Stereo (1969)

This was David Cronenberg’s first film and it is in many respects a dry run for Scanners.

It is also seriously strange and arty.

He got the Canadian government to give him a substantial grant to write a novel, but made this film instead.  I really don’t know how they reacted, although I’m cynical enough to think that only a few of those grants ever actually yielded a novel.

IMDB lists this as “Stereo (Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic)” and all those words do actually show up on the screen, although not necessarily all at the same time.  What we have is a series of narrators lecturing us about an experiment in telepathy carried out by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry over silent, black and white footage of the subjects participating in that experiment (although the connections between the footage and the narration are not always obvious).

If you haven’t guessed by now, this is not a movie for the average viewer.  It is also creepy, disturbing and unsettling — although at least part of that is because it is far from clear what Cronenberg thinks about the things his narrators are discussing in such a seemingly dispassionate way.

Those participating in the experiments had brain surgery to give them psychic powers — and two actually had their vocal cords and the speech centers of their brains removed, forcing them to communicate only through telepathy.

We are also told that there is a real possibility that those involved will become dependent on the dominant mind, with potentially disastrous results.

But we also have the claim that parapsychological phenomena can’t be studied empirically, and that far from maintaining a detached or dispassionate point of view, the man behind this project, Dr. Luther Stringfellow, has entered into intimate relationships with his subjects so he can better appreciate their subjective qualities.

We also get a quick glimpse behind the scenes, where every move of his young students is being filmed.

Now the claim that you can’t study parapsychology empirically is not particularly shocking as it has more or less slipped to the status of a psuedo-science, with a lot of serious questions about fraud in the most successful studies.  Rhine’s Duke University studies have long since lost their luster as no one else ever duplicated his success, and a lot of people started asking why there never were any documented reasons for instituting an impressive collection of anti-fraud protocols over they years.  The irony here is that there are also some serious parallels to the real life Kinsey Institute, which discarded scientific detachment and encouraged its researchers to experiment with all sorts of weird sexuality.  It also promoted the sort of omniverous sexuality championed by Cronenberg’s fictional CAEE.  The problem is that, although Masters and Johnson were quite critical of Kinsey, the general public weren’t aware of these details (and, in fact, no one seemed to notice that Kinsey’s book included a lengthy chart detailing the systematic sexual abuse of children and infants).  So I have no idea whether Cronenberg was aware of this — or, for that matter, whether he approves or disapproves.

Which is one of the reasons this is so disturbing.

Those who’ve seen Scanners will recognize that the main character here and Revok both responded to their gift in the same way.  Less obvious is the connection between the goal of the study, creating a psychic gestalt supermind from the connected minds of the subjects and the group Cameron Vale encounters in Scanners.

The real star of the show is the remarkable architecture, all brutal concrete buildings, which are on the campus of the University of Toronto at Scarborough.  They are stark and uncomfortable and somehow inhuman.  They have a decided presence in the film, as do the rather extravagant fashions affected by some of the participants.

It is only at the very end that we start learning some of the pieces we needed to understand what we are seeing.  We are also left with the uncomfortable knowledge that two of the participants have already committed suicide — and by the end of the film there are plenty of  hints that something, somehow has gone wrong.

For a long time this was virtually unseen, but now the Criterion Collection has bundled it with their Scanners DVD.  It remains an interesting oddity which I’m sure the hardcore David Cronenberg fans will need to see.  Even at an hour long it starts feeling a bit long by the time it is over, but it does have a strong visual appeal and is unsettling enough to be memorable.

I just wish I knew whether David thought the experiment was a good thing or a bad thing, that’s all.

Buy Stereo in the Scanners DVD set:

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