Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

White House Down (2013)

As is Hollywood’s wont, there were two films last year which had terrorists take over the White House, hold the President hostage, and then have their plans ruined by John McClane I mean, an undervalued everyman character (where “everyman” is a white male, obviously). I went to see Olympus Has Fallen in the cinema, and that, I realise now, was the wrong choice. White House Down is no less silly, it should be emphasised, and it rips off Die Hard (1988) every bit as comprehensively. However, in every respect (except maybe in the acting chops of its authority figures: Melissa Leo > whoever the hell the VP is here), it proves itself the better of the two films.

It’s difficult even to pinpoint exactly what makes it so much better. Perhaps it helps that here the threat is a loose alliance of ex-military right-wing gun nuts and racists, rather than a generic East Asian terrorist collective (nominally North Korean, but apparently Chinese in the original conception), which immediately disarms the racist connotations of our white heroes’ triumph. Here the racial diversity is instead on the side of the Americans, with a post-Obama Presidential turn by Jamie Foxx, who does his best to capture the requisite gravitas. If he doesn’t always succeed, his looser performance still allows for some lovely moments with our hero Channing Tatum’s politically-savvy teenage daughter Emily (Joey King), not to mention a bit of knockabout humour involving a rocket launcher.

The daughter’s there for a bit of human interest, and the set-up follows a standard generic pattern: as John Cale, Tatum has been a bit of an unreliable dad and now must prove his worth to his daughter, which he does by trying to get a Secret Service job (he doesn’t pass his interview, but not before we’ve had a hint at some backstory with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol). When the terrorists attack, father and daughter are separated, giving his resistance to the terrorists a bit of personal motivation (when he overhears the evil mastermind threatening to kill the President, he means to push on with finding his daughter, and has to kick himself to go back and help). His daughter is not totally helpless, it turns out (shades of Jason Statham movies like Safe and Homefront there), but she’s still too young not to need his help. Then again, you only really need to accept these familiar tropes; the fun is in how efficiently they are mobilised, and there’s a relative minimum of sentimental mawkishness.

As you’ll have guessed, there’s nothing startling or new here. If you liked Die Hard and you are fond of this kind of action thriller, then you should really enjoy White House Down. It’s a solid bit of big Hollywood summer entertainment.

White House Down film posterCREDITS
Director Roland Emmerich; Writer James Vanderbilt; Cinematographer Anna Foerster; Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.