034 Videodrome Criterion

The Criterion Collection’s stated aim is that they are “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film”. Their success in this endeavour is reflected not only in oft-used phrases like “Criterion worthy” and “Criterion like” as a description of the quality of films and home video releases, but also by the very presence of the Criterion Blogathon of which this is part.

Due to international copyright restrictions, for around a decade Criterion’s DVD and blu-ray releases have been region locked, meaning that for those outside North America there was a reliance on local home video companies to hopefully release these same films in a version of at least somewhat comparable quality. All too often this wasn’t the case… When The Criterion Collection released their stacked two disc DVD special edition of Videodrome in 2004, the release available in Australia was a heavily edited 84 minute version of the film on a single disc containing such breathtaking “Special Features” as Interactive Menus! Chapters! Subtitles! and Trailer! The alternative, of course, was to get a region-free player to be able to play discs from anywhere in the world.

The noticeable gap in both the quality and quantity of titles between the US and Europe (and Australia), as well as the backward compatibility of the NTSC format with PAL, led to a proliferation of region-free players for DVDs. Subsequently a lot of local distributors were forced to improve the quality of their releases in order to maintain sales. Masters Of Cinema led the way in the UK, soon followed by Arrow Video in releasing quality films in exceptional editions region locked for Europe. There has always been regular crossover in the titles released by these distributors and The Criterion Collection and in some cases (such as Masters Of Cinema’s For All Mankind) the transfer and supplemental material is identical. However, since the emergence of blu-ray and the increase in digital media (and piracy), several of these physical media distributors have almost exponentially increased their efforts to improve and differentiate their releases in order to increase their sales against the background of a declining market.

The result of all of this has been something akin to a golden age for cinephiles, particularly those with region-free blu-ray players. Seemingly every month The Criterion Collection, Masters Of Cinema and Arrow Video are all announcing some new “must have” release, with all three companies putting painstaking efforts into the best possible restorations, supplements and packaging of an astonishing range of films. The only difficulty that all of this brings is trying to answer questions such as “do I really need to buy this again?” and “which is the definitive version?”. In the case of The Criterion Collection and Arrow Video blu-ray releases of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the answers to those questions are “yes” and “both”.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is an audacious piece of filmmaking, an artistic and technical success which was so far ahead of its time that over thirty years after its release it is still strikingly original. On the three different commentary tracks across the two releases, “prescient” is appropriately the most frequently used word. Throughout the film David Cronenberg appears to foresee so much about what would happen with the internet, virtual reality and television, as well as portraying a frankness about sexuality that is still rarely seen in cinema today.

Videodrome is an impossible film to classify, as James Woods notes in the the commentary on The Criterion Collection blu-ray “[the studio] thought they were getting a horror film and instead they got this complex psychological, philosophical treatise, as well as a thriller, as well as a horror film and a science fiction film”, to which could also be easily added “erotic, cyberpunk, film noir, conspiracy thriller”. Videodrome is a key work in David Cronenberg’s filmography, while retaining the themes of psychological and physiological horror that were the basis of his previous genre films (Stereo, Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Scanners), it is the first of his films where technology is central to this “body horror”. As he notes in his Criterion Collection commentary track: “Technology isn’t really effective, it doesn’t really expose its true meaning, I feel, until it’s been incorporated into the human body”. This is something which he would go on to explore in more depth and with varying levels of success in The Fly, Crash and Existenz.

For what it’s worth, the basic story of Videodrome is City TV producer Max Renn (James Woods) is on the lookout for new, more extreme, sexploitation programs for his network, when his technician Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) stumbles across a pirated broadcast of an incredibly violent program consisting entirely of sexualised torture called Videodrome. As Max and his masochistic lover Nikki (Debbie Harry) become more obsessed with Videodrome, the line between reality, hallucination and technology becomes increasingly blurred. The plot, however, is fairly secondary to the success of Videodrome, what is more important are the hundreds of ideas that make up the “philosophy” of Videodrome and the striking visuals throughout the film (particularly Rick Baker’s incredible practical effects).

Any film which lacks a straightforward narrative, but is as creative and packed with ideas as Videodrome, will be discussed and debated for decades after its release. This is precisely the kind of film which benefits the most from a comprehensive home video release through any one of The Criterion Collection, Masters Of Cinema or Arrow Video. Thankfully in the case of Videodrome, it received two such releases: The Criterion Collection released a two-disc DVD version in 2004, which was upgraded to blu-ray in 2010 (without any change to the supplements) and Arrow Video released a limited edition four-disc dual format box set including David Cronenberg’s Early Works in August 2015 (after the limited edition sold out, it was announced that it will be re-released by itself as a single disc blu-ray in December 2015).

Having explored both The Criterion Collection and Arrow Video releases of Videodrome in considerable detail on multiple occasions, I quite honestly couldn’t recommend one over the other. On any given measure, the releases are either the same or where they are different, the variations are both equally worthwhile. With the packaging, for instance, until the Arrow Video release, I thought that The Criterion Collection had the artistically and thematically perfect packaging for Videodrome: A slipcase featuring the pivotal scene of Max Renn being drawn into Nikki Brand’s lips on the TV screen, complete with subtly placed colour bars, over a plastic case with artwork replicating a betamax cassette with “Videodrome” handwritten on the side label and “Long live the new flesh” handwritten on the top label. Arrow Video’s release features a series of striking commissioned paintings of key scenes from the film: Nikki Brand burning her breast with a cigarette on the box cover and iconic images such as Max Renn’s stomach slit, the final shot of Barry Convex and the exploding television. Which I prefer as a cover art varies pretty much every time I look at them, so realistically I’m just happy to have both of them to look at.

034 Videodrome Arrow

Viewed in isolation, The Criterion Collection or Arrow Video supplements are fascinating and insightful, greatly adding to the understanding and appreciation of the film. However, when viewed together, the cumulative effect allows a much deeper perception of the intent of the filmmakers. Although it is interesting to note that, with the exception of the Fear On Film 1982 round table with John Landis, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, the supplements common across the two releases are probably the least interesting.

Without doubt, two of the most indispensible supplements across the two releases are the commentary tracks on The Criterion Collection release. The first commentary track includes David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin. David Cronenberg provides some incredible insights into the film and notably this is the only supplement on either blu-ray that sees him talking about the film after its release. Whereas Cronenberg generally discusses the film artistically, Mark Irwin’s side of this commentary track is focussed on the technical which provides an excellent balance. Listening to this commentary track I’m always amused as Cronenberg recounts arbitrary cuts demanded by the MPAA based on the duration and angle of Max and Nikki’s lovemaking as it moves from the bedroom to Videodrome, completely missing the dramatic and artistic logic of the scene, when he appealed, he was told  “No one had actually noticed that at the MPAA anyway and therefore no one in the audience would notice it, so it’s no loss”.

The second commentary track on The Criterion Collection disc with James Woods and Debbie Harry is probably the most interesting and insightful supplement across the two releases. Although this track is dominated by James Woods, when he doesn’t wander off on to rants about unions, he is incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about cinema in general and this film in particular. A lot of the most profound and interesting assessments of the film in the supplements come from Woods, who says at one point “twenty years later I’m still thinking about the meanings of Videodrome”. Some of the more interesting things that Woods points out are the influence of the French New Wave on Cronenberg (“This is his Godard Shot, this is Eddie Constantine on Alphaville”), what an exhausting shoot it was for him as a result of being in pretty much every shot in the movie (to the extent of pointing out the few seconds of a tracking shot where he’s not on screen) and the fact that they started shooting without a completed script with Cronenberg collaborating with the cast to develop and finalise the story.

Similarly, the Arrow Video release of Videodrome has several specially produced and excellent supplements that add tremendous insight on their own, but when added to the overall pool of supplements across the two releases give an excellent overview of the film. The commentary track on the Arrow Video release is by Tim Lucas who is a journalist who spent some time on the set during the shoot and subsequently wrote a book about the film. Although his commentary is a little heavy on the “this was shot on this date at this location”, he provides some excellent and often perceptive commentary not found elsewhere. A few examples of this are noting that “you’ll notice that Harlan never looks at the video monitor”, as the film was meant to be released in 1982 the station name “Civic 83” was meant to indicate the near future, test audiences complained that Blondie wasn’t blonde, Masha’s surname is Borowczyk and that he has always interpreted the opening of the film to be circular with Max coming back to life after killing himself.

Arrow’s Pirated Signals supplement is one of my favourites. Collecting together the variations of the scenes included in the television version of Videodrome, this provides a great insight into a version of Videodrome that could have been. Ignoring the appalling alternate opening credits and closing epilogue, there are a lot of scenes that were modified or cut from the theatrical version that were included in the television version to pad out the running time. Nikki Brand appears in a lot of these scenes indicating that her role was intended to be larger during filming, however, the two most interesting scenes which would heavily impact the film if included in the theatrical cut are Barry Convex explaining to Max that Videodrome was developed originally as a military device and a scene where Max walking down the street sees himself in reflection wearing the helmet, indicating that he is in a virtual reality world.

Arrow Video recorded three new interviews for their blu-ray release the first of these with Mark Irwin covers a lot of the same ground that he covered in his Criterion commentary, although I do like the way Arrow Video appropriated the Civic TV logo at the opening of this supplement. The second supplement with Executive Producer Pierre David offers several interesting anecdotes about Cronenberg and his work. However, the third interview with Dennis Etchison is absolutely wonderful. Dennis Etchison novelised Videodrome and discusses the different versions of the script and his discussions with Cronenberg about the film when preparing the book. He talks at length about the difficulties of novelising the film as the whole film is seen from Max’s point of view and he didn’t want to create new scenes that don’t involve Max, so the book was written in the first person. However, this brought with it numerous problems around the ending. The highlight of this supplement was him asking the question “how do you describe the flesh gun?” as that passage from the book appeared on the screen.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is an exceptional and visionary film, one that provokes endless discussion and analysis. The blu-rays of Videodrome released by The Criterion Collection and Arrow Video both add an enormous amount to the appreciation and understanding of the film. By taking in the supplements across the two releases together you get a more complete picture of all aspects of production. For instance the meanings behind the character names are spread across four different supplements over the two discs are all quite fascinating, such as Cronenberg’s explanation that Nikki Brand is named for the cuts (nicks) on her shoulder and the brand she makes with the cigarette on her breast. While either version will give you an excellent presentation of this great film with a collection of illuminating supplements, when combined, the two versions provide a pretty comprehensive view of Videodrome.

This is my second post in the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion BluesSilver Screenings and Speakeasy. To discover more about the Blogathon and look at other posts, click on the picture of Naomi below.

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