This article first appeared at Den of Geek UK.
Whether he intended to or not, Canadian director David Cronenberg captured the zeitgeist with his 1982 movie, Videodrome. His mind-bending, disturbing thriller imagined a world where videotapes and cable signals could literally deprave and corrupt: an apt concept, given the moral panic that would soon surround home entertainment in the UK.
When the humble VHS tape emerged in the late 1970s, it altered the entertainment industry just as radically as the advent of television a generation earlier. Unlike 8mm film, videotape was relatively cheap. Suddenly, the ability to watch and rewatch movies and TV shows at home was in the hands of just about anyone who could afford a video player. This availability of images created a certain amount of concern among censors and sections of the media. What kind of psychological damage might horror movies like Driller Killer or The Evil Dead have on young children? What unforeseen effect could the ability to rewatch scenes of violence have on the human mind?
Even after the “video nasties” flap, which led to the Video Recordings Act in 1984, the fear that some movies shouldn’t be available in the home lingered, at least in the UK. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist had been withdrawn from video circulation as part of that 1984 act mentioned above. When the film’s distributor requested that a certificate be granted for a video release of The Exorcist in 1993, the BBFC’s James Ferman flatly refused.
“Given the recent concern about the large numbers of children who manage to see 18 videos in the home,” Ferman wrote, “with or without their parents’ permission, the Board has been worried about the possibility that immature girls will be drawn to this particular video because the central character is a 12-year-old girl […] we have concluded that, for the time being, its place is in the cinema rather than the home.”
The Exorcist didn’t get a home release until 1999, and, more than two decades later, Ferman’s concerns might seem quaint. Type “The Exorcist” into YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of clips of a film once considered too raw and unpleasant to be seen in the home. If you’ve a mind to, you can watch Linda Blair’s once-infamous head-spinning scene over and over again, or maybe the bit where she swears enthusiastically at Max Von Sydow.
Coincidentally, 1999 was also the year the term “Web 2.0” was coined, and it’s arguable that the advent of social media and video sites like YouTube have had as seismic an effect on modern culture as the television and the VHS tape. We now live in a landscape where anyone with the equipment and ambition can be a presenter, a photographer, a musician, a game designer, an actor, a filmmaker.
Movies are no longer exclusively in the hands of the people who made them. With greater ease than any other time in history, films can be chopped up, re-edited, and uploaded for the whole world to see. You may have heard about the various fan edits of such films as The Phantom Menace and Prometheus, where the images have been reworked to their editors’ own tastes (in the case of The Phantom Menace, there’s a cut which manages to excise the widely-loathed Jar-Jar Binks entirely).
Videodrome imagines a future where society has become addicted to the moving image. “We live in over-stimulated times,” says the femme fatale-like character played by Debbie Harry. “We crave stimulation. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more.”
In this alternate reality of video and television, special centers have opened up, allowing the homeless to sate their addiction to TV, like soup kitchens for the square-eyed. As a reaction against the cultural “rot” of television, a secret group plans to transmit a signal designed to confuse and eventually kill anyone who watches it: in Videodrome, violent imagery really can be dangerous.
David Cronenberg hasn’t made a movie about Web 2.0 yet – the closest we got was eXistenZ, his full-blooded commentary on virtual reality, which, by another odd bit of synchronicity, also came out in 1999. Then there’s Cronenberg’s 2014 novel, Consumed, a sleekly clinical thriller in which its events are filtered through laptops, tablets, and Twitter. The book explores how our constant need to take pictures, blog, and update social media pages has created a climate where everything becomes a kind of public declaration, whether it’s enthusing over new gadgets or sharing intimate details about sex or death. As in Videodrome, Consumed draws a not-inaccurate portrait where the image and public perception are everything, yet not always to be trusted.
Back in the world of cinema, however, the closest we have to a 21st century Videodrome might just be Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Like Cronenberg’s Consumed, it’s about the cannibalistic way we constantly feast on the vast sea of entertainment available to us, and how, in the era of Instagram and YouTube, individuals can become brands in much the same way as Apple or McDonald’s.
The Neon Demon introduces ethereal teenager Jessie (Elle Fanning), who navigates the sleazy motels and unseemly photographers of Hollywood with the aim of becoming a top model. In the face of rivalry from a coterie of bitchy, older, and more established models, Jessie achieves her ambition, and, in a catwalk sequence staged like a psychedelic freak-out, realizes how powerful her image can be. Here, the “over-stimulation” described in Videodrome reaches its saturation point: deafening, pulsating music, blazing colors, and geometric shapes. Thereafter, The Neon Demon continues down a rabbit hole of weirdness and depraved violence: Jessie discovers that the price of success also brings a fearsome amount of attention from her peers, who all demand their pound of flesh.
Refn’s film is about the possibility and terror of an online era dominated by appearances, where a public persona can be seized for eager consumption if the face fits, but also chopped up and cast aside in an instant once it’s outlived its usefulness.
“Because of the digital revolution,” the director told me recently, “we have so many alter-egos that we live through. And I find that very interesting. Partly encouraging, but partly scary, of course, because once you start pretending to be someone else, it’s sometimes hard to crawl back.”
Refn readily agrees to the suggestion that The Neon Demon is a movie created for a post YouTube landscape – a time where clips of a filmmaker’s movie can and often do appear online before the film itself is even completed.
“The Neon Demon is very much designed to be like a YouTube movie,” Refn says. “It’s designed to be chopped up. You can cut it up into seven or eight pieces and they’re, like, vignettes. You can put them together, or not – you can put them in a different order. I think that one of the things that has come because of the digital revolution is, in the past, there was a lot more control over content. How it was distributed, how it was relatable, how it was sold, how it was marketed, how it was consumed.”
The Neon Demon‘s twisted view of the LA modelling industry could be read as a comment on our cultural landscape as a whole. Just as one young model can be the latest sensation one minute and forgotten the next, entertainment has become so ubiquitous on television, laptops, and phones that it’s quickly devoured and then replaced by something else.
Our everyday lives are awash with information and entertainment, a considerable share of it available for free or as near to free as makes no difference. This lack of scarcity has created an entirely new situation on two fronts: number one, that entertainment is now so easy to come by that it is effectively worthless; and two, that the people who make it often struggle to make anything close to a living from it. In terms of filmmaking, what is the answer to this new era of democratized images?
For a huge, established industry like Hollywood, the answer lies in the franchise: recognizable names like Marvel, Lego, and Star Wars, onto which movies, spin-offs, and merchandise can be hung. Even at the cheaper end of the movie business, we’re seeing evidence of this: had 10 Cloverfield Lane been released under its original name, The Cellar, it might have struggled to make much money in cinemas. But branded as a semi-sequel to the 2008 hit Cloverfield, it wound up making more than $100m. Further sequels are planned, with only tenuous links to the original monster movie other than the name.
Jessie in The Neon Demon belongs to a generation of people who understand the power of branding at a personal level. In 2010, Swedish student Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg began making YouTube videos about his favourite pastime: videogames. Within months, Kjellberg – better known as PewDiePie – became one of the fastest-rising celebrities on YouTube, and in 2015, his net worth had reportedly hit $61m – making him nearly twice as rich as Hillary Clinton.
Now a media industry unto himself, PewDiePie is the very definition of the modern personal brand: his channel has around 48m subscribers, and his videos have been watched 13.6bn times. With his catchy screen name and accompanying logo, PewDiePie, and a generation of online celebrities like him, are the fruition of something the character Brian O’Blivion said in Videodrome:
“O’Blivion is not the name I was born with. It’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names, names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate…”
The cathode ray tube may have gone the way of the Nokia 3310, but the sentiment remains: in the new arena of the web, we’re all celebrities in the making. Nicolas Winding Refn understands this as well as anybody, having built up a reputation as a wayward auteur and enthusiastic self-promoter. Such utterances as “I’m vulgarity. I’m scandal. I’m gossip. I’m the future” could have come from O’Blivion himself, or his real-world inspiration, Marshall McLuhan.
The Neon Demon, like a perfume advert or a car commercial, comes branded with the monogram of its creator, cockily abbreviated to NWR. It is, Refn says, his “act of individualism. The idea that the future of entertainment is a lot more about brands.”
“The future of entertainment is not going to be about entertainment,” Refn tells me in one of his McLuhan-like trains of thought, “because you can go on your phone and there’s a world of free entertainment. It’s what it says that you as an individual person [that will count].”
If filmmakers, writers, and other creative types have to become brands or celebrities in order to find success, as Refn suggests, then that means spending a career in the glaring eye of the public. We’ve seen how a single YouTube video can go viral, making its creator’s name and even giving them a shot at cracking Hollywood – as an example, look at the history of the short film, Pixels. By contrast, a single misplaced tweet or embarrassing clip can result in public embarrassment and, worse, a tarnished brand: just ask Ariana Grande, an actress and singer who suffered a career wobble when a video leaked of her licking doughnuts and saying, “I hate America.”
The web can make celebrities and forge careers but, just like Jessie in The Neon Demon, its less lucky users can find themselves cruelly treated or dehumanized. Twitter users can be trolled, YouTube videos spammed with horrific messages. Videos and music can be taken and remixed, images Photoshopped in ways their authors never intended.
The Neon Demon, in its own kaleidoscopic way, captures the unreality of this modern interconnected climate of sensory overload and instant celebrity. Like a vast version of Hollywood, the internet is a land of opportunity. But it’s also a strange, hostile place that turns movies, writing, selfies, tweets ,and private thoughts into a fast-flowing river of content. When asked whether The Neon Demon was partly about his personal experiences in Hollywood, Refn could just as easily been talking about the web:
“…it’s all about consuming; you may feel as important or special or unique, but essentially, you’re part of the machinery.”
Filmmakers like Refn are adapting to a post-YouTube climate where movies are more likely to be watched on a laptop or phone than a vast cinema screen. But so, too, is everyone else. We’re all like Max Renn, the protagonist in Videodrome, faced with a new and evolving alternate reality that is at once intoxicating and frightening, its future impossible to predict.