By Preston Fassel
One of my favorite blogs is called Dinosaur Dracula, where the delightful “Matt” waxes nostalgic about ’80s to ’90s pop culture. One recurring feature is a look at the background in movies and the period’s food, toys and household accoutrements seen. For instance, there’s a fun analysis of the breakfast cereal boxes in “Manhunter.” That got me thinking that the world of opticianry doesn’t get a lot of representation in the media, so I figured it’d be worth a look at one of those rare times when an optical shop (and optician!) plays an important role.
I’ve mentioned “Videodrome” here before. It’s an early ’80s film that’s half Cold War thriller and half sci-fi horror. It tells the story of Max (James Woods), a cable executive who’s exposed to the titular Videodrome, a TV signal that brainwashes people into mindless drones while it slowly kills them. Over the course of the film, he learns that Videodrome is part of a plot to cleanse North America of “degenerates” by hiding the signal in violent TV programming. In a bizarre twist, it turns out that Spectacular Optical, a frame and lens manufacturer is running Videodrome with ties to various world governments. In a pivotal scene, Max is summoned to one of Spectacular’s storefronts to meet the film’s villain, Barry Convex, the optician in charge of the Videodrome program.
While Spectacular Optical is fictitious, per the DVD commentary, director David Cronenberg redressed an actual dispensary on Queen Street East in Riverdale, Toronto. Though he doesn’t go into detail, it appears to have been a low-income shop. Note the sparsely decorated turnstile and P.O.P. display.
It’s interesting to see how heavily zyls were apparently dominating the Canadian market. If the frames came from the dispensary’s actual stock, it appears they outnumbered metals 10 to 1, with a single incongruous browline. A pair of aviators pops up in a display tray, part of Spectacular’s “Dynamite” line, to be debuted at a trade show that later is the setting for the movie’s climax, perhaps the only time in film history that a shootout has taken place at an optical trade show.
Per Cronenberg, the scene comes from the fact that he “love(s) scenes in movies where people try on glasses.” He cites an episode of “The Prisoner” as an inspiration but doesn’t list any other glasses-trying-on scenes. I’d love to see them.
The best thing about this sequence is how Cronenberg (a glasses wearer) so perfectly captures the optician’s personality. Although Convex has summoned Max to explain his role in Videodrome, he can’t help but go into professional mode when he sees Max trying on a pair of frames: “I think that machinery you’re wearing is too much for the shape of your face,” he says. “Overwhelms you. Try something more spidery. More delicate.” A second later he remembers his purpose and snaps back into villain mode, but it says something about our psychology. (Who goes into opticals at the mall and feels compelled to dispense advice? Admit it.)
Videodrome is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea (it’s super gory), but this one scene is a snapshot of a time and place in optical history, and a rare glimpse of our world preserved on celluloid.