by Bob Clark
[Bob Clark, of The Designer’s Dilemma and Wonders in the Dark, takes a closer look at two of Cronenberg’s earliest cinematic experiments, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. His thoughts on these films can also be found at The Aspect Ratio.]
We are now reaching a point in time in which the great, most notable North American cinematic voices of the latter quarter of the twentieth century find themselves the elder statesmen among filmmakers. It’s been a long time coming, obviously, a fact of life made all the more apparent by the aging appearances of men like Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg, their dark beards grown from graying to gray, and gray to white, each one more and more the picture of wizened old masters every bit in contrast with the rambunctious youths of the 60's and 70’s. Perhaps now it becomes so much more difficult to ignore, and somehow even more impossible to accept, as the films upon which they and others made their names approach their fortieth anniversaries. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead already had its big birthday two years ago. It will only be a year until Lucas’ feature-version of THX 1138 and Spielberg’s television-movie Duel turn 40. A year after that, it will be The Godfather’s turn to enter middle-age, and unless the world ends in some incredible Mayan apocalypse, two years later we will see John Carpenter’s Dark Star blow four rows of candles out on its own cake. But among the great modern cinematic voices to enjoy such a enduring anniversary, perhaps overlooked is Canadian auteur David Cronenberg.
True, his biggest debut-films didn’t arrive until the 80’s—next year will only mark the thirtieth anniversary of Scanners—but throughout the 70’s the director enjoyed a fruitful, if not entirely well recognized period in which he pioneered the art of his distinctive brand of "body horror" science fiction. Movies like The Brood and Rabid may not be as famous as later classics like Videodrome and The Fly (indeed, the most notable thing about the second film may be in its casting of porn star Marylin Chambers), but already in those early experiments it is possible to detect the hardened intellectual and grotesquely visceral sides of Cronenberg’s methods. Yet even before those bold, yet fairly mainstream genre efforts, he had already made something of a name for himself with a pair of thoroughly abstract efforts in the same avant garde meme-pool as Lucas’ THX. Both of them a little over an hour in running time, they would often come to be screened together in underground art house theaters throughout Canada, making for one of the most fascinating science fiction double-features since the likes of Chris Marker’s La Jetee and Godard’s Alphaville. They are 1969’s Stereo and 1970’s Crimes of the Future, and together they make up not only Cronenberg’s feature debut, but also the most forgotten and polarizing efforts of his entire career.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about these films, I should point out. It was only last year that I first discovered them when they were released as special-features on the Blu-Ray release of the director’s oft-forgotten racing movie Fast Company. The feature itself is hardly remarkable in Cronenberg’s filmography, but the shorts are a revelatory experience. Most viewers of his work tend to isolate his periods between the two main cinematographers of his career—the early works with industrial film DP Mark Irwin, and the later films with seasoned veteran and consummate professional Peter Suschitzky, whose work on The Empire Strikes Back prompted Cronenberg to dub it the most beautiful science-fiction movie he’d ever seen—but in these films, we see him almost without any behind-the-scenes collaborators at all, serving as his own editor and director of photography, revealing him to be a near Soderberghian one-man-band in his early days. Made without big budgets as experimental student efforts, they showcase the director as a young artist with nothing to depend on except his own creative potential as a filmmaker, and nothing but 35mm cameras, a handful of actors and college campus locations throughout Toronto to play with. This extreme degree of cinematic self-reliance can be invigorating, for the most part, yet it also comes with a considerable degree of caveats for the casual viewer.
First of all, there are the overall methods he applies, especially as they apply to sound—with the exception of voice-over narration in both features and some ambient noises throughout Crimes, the films remain entirely silent, relying primarily upon the strength of their imagery alone. Furthermore, being examples of experimental, guerilla filmmaking done relatively on the cheap, they almost entirely steer clear of the special-effects assisted "body horror" that Cronenberg became famous for—the closest we get are some stray shots of virulent victims foaming at the ears, webbed toes, and a series of grotesquely misshapen bodily organs preserved in jars, examples of a patient’s “creative cancer.” At times the kind of filmmaking on display is often so obscure and abstract it only resembles the later stages of his career in the broadest of strokes. Without the outlets of dialogue to provide a traditional dramatic narrative experience or effects work to provide the immediate visual scares and thrills of mainstream sci-fi and horror enterprises, Cronenberg is pushed to express himself primarily through his mise-en-scène of dynamic, yet restrained camera angles and compositions, largely playing out long scenes in a documentary fashion, following the increasingly unusual behavior of his characters with a detached mode of objectivity, even as they perform what might best be described as a kind of sci-fi performance art.
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 (even before the rampant CGI embellishments of its DVD release). 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.
More than any films he directed since, Stereo and Crimes of the Future put the sexual side of "body horror" into an absolute vacuum, free of the polluting distraction of any other outside element. Much like the mutation-organs of “creative cancer” kept sealed in jars, they are film specimens worthy of preservation and study—sure, their biology doesn’t always work, but 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.