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Stereo (Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic)

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (1969). Produced, directed and written by David Cronenberg as Emergent Films Ltd. Cast includes Iain Ewing, Clara Mayer, Glenn McCauley, Jack Messinger, Arlene Mlodzik, Ronald Mlodzik and Paul Mulholland. 65 minutes. Black and white.

David Cronenberg's first feature-length film, the director's third following the 16mm shorts Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967), is a dress rehearsal for his next, Crimes of the Future (1970), and makes plain the auteur's early interest in applying a range of motifs from the SF Megatext to the unstable Dimensions and contained conceptual spaces of Cinema. The film is as dramatically dull as it is thematically interesting.

Stereo (Tile 3B of a CAEE Educational Mosaic), more often known simply as Stereo, purports to record the actions of a "socially isolate gestalt" (see Pariah Elite) as they explore the connection between Sex and Telepathy to enact a form of communal Identity Exchange; offscreen Mad Scientist "Luther Stringfellow" (see Psychology) intends the "human social Cybernetics" created by his test group of willing volunteers to develop into a method of Near-Future Cultural Engineering.

An inflection of droll SatireStereo opens with a mockumentary-style warning about exposure to its contents being in accordance with the "Canadian Plastic Forms Act" – applies to the voice-over (added after the camera Cronenberg used to shoot the film proved too noisy for recorded dialogue, and supplied, it would seem, in diegetic fashion by various of the survivors of the experiment) and its patina of quasi-theoretical Metaphysics and late-60s Sociology: the shared Inner Space of those taking part provides "insight into experiential space" (see Cyberspace; eXistenZ (1999)), brain surgery is achieved via "biochemical induction", (see Medicine; The Brood (1979)) and "telepathic dependency is an extreme form of psychic addiction" (see Drugs; Scanners [1980]), while the more-or-less art-house visuals rely on the contrast between the looming modernist architecture of the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto and the increasingly-fragile emotional health of the handful of "omnisexual" telepaths taking part in the "existential organic approach" proposed by Doctor Stringfellow. (Denis Villeneuve, director of Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) set much of the Doppelganger thriller Enemy (2014) at the same location in homage to Stereo.) "The Politics of telepathic experience may be studied as a projection of the power struggles among individuals," intones the voice-over, slyly, insisting that Stringfellow's brand of "psychic research" is "unique," "non-uniform," and "non-repeatable," and thereby operates in reverse to scientific methodology. "Certain unexpected results, however, threw the future of the project into doubt," continues the voice-over.

Two patients suffer "induced telepathy" on having their larynxes removed. A semi-naked woman sits blindfolded while a man kisses and caresses a medical dummy nearby: her enjoyment is filmed for the purposes of the experiment. Aspects of the "polymorphous" sexual relationships between the subjects of the research are communicated via the ecstatic consumption of soft fruits, the turning over of tarot cards, impromptu ménage à trois. There is a great deal of writhing. It emerges that the "laws of telepathic bonding" rely on the "psycho-telepathic dominance" of a "primary couple": one of the women taking part develops a secondary personality when she attempts telepathic independence and thereby fails to retain Memory of her core Identity. Another volunteer attempts to trepan himself with an electric drill (a scene later quoted by Darren Aronofsky in the Mathematics and Religion thriller Pi (1998)): the voice-over calls this "an act of considerable symbolic significance". Two more subjects commit Suicide. Stringfellow himself enters a "depressive episode" when he attempts to withdraw the influence of his own "transmitted electrochemical patterns". The woman who has developed a secondary personality pulls on the long, black cape worn by newly-arrived patient (Mlodzik) at the beginning of the film as Stereo draws to a close: one imagines this unifying, top-and-tails visual motif is more due to the influence of the costume department of the University of Toronto than to any intended association with Gothic SF.

While not obviously not intended as Genre SF, the milieu of Stereo is somewhat reminiscent of the emotionally-forceful characters set against stark social environments depicted in the stories of writers such as Robert A Heinlein and Harlan Ellison during the 1950s and 1960s; the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (CAEE), meanwhile, is a clear Linguistic precursor for flamboyantly-named organizations such as "The House of Skin" in Crimes of the Future and "The Cathode Ray Mission" in Videodrome (1982). "My role in Stereo was as Doctor Luther Stringfellow," said Cronenberg in Cronenberg on Cronenberg (1997), "the absentee Scientist who actually set up the experiment, because, in a sense, I had set up an experiment." Paranoia is that much more palpable when a filmmaker and the societal pressures he attempts to dissect clearly exhibit the means and atmosphere by which They are out to get you. [MD]


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