Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Secret to Telepathy: All You Need Is Love (and Drugs)

Stereo (1969)
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: 5 / 10

David Cronenberg is undoubtedly one of the kings of body horror, but in my mind that's only really one aspect of his more general interest in transformation. I've been filling in my gaps in his filmography lately, and I was really looking forward to watching Stereo - his first long form endeavor - to see how far back his thematic preoccupations stretched.

Stereo is an experimental work that shows Cronenberg still coming to terms with his own style of filmmaking. Rather than a conventional narrative, it takes the form of a fragmented oral report describing a study of telepathy conducted by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (do I need to mention that this isn't a real organization?). In the experiment, eight test subjects are brought together and given brain implants granting them telepathic abilities. Some subjects choose to have their larynx surgically altered or the language centers in their brain cauterized so that they can eliminate any non-telepathic means of communication. Knowing this, it's somewhat appropriate that other than voice-over narration, there's no dialogue or sound in the film. Combined with the jargon-filled narration, this makes for a pretty difficult watch.

The story shows hints of themes that Cronenberg would revisit later - most obviously in Scanners, which also explored the idea of telepathy. What's different about Stereo compared to much of Cronenberg's later work is that it doesn't blend its ideas into a snappy B-movie style narrative. The ideas are sitting there right on the surface, dictated in monotone. If you're willing to parse all the techno-babble that the narration throws at you, there are some interesting ideas within, if nothing too groundbreaking to anyone who's read some sci-fi from the same era. In an attempt to dissolve the identities of the subjects and create a gestalt being, the participants undergo a number of experiments. Telepathic dependencies are created to mirror mentor/mentee relationships, in which a dominant and submissive member slowly merge minds under the guidance of the more experienced of the pair. Sex is essential, as it allows the subjects a physical closeness leads the way to the dissolution of mental barriers. Oh, and it's the sixties, so drugs. Lots of drugs to attempt to induce telepathy.

This is how you become telepathic.
It's a shame that there just isn't that much for the characters in the film to do while the narrator informs us of all these interesting things. They wander through the building, play a series of "games" to test their new abilities, they sit around, take drugs, have sex... What often redeems all the languor is that Cronenberg's eye for interesting shots doesn't disappoint - he's able to transform an academic building into a sparse futuristic setting that blends right in with the sci-fi heavy plot. Unfortunately it seems that he was too in love with some of his cinematography. Interesting shots linger a little too long. Some scenes drag endlessly beneath the silence. This slightly self-indulgent air gives it the feeling of an overly ambitious student film. Sex and nudity that might have shocked decades ago seems a little quaint these days, although I'd be willing to bet that the MPAA would balk at at least one scene involving a threesome.

What isn't clear to me is how tongue-in-cheek Cronenberg intended to be with the material. Naming the institue the "Academy of Erotic Inquiry" shows that he had at least a little bit of self-awareness, but the overwhelming seriousness of the narration often overshadows everything else. Despite the sterile feel of the film (which foreshadows the same sort of clinical detachment and cold analysis that many of his later films would adopt) it seems as if Cronenberg is mocking science's attempts to rationalize the vagaries of emotion and love. But there's a ton of tension between this idea and his seeming interest in science as a genuine way to push beyond the limitations of the body. I still haven't figured out where the film stands on either issue. Maybe that was Cronenberg's intent.

Stereo isn't an easy or enjoyable film to watch. Its most worthwhile aspect seems to be the insight it offers into Cronenberg's early days as a filmmaker. As early Cronenberg, it's interesting. On its own, not so much. Recommended for Cronenberg enthusiasts only.

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