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David Cronenberg’s STEREO

January 27, 2015

Stereo is David Cronenberg’s debut feature from 1969. It’s a highly experimental (or “low-budget” in layman’s terms), semi-erotic, sci-fi mockumentary. Though very understated, Stereo may not be the most appropriate entry point into Cronenberg’s body of work for those uninitiated. Cronenberg is the Canadian auteur best known for his string of grotesque 1980s spectacles such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers.

image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Set in 1969, Stereo features subjects of a telepathy study by the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry. One of the premises of the study is that a telepathic connection between two subjects can only be forged following a physical connection with one another. The study begins to progress beyond the scientists’ ability to control it. Hilarity does not ensue.

Stereo can be seen effectively as a precursor to Scanners (1981), the hit that affirmed Cronenberg’s breakthrough in the US. Both films feature drug-induced telepathy in humans, and abominable acts involving power drills that take on “symbolic significance.” Where Stereo would represent the testing-phase of the telepathy phenomenon, Scanners extrapolates the idea to its logical extreme. They are not officially linked but the through-lines are certainly there.

The real takeaway from Stereo is the form more than the actual story. None of the characters on screen have any spoken lines. The silence is broken up by the sporadic psych-babble commentary of the scientists (never seen onscreen). The commentary is dry at first, straddling the line between esoteric and campy, but once you get into the groove, the words grow to be entertaining.

Stereo delivers different modes of camera work, one supporting the documentary style, and one that feels a little more exploitative. Most of the shots come from a quasi-security cam POV; a stationary camera that occasionally pans. Then there’s the handheld stuff, which still supports the documentary feel. There’s one close-up in Stereo that seems to last forever. It’s powerful because, in lingering on a man’s face, you can somehow feel all the psychic power bubbling just below the surface. I admit it’s hard tell if the shot works because of great acting or simply a great set up. Either way, it does work. With the exception of an on-the-run shot that signifies the breakdown of control, the documentary footage lends a cold, clinical and observational feel.

Then, there are some voyeuristic shots that don’t fit the documentary mold at all. This breaking of form actually works to emphasize the beauty of the psychic connection blossoming internally in the subjects, below the surface and far from the prying eyes of the scientists.

After viewing the film, I read on Wikipedia that Cronenberg’s camera was too noisy to properly record dialogue. Knowing this tidbit does not devalue the experience because Cronenberg commits to the documentary form for the most part. Not hearing anything from the subjects themselves, viewers are forced to pick up on body language and other non-verbal communication. I was amazed at how effective the filmmaking was at making psychic energy seem visible. It was surprising to find out that Cronenberg may have stumbled upon this style for logistical reasons, or even by accident. It naturally follows that an effective depiction of telepathy might feature non-verbal performances, no?

Sound interesting? Unfortunately, Stereo may be difficult to track down for non-collectors. Being a degenerate collector myself, I found that it was included as a bonus feature for Scanners, released by The Criterion Collection in July. This release is easy enough to find, but could be price prohibitive if you can’t find it for rent. There is a fan-edit of the film on YouTube, but since 20 minutes or so have been edited out of the already diminutive run time, with new music inserted, I can’t vouch for it delivering the intended experience. You can view that version here.

As a student film with an already-limited appeal, Stereo isn’t an easy film to love. Fortunately, the constraints are budgetary and not imaginative. Stereo does a lot fascinating things in it’s fleet 65-minute run time, and the novelty of seeing one of my favorite directors’ formative moments captured on film has substantial value.

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