Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cronenberg and Cronenbergesque

Happy Halloween, everyone.

I watched a double feature of David Cronenberg's Videodrome and Ken Russell's Altered States on Saturday night, and I have a question for you:

Do I get more credit for watching these two seminal 1980s horror head trips as a double feature, than I lose credit for having never seen them before?

I was on a podcast back in August where Videodrome came up for discussion, and I had to admit I'd never seen it. I made a mental note to correct that as soon as possible (two-and-a-half months later, it turned out), and when I saw it was available for streaming on Netflix, I added it to our instant queue.

Altered States was not available for streaming, but I'd meant to see it for a lot longer than I'd meant to see Videodrome. So when I was looking for something scary to arrive for Halloween weekend, I bumped it up to the top of the queue without a second thought.

We might not have watched either if the evening had gone as originally planned. My wife and I have been talking about re-watching Poltergeist forever, and I actually borrowed it from the library last weekend as an option to watch on the projector setup. (See here for a fuller discussion of my projector weekend.) I know we'd talked about watching it in conjunction with Halloween, but I considered last weekend to be close enough, as many cinephiles theme their viewings for the entire month of October. But last weeked my wife wasn't into it, and this weekend, she expected we could find it for streaming on Netflix. I think it was once available, but not anymore.

She didn't initially seem interested in Videodrome because she thought she'd already seen it. However, when we were browsing through our instant queue, and she read the description, she decided it was Cronenberg's Scanners she'd already seen. So off we were on our Videodrome journey.

I have to say, I really dug this film. Just a quick plot summary for those of you not familiar with it: James Woods plays a sleazy co-owner of a small cable station that specializes in sex and violence, attempting to carve out a niche market that can keep it in business. He becomes fascinated with a pirated satellite signal of a show called Videodrome, which shows nothing but torture. He can't look away from it -- there's a reason that I won't go into here -- but he believes it to be a very convincing fake. Steadily he starts learning more about this underground property called Videodrome, that it's actually real, and that the sado-masochist he's just started sleeping with (a radio host played by Deborah Harry) wants to be on the show. As he becomes more and more obsessed with Videodrome, he starts hallucinating such things as his television coming alive -- pulsating like a living organism. And he starts getting warned away from the dangers of Videodrome, by a mysterious client, and by a pseudo-scientific organization that's testing the effects of the cathode ray on the human mind, run by a crackpot named Brian O'Blivion who appears only on video, never in person.

My mind feels a little thick this morning, and I'm not entirely happy with that synopsis, but let's proceed.

The movie was a revelation, especially for 1983. It's got incredible makeup effects (Rick Baker is and always has been a genius) and some terrifically trippy scenes of transmogrification. But what amazed me most is how much it seems to have anticipated the world in 2011. Not only does it seem to have a real understanding of the mindset of why people are so fascinated with reality television (a concept that was, at that point, a good decade away), but its handle on what fascinates us about torture seems to anticipate the torture porn subgenre in mainstream movies. (Which may have already run its course, but still qualifies as a "current" media issue.) The movie has a ton of interesting ideas about our inability to distinguish between real life and television imagery, including the idea that a television image may be more "real" than our real lives. (There's a logic behind it that I won't try to explicate here.) It's all founded on the idea that the cathode ray has an effect on our brain that makes our brain unable to differentiate, which certainly sounds plausible to me. Which makes some of the stuff that happens in this film all the more deliciously horrifying.

Also, Videodrome seemed a quintessential Cronenberg film in so many ways, its themes of transmogrification echoing in both films I've seen (Naked Lunch and The Fly) and films I haven't seen but know a bit about (eXistenZ).

Now, we'd thought Altered States was also David Cronenberg. It's right up his alley in terms of subject matter. However, it turns out that this film was directed by Ken Russell, a guy I know more for his interest in the psychosexual (Crimes of Passion, Whore and in a more genteel respect, Women in Love) than for heady philosophical ambitions related to perception and the capabilities of the human mind.

Altered States was not as satisfying for me, even though it's the film I've heard significantly more about. I should have known it was at least flawed, considering that the great Paddy Chayefsky adapted the screenplay from his own sci-fi novel -- but was disappointed enough in the results that he changed his writing credit to the pseudonym Sidney Aaron.

Altered States concerns a professor of abnormal psychology (William Hurt) who has been performing tests on students in which they are suspended in sensory deprivation tanks, using these experiments to test his theories on schizophrenia. When his curiosity gets the best of him upon hearing some of his subjects' feedback about their perceptual experiences, he tries his own turn in the deprivation tank and experiences a revelatory state of ecstasy. This starts him down a rabbit hole to push the envelope of his own perceptual capacity further and further. On a trip to Mexico, he sits in with a tribe of Indians and trips on their nearly toxic concoction involving hallucinogenic mushrooms (and who knows what else). When he takes this concoction back to his lab and combines it with the sensory deprivation tank, he regresses to a feral mental state that manifests itself in changes to his actual physical body.

This was another film that floored me for what it was capable of doing given the year (1980). The makeup effects by Dick Smith are quite good, but they probably did not strike me the way they would have had I not just watched the master Rick Baker at work in Videodrome (which includes seamless scenes of James Woods reaching inside his own stomach). The visual aspects of Altered States that really impressed me were the nightmarish montages William Hurt (in his first film role!) endures during his altered states of perception. They are like bad-trip music videos, and they are wonderfully creepy. However, I guess I'd say that I find that a bit less impressive than the hallucinations in Videodrome, in terms of their ability to disturb me and in terms of their technical achievements. Whereas the hallucinatory world suffuses the action in Videodrome, such that Woods is interacting with a TV screen that seems to actually be bulging outward into the physical environment, much of the cool visual stuff in Altered States exist within the separate space of montage. That doesn't make it any less frightening -- in fact, I found it quite frightening. But I was a little less impressed, because I'd just seen something that struck me as much harder to pull off in the other movie.

What's really impressive about Altered States is how much it's willing to "go there" in a mainstream film. The ideas in this film can truly be disturbing at times -- in fact, they seem to have disturbed Chayevsky a little too much. Part of the reason he disavowed himself from it, according to wikipedia, had to do with the "intensity of the performances." That could be a jab at Russell for not reigning in his actors, or it could just be that this was his only way to describe how unsettled the film had made him -- so unsettled that he felt he didn't want to be associated with it any more than he already had been.

I'd also guess that my appreciation of Altered States, while still quite high, was affected a little bit by the fact that I couldn't watch the whole thing on Saturday night. Stupidly ambitious, I started watching it at just before midnight (my wife didn't participate because she'd already seen it). I made it about a half-hour before deciding I needed to take one of my patented late-night naps -- you know, sleep for a bit and then continue watching at 2 a.m. or something. It actually worked out, but after another half-hour or so of watching, my son awoke and wouldn't go back to sleep.

So I took him out to the couch and hoped to finish watching while he slept on my stomach. Of course, he was too interested in the moving images to go back to sleep, and I didn't want to scar this kid for life. So when I got sick of trying to position him so his head wouldn't be facing the disturbing images on screen, I decided to just call it for the night and let us both get to sleep. I watched the last 45 minutes the next afternoon while he was napping and I was carving a jack-o-lantern. Tellingly, I was still creeped out -- but this is a movie that should really be watched in the wee hours of the morning to have its greatest effect.

Tonight, with any luck, we will have enough candy to hold a steady stream of trick-or-treaters at bay, and then we'll shut our lights off and watch Poltergeist -- if, that is, I can find it at the library today.

If not, we'll see what other twisted treats Netflix streaming may have in store for us.

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