Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sleazy Money

by Tom Dunn

What does the phrase “80s American cinema” bring to mind? For most people, it’s no doubt the two Coreys, a New Wave soundtrack and a well etched template for teen carpe diem. Often considered a kneejerk reaction to the violence of “New Hollywood,” this 35mm bubblegum – whilst often great – also aided a less artistically admirable quality of the decade; a reliance upon formula, upon branding. It’s there above in the “Two Coreys,” it’s there in that (wonderful as it is) John Hughes feel, and, most obviously, it’s there in drawn out franchises like Friday the 13th and Police Academy. Like any form of media, cinema always reflects its contemporary social climate, and so on the one hand all of this can be seen as part of the 80s revival of capitalism and laissez-faire economics in the West, spearheaded by the yuppie. It’s a well known image, as excessive and OTT as its seeming subject; the young professional, eager for the next big thing in both money and thrills, snorting cocaine and leading us all to a debauched ruin. The death of “New Hollywood” may coincide with the boom in popcorn cinema, but its legacy lived on in the genre cinema of the time, answering as it did to this new social conundrum in the form of the yuppie and corporatism. Of all places, it was the Sci-Fi and Body-Horror cinema of the period that explored this issue most pervasively, the excesses to which genre was pushed in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) and David Cronenberg’s earlier Videodrome (1983) paralleling the overblown lifestyles of the corporate cats they simultaneously attacked. Ironically enough, even James Cameron’s aborted Spider-Man production was to get in on the action, finding the antithesis to wholesome Peter Parker in a mutant media mogul version of classic villain Electro. Think Rupert Murdoch with Richard Branson’s flashy smile and a penchant for frying...well, everyone.

What’s interesting about all of these films is how they link personal degeneration and amorality with a wider social apathy – even acceptance – through its intrinsic linking with television, something that Videodrome finds its whole premise built upon. Perverted businessman and head of Civic TV, Max Renn (perfectly cast as James Woods), is on the hunt for the next big thing, the future of television, and he believes he’s found it in the pirate signal “Videodrome,” a plotless snuff transmission complete with lurid colours and explicit, repetitive violence. In Max’s own words, Videodrome represents something “contemporary...edgy,” a new rung on the ladder of “sexual malaise” and “overstimulation” that his girlfriend Nicki Brand at once deplores and openly admits to being victim to. It is fitting that, as Max’s unceasing desire for more violence and sex increases, the physicality of Nicki and the allure of television coalesce and become one, a loss of self that was signposted in Nicki’s first appearance in the film through a camera monitor. As if this wasn’t enough, Max’s mission to find the source of Videodrome leads him to Professor Brain O’Blivion’s Cathode Ray Mission, a temple where the poor and homeless might enjoy the benefits of the same network TV world Max hails from. As the plot descends into a nightmarish conspiracy, we root for Max to escape the claws of Videodrome even as we revile him for bringing this upon himself; in this world, there is no moral high ground, and it is only those that might conquer and control the airwaves that might escape, and in turn, control the nation’s own bodies through television. There’s something oddly satisfying in that, in this world of corporate warfare waged by way of distorting and claiming the body’s own functions, the final showdown occurs at villain Barry Convex’s unveiling ceremony for a new line of spectacles.

Like Videodrome, Robocop relies upon the focalizing effect of television to relay cultural apathy and greed, beginning as it does with a mish-mash of insincere news anchors bearing painted-on smiles and a commercial for sports-brand pacemakers, whilst everyone’s favourite TV catch-phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar,” is repeated throughout the film incessantly. In Robocop’s world, branding is everything, and so Old Detroit, effectively owned by the private firm Omni-Consumer Products, is on the way to be re-labelled and rebuilt as Delta City, land of the future. The reality is that, for OCP, lives are just commodities, and so a rebranding of the city just means the ultimate in consumer restructuring. Robocop himself is the end-result of a Frankenstein project led by yuppie stereotype Bob Morton. Played by Miguel Ferrer, he’s the drug-swilling young buck whose demands for more lead to his death, by the hands of another OCP big-wig who just so happens to run the criminal underworld too (economically, it makes a lot of sense, don’t you think?). Robocop’s personal quest to rediscover his human identity and take down his killers is frustrated by the mindset of the OCP-fuelled world around him – “He’s product” – and it’s own cavalier attitude toward providing goods that actually measure up to the hype built up around them; when villain Dick Jones’ rival project, ED-209 fails and kills another member of the board, the tragedy is merely a “glitch” – the branding of ED-209 at least is still alive and kicking.“Who cares if it works or not?!”
In the face of all this, and the unspoken reality that Delta City is just such another product of hype, when Robocop finally does regain his humanity at the film’s end, we can’t help but feel that the hope engendered is hollow. He’s still a component in the corporate machine of OCP-run Detroit. Like Renn, for Robocop, there is no escape from the corporate system. They’re in too deep. But at least their capitalist dystopias were spared of Dream a Little Dream 2...