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It is always uncomfortable when you have a “connection” to a film artist and that person either creates or has applied skills into a film  you do not like.

How does one navigate this? Carefully.

Some enjoy this game. I do not. If I have a connection, no matter how fragmented or casual, I usually opt to say / write nothing. This is most especially true of this blog.  As I make no money for anything I write/do I am not under the sort of pressures to conform or restrain my opinions. I am just not comfortable writing negative feedback when I know someone connected to a project will read it here. I’ve even become cautious on my Letterboxd account. But some of the ratings and comments I’ve made on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes has come back to haunt me. When RT first came around, I didn’t really apply much thought into how the site was calculating film reviews and user ratings. I’ve been surprised at how harshly I’ve rated some films and how grandly I’ve rated others. …in comparison.

Yes. I’ve contributed to the dreaded Film Criticism by Consensus. This idea has been spreading throughout the Film Theory community for quite a while. It can most likely be traced back to that moment that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert sat down together. More or less, this is when the simplistic and problematic Film Judgement by Consensus started. In theory it seems like a valid approach. Sadly, in practice it is flawed, harmful and unfair. Even more so now that we can all be Film Critics and our ratings are tallied by a computer program. But the end-user ratings are not near as worrying when you really look into RT logic applied to paid Film Critics.

"It's Terrific!" ...and it remains so. It is without question a cinematic masterpiece that endures. But is it a perfect movie? Citizen Kane Orson Welles, 1941

“It’s Terrific!” …and it remains so. It is without question a cinematic masterpiece that endures. But is it a perfect movie?
Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, 1941

When Movie Holics posted this clip, they summed up the issue with Film Ranking by Consensus with humor, intelligence and logic. Their topic is Josh Trank’s much maligned, Fantastic Four. Take a look:

I’m a fan of Movie Holics. Founded by Kyler Wilson and Monica Kocurek, this YouTube Channel provides encaging, entertaining and most importantly — insightful and valid Film Theory application. Kyler Wilson is a skilled and professional filmmaker. A working Film Actor, professional Crew Member and aspiring filmmaker, Kyler Wilson offers opinions that are solidly grounded in both arenas of Film Buff and Film Artist. Monica Kocurek also brings grounded logic and humor that fit in perfectly within his framework.

Movie Holics YouTube Brought to you by Kyler Wilson & Monica Kocurek

Movie Holics
YouTube
Brought to you by
Kyler Wilson & Monica Kocurek

Often a counter-perspective and love of movies that matches Wilson’s, she holds her own. Together and separately, these two self-admitted Movie Holics are knowledgeable and entertaining.  These two individuals are clearly serious film buffs with a sense of humor. Always fun and filled with ideas, their postings are always of interest. It is also important to note that they are often focused on offering view-points into current and big-studio projects. If ever the major studios were confused, it is now.

Kyler Wilson and Monica Kocurek of Movie Holics Reviewing, discussing and challenging the status quo of Mainstream Film Art Movie Holics You Tube Channel

Kyler Wilson and Monica Kocurek of Movie Holics
Reviewing, discussing and challenging the status quo of Mainstream Film Art
Movie Holics
You Tube Channel

 

And Kyler and Monica put forward logic which is desperately needed within the film industry.

If you are unaware of them, take a few minutes to check out the short episode linked below.

To those of you in the industry, please check Movie Holics out.

Yes, you. You know who you are. 

https://youtu.be/tyo38IJQyEU

Another important side note regarding Movie Holics: Kyler Wilson often discusses the current mode of major studio film promotion. His critique of film trailers is of particular interest. Aside from being entertaining, he points out some on-going blunders that studio marketing continues to make. There are some very logical insights here that Major Film Studios are completely lacking.

Adding my own perspective regarding the current state of the Movie Preview: A trend which I first noted in the mid-1980’s is this seeming need to show us the entire film in one preview. This is a mistake. Let’s bring back a bit of mystery. An example of this problem is cited with the trailer / preview for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. I had been quite curious to see this new film which boasts a very impressive cast including Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. It also sounded like a sort of old-school bit of  Gothica Horror. Sadly, the new trailer shows what appears to be the entire movie. Once again Chastain appears trapped in the role of “The Scary Bitch.” Mia Wasikowska is once again cast as some lame and fragile sort of costumed romantic ideal of 19th Century little girl lost.

Crimson Peak Guillermo del Toro, 2015

Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro, 2015

Tom Hiddleston looks as if he has either been covered in a white sort of powder or digitally “enhanced” to serve as a living cartoon. Actually, Crimson Peak appears to be a movie filled with the sort of CGI effects to which I’ve grown increasing indifferent. I no longer plan on paying to see this film. I will wait till it shows up on Amazon Prime, Hulu or Netflix streaming. $20 to $30 is too much to spend on the movie that Legendary Pictures appears to be promoting. I feel as if I’ve already seen it and I was annoyed by what I saw. Could this just be poor marketing or is what we see what we will get? 

The cost of a movie ticket, popcorn and parking is too high to risk.

But I digress — back on mark full-stop: Film Criticism.

Film Criticism took an uplift with a critic like Pauline Kael. Much to her annoyance, she ended up playing a role in turning the world of movies to Film Art. It took an even greater uplift when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert starting giving “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down.” This uplift brought Film Art to a more mainstream audience. But, it came with a price. Many began to adapt to the idea that a film can or even should be dismissed with a casual Thumbs Down or embraced by a Thumbs Up.

I remember a friend opting not to see Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven because Siskel gave the movie a Thumbs Down. I was unable to convince him otherwise. Earlier at the beginning of middle school, several friends avoided Sam Rami’s 1981’s classic Evil Dead because both celebrity critics gave it Two Thumbs Down.  One will be surprised to discover many of the films that were given Thumbs Up. Roger Ebert saw fit to give Barbra Streisand’s schizophrenically-flawed 1996 film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, a Thumps Up.

Siskel said "Thumbs Down" Unforgiven Clint Eastwood, 1992 Cinematography | Jack N. Green

Siskel said “Thumbs Down”
Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood, 1992
Cinematography | Jack N. Green

The problem with these short, witty and often troubling criticism notched down to a simple turn of a thumb is that it is tragically misleading.

Example: Eastwood’s Unforgiven is as much a crowd-pleasing bit of Old School Hollywood Epic Western, as it is also a dark and often subversive take on human cruelty and vengeance. While the lines between the Good and Bad Guys are clear, the identity of race, plight of women and the tragedy of violence is explored in a new sort of way. This was a true turning point for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker. In my opinion this film works quite well and has actually aged even better. It has some flaws that often come when movie actors turn into film directors, but this is a solid work. To dismiss it with a Thumps Down is not even logical. Yet, Gene Siskel felt it deserved him to turn that thumb down. If you actually watch Siskel discuss this film, he does acknowledge what the film is attempting to do. He appears to even be impressed with many of the films’ scenes, performances and ideas.

The idea of the Western genre is a bit subverted and re-imagined... And RT gives it a solid 95% rating. Unforgiven Clint Eastwood, 1992 Cinematography | Jack N. Green

The idea of the Western genre is a bit subverted and re-imagined…
Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood, 1992
Cinematography | Jack N. Green

In the end, Siskel’s issue is that the film simply didn’t fully register for him as something as new and bold as what he anticipated. He questioned the need for one of the film’s characters. While Siskel’s review is far from a cheer for Eastwood’s success, it is also not a total slap-down. When Siskel opted to put his Thumb Down it doesn’t seem to be intended as strong as it implied. Years later, the late critic’s review still stands. It is one of the few bad reviews, yet it really isn’t “bad.”

Roger Ebert did not adore Barbra Streisand’s ill-fitting The Mirror Has Two Faces, but he did see some interesting ideas explored and an even more interesting bit of introspection from a powerful movie star about aging and cultural perceptions of beauty. He also saw a good deal of charisma and comic timing. He gave this film a Thumps Up. Ebert has some valid points, Streisand’s odd film does bring up some interesting ideas about beauty, aging, women and relationships between sisters, mother and men. She had also assembled a great cast of players.

"Thumbs Up!" Comic Feminist ideology, aging, family, love and beauty quickly de-evolve into Female Movie Star Mid-Life Panic. The Mirror Has Two Faces Barbra Streisand, 1996

“Thumbs Up!”
Comic Feminist ideology, aging, family, love and beauty quickly de-evolve into Female Movie Star Mid-Life Panic.
The Mirror Has Two Faces
Barbra Streisand, 1996

Paradoxically, this movie quickly takes an extreme turn away from the gentle comedy and idea it seemed to be forming. It was as if Streisand had a total Movie Superstar Mid-Life Break during filming. Just as the movie seems to be falling into an entertaining and interesting concept, it sputters and teeters. Streisand and her character lose all sense of humor. Suddenly she makes a non-sensical oppositional turn from the core idea of her movie.  Without warning, the main character suddenly decides she needs to kick off every attractive aspect of herself to fit into some grim idea of womanhood. The character stops eating, joking, loses weight and transforms from an attractive hairstyle and clothing into some perverse idea of what Streisand must think is hot. Essentially, she morphs into a Mafia Housewife Gone to Seed. Worse yet, Jeff Bridges and every male character in the movie are suddenly falling all over themselves to sex her up. The film is not good. If one actually watches or reads Ebert’s review, it is surprising that it assigned a Thumps Up as the review is more one of puzzlement ends up forming a sort of cinematic peripheral interest.

Another film that Siskel & Ebert both gave two Thumps Down is 1986’s Short Circuit. This silly and innocent little film is not offensively bad. It is more than a bet “twee” but it does offer a harmless bit of entertainment. No great work of art, but hardly what one could call a “bad movie.” Like both of these legendary Film Critics, I’d be inclined to warn that John Badham’s film is approached in an entirely different manner than we would normally expect. This is no WarGames, but Short Circuit was never intended to be another WarGames. Instead, with Short Circuit John Badham was simply seeking to entertain. Most importantly, his target audience was children. Siskel & Ebert react almost like children themselves. They are upset that the director has stepped off an expected track and into family entertainment. Tragically, the movie’s promotion misleads one to think this could be an extension of WarGames.

A bit of light children's entertainment. "Thumbs Down!" Short Circuit John Badham, 1986

A bit of light children’s entertainment. “Thumbs Down!”
Short Circuit
John Badham, 1986

In truth, the use of their thumbs do not fully jive with their full respective reviews. Gene Siskel has some legitimate issues with the final act of WarGames. For him, WarGames attempts to be more than it should. Yet, he gave the Thumbs Up for WarGames. When it comes to actually reading/listening to their opinions regarding Short Circuit, their Thumbs Down ratings don’t exactly match up. Roger Ebert was clearly entertained by a lot of the ideas of the robot as “character” and Siskel’s perspective is more limited to wanting the silly movie about a robot to be more than it is.

This idea of summing the artistic value of a film with such a simplistically limited value allowed movie studios to hype praise that really was not there. It also served to cause films to completely flop because so many followed those thumbs so closely.

Which brings us to Rotten Tomatoes.

I’ve always thought of Rotten Tomatoes as the more mannered and mature sister to The Internet Movie Database. IMDB is an excellent source of information related to just about every film ever made. But IMDB is a cyber hussy.

Anyone can join and scrawl their opinions on her walls. User Reviews on IMDB run the gamut from Would-Be-Cinephilles like myself to the lowest of the low. User Ratings on IMDB can offer great insight into the validity of a film as much as they are prone to offer profane rants about an actor’s physical anatomy to wishing death upon anyone who likes or hates the movie.

IMDB I think of it as a great repository of media information. However, in some ways, it is the sleazy older sister to Rotten Tomatoes.

IMDB
I think of it as a great repository of media information. However, in some ways, it is the sleazy older sister to Rotten Tomatoes.

When one looks and sorts through information posted by her users, IMDB is turns into a deeply disturbing view of human stupidity. And pity the soul who attempts to write something of value, that person is likely to get flamed hard. However, if you want to know the date a movie came out or where it was filmed or who was in it — this cheap little tart is your girl!  She is more than happy to give you all the information that her servers can hold.

Rotten Tomatoes is a great deal more refined. She sorts out “official” Film Critics, from independent/online Film Critics with some cred and then allows all of her users to rate and post their reviews. Rotten Tomatoes seems to attract less human profanity and cruelty. But here is the odd thing about RT, she employs an overall rounded-estimate based on a 5 Star System ranking. She has been doing this for quite a while. If a paid Film Critic is smart, they know to give a rating based on her 5 Star System or they have no choice but to accept her assessment of their words and her often questionable rating. Several critics still fail to offer a clear rating for poor RT to be able to tabulate. She has no choice but to assign it herself. And while Rotten Tomatoes may be more refined than IMDB, she is pretty limited.

Rotten Tomatoes Welcome to the off-kilter world of Film Evaluation by Consensus. It is a dodgy tool at best...

Rotten Tomatoes
Welcome to the off-kilter world of Film Evaluation by Consensus. It is a dodgy tool at best…

A Film Critic who fails to add a 5 Star rating or at least an A-F grade will often see a generally “fair” review reduced to a 1.5 rating. Users have to enter a rating, but we users are a fickle bunch. Often worse than the film critics. And that is only fair. We have paid money to see these movies. But I can’t be alone in the struggle of deciding if a movie deserves 2 or 3 stars. Or maybe a 2.5. While only a year or so ago I might have rated a movie .5 or 1 star. But as I saw RT’s overall rating of user reviews form into one solid numerical assignment, my .5 rating was adding to confusing and unfair over-all assessments.

In the Rotten Tomatoes Universe, 1983’s WarGames sits pretty with a 93% rating. In a rare situation, the general user rating is actually more on mark with a 75% rating. If you look / listen to Siskel, I suspect his rating for WarGames is closer to a 70%.

Not really.

Short Circuit now sits with a rating of 57% compared to a user rating of 67%. I have to say that the result of the general user rating makes far more sense than 57%. Even more so, if users understood that Short Circuit was really aiming at the 10 to 14 year old audience, the rating would be higher.

Eastwood’s Unforgiven has managed to fair better under the rules and restrictive application of RT’s Film Consensus. However, I feel that Eastwood’s solid film is actually sitting with ratings that I feel are higher than deserved: Film Critic Rating: 95% User Rating: 94%. I would say that this film’s actual rating should be closer to 85%.

Oddly, Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces seems to have been Film Critically panned over the years. This is the film that Ebert gave a Thumbs Up. Currently this film sits with a 53% rating compared to the users rating of 72%. I love Streisand. And I own it. I tend to be aware of her work, and I’m fairly certain that this film once carried a  65% rating. So somehow, over time, RT’s Film Critic rating has gone down for this film. Personally, I feel this cinematic mis-step merits the 53% rating. That being stated, this movie does offer a mis-guided level of entertainment value. There is a cultural and psychologically convulsive aspect to Streisand’s movie that almost requires a bit of a bump up. The Mirror Has Two Faces’ entertainment value (both intended and accidental) make this film more worthy of a 60% rating. In this case the user ratings are obviously fueled by the legion of Streisand fans who refuse to own up to their icon’s mistakes. I’m not sure when I logged my rating, but I gave this movie 2 stars.

If one looks even closer to Rotten Tomatoes Logic, there is a really discordant level of confusion that occurs. I don’t know, maybe this makes sense for an art form that is so subjective. Film Art also has a strange way of aging. All the same, some of these ratings are simply disturbingly strange.

Is Unforgiven The Godfather of the Western?

Or is Unforgiven the Citizen Kane of the Western genre?

Is Clint Eastwood’s Western better than John Ford’s masterful, The Searchers?

Because within RT logic, The Godfather carries a 99%/98% shared rating between Film Critics and Users. Citizen Kane sits with a combo of 100%/90%. So in theory, both The Godfather and Citizen Kane are true cinematic masterworks. One would be hard-pressed to argue that either film is not deserving of very high ratings. I can’t help but wonder, if we are serious about ranking films, is Unforgiven so good that it is only 4 % points below The Godfather?

Films really do not get much better than this. But in Rotten Tomatoes Logic, this film is only 4 % points higher than Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

Films really do not get much better than this. But in Rotten Tomatoes Logic, this film is only 4 % points higher than Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

Further, as brilliant as this Orson Welles film is, can we say it is a “perfect film?” Maybe we can, though in all honesty, I feel that The Godfather Part II is a surprising one up on the original film. I’d also be very quick to point out that as great as Citizen Kane is, does it resonate both personally and artistically as deep as either of the first two Godfather films? I don’t think so.

I’d go so far to say that Hitchock’s Rear Window, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Goddard’s Breathless and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are all slightly better films than Citizen Kane. From my perspective, the magic of Citizen Kane ties to the innovations that Welles so masterfully put into play so ahead of the cinematic curve. A crucial film, but 100%? John Ford’s The Searches is also essential and very influential, but is it worthy of RT’s 100% rating?

I don’t really like either of these movies. But I would assign a 75% for WarGames and a 70% for Short Circuit. I do not need to “like” a movie to see the talent, skill, intellect, and clear appeal for others. I do not enjoy Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, but I am unable to dismiss it’s skill and use of style.

"You talkin' to me?" This near-perfect film carries 98% / 93% RT Rating. So just 3 % points higher than Unforgiven. Really? Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese, 1976

“You talkin’ to me?”
This near-perfect film carries 98% / 93% RT Rating. So just 3 % points higher than Unforgiven. Really?
Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976

Now welcome to the perplexing ideology of taking an individual’s rating and averaging it in with others.

If one were to look at my ratings you would most likely find that taken within context of the way I approach rating films, you would discover that a 70% means that I think there is enough of value in a film for some others to enjoy. If I enjoy a film it is going to go more into the range of 85% to 95%. Essentially, if I like a movie enough to see it more once, purchase a copy of it or assist in restoration effort — that film will gain a high rating from me. A movie has to be really bad to get a total Thumbs Down from me.

Something that one would think is obvious, is actually not actually so. I never review / rate a film I’ve not seen. Not even professionals always follow this essential rule. Sad but true. As blogging has already become somewhat of a tired concept, other on-line means of information is taking on the more potent place to seek out new ideas and film comment. While Movie Holics tends to adhere to current film releases and normally more mainstream films, there are many other outlets and vloggers out there.

Another on-line critique that ventures into more esoteric terrain, is Brian Kish. Lo-Fi with both humor and intelligence. Always fun and laid-back style that offers insight and comedic delivery. A sort of Post-Modern Film Critic, Mr. Kish is having fun but the viewer is fully aware that he knows of what he speaks.

Post-Modern Film Criticism that manages to be comical, informative and intellectual all at one time. Brian Kish Barrel Bottom Reviews YouTube Channel

Post-Modern Film Criticism that manages to be comical, informative and intellectual all at one time.
Brian Kish
Barrel Bottom Reviews
YouTube Channel

His taste in film is more aligned with my own. He is re-visiting Classic Cinema with the eyes of Intellectualism as well as those with a current 21st Century Perspective. It is within the world of podcasts and vlogs that one is likely to find some of the most engaging Film Art discussion. Brian Kish’s Barrel Bottom Reviews are always fun to watch.

I was unable to secure his permission to post this link, but I doubt he will mind. Here he discusses Louis Malle’s brilliant collaborative effort, My Dinner with Andre:

https://youtu.be/YRe0ymvs0sU

Check out his perspective. This view-point is especially important to those of us who care about Film Restoration and Re-distribution. His delivery is also very entertaining. 

By the way, within the RT galaxy, My Dinner with Andre sits with a 91% Film Critic ranking and a general viewer rank of 86%.

Just for the hell of it, take a look at how these movies are currently rated on Rotten Tomatoes:

My demented and twisted father decided that he and I should see the “new” Bo Derek movie. I was 14. John Derek’s Tarzan: The Ape Man was one of the worst movies I had ever seen in a cinema. My father fell asleep. I kept wishing I could, but the movie was loud and Bo Derek was constantly winning, cooing and asking stupid questions to a jungle man who might have actually been dumber than her character appeared to be. This film currently holds a Film Critic Rating of 11% vs. User Rating of 21%.

Perhaps one of the all-time worst movies I have EVER seen in a cinema. My inappropriate father took me to see this mess. He fell asleep. Sadly, the cinematic torture would not allow me to sleep. Per Rotten Tomatoes, this mind-numbing badness rates 11%. That is still 2 % points higher than 2015's Fantastic Four. Seriously? Tarzan: The Ape Man John Derek, 1981

Perhaps one of the all-time worst movies I have EVER seen in a cinema. My inappropriate father took me to see this mess. He fell asleep. Sadly, the cinematic torture would not allow me to sleep. Per Rotten Tomatoes, this mind-numbing badness rates 11%. That is still 2 % points higher than 2015’s Fantastic Four. Seriously?
Tarzan: The Ape Man
John Derek, 1981

I do not have to see The Fantastic Four to know that it is a better film than this horrifying film error that remains Tarzan: The Ape Man. Bo Derek frolicking in the jungle with Tarzan is pure cinematic torture. No, it is not erotic. Just to be sure I actually watched this film again. It is actually worse than I remembered it.

Oh, and let’s not forget the ill-advised American Idol-inspired film, From Justin to Kelly.

OK, come on. Do movies get any worse than this? And, no. It is not camp. It is just bad.

American Idol goes to the movies. RT currently ranks it at 10%. This might be a little bit harsh. It was better than Tarzan: The Ape Man.

OK, come on. Do movies get any worse than this? And, no. It is not camp. It is just bad.  American Idol goes to the movies. RT currently ranks it at 10%. This might be a little bit harsh. It was better than Tarzan: The Ape Man... From Justin to Kelly Robert Iscove, 2003

From Justin to Kelly
Robert Iscove, 2003

So as Movie Holics pointed out, can any of us really agree that Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four really worse that the two movies listed above? Really? Is it that bad? 9%???? Mr. Trank’s film has clearly become some sort of odd Cinematic Whipping Boy.

This may be the lowest rated film to be green-lit for a sequel. Major Movie Studios are not always on target, but they clearly do not see this rating as “true” or “accurate.” If they did, Josh Trank would not be on the docket to direct the sequel. Fantastic Four is a classic example of what is wrong with Rotten Tomatoes.

 

 

Obviously, not a great or maybe not even a good movie. But is it deserving of RT's 9% rating?!?!!? Fantastic Four Josh Trank, 2015

Obviously, not a great or maybe not even a good movie. But is it deserving of RT’s 9% rating?!?!!?
Fantastic Four
Josh Trank, 2015

How in the world can this level of skewed ranking make any sense or inform viewers just how bad or how good a film is?

Matty Stanfield, 10.6.2015

Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

Marshall McLuhan was a fascinating intellectual. He was also a scholar and philosopher who focused nearly all of his attention to the ways in which media does a great deal more than inform, sell or entertain. Almost 30 years before it was created, McLuhan predicted the concept of a “global village” or and electronic means of communication. In other words, the Canadian Media Theory Philosopher predicted what we now call The Internet.

If you are unfamiliar with the ideas put forward by McLuhan, here are a few quotes that highlight his ideas about the impact of media:

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” 

“Ideally, advertising aims at the goal of a programmed harmony among all human impulses and aspirations and endeavors. Using handicraft methods, it stretches out toward the ultimate electronic goal of a collective consciousness.”

Marshall McLuhan circa 1970 Photographer | Unknown to me

Marshall McLuhan
circa 1970
Photographer | Unknown to me

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

McLuhan emerged as much a critic of media as he was in awe of a power that most could not see or simply seemed to to fully grasp. While “the medium is the message,” that message is continually elevating to newer and more invasive ways.

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects  Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
Marshall McLuhan, 1967 Graphic Design |Quentin Fiore

The continual evolution of medium’s technology is quickly escalating in it’s strength. Humankind is being manipulated in ways beyond the imagination. Individuality was / is losing ground. Is giving way to a formation of something more than “human” in the way we define ourselves.

“In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.” Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, theories, opinions and assertions are almost frightening in the ways one can chart the truth of what he stated in his lifetime. This great thinker died in 1980, yet his ideas remain alive and valid. To say he was ahead of the cultural curve would be an understatement.

As a Media Theorist, he had a great interest in television and motion pictures. Or, rather, an interest into what was actually being conveyed to audiences as they took in the information being “fed” into what was no longer simply the mind of the individual but the shared mind of those who watched and listened. By the mid-1970’s his ideas had well slipped into the intellectual mainstream as evidenced by his appearance as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977.

In the surreal scene Allen’s character is able to invoke the presence of McLuhan to defend his personal opinion to an annoyingly loud fellow cinephile while they wait to see The Sorrow & The Pity:

Wait a minute, why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country!
He can give it… do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!
Oh, really? Well, it just so happens I teach a class at Columbia called ‘TV, Media and Culture.’ So I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity!
Oh, do ya? Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so, yeah, just let me —” [Allen pulls McLuhan into Gordon Willis’ frame] “Come over here for a second. tell him!

"I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!"  Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Marshall McLuhan stands up for Alvey
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

While more than a few artists latched onto the ideas of Marshall McLuhan so did Film Theory, Philosophy and Journalism majors at universities across the world. But perhaps no intellectual and no artist latched onto McLuhan’s theories than fellow Canadian filmmaker, David Cronenberg.

Art is anything you can get away with.— Marshall McLuhan

From the very beginning, David Cronenberg pushed the ideas of Grindhouse Horror further than any other. Certainly, George A. Romero was interested in the ideas around how marketing and consumerism were rendering humans to a zombie like need that could never be fully satisfied.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" "Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity. Day of the Dead George A. Romero, 1978 Cinematography | Michael Gornick

“What are they doing? Why do they come here?”
“Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
Zombies roam the mall for live flesh as the new commodity.
Day of the Dead
George A. Romero, 1978
Cinematography | Michael Gornick

But it was Cronenberg who began to translate McLuhan’s ideas into a literal horror involving not only the way in which we think, but the way in which medium-saturated psychology could possibly morph into our biology.

Cronenberg was also way ahead of the cultural curve, when his low-budget gore-fests like 1975’s Shivers and 1977’s Rabid use the idea of sexual appetite and parasites or viruses merging to spread world-wide pandemics. Shivers is focused on a swinging singles apartment complex, but Rabid branches out into the world. A strange sort of gaping slip of a hole appears in the armpit, and the diseased seeks out sex partners to satisfy a painful urge. …and spread a disease.

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness... RABID David Cronenberg, 1977 Cinematography | René Verzier

A perplexing gape of wound appears on the body beautiful. Iconic Porn Star of the day goes legit as the sexy victim of disease which causes her to aggressively spread her sickness…
RABID
David Cronenberg, 1977
Cinematography | René Verzier

As silly as the gore might be in this movies, both carry a cerebral and visceral horror for viewers that remain today. We might giggle at some of the effects, but once these movies end the realization that we have seen two movies that seem to have predicted AIDS is impossible to dismiss. It is of particular interest that Cronenberg sought out the former Ivory Soap Girl turned Porn Superstar, Marilyn Chambers, to play the main carrier of the disease. A once symbol of Purity, Cleanliness & Innocence turned to Hardcore Media Porn Star Sinsation. The medium is the message…

In what can probably be considered Cronenberg’s first truly artistic horror film, 1979’s The Brood offers horror on several levels. In some ways this movie is a horror film about child-like killers. The site of these murderous little demons is delivered in a low-fi but intensely horrifying way.

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Mark Irwin

Brooding literally births avenging demonic child-like killers intent on carrying the medium and message
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Mark Irwin

On another level, this surprisingly cerebral film offers a horror film related to the clinging fears left over from the 1960’s/1970’s revolutionary changes regarding individual freedoms and a culture in which patriarchal “control” over sexuality, marriage, children and our own individual minds was giving way to something that many felt sinister.

Oliver Reed’s Dr. Hal Raglan is a brilliant and charismatic sort of Psychiatry Guru (or Psychoplasmics Master) who has established a center for emotionally challenged individuals. A wife and mother with serious emotional issues has sought help, but has become a sort of Cult Slave to Dr. Raglan’s mad science experiments involving psychological anger.

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Samantha Eggar broods her rage into full-fledged living beings designed to carry out her darkest violent urges.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played by Samantha Eggar, this woman has learned to channel her rage into her core biology. Dr. Raglan is the medium. The message is an endless rage which morphs into stunted results of psycho-physcial pregnancies. She is not merely brooding anger, resentment and anger at her husband and a daughter who has perhaps prevented her evolution as an individual. No, she is literally brooding a number of angry beings birthed to carry out her inner insane rages. Under the work of the Mad Scientist, she is birthing the medium that seeks to destroy.

"Thirty seconds after you're born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it." Grooming a birth of insane rage... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Thirty seconds after you’re born you have a past and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it.”
Grooming a birth of insane rage… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
The Brood
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Brood suffers from limited budget, hammy acting and an idea that feels at once brilliant and a bit too silly. But we cannot forget that this is a David Cronenberg. The Brood is more than a partially scary and partially satirical cult movie — it sneaks in under our skin and into our shared thinking. This film lingers long after the comedic elements fade. Esteemed writer, Carrie Rickey, has pointed out that The Brood is also a startling counter-point to Kramer Vs. Kramer.

In 1981’s Scanners, David Cronenberg officially crossed over to mainstream success. No longer limited to Drive-In’s, Midnight Screenings or lower-rate cinemasScanners received a wide release.

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn't enough for corporate interests... Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Disturbing but creative art therapy isn’t enough for corporate interests…
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

And it not only changed the way we think of Science Fiction Horror, it elevated Cronenberg to a whole new level of artistic acceptance. It can also be closely linked to the ideology of Marshall McLuhan. Although the message is presented to humanity more in the form of 20th Century biochemicals than media. In Cronenberg’s Scanners, Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is not merely a carcinogenic, it has infected fetuses with a new sort of power. Thalidomide not only harms, it too causes a strange psycho-power mutation within infected fetal tissue of mothers treated with these chemicals.

"How do you feel?" "I feel crystal clear." Heads do not roll. They explode. Scanners David Cronenberg, 1979 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“How do you feel?”
“I feel crystal clear.”
Heads do not roll. They explode.
Scanners
David Cronenberg, 1979
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Suddenly, Cronenberg’s much discussed Body Horror has elevated from human emotion to true biological horror. These infected mothers have given birth to children who have a new horrific telekinesis power. A power that can ultimately be controlled and used as a new kind of weapon. The film is best known for the effect of exploding heads, is actually going much deeper into human fear and horror ideology.

But it would be with Cronenberg’s 1983’s Videodrome that his interests in McLuhan’s teachings and the director’s own personal interest in the horror of the body turning against it’s owner would blend to form the almost perfect mix of Art Horror, Science Fiction, Surrealism and Cultural/Societal commentary.

"First it controls your mind...then it destroys your body" France's marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“First it controls your mind…then it destroys your body”
France’s marketing campaign focused heavily on Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Max Renn is the burned-out, bored but still ambitious CEO of a small Adults-Only cable company that seems posed to break big in the growing world of cable TV. Renn markets his cable channel as “The one you take to bed with you.” In 1983, audiences would have linked this fictional channel to the likes of Playboy TV or a wide range of latenight-only cable channels that offered soft porn and other provocative topics to it’s viewers.

Just slightly ahead of the game, the VHS industry was really only just starting to take-off across the mainstream. Players were only just starting to come down in price and the middle class had only dipped a few toes into the video-stream. The battle between VHS and BetaMax had not even fully started.

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood's is about to receive a whole new kind of "head"  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Cyber-Punk Surrealism or Infected Brain Hallucination? James Wood’s is about to receive a whole new kind of “head”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In the real world, these types of channels were facing a number of obstacles in presenting hardcore sex. It was limited to silly soft-porn movies or carefully edited hardcore sex movies to amped-up R-rated erotica. In Cronenberg’s film Max Renn is eager to push pass the rules. Seemingly latching onto McLuhan’s idea of art being what one can get away with, Renn no longer cares about the rules that restrict him from gaining a competitive edge in the erotic marketplace. His “ethical” stance is flawed. If compared to McLuhan’s concept, Renn has perverted the idea regarding art. For Renn, this is simply business.

Enter the oddly moralistic world of David Cronenberg. Sexuality is a lure that Cronenberg utilizes to pull the audience into his latest exploration in psychological horror. The use of sex is both titillating and perverse. In many ways, Videodrome is  Cyber-Punk Horror that dares to call our erotic desires into both cinematic provocation as well as an almost moral judgement.

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.  Rosanna Arquette CRASH David Cronenberg, 1996 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Cinematic Provocation. A strange group of people can only find sexual pleasure/release at the time of self-inflicted car collisions take place. The scars become more erotic than the body upon which they inflict.
Rosanna Arquette
CRASH
David Cronenberg, 1996
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

I stress almost because Cronenberg is expertly exploiting/selling sex as much as he thrusts our prurient interests to a questionable level. This was not the first time nor was it the last that this skilled filmmaker would use sexuality in a perplexing duality of human nature. There is always a strangely moralistic tie in all of Cronenberg’s films. Even in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s CRASH, he would tease the audience with subversive and perverse sexuality to arouse not only very dark eroticism, but to illicit a perverse joy in turning it back on the audience.

One of our first opportunities to understand this character is when we see him as a guest on a local channel chat show. The chat show host is clearly uncomfortable discussing the ever-expanding level of sexual explicitness on television, but she grins and bares it. Max is one of three guests. The second guest is Nicki Brand, played with a gleeful level of subversion by Cultural Icon, Debbie Harry. Nicki, like Max, sells sex. She is selling herself as a sort of Post-Feminist erotic answer to the “outmoded” concepts of Feminist Theory formed by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Her mode of medium is talk radio in which she dishes out pseudo-pop-psychology sexualized advice.

"What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?" "Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional or sexual."  Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“What about it, Nicki? Is it socially positive?”
“Well, I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile, emotional or sexual.”
Feminist Theory gets a kink-reboot with Debbie Harry as Nicki Brand.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Debbie Harry, at her own erotic prime and fame is the perfect actor for this role. At once intellectual and also a rather edgy erotic tease, she is like cat-nip for Max Renn. As the chat show host pulls them into a debate about the dark side of eroticism to the masses, it becomes clear that Nicki Brand isn’t really looking to counter-point Max Renn as much as to simply admit that she is fully aware of the “dangers” but not that concerned with falling prey. As she informs the host, “We live in over-stimulated times.” As Max begins to openly flirt with Nicki, the host is left in an even more comical unease.

She then turns away from her two sex-fueled guest to her scientific expert who refuses to appear on any other media than the television. Taken to a truly literal perspective, Professor Brian O’Blivion appears on a TV sitting on a coffee table by the host. As the increasingly nervous host attempts to interview O’Blivion it quickly becomes apparent that he is not going to fully connect with her.

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O'Blivion only seems to respond... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

Marshall McLuhan deconstructed: Dr. Brian O’Blivion only seems to respond…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He seems to be watching her other two guests, but moves into a sort of intellectual rant about the powers of television media: He begins to offer an almost religious sort of speech that television will soon replace “our” reality. Completely ignoring his host, he begins to almost preach through the screen of his own TV image:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye.

David Cronenberg was very clear that his created character of Dr. Brian O’Blivion is based soley on Marshall McLuhan and the esteemed Media Sociologist’s ideas. McLuhan’s teachings, ideas and concepts are all brought to the forefront of this highly entertaining and often disturbing film. While Cronenberg lays it all out in literal and visceral visual terms, nothing actually strays too far from the recently departed McLuhan.

James Woods' Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

James Woods’ Max Renn develops an odd itchy rash as he watches…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Played with simultaneous sexy swagger and icky slimed confidence by James Woods, Max deals with the European Erotica Market as well as underground networks of slightly harder-edged porn from Asia. We catch glimpses of the new work he is considering for his channel. From his European connection, the work seems innocently decadent. From the seemingly illegal importation from Asia, the work seems to be a sexualization of ethnic stereotypes that are pushing toward sadistic erotic pleasures. For Max, these new erotica films might offer a bit more in the way of erotic explicitness and controversy — but they are not enough. He is looking for something more “dangerous” and “risky.”

Enter Max’s pal and tech wiz, who manages to catch a Malaysian signal of what appears to be very realistic torture porn. So realistic in presentation, there is a suspicion that what Max is seeing may be a true filming of snuff human cruelty. It is never fully clear to us if Max is fully “OK” with what he sees on a show that seems to be called Videodrome, but it is clear that the sadomasochistic is most definitely turning him on.

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max's changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.  Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

In 1983, it was shocking when Debbie Harry is suggested to supply a little bit of BDSM to get Max’s changing body stimulated. In 2015, this medium of BDSM has already become passively engrained within the cultural mind.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

He pushes his tech engineer to find the true origin of the Videodrome signal which turns out to be coming from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Comforting himself by insisting that what he is seeing is a “pretend” electrically-charged clay wall and orange/red floors upon and against which acts of brutal sexual assaults and murders are carried out in realistic but fake ways. Max essentially threatens his libidinous European contact to find the creators of Videodrome to help him secure a deal to air their show. Soon later, his contact tries to soft talk him out of the idea. She advises that what he has been seeing is more than erotic entertainment.

She leans in as informs him that Videodrome has a philosophy. Videodrome is real. 

At first Max refuses to believe it. His sexual relationship with Nicki is one linked to pain and punishment. It is all-the-more-hightened by a viewing of Videodrome. In a clever bit of Surrealism, Max and Nicki’s sexual blood-letting morphs out of Max’s condo and onto the wet red floor of the Videodrome set. Hallucinations give way to very real altercations in which Max’s body seems to be changing to fit into the psychology of Videodrome.

"Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play..." Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Open up, Max. We have a tape we have a tape we need to play…”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

In one of the film’s many mind-bending special effects, Max begins to develop an itch resulting from what appears at first to be a an enflamed vertical line traveling down his “happy trail” that quickly emerges into a yon-like flesh entry point. Wet and wanting to be fed, this vaginal sort of “wound” becomes a portal in which Max and insidious Bad Guys place guns and breathing-infected videotapes. The pain of this “fleshy slit” also seems to deliver a source of uncomfortable pleasure. Eventually this body morphing develops teeth.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a repulsive, intense and surreal Art Horror masterpiece that must be experienced to fully understand and enjoy. With each scene, the Videodrome transmissions seem to infect Max’s psychology, perception and ultimately his body.

A new point of entry to Max Renn... Body Horror taken to a whole new level. Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

A new point of entry to Max Renn… Body Horror taken to a whole new level.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

The ultimate body horror show, Max must either destroy the evil that is Videodrome and accept the new flesh it has created and take it forward to the next logical step. Many viewers interpret the film in different ways — particularly it’s apocalyptic ending. But it seems to me that David Cronenberg is pushing Marshall McLuhan’s ideology in very literal way. Fully infected by media’s disease, Max must refuse to submit to a vile corporate plan. He must take back what the medium has communicated into his very being.

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!”

The Medium turns against you... Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

The Medium turns against you…
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

David Cronenberg has not only gotten away with creating a powerful and lasting work of film art, his horror film navigates the audience into a whole different sort of human universe. Video/Analog may have given way to HD/Digital, but the message of the medium is still every bit as worrying to us in 2015 as it was in 1983. The power of media is inescapable now more than ever. Paranoia and the threat of disease is at all time high.

Vidoedrome is far more than a Cult Horror Film Classic, it is a very warped, twisted and disturbing cinematic philosophy not to be be forgotten.

"Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh." Now, come to Nicki... Debbie Harry Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983 Cinematography | Max Irwin

“Death to Videodrome. Long live the New Flesh.” Now, come to Nicki…
Debbie Harry
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983
Cinematography | Max Irwin

Matty Stanfield, 9.28.15