main character. Even if we don’t emotionally connect with Max personally or can’t physically comprehend his bodily and mental distortion, we witness the full trajectory of his character and relate to him as a result. By connecting us to Max through perspective, Cronenberg also ties us to his own experience as a filmmaker who utilizes graphic violence. In a collection of interviews by Chris Rodley entitled Cronenberg on Cronenberg, David Cronenberg reflects upon parallels between himself and Max as well as the actor who plays him, saying:

“Even though we don’t look alike, Jimmy Woods’s presence on the screen began to feel like a projection of me. It was exciting to find an actor who was my cinematic equal…. I suppose I have similarities to Max at that point, but then we start to diverge. That isn’t to say that I haven’t noticed that I’m attracted to images of sexual violence, and wonder what that means about myself, but I’m not Max.”

While Cronenberg rejects explicit comparison to Max, he acknowledges where they overlap. The topic of excessive violence in media is central in Cronenberg’s interview and it’s understandable why; the issue clearly implicates or exonerates him depending on the reading of his films. Is he reproducing or critiquing this brutal violence? There isn’t a clear answer, but by engaging with these topics as heavily as he is and by admitting his own culpability in these issues, he opens up Max Renn and Nicki Brand’s fictional debate to greater socio-political discourse in the real world.

The role of masculine inversion in Videodrome and eXistenZ addresses issues of sexism and homophobia in both the futuristic, cinematic world and our own. In Videodrome, Cronenberg begins with Max as the archetypal entitled male, yet over the course of the film, “all positions are inverted. The piercer is pierced, the wounder wounded, the phallic male invaginated." Writing what most viewers and authors want to say, but lack the gumption to, Steven Shaviro reflects upon Max’s transformation in his book Doom Patrol by saying, “You macho asshole, now you know what it’s like to be a cunt.” This metamorphosis from “macho asshole” to the “invaginated” echoes masculine entitlement to the female body, questioning how these privileged men would react when sexually assaulted and aggressively objectified the way women in our world are. While Max’s vaginal orifice and Ted’s bio-port might appear too ridiculous or disgusting for some viewers to relate them to the non-diegetic world, the association between them and realistic misogyny and homophobia plays a pivotal role in the politicization of Videodrome and eXistenZ.

Returning to Sue Short and the role of the cyborg in Videodrome and eXistenZ, these two films challenge her argument on the apoliticization of the postmodern cyborg text. Short states that:

“A fundamental flaw in postmodern discourse is the inability to conceive of any solutions for what is described as an apparently insoluble political system, having decisively foreclosed against the possibility of alternatives. Timothy Bewes has described the cynicism inherent within the discourse as melancholic, introspective and apolitical; arguing that its essential paradox: ‘much observed, and much lamented, is the obvious and ineradicable fact that postmodernity is itself a meta-narrative – a further peculiarity of which is that it appears to offer not an ideological basis for political activity, but rather the opposite, that is an ideological basis for refraining from political activity.’”

She relates the cyborg text to postmodernism because the two emerged simultaneously in the cultural sphere and contain similar concerns, including “the suggestion that an increasingly technologized environment is impacting upon subjectivity and the way in which we relate to the world.” Short argues that many of these films dabble with criticisms of capitalism and technological reliance, yet refuse to offer solutions, but Cronenberg strays from these “insoluble” political debates. Instead his films concentrate on more personal issues. Even when his films don’t explicitly label its topics as solvable or in need of solving, Cronenberg interrogates their impact on our lives and facilitates debate in and out of the theatre about sexism, homophobia, rape culture, and the media’s role within those issues. His use of body horror established him as a major filmmaker, yet he consistently reflects upon our culture of violence and how he’s played into that with such narratives as these. It would be far too reductive to suggest that Cronenberg offers a singular solution for the questions he poses, but by honoring and representing both sides of a debate—the creator of violence and the violated, the penetrator and the penetrated—he offers audiences the opportunity to apply their perspectives on these issues in their own lives, leaving the theatre with the potential and inspiration to instill constructive political thought in their communities and in themselves.