Sunday Editor’s Pick #1: Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970)

by on January 16, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Jan 22 at 3:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

Yes, we’ve got Cronenberg fever. Catch these early rarities, which the director considers “the start of my artistic journey.” Says Bob Clark, “Cunningly written, deftly shot, and not without their share of sucker-punch shock and controversy, these aren’t just films that deserve to be seen—they demand it.”

Sean Axmaker for Parallax View:

Stereo (1969), shot in B&W without sound and structured to look like a film document of a scientific study, plays like a first draft of the themes that would dominate films like Shivers, The Brood and Scanners. Eight volunteer test subjects undergo surgery to induce telepathy (some of them even have their speech centers removed) and move into a modernist concrete and glass building while a doctor attempts to observe the formation of a telepathic collective. Pseudo-scientific narration frames the footage, explaining that “the telepathic experience is essentially omni-sexual in nature.” It’s intellectually and conceptually sophisticated but decidedly non-commercial, a quasi-experimental underground film that has yet to find a narrative form. Cronenberg fine tunes his thematic obsessions with Crimes of the Future (1970), a more visually assured but equally detached production that creates a futuristic ghost-town with his eerily empty public spaces and the alienated halls of the “House of Skin” (the physical location is the same as Stereo but the addition of color and the more pronounced atmosphere of human absence makes it even more effective). The mutations and diseases discovered by our detached narrator, radical dermatologist Adrian Tripod, are quintessential Cronenberg inventions, from “creative cancer”(which develops new organs in one patient’s body) to “Metaphysical Import Export.”Both films were shot without synch sound, and the antiseptic soundtrack, dominated by a dry narrator, only makes the films more unsettling. These are essential to Cronenberg fans, dispassionate portraits of fictional experiments in the mutation of mankind in the near future.



Dennis Lim for the Village Voice:

Cronenberg’s trancelike featurettes, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), scan as crystal-clear sonograms of Cronenberg’s obsessions in utero. To cut costs, both were shot without sync sound, and deploy acres of expository voice-over. Stereo takes place at the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry, where a commune undergoes all manner of telekinetic and aphrodisiacal tests. While a soothingly clinical monotone recites jargon-choked postulates, the inmates, clad in quasi-medieval dress, cavort and pair off, fondling pacifiers and mannequins. Stereo spikes the kinky medical-sex trope with some flower-power free love, and exposes the peculiar hybrid to the director’s version of Murphy’s Law: Any experiment that can go wrong, will—and violently to boot. Fashioning stark geometric compositions from the brutalist architecture of the location, Cronenberg’s mood-making is already impeccable.
Toppling Stereo‘s desiccated sense of humor into giggly absurdism, Crimes is set in a near-future where most females have succumbed to a cosmetics-related condition known as Rouge’s Malady, named for Antonie Rouge, a renegade dermatologist who has since vanished. Trenchcoated, turtlenecked Rouge disciple Adrian Tripod (Stereo star Ronald Mlodzik) drifts from one mysterious, declining institution to another (the House of Skin, the Oceanic Podiatry Group, Metaphysical Import-Export) and stumbles on a pedophilic conspiracy plot. Crimes inaugurates the Cronenberg staple of body horror: The suppurating sores of Rouge sufferers ooze a “sensually attractive” effluence—the first of countless transcendent gross-outs in the canon, fleshly disgust commingling with the sublime.


Bob Clark for Cinema Viewfinder:

Though the stories themselves being told are rather familiar ones to longtime fans of his work—Stereo follows a group of young test subjects who are given ESP via brain surgery, and Crimes details the journeys of an androgynous young scientist from one perverse bio-medical conglomerate to another in a world in which all women have been wiped out by disease—the indirect methods that he uses to tell them create an experience that is less akin to traditional cinema and more like a kind of surrealist vaudeville. Cronenberg’s photography is often breathtaking—Stereo is filmed in a sharp black-and-white at times reminiscent of Gianni De Venanzo’s cinematography on Fellini’s 8 ½, while Crimes enjoys a crisp, primary-rich color scheme quite familiar to the cold, hushed work he would later do with Mark Irwin—yet the subjects that he photographs are far from the provocative mutations of his more famous works. While his verite approach to science fiction is at times quite striking, it is never really convincing in the same way as was Godard’s energetic Alphaville or Lucas’ haunting THX. With characters often dressed in tunics and capes like refugees from a medieval festival or setpieces arranged around nothing more than plastic bags and foot fetish games that would make Buñuel roll his eyes, they are films that can easily test even the patience of viewers grown accustomed to this kind of abstract filmmaking.
And still, there remains something so utterly compelling about this pair of short features, they become almost impossible not to recommend, especially to devotees of the director’s work. If there is not quite any of the visceral “body horror” of his later work, there is plenty to admire in the spare, evocative way in which his camera turns minimalist campus architecture into a series of tableaus like something out of the landscapes of Escher or De Chirico. At times he even finds ways to cut through the fog of his remote voiceover talking heads and obscure onscreen routines to create stunning little moments of myth-simple setpieces that suggest an associative kind of storytelling that was only implied by the cinematic and literary mashup that occurred when the director tackled Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Helicopters, globes, shortwave radios and even pacifiers become instruments of deep archetypal symbolism, inviting a language of straightforward visual poetry that’s at times lacking in his later, more sensationally driven works. Perhaps most interesting is the way in which Cronenberg allows the erotic qualities of his work to bubble to the top in ways that aren’t quite so clear in his mainstream efforts, even in provocative stuff like Videodrome and Crash. What sets these earlier films apart is how the sexual content stands out in isolation without the graphic violence or bodily transformations of his later films, with narration that ties the hedonism concretely into the scientific ponderings of his narrative without entirely giving into pure exploitation.
Much like the mutation-organs of “creative cancer” kept sealed in jars, they are film specimens worthy of preservation and study. As the results of pioneering cinematic experimentation they are easily some of the most interesting genre works out there, and an essential piece of their director’s filmography. They may not be as Cronenbergian as you’d expect, but no matter what, they remain pure Cronenberg, as potent today as they were forty years ago.


Cronenberg explains his evolution towards filmmaking and the genesis of Stereo, recounted in the Northwest Film Forum program notes:

I did go to the University of Toronto and take a year of biochemistry, which is a very intense and very hard, difficult science. But I found myself spending most of my time at the Arts end of the campus; it was very polarized (speaking of polarization, as we do in Stereo). I was hanging out in the junior common room there and talking to everybody about literature and movies and things like that, and gradually I felt that I couldn’t connect with even my classmates in science, that they did seem to be a different species, which kind of destroyed my theory. I remember two students who were together, they were a couple, they were dating. And I remember watching them, wondering what the nature of their sexuality could possibly be, because they were just so alien. I still don’t know. If there are tapes anybody has, I’d like to see them.
Anyway, so I ended up dropping out of Honor Science, as it was called at the time, and I ended up going into Honor English, which was a four year English course, which was very intensive with lot’s of history and philosophy and of course literature. And at that point I gave up my dreams of being an actually scientist, so I became kind of a fraudulent, vaguely art scientist. So, there it is. And Stereo is, primarily, on one level, a parody of academia, an attempt to engulf actual human experience with jargon. Literary jargon and scientific jargon and so on. And that’s why I am glad to see there were a few laughs because it’s meant to be a comedy. So, that’s basically the way that I worked.



Fernando F. Croce on Stereo, for Cinepassion:

Clinical, sinuous, jagged. The first shot gives a tranquil view of the University of Toronto, a dot in the sky dilates into a helicopter carrying a mysterious fellow (Ronald Mlodzik), with cape and scepter like Dracula or a mod pop star. The dried, flattened voiceover elucidates David Cronenberg’s method (“an existential-organic approach to the sciences”), but the daring of his concepts and the richness of his humor need no explanation. The “Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry” is the stage for this sustained abstract jest, where telepathy is the ongoing concern: Scanners is already sketched as Mlodzik lifts his floppy mop in front of the mirror and massages his forehead, seeking the best spot to drill. Just as Godard brilliantly posited the future as an extended hotel stay in Alphaville, Cronenberg turns society into an empty, cavernous institute. Fittingly, the turbulent self is composed of long corridors, stone walls, and glass panes, a void to be filled with Sartrean gags: a researcher fondles an anatomy dummy’s plastic innards while a female subject awaits the sensation, topless and blindfolded atop a stool. Sex pokes through the zombified blanket — a tracking shot transverses the lab in the dark and locates two experiments humping under research lights, “three-dimensional sexuality” arrives in a slow-mo group-grope that challenges the accepted borders of “perversion” and validates the movie’s closet aperçu (“Amor vincit omnia”)



Ed Howard says “It’s fascinating to see him working out his signature concerns in such a rough, raw form in these two films,” at Only the Cinema:

Crimes of the Future is, like its predecessor Stereo, an early example of director David Cronenberg’s eccentric vision. Made as student films on extremely small budgets, both films betray their economical origins at every point. Unlike Stereo, Crimes is in color rather than black and white, but it shares the earlier film’s minimalist aesthetic. Shot silent, the soundtrack consists entirely of a measured, stilted voiceover which appears only at intervals to tell the film’s story, interspersed with noisy, crackling industrial soundscapes. The film is abstracted, its narrative willfully obtuse and elliptical. It is set in an unsettling future world in which a mysterious and incurable plague has wiped out most of the adult women, and now seems to be spreading to the men as well. The plague is, as bodily transformations and deformations so often are for Cronenberg, both disturbing and fascinating for its victims: the patients emit strange white (semen-like) foam from their orifices and bleed thick black fluid from their eyes and mouths. These discharges are, for some strange reason, almost irresistibly attractive; anyone who comes across these fluids is seized with an urge to touch them, to smear them across their hands, and to taste them, sensually licking the disease’s syrupy discharges from their fingers.
It’s apparent that Cronenberg’s signature obsessions are almost completely intact even in this early student effort: his conflation of the gross and the sublime; his treatment of abnormal sexuality as both frightening and hypnotically erotic; his fascination with the creation of new worlds, new ways of living, through biological transformations. The world of this film is truly an alien world, a fact that Cronenberg communicates through the strange, slow-moving quality of the narrative, as well as the surreal, nonsensical actions that his characters perform, often with a ritualistic air that only increases further the feeling of something being, somehow, off. The story ostensibly centers around a certain Adrian Tripod (the gaunt, ghostly pale Ronald Mlodzik), a researcher of some kind who wanders from one obscure job to another: the head of a strange dermatological facility called the House of Skin; an observer at an STD clinic where a man has been infected with a disease that causes him to sprout countless bizarre, functionally useless new internal organs, a phenomenon his doctors have deemed a “creative cancer;” a courier whose sole function seems to be ferrying clear plastic bags of socks and underwear back and forth between silent men who solemnly arrange the garments into piles based on obscure criteria.



Time Out (London):

Crimes of the Future explores a world of genetic mutations, in which all adult women have died from the use of cosmetics and the surviving men keep finding themselves reverting to more primitive forms. The mainspring of Cronenberg’s humour is the discrepancy between theory and actual experience; as with the earlier Stereo, the movie is dominated by an ‘absent’ theorist (in this case the mad dermatologist Antoine Rouge), whose hapless disciple struggles to uphold his master’s teachings in situations of escalating absurdity and anarchy. The humour couldn’t be blacker, and the quality of invention is outrageously high.


Croce, again, on Crimes:

Instead of covering up the world’s upheavals, cosmetics propel its devastation — a great analytical joke by David Cronenberg, who has already the impeccable deadpan style to tell it. Virtually the entirety of the female populace has been decimated by “Rouge’s Malady,” hippiedom is next as some furry Renaissance Fest refugee is studied at the “House of Skin”; the subject expires in what looks like the court of the University of Toronto, trench-coated Dr. Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik) declares the secretion oozing from the body’s mouth “sensually attractive,” even, and takes off on a tour of wacky organizations (the Institute of Neo Venereal Diseases, the Oceanic Podiatry Group, the Gynecological Research Foundation, and so forth). One man sprouts weird organs which are kept in multi-colored jars (“His body is a galaxy. These creatures are solar systems”), another removes his shoe to reveal webbed toes on their way to becoming fins, and is promptly chased and devoured by a turtle-necked passerby, who re-enters the frame to spit a chunk of meat at the scientist. Devolution and cannibalism are merely two of the crimes of the future, pedophilia and the elusiveness of equilibrium are others, above all is the evanescence of human flesh against the solidity of brick walls, marble columns, cavernous halls; Dr. Tripod contemplates all in HAL’s flat tones, with help from the assuredly avant-garde soundtrack (boiling coffee pots, stuttering birds, sonar pings). The handheld, 16mm filming allows itself a single instance of expressionism (the cabal’s gathering in the darkened auditorium, recalled in Sleeper), yet for the most part remains a straightforward documentation of modernist Canada in 1970, the better to reveal the encroaching reality of the satirical sci-fi scenario (cf. Alphaville), along with the fecundity of themes to be mirrored by the rest of Cronenberg’s work.



Jon Lidolt recalls working on the project, to DVDtalk:

Whenever we all had time to get together and the weather cooperated, David and his production assistant Stephen Nosko would pick me up in his Volkswagen, along with the camera gear and props. We’d then drive to the location and set up. You know, I have a sneaky suspicion that no one ever obtained permission for us to shoot at Massey College, but then no one ever questioned us about it either. Even so, David never seemed rushed or worried and always gave directions in such a calm, reassuring manner that it gave me the confidence to try almost anything. I heard that he still communicates with actors the same way today.
I knew very little about the project while we were working on it – I never did see a script. Although, I did occasionally catch David glancing at some notes scrawled on a crumpled sheet of paper. Come to think of it, a script would have been superfluous since there was no dialogue to memorize. There just wasn’t enough money in the budget to shoot synch sound. The only words we hear in the entire movie are those of narrator Adrian Tripod.
David shot most of the movie hand-held with an Arriflex which he rented from a small, family-run outfit. Their equipment was old and not well maintained – but it was affordable. There were no markings in the viewfinder to show the 1.85 composition area, important action was simply kept away from the edges and I never did see a tripod on the set. It was easier and less cumbersome to just sit the camera on a box. And for tracking shots, a wheelchair worked wonders. When we shot in dark interiors David just replaced the regular light bulbs in the room with photofloods.



Clark again, this time for The Aspect Ratio:

It is no exaggeration to say that Crimes of the Future is easily one of the most discomforting films I’ve ever seen, more for what it kept on-set than what it put on-screen. It’s unfortunate, since up until its closing moments, the film carries an obscene power that rivals the minimalist aestheticism of Stereo and dares at least as many impressive and thought-provoking images and scenes as more well-known features like Videodrome. Watching the abstract, Burroughs-esque combination of images and wordplay on display throughout this film, one can’t help but feel that the horror filmmaking the director dedicated himself from Rabid to The Fly stands as a kind of serendipitous compromise. The filmmaking on display here is not the work of a man feverishly adding gore and deformity for the sake of genre-conventions, or one who forsakes such extreme and haunting visions for the sake of low budgets, as he did in Stereo.
The Cronenberg of Crimes of the Future is Cronenberg at his purest, and sometimes his best—pushed just far enough by production limitations to stage and shoot his scenes as creatively as possible, but given just enough allowances to invest in some pulpier additions to his visual palate. The intellectual ambition of his screenwriting here shines in a way that occasionally rears its head in later works, but would only be given a real chance to indulge itself in films like Videodrome and Naked Lunch, works where the demands of coherent drama could blend seamlessly with his own sensibilities. Until you see Crimes of the Future, you’ll never really understand just how avant-garde a filmmaker David Cronenberg truly is, and despite the squeamish and unsettling implications he provokes by mere casting, you very well may wish he still directed movies like this today.


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