David Cronenberg: Stereo (1969)
Stereo is an atypical debut for an atypical, great director. Neither entertaining nor particularly insightful, this black-and-white oddity was filmed without sound on an extremely-low budget (various reports all put the budget at less than $10,000CAD). To a passive observer who has no investment in Cronenberg’s career or interest in the cinematic form, the film is nothing but a bore with the occasional visual provocation. To viewers who value Cronenberg’s work, it becomes something more: a promise of things to come. That does not mean it is a good film in any conventional sense. It’s far more interesting to dissect than it is to watch. As critic and novelist Kim Newman puts it, Stereo (along with Crimes of the Future) “proves it’s possible to be boring and interesting at the same time.”
The film’s rudimentary plot follows individuals undergoing an experiment in “pattern brain surgery” and telepathy put on by the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry. A young man in a cape (queer scholar and actor Ron Mlodzik) enters a mysterious institute and engages in social and sexual experiments with other individuals. There is no dialogue. There is no recorded sound. There is an intermittent commentary throughout by unseen figures who are meant to be intellectuals or scientists analyzing the action on screen and contextualizing it for the viewer, although their commentary consists of little more than pseudo-scientific babble. The whole thing plays like a mockumentary, but it’s hard to know whether we’re meant to laugh at the film or take it seriously; the answer is likely both.
Stereo is very much a self-financed passion project. As such, we cannot judge it the same way we would Hollywood debuts like Hard Eight or Citizen Kane, which had the full force of a studio for artistic and commercial support. Cronenberg did most of the behind-the-scenes work himself, shooting it on a ArriFlex camera he rented on credit from Film House, which put him into serious debt. In fact, the closing credits acknowledge three production aides as the only crew members aside from Cronenberg. He wrote, shot, edited, produced, and directed the picture, making it as pure a “Cronenberg film” as exists.
As I said at the outset, Stereo is a boring film. While running only 65 minutes, there is no conventional plot to speak of and no real conflict between the various figures we see on screen. Like so many experimental art films of the late sixties and early seventies, Stereo plays with counter-cultural notions of sexuality and social programming. It has characters take their sexual impulses to the furthest possible extreme, to paraphrase one of the commentators in the film. There are mentions of telepathy and we see Mlodzik and others act in ways deviant by 1960s standards to ways outright bizarre. For instance, some scenes have him enjoying sexual experiences with other men while other moments have characters trying to transfer sexual arousal through telepathic means.
Throughout, Cronenberg likes to defamiliarize otherwise normal actions. Some scenes attempt to capture the rapid progression of heightened sensory powers. When Mlodzik first sees the room in which he’ll be staying, Cronenberg rapidly cuts between insert shots of the objects in the room as if the man’s senses of perception are heightened, which in turn overwhelms the film’s typically-slow pace. In other moments, he imbues ordinary activities with sexual energy, such as having a tea party or eating a candy bar. As previously mentioned, Cronenberg understands the humorous dimension of these actions, but he doesn’t tip the film into mockery. Whatever satire is present is so subtle as to be often invisible.
There’s little here to hold a casual viewer’s interest aside from the odd striking visual or the overall aethereal atmosphere. Cronenberg shot the entire film on the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus (where Cronenberg-admirer Denis Villeneuve set key scenes in his 2014 doppelganger film, Enemy), which is itself notable for its imposing, ungainly modernist architecture.
Even at this early stage of his career, Cronenberg knew how to overwhelm characters with the environments that surround them, shooting oppressive buildings in the centre of the frame at wide angles to have them dominate the miniscule figures on screen. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he comments on his use of architecture in film: “The massive architecture suggests order and calm and eternity, when in fact the poor human beings who have to live inside that society are inflicted with many things that don’t have much to do with those concepts. I think I was trying to come to terms with the balance between the two.” Even in Stereo, Cronenberg’s formal control clashes with the unrestrained sexual and psychological actions of his characters, creating a potent artistic tension.
He also displays a savvy use of silhouette, often framing characters against large windows or down stairwells, with overhead lamps or ambient sunlight serving as backlights. Cronenberg would further develop these sorts of formal approaches later in his career, but they’re present here even in his debut feature, showing that Stereo and the similar follow-up Crimes of the Future are essentially “well-formed embryos or prototypes for [Cronenberg’s] subsequent experiments in Visceral Vision,” as Chris Rodley writes in Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Stereo is that it literalizes an approach that Cronenberg would subtly use throughout his career. Once Cronenberg started turning away from body horror pictures in the 1990s, wary critics began to accuse him of taking a distanced, clinical approach to drama. While these critics are wrong in thinking that Cronenberg’s clinicism makes his films dramatically inert, they are correct that Cronenberg films his movies from an emotional remove. This approach is deliberate. And in Stereo the approach is actually dramatically defeating. The film is distanced to a fault, devoid of any emotional stakes or conflict for the viewer to invest in.
In essence, Cronenberg is the mad scientist as filmmaker, conducting psychological and sexual experiments on his subjects (the characters) in an effort to see what makes their bodies and minds tick, and, in so doing, further understand the psychology and physiology of human beings as a species. In Stereo, the unseen Dr. Luther Stringfellow devises the experiments the characters undertake in the institute, and Cronenberg very much sees himself as Stringfellow: “My role in Stereo was as Dr. Luther Stringfellow, the absentee scientist who actually set up the experiment, because, in a sense, I had set up an experiment.”
Thus, Stereo is an experiment, both as a story and a film. It’s also an unrefined, early form of what his later films like A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis would become. It shows that Cronenberg’s career has essentially come full circle, and that even from the get-go, his reserved formal approach and thematic interests in psychosexual issues were shockingly well-formulated.
Stereo is by no means an entertaining film, but when viewed as an element of the Cronenberg canon, it’s essential.
5 out of 10
Stereo (1969, Canada)
Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Ron Mlodzik, Jack Messinger, Iain Ewing, Clara Mayer, Paul Mulholland, Arlene Mlodzik, Glenn McCauley.