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CAPSULE: NORTHFORK (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Polish

FEATURING: , Duel Farnes, , Mark Polish, , Robin Sachs, Anthony Edwards

PLOT: In 1955, officials try to convince reluctant residents of Northfork, Montana to leave before the town is flooded due to new dam construction; meanwhile, a dying orphan sees a ghostly family and tries to persuade them to adopt him.

Still from Northfork (2003)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Its monster-dog-on-stilts and odd angel quartet put it in the weird wheelhouse, and it is a well-made movie, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. There are better weird movies out there, including at least one movie made by the twin brother team behind Northfork.

COMMENTS: Set in a dusty and doomed, mostly abandoned Montana community that’s about to be buried under a deluge thanks to a public dam-building project, Northfork cultivates a feeling of quiet desperation. An evacuation committee, who dress like undertakers and drive hearse-like black Ford sedans, glide about town trying to convince stragglers to leave town. Meanwhile, in an even less cheery plot, an angelic young orphan lies dying, cared for by the town’s priest, too sick to adopt. His deathbed hallucinations involve visions of a quartet of ghostly beings who may or may not exist outside of the boy’s head. As befits the parched, deathly setting, Northfork is a slow and restrained movie. The performances, especially by Woods as the bureaucrat struggling with the memory of his wife’s death and Nolte as the melancholy orphanage priest, are stoic. Their weathered Western faces are pinched with sadness; their performances are appropriately and affectingly world-weary, but also one-note. Visually, the film is washed out and drained of color—although simultaneously full of sunshine and light, just like the Great Plains during a drought.

This reserved sense of departure is consistent throughout the film, but the one thing that isn’t at all subtle are all the angels. Despite the fact that one of the town’s residents has built his own ark, the celestial symbolism is laid on even thicker than the Great Flood imagery. Wings pop up everywhere, and so do feathers, passing between the dream world and the real world. The orphan is referred to as an angel, and in fact believes himself to be one. Actually, the nods to angels are made so literal that they cease be symbols, and simply become a feature of the plot landscape. The angelism becomes almost kitschy, and works against the restraint shown by the rest of the movie.

While I’ve managed to find a lot to complain about here, Northfork is really a beautiful looking and meditative movie, and one that is capable of pulling out a few weird surprises from time to time (like the wooden dog creature on stilts, and the odd guessing game the evacuators have to play to order a meal at the diner). The setting of the nearly abandoned town, with floodwaters about to descend upon it, is wonderful, but suggests more meaning than the script is capable of delivering. The parallelism between the dying town and the dying boy is thought provoking, but upon consideration the story doesn’t lead us anywhere. Norfolk displays the trappings of spirituality, but it doesn’t have a real spiritual message to convey. The best I can come up with is that the film is pro-immortality, at least in theory.

The scenario was inspired by Northfork Dam, a hydroelectric project instituted during the Depression that buried several small farming communities under a man-made lake. Northfork Lake is in Arkansas rather than Montana.

Michael and Mark Polish are twin brothers; Michael directs (and sometimes acts) while Mark writes and acts. The Metropolitan DVD of Northfork is out of print and fetching a pretty price, so the curious viewer may prefer to try it on instant video instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has that vintage Polish pace, their signature arch pomposity and rhythmless weirdness, only this time the brothers had to go and make a cosmic allegory of American dreams.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat Doherty, who recalled that it’s “the boy’s trips back and forth between two realities which make up some of the most haunting parts of the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

154. VIDEODROME (1983)

“My early drafts tend to get extreme in all kinds of ways: sexually, violently, and just in terms of weirdness. But I have to balance this weirdness against what an audience will accept as reality. Even in the sound mix, when we’re talking about what sort of sound effects we want for the hand moving around inside the stomach slit, for example; we could get really weird and use really loud, slurpy, gurgly effects, but I’m playing it realistically. That is to say, I’m giving it the sound it would really have, which is not much. I’m presenting something that is outrageous and impossible, but I’m trying to convey it realistically.”–David Cronenberg on Videodrome

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jack Creley, Sonja Smits

PLOT: Searching for the next level of violent and pornographic entertainment, CIVIC-TV president Max Renn discovers a pirate broadcast called “Videodrome” that depicts the torture and killing of nude men and women in an undisclosed location. Renn is thrilled by what he sees as the future of television, a savage show with no plot, characters, or budget, but his interest in in the program becomes more personal than professional as he watches it with radio personality Nikki Brand and develops his own taste for sadomasochism. Meanwhile, Renn explores the origins of “Videodrome” and its connection to media prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion, whose lectures about the relationship between the human mind and televisual media suggest “Videodrome”’s influence over Renn goes much deeper than he realizes.

Still from Videodrome (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • David Cronenberg’s inspiration for Videodrome came from his childhood experiences of watching televisions pick up distant, distorted signals after the local stations had gone off the air. He imagined what it would be like to see something obscene or illegal on the screen, and he wondered whether he would turn away from the sight or keep watching.
  • CityTV, a Toronto-based independent television station that controversially broadcast softcore porn movies late at night in the 1970s, was the inspiration for Videodrome‘s “Civic TV.”
  • Special makeup effects designer Rick Baker began work on Videodrome shortly after winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, the first award ever given in that category. He was awarded for his work on the film An American Werewolf in London.
  • The character of Professor Brian O’Blivion was loosely based on Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” echoes of which can be seen in Videodrome. Cronenberg may have been a student of McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto.
  • Videodrome was a box office bomb, earning only $2 million at theaters (it cost $6 million to make). It has since become a cult film.
  • At the time of this writing Universal Pictures lists a Videodrome remake as “in development.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Videodrome is full of unforgettable scenes, from Max Renn inserting a gun into his stomach to Barry Convex’s death by cancer-inducing bullets, but it is Renn’s sexual encounter with his television that best captures the hallucinatory, philosophical, and disturbingly erotic aspects of the film. After watching footage of Nicki Brand strangling Prof. O’Blivion, Renn is drawn to his television by Brand’s playful but insistent voice, as her lips grow to fill the screen. Soon, Renn is close enough to reach out and touch the device, which throbs and grows veins under his fingers like an engorged organ. Between rasps and sighs, the television says, “I want you, Max,” as Renn caresses its frame, becoming more aggressive and aroused. The screen begins to bulge under Renn’s groping hands as he leans forward, his face disappearing into the screen’s disembodied lips while they slurp and moan in ecstasy. Though Brand initially seduces Renn, by the end the television has become the willing object of his lust. Renn is not a passive observer of the screen, nor is his television a lifeless machine. Rather, Renn’s craving for the television enters the device and animates it, infusing it with so much desire that it is able to desire Renn in return. This giving of life to the mechanical captures Videodrome’s most salient theme, the idea that technology is not separate from humanity but instead represents an expansion upon the human form, a “new flesh” that may either subjugate or liberate us all.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Videodrome[1] is weird from the moment it introduces its titular snuff program, not just because of the violence it depicts but also because of the characters’ casual acceptance of that violence. Renn and Brand’s unreserved fascination with the “Videodrome” broadcast places them in an alternate moral universe, one where murder is simply the next step for television; the viewer is displaced from his or her own ethical reality.

That disorientation only increases as Videodrome takes hold of Renn, inducing horrible visions that further loosen his and the viewer’s grasp of what is real. In those hallucinations, Renn is subjected to brainwashing and disfigurement that warp him on a mental and physical level, shaking the sense of himself that is his most basic link to the real world. In one scene Barry Convex forces a videocassette into the vaginal slit that Renn has grown on his stomach, adding overtones of surrealism and rape to the story. It is an assault on not just the body and the mind but also on reality, an experience that shatters the protagonist and the viewer in a way few other films can match.


Original trailer for Videodrome

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Videodrome, a talk show host asks, “Don’t you feel [violent and sexual] shows contribute to a social climate of Continue reading 154. VIDEODROME (1983)

  1. Videodrome is used in three senses in this essay. When italicized (Videodrome), the word means the movie directed by David Cronenberg. “Videodrome” is placed in quotes to signify the pirate broadcast Renn watches. When not in quotes or italics, Videodrome refers to the abstract entity or idea of the Videodrome. []