Speaking of metaphors, leave it to David Cronenberg to crank up the malevolence an extra notch in Videodrome (1983). In that film, the unscrupulous operator of a seedy Toronto cable station wants to build up his ratings by programming edgy porn. He comes across a pirate broadcast of a show called Videodrome, which has no characters or plot but is simply 24 hours of apparently real torture and death. (Cronenberg’s version looks quaint compared with recent torture-porn cinema, or even Survivor: Micronesia.) Unfortunately, the program’s “content” (the “meat” McLuhan was talking about) masks a signal that mutates the cable operator into the “New Flesh,” a human/machine hybrid sporting a vaginal-like slot in his abdomen for receiving video cassettes that program him into an assassin.
Just in case the McLuhan references go unnoticed, Videodrome puts the man himself in the cast thinly disguised as the character Brian O’Blivion, who “never appears on TV except on TV” and is prone to such pronouncements as, “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. . . . 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.”
Add the Internet to O’Blivion’s equation and the world of today looks something like the one in Gregory Hoblit’s Untraceable (2008). A mad hacker has set up a Web site called “KillWithMe?” in which a hapless victim is set up in a Saw-like environment that grows more lethal as each visitor logs on. With each click, another searing heat light turns on, or more sulfuric acid drips into a vat. The FBI can’t trace the site’s location, nor can they haul in the culprit’s accomplices — the thousands of thrill-seeking voyeurs who somehow feel that the detachment and anonymity of the computer screen absolves them of culpability.
This theme of responsibility — or tone of moralism, if you will — informs the career of Michael Haneke as it does his first Hollywood feature, Funny Games (2008), a remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same title. As in his previous films, Benny’s Video (1992) and Caché (2005), Funny Games plays with the effect of the media on viewers, in particular its desensitization of such faculties as those of compassion and conscience.
Two genial, clean-cut young men ingratiate themselves into a family’s gated household and in short order involve them in brutal and whimsical games. Apparently rendered sociopathic and nihilistic by a dehumanizing, all-pervading media culture, the villains descend like the demonic visitors in Poltergeist and devastate their victims’ bourgeois complacency.
That’s infuriating enough, but what really infuriates audiences is a scene that carries Being There’s remote-channel-selector scene to its illogical conclusion. Haneke intends to remind audiences of their complicity in the violence they vicariously enjoy on the screen. But the scene also points out that they do indeed have some say in the matter. The power doesn’t lie just with those who produce, select, and broadcast what we see, but also with those who hold the remote control.