Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1969)

There's no higher compliment a filmmaker can be given than his/her name becoming an adjective. If you ask a film freak to define something as "Hitchcockian" or "Lynchian," they'll know immediately what that means. Or, for another example, Cronenbergian. David Cronenberg's films are so famous for their images of mutated bodies, extreme gore, and cancerous tumors that his last name is now associated with these very ideas.

 Of course, weird body horror is not the only thing David Cronenberg's films have to offer. For many years, he was the most ambitious filmmaker in horror or any other genre, exploring far-out ideas about science, the body, and technology. This Report Card is one I've been wanting to do for a long time. Let's begin with Cronenberg's humble roots as a student filmmaker...

1. Stereo
Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic

David Cronenberg did not go to college planning on pursuing a career in film. Instead, he was initially interested in becoming a scientist. Instead, a screening of “Winter Kept Us Warm,” a film by a fellow student at the University of Toronto, made him interested in film. He would soon make two 16mm short films, “Transfer” and “From the Drain.” Yet Cronenberg's love of science would never go away. Aside from a somewhat scientist-like demeanor, his very first feature was a black-and-white depiction of a scientific study. “Stereo” is a student film that got some slight exposure in local art houses. Running only a little over an hour, it is nevertheless the first David Cronenberg feature film.

“Stereo” describes a study performed at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry. Run by Dr. Luther Stringfellow, the experiment revolves around a group of young adults imbued with telepathic abilities. Their vocal chords are altered, so that they can only communicate telepathically. They are encouraged to live together, to begin polyamorous sexual relationships, in an attempt to strengthen their psychic bond. Stringfellow's theories do not play out as expected and, soon, the experiment begins to go wrong.

“Stereo” is, undoubtedly, an experimental film. The movie is not presented as a tradition narrative. Described as an “educational mosaic” in the opening credits, the film has no dialogue. “Stereo” is devoted to silently watching the test subjects go about their day, while various scientists narrate their theories and development. Dr. Stringfellow is kept entirely off-screen. This approach was largely practical on Cronenberg's behalf. The camera he shot the movie with was too noisy for sound to be recorded on set. Yet it's fitting that a movie about a scientific experiment should be presented entirely as a documentary, meant to show the research and the scientist's hypothesis.

It's also obvious that “Stereo” is the work of a filmmaker in his infancy. “Stereo” is largely silent. There's no music, the film being made up of long stretches of total silence. The detached, scientific approach prevents the audience from ever getting close to any of the characters, all of whom are unnamed. The narration is frequently baffling, entrenched in impenetrable technobabble. This might be on purpose, as “Stereo” has been described as a parody of scientific films. Whatever the intention, “Stereo” can't help but come off as an incredibly pretentious, self-consciously artsy student film.

Despite obviously being made by a director who was still learning his craft, “Stereo” presents many of the themes that Cronenberg would be fascinated with throughout his career. An obsession with experimental science is apparent throughout many of his commercial films, at least eight of them dealing with the subject. “Stereo's” unseen Dr. Stringfellow is the prototype for every detached Cronebergian scientist, determined to push the human body and mind into strange new places, without much thought for the health of the subject. However, like many rogue scientist Cronenberg would depict, the doctors in “Stereo” aren't evil nor judged for their methods. In “Stereo,” the extreme experiments are being done in order to fill the void left in society by the obsolete nuclear family. The methods are severe but the procedures may be for the betterment of mankind.

Another fixture of Cronenberg's future films is apparent in “Stereo.” The film explores the fluid nature of human sexuality. The test subjects are given drugs that loosen their inhibitions. The men both pursue the females but, soon enough, are matching up with each other. This is done to strengthen the bond, both emotional and telepathic, between them. It also displays the director's opinion that human sexuality is fluid. That fluidity is not deviant but, in fact, a purposeful part of evolution, forcing us to grow and change. “Stereo's” content is not especially explicit, as there's a little nudity and some implied humping. Its ideas on sexuality stand out though.

Most importantly, “Stereo's” interest in the mind and its relationship with the body directly correlates with many of the director's future films. It's not difficult to imagine “Stereo's” Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry as an influence on the scientific methods in “The Brood” and “Scanners.”  There's none of the extreme body horror that would make Cronenberg famous. However, the psychic transformations are nearly as intense. By disconnecting the mind from speech, changes are forced. A young woman in the experiment creates an alternate telepathic personality. One that projects images of decay, necrophilia, and violence. While all of this stuff is strictly going on inside the characters' minds, it's the exact same sort of transformation the director would continue to be interested in.

Shooting “Stereo” in black and white was also, I imagine, a budgetary decision. It's well known that black-and-white film was cheaper than color stock at the time. The choice does provide “Stereo” with some powerful visuals. First off, it makes the movie feel more like the scientific documentaries it's aping. Secondly, it provides a stark visual palette. There are interesting shots in “Stereo,” like of the woman laying on a back-lit platform, her body a silhouette. If you really wanted to read into it, you could even say that the monochromatic colors fits the story's themes of separating various aspects of the mind from other aspects of the body. (Which the title also hints at.)

Young Cronenberg shows a visual flair in other ways. “Stereo” makes frequent use of tracking shots, following the characters through the hallways of the Academy. The use of close-ups are interesting as well, attempting to visually get inside the characters' heads. There's also a strong interest in architecture on display too. The film was filmed at Scarborough University, a satellite campus of the University of Toronto. It's a really interesting building, full of odd angles and huge, square shapes. It adds to the science fiction feel of “Stereo,” seeming like something from the future despite being an actual building.

It's should come as no surprise that “Stereo” is more interesting as an artifact than as an actual movie. It's fascinating to see David Cronenberg's obsessions and interests present at the very beginning of his career. Conceptually, a lot of what's going on inside the film is intriguing. “Stereo” is also rather dull in spots. It's a good thing it's only about an hour long, as a run time any longer than that would cause the film to collapse into total tedium. Then again, it's very unlikely that anyone who isn't already interested in Cronenberg's career will watch “Stereo.” [Grade: B-]

No comments: