Part One of an excerpt from The Blood Poets, Chapter 6, "Crime & Censorship," about the Cronenberg film Videodrome.
Sex and death have commingled—one inseparable impulse. Risk feeds sensation—sensation makes risk acceptable. We’re headed towards . . . something we’d perhaps do better to avoid.
—Frank Black, in the understatement of the “Millennium”
—Frank Black, in the understatement of the “Millennium”
In his essay, “Hollywood’s Four Big Lies,”29 Michael Medved cites “Epidemiologist Brando Centerwall of the University of Washington,” and his “exhaustive studies for the American Medical Association,” which assert that “without TV there would be 10,000 fewer murders per year in the U.S., 70,000 fewer rapes and 700,000 fewer assaults.” Medved is an old-style hysteria-monger with little respect for the finer points of debate, but I am personally inclined to accept the implications of these figures (if not the figures themselves, which are obviously impossible to gauge). The basic claim seems perfectly feasible to me, if not actually certain. The statement states, however, “without TV,” and not “without TV violence,” and my inclination—or intuition—is to accept that TV itself, as a psychological tool for social control, has a profound effect upon the individual, and on society at large. It may be, then, that part of this effect includes an augmentation of aggressive behaviour and antisocial activity (in a word, violence). As to whether a “Faces of Death” documentary, an episode of “Millennium,” or a thirty-second commercial for Budweiser is more or less responsible for this “effect,” that is something that is more open to question. My feeling is that TV itself—simply by being switched on (but most especially when the material emitted is by nature numbing, repetitive, and of such a low standard of intelligence and artistry that it serves as little more than an insult to the individual)—creates in the viewer a kind of funk, a trancelike state, which in turn makes him or her susceptible to all kinds of conditioning; such conditioning may include conditioning towards aggressive or violent behavior. Hence, scenes of murder, rape, mutilation etc, may indeed have a harmful effect upon the TV viewer, but only because they are part of a general conditioning process performed by television itself.
It seems to me that viewing violence, per se, even the crude, exploitative violence of TV shows or Hollywood action pictures, does not actually cause the viewer to become worked up or in any way more aggressive. On the contrary, it is likely to serve vicariously as a release or outlet for his or her feelings of anger and aggression.30 On the other hand, asinine commercials that deliberately arouse the viewer’s sexual desires simply in order to sell some worthless product or another, simultaneously frustrate these desires (after all we can’t, like Max Renn in Videodrome, fuck the TV) while causing the viewer to feel inadequate or impotent for lacking the various products that would make us attractive to the opposite sex. All this I think is almost bound to have a negative effect upon the viewer. Feelings of frustration, resentment, contempt, hostility, and outright rage, are likely to be aroused in us for being so ruthlessly and cynically manipulated. If this viewer is then bombarded with images of rape and torture and what-have-you, then it becomes altogether less fanciful to imagine that he might just (if already somewhat inclined in this direction) put two and two together and come up with five, begin to get “ideas”—ideas that, like poor Max’s “hallucinations,” do not originate in his own head.
Joseph Natoli writes—in his study of postmodernism and the movies Speeding to the Millennium (p. 96)—how, “in a culture working hard to link personal identity with consumption, people will enact this connection by any means, fair or foul.” He argues that, seeing as the greater part of the populace is, and must be, incapable of attaining the consumer dream dangled under their noses, at least a portion of them will inevitably resort to any means at all to make a grab for their rightful piece of the pie. “Frustrated, with violence looming, an anger sets in that is itself without mind. . . That undiagnosed anger . . . is there to be directed, to be given a ‘mind.’. . . Under this light, we are all distracted to the staging of nightmares of depravity.”
With slightly less of an alarmist tone, over thirty years earlier, Norman Mailer discussed the subject with Playboy magazine (December 1961, “Petty Notes on Some Sex in America”):
There’s a subterranean impetus towards pornography so powerful that half the business word is juiced by the sort of half sex that one finds in advertisements. . . . I think this bad “art” that one gets in the mass media, on television, in the movies, does the nation far more harm than if one were to remove all controls from pornogrpahy and obscenity. Being half excited and half frustrated leads to violence. Whenever one is aroused sexually and doesn’t find a consummation, the sex in one’s veins turns literally to violence.
The links between sex and violence have been more or less established I think, and anyone who has ever lived in a big city knows that late Saturday night is not generally a good time to be out and about on your own. Drunken kids coming home without a “score” will express their libidinous frustration any way they can, and violence, in such circumtances, is clearly an “alternative” means of expression to sex. If pornography—and especially soft-porn advertising—arouses primal desires (latent energy) in young men who have no way to satisfy these desires, then there’s a good chance this latent energy will find some other way of getting out. So, it stands to reason that excess exposure to pornography, and to sexually provocative imagery in advertising and the like, without the corresponding outlet being available, can only engender sexual frustration. And in the era of AIDS the gulf between demand and supply is growing ever wider: You can look but you can’t touch is the message on the hot lips of most every “babe” whose luscious form adorns subway walls and billboards throughout the urban world. All this false stimulation leads inevitably to an excess of undirected, hence frustrated, male sexual energy. And what do you do with all that energy? You go to war.
All this is of course an unpardonable diversion from the basic point, which is that certain imagery has a powerful capacity to invoke emotions in the viewer, and that once these emotions are invoked, subsequent imagery might serve to direct the release of these emotions (and they will be released: one way or another boiling water has to let off steam). And although it’s far-fetched to say that this movie or that TV show caused that crime or this tragedy, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that TV in general, and a large majority of factory-line movies—is of such execrably low quality that it does invoke a feeling of anger and disgust in the public, however unconscious such feelings may be. This disgust and contempt and unacknowledged hostility may even be directly (if only partially) related to the ever-increasing demand for more screen violence, such violence being the only way to satisfy—or release—this growing sense of hostility against the medium itself.
Everybody knows that TV is addictive; few people bother to ask just why, considering that it is also practically unwatchable. Obviously the standard of TV programs has nothing to do with their popularity—it’s not the programs that are addictive (even people who watch a lot of TV will often admit to feeling contempt it), it is the act of watching itself that somehow hooks us. The reason is—I believe—that TV quite literally casts a kind of spell upon us.33 And if watching television (and, to a lesser extent, movies) is roughly equivalent to falling into a hypnotic trance, it begins to make a scary kind of sense—TV is the ultimate drug (or penultimate perhaps, with virtual reality just around the corner) to which we are all hooked. It sucks us into its world and makes us forget about everything else outside it, and as such, TV (as Gus van Sant’s To Die For satirizes) has indeed become a new kind of reality for us. And in the world of TV, which is after all a make-believe world (not myth- but kitsch-making)—anything goes. Sensation is the only real requisite, and even there the sensation doesn’t necessarily have to be ours: if the laughtrack is loud enough, we may not even notice that we’re not laughing ourselves (or else, we laugh despite ourselves, even though nothing funny is going on). If TV tells us rape and mutilation is “cool,” the latest thing—hell, that’s OK! It’s only entertainment. Our responses are becoming as much a part of the “package” as everything else; we’re lost on a laugh-track, running on an infinity loop to nowhere. So when Max Renn gets hooked on the snuff torture movies coming out of his TV set, he’s no different from the rest of us. He’s curious to know where they’re coming from, sure, but only so he can buy shares in the business. He is ready and eager to be seduced, because the TV he’s been getting just can’t cut it for him anymore—he needs a new sensation: we all need a new sensation. “Millennium” has answered this demand to some extent, just as “Twin Peaks” did before it, and “The X-Files,” but the thing about sensation for sensation’s sake—it’s a desensitizing process. We need always a little more just to feel anything at all.
Max Renn is too jaded to question the moral implications of what he’s getting into—he knows he’s going too deep, but he doesn’t care. Humanity’s lost its allure anyhow, so he doesn’t really have anything else to lose. And when “the new flesh” takes over (and he becomes an organic video recorder), it’s like reverse possession—the machine is in the beast, and a new race of TV babies is already in the can. It might be something we’d have done better to avoid.