David Cronenberg: Secret Weapons (Programme X, 1972)
In the 5 years between the production of Crimes of the Future and Shivers, David Cronenberg puttered around Europe, developed short television features, and worked for the CBC, making everything from travelogues on southern France to documentaries about key spots of the Greater Toronto Area. However, in that period, he also directed a short television movie for a CBC anthology series named Programme X, which featured experimental and low-budget work from rising talent in Canada.
Written by and starring his friend, Norman Snider, the resulting work, Secret Weapons, is the film most worthy of discussion in this transitional period for Cronenberg. It uneasily exists in a liminal state between experimental and narrative film, showcasing the deficiencies of each and suggesting an alternative career where Cronenberg was left making artistic curios for Canadian television instead of celebrated horror features for theatrical audiences. Secret Weapons is the sort of dry, half-formed cerebral thriller that seems like a reiteration of Stereo and Crimes of the Future instead of a development beyond them. It's seemingly evidence of a filmmaker refusing to grow.
In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Chris Rodley points out that Cronenberg “often referred to Secret Weapons, the last made by his company Emergent Films, as his ‘suppressed’ film. Although it has rarely been seen, its function as the perfect conduit between the avant-garde films and the commercial features to come is all too apparent.”
Like Crimes of the Future, Secret Weapons takes place in an alternate future where unseen social and political events have devastated the world. It’s 1977 and the North American Civil War is in full swing. A drug company, General Pharmaceutics, has effectively taken over society and wages war against minor insurgencies. A research scientist (played by Norman Snider), who made his name developing neuropsychopharmacological techniques for fueling soldier’s desire for battle, returns to General Pharmaceutics after some undiscussed hiatus. General Pharmaceutics worries that he’s been compromised by insurgents and puts him under assessment and surveillance, forcing him into the hands of the insurgents.
The plot elements are familiar Cronenberg mainstays, but the television format does Cronenberg no favours for exploring what would become his usual themes and obsessions. Secret Weapons runs under 30 minutes and the restricted runtime means we’re never allowed the time to sink into the peculiar rhythms of the world like with Stereo or Crimes of the Future. As well, the distribution medium forces Cronenberg to compromise with a half-narrative, neither committing to the opaque experimental mode of his early features nor fully transitioning to conventional narrative filmmaking like with Shivers and his later features.
Like everything Cronenberg has made, there are still strengths to Secret Weapons. Early Cronenberg favourite Ron Mlodzik appears as Mr. Lee, who does the processing and assessment at General Pharmaceutics. In his one scene with Snider, he proves the only performer in the entire film to properly calibrate the tone of the work; he’s relishes the heightened dialogue and arch tone without spilling over into camp. The assessment scene is a highlight and one of the only moments when Cronenberg does anything innovative in his filmmaking. For instance, midway through Mr. Lee’s interrogation of our protagonist, Cronenberg has a feather duster-like object intrude from off-screen right. Moments later, Cronenberg zooms out to reveal the shadow of a figure on the right side of the frame, clarifying that this interrogation is being closely observed by unseen forces. It’s a bizarre moment, but the calculated withholding and reveal of context within the frame and the narrative adds the type of mystery that so much of the film fails to conjure.
Unfortunately, most other moments in the film are dull. Snider is no performer, delivering his lines with a flatness that is more reminiscent of a pretentious actor in a student film than that of an accomplished art film. By the time his scientist gets involved with a motorcycle gang of insurgents and has a sit down with its female leader, all potential narrative intrigue has been extinguished. Only two elements of the film aside from Mlodzik’s scene make it worthwhile. One is that the narrator is Lister Sinclair, a popular CBC broadcaster who hosted the radio program, CBC Ideas, until 1999. The presence of his familiar, authoritative voice to describe the bizarre world of Cronenberg and Snider’s film lends it a credibility much of it frankly doesn’t deserve.
The other element comes out in Sinclair’s narration during a scene where a security guard is toying with Snider’s scientist. The narration mentions that the guards of General Pharmaceutics have methods for toying with the anxiety of their prisoners by alternating between calm, rational behaviour and bursts of irrational, dangerous behaviour. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment, of a piece with the kind of pseudo-expert commentary you find in Cronenberg’s early films. But it’s also an authorial confessional of how Cronenberg approaches his audience. Like the guards of General Pharmaceutics, Cronenberg will liberally use calm, rational exposition to explain the deranged concepts present in his films. His filmmaking is clinical and reserved, lulling viewers into a safe narrative distance. But then he’ll explode any concepts of distance or rationality with his bizarre and graphic moments of violence and gore. In short, you think you’re getting an opaque, rational art film with Cronenberg and instead are surprised by horror and gore worthy of deranged underground films.
That such a reflexive moment is present in Secret Weapons proves that it’s worthwhile viewing for Cronenberg purists, even if most viewers will do better to skip ahead to Shivers and see how Cronenberg corrected some of his more opaque impulses to create a successful work of film entertainment. Secret Weapons is a failed experiment, but like most failed experiments, the recipe for future success is present in its dysfunction.
4 out of 10
Programme X (1970-1973, CBC)
Secret Weapons (1972, Canada)
Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Norman Snider; hosted by Charles Oberdorf; starring Norman Snider, Barbara O’Kelly, Vernon Chapman, Bruce Martin, Ron Mlodzik, Tom Skudra, Moses Smith, Michael Spence; narrated by Lister Sinclair.