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More Than Just Film

The Early Works of David Cronenberg (part one)

Stereo (1969)

An unnamed research subject (Ronald Mlodzik) considering some DIY.

A touch over three minutes into Shivers (1975), David Cronenberg’s third full-length film (shot under the delicious working title of Orgy of the Blood Parasites), we experience something for the first time in his burgeoning career. It isn’t how shots of a man brutally murdering a young woman are inter-cut with a young couple making small talk with a security guard in the foyer below. And it wasn’t when shots of him dissecting her dead body and then cutting his own throat were juxtaposed with a married couple making forced conversation whilst eating breakfast. It was the simple fact that we saw people talk and could hear what they were saying. 

To grasp what I’m going on about, we need to look back at his early experimental films, starting with his debut feature, Stereo (1969) aka Stereo (Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic)

Let’s first address some pressing questions that may arise.

Is Stereo worth watching?

Does it relate to Cronenberg’s later themes?

Is this blog going to tell an interesting story?

Well there’s at least two yeses in there so let’s crack on.

The first thing that hits you about Stereo, and which Cronenberg carried into the follow-up/kind of sequel Crimes of the Future (1970), is the absolute absence of diegetic sound. A helicopter lands on the grounds of a sanitorium owned by the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry and our caped protagonist emerges (played by the remarkable looking Ronald Mlodzik) but we hear nothing. Over the next hour, a handful of researchers and subjects will run about, scream and very occasionally have a conversation. But this all takes place in silence. In practical terms, this was due to the 35mm Bolex camera Cronenberg was using being incredibly noisy and there not being enough money to add synchronised sound. And yet he uses this to his advantage by creating  an alien culture within the sanitorium. When coupled with the detached nature of the film’s quasi-documentary style, an illusion is created of observing the characters as if they were inside an aquarium. (Cronenberg takes this one step further in his next film by building a soundtrack out of underwater sounds). 

The soundtrack is not completely dead. We hear a series of voices (six male and one female) giving dry, jargon heavy reports which inform us that we are witnessing eight subjects taking part in experiments in social cybernetics, each being surgically and biochemically induced into having telepathic abilities. Researchers then aim to improve their extra sensory perception through a free-love approach to sexual intercourse (this is the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry, after all). 

Some scientific sex.

So, already we’ve got many themes that will run through Cronenberg’s career; sinister sounding scientific institutions, unsettling sex, the mutation/mutilation of minds and bodies and the unleashing of the repressed.

In a film about tapping into alternative means of communication (we learn that some of the subjects have had their vocal chords removed to further their ability to communicate non-verbally) it is fitting that dialogue is problematic. There is an impenetrable and soporific nature to much of what is said. At best, this can come across as abstract poetry, occasional lines ringing out and (if we’re very lucky) connecting to what we see. 

At one point we hear, ‘During the Institute phase of the induced telepathy series, a subject possessed of a statistically excessive dependency susceptibility quotient wounded himself in the forehead with a hand drill. The wound – a hole about one half an inch in diameter – completely penetrated the subject’s skull, and seemed to afford him the relief of imagined cranial pressures, temporary euphoria, and electrochemical dissociation, which he’d sought.’ Shortly after we see Ronald Mlodzik’s unnamed subject, presumably the one being discussed, staring in a mirror obsessively at the point between his eyes. With no shortage of dry humour, this is reported  as ‘an act of considerable symbolic significance’. 

An exotic fish.

As they mostly have little bearing on what we see on the screen, the voice-overs tend to become white noise. When I’m at my most cynical, they can come across as pseudo-academic blather, half-formed ideas designed to sound impressive but which ring hollow. Now here’s a thing, there’s a tiny voice in the back of my mind which wonders if this in itself became a recurring trait in Cronenberg’s work, his early films especially. Maybe some trepanning will fix that.

Confession time, I’m not a blinkered fanboy of Cronenberg’s work, although David and I have shared some remarkable times in the past. Watching The Brood as an impressionable ten-year-old left me with images and sensations still vivid today, at fifteen years old The Fly was my second ever 18 certificate experience at the cinema (hot on the heels of Aliens) and is a film I still love dearly, and there’s the time I watched eXistenZ whilst struggling with pronounced ‘reality bleed-through’ issues of my own. Despite this, I don’t think his work is beyond criticism. In fact, by looking at the major allegations raised about his 1970s output, and how he responded and developed as a filmmaker, can provide us with an interesting take on his work. More on this in later posts.

So, let’s get back to the first question, is Stereo worth watching? And let me answer this in a roundabout kind of way. The film is undeniably the work of an original voice. Cronenberg was no cinephile at university although he admired how Bergman and Fellini created films which could only have come from their distinctive worlds (something that he himself would go on to create). His greatest inspiration came from a fellow student who made a film of his own. Cronenberg watched it with a blown mind. On the cinema screen, previously a portal into fantastical or glamourous realms, he saw buildings that he walked past each day and people that he knew. It had never occurred to him that someone, anyone, could decide to make a film. His future suddenly became much clearer.

Throwing himself completely into filmmaking, at the cost of his university studies, he taught himself about cameras, lenses, lighting and sound equipment. He stared longingly at the equipment adverts in cinematography magazines, the pieces in his mind slowly fitting into place. And he started making short films, carrying out all the technical roles himself. By 1969, he shot his first feature film. 

At his disposal was a visually striking location to run wild in, a brutalist building on the University of Toronto campus otherwise deserted during the summer months. Quite frankly, it’s the kind of location that demands you make your own artsy sci-fi film and, to contemporary eyes, it has that gorgeous late 60s retro futurism thing going on. Cronenberg shoots it beautifully in black and white, its sharp angles cutting the screen into sections, hinting at the inescapable traps that await its subjects within.  

Brutal goings-on.

For his budget, he received a $3,500 grant to cover the costs of camera rental and film stock although, as grants weren’t yet available for filmmaking, Cronenberg applied on the grounds of writing a novel and even fired out a couple of sample chapters. He also had a small cast of beautiful people to populate his shots (or exotic fish to fill his aquarium, as Cronenberg puts it). What he didn’t have was a script. As a result, his characters drift about the hallways, they flirt, they look bored, they get half-naked in laboratories and lecture spaces, they chase each other down corridors, they eat (note to self, write a thesis on eating in Cronenberg films). They experiment with sex, drugs and telepathy in a commune designed to replace the family unit.  This is very much the product of the late 60s. 

Prelude to a threesome.

Like so many scientific experiments in Cronenberg films, the research into telepathy-sex ends in failure. At least two subjects die, one self-mutilates (and possibly dies) and the remainder abandon the sanatorium. But at least it didn’t result in the kind of mini-apocalypses we will see in Shivers and Rabid (1977). So, small mercies. 

Yes yes yes but is it any good?

I like it. I mean, I want to like it. 

It often looks fantastic and the actors give it everything. So whilst it has much to recommend there is also something glaringly absent; a compelling story. At over an hour long, this makes it a challenging viewing experience. Kim Newman nails it when he said of Stereo and Crimes of the Future that they prove it’s possible to be interesting and boring at the same time. (This reminds me of a review for Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) in which the reviewer discovered that it was possible to be bored whilst having an erection).

Stereo (Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic) would work well as an installation piece or as a canvas for a live soundtracking. Otherwise, approach with caution.

Ronald Mlodzik loses the plot.

Coming up in part two:

It’s 1970. I am a developing embryo in my mother’s uterus and David Cronenberg is releasing his new film, Crimes of the Future.

It’s 2022. I am 52 years old and David Cronenberg is releasing his new film, Crimes of the Future.

One comment on “The Early Works of David Cronenberg (part one)

  1. Pingback: The Early Works of David Cronenberg | SuperCool Cinema

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