Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.1: David Cronenberg's Stereo

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

The New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and 1970s was so filled with incredible filmmakers (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg) that it often overshadowed the equally vital movement of horror filmmakers in the era- Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero. Sure, some of these filmmakers had substantial critical and commercial hits (Romero and Carpenter in particular), and other New Horror filmmakers (Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski) managed to break into the New Hollywood movement, and even the critical and commercial mainstream. But the likes of Carpenter, Craven, and Romero have had to battle through critical snobbery and genre denigration to amass their own cult followings.

Then there’s David Cronenberg, a Canadian contemporary to Romero and company whose work seems almost destined for cult appreciation. Cronenberg is very much a member of the New Horror movement, but while he’s easily the most cerebral of the bunch, his work is also some of the most viscerally powerful and, for lack of a better word, icky of the bunch. His interest in transforming the body into something alien and horrifying goes beyond what Ridley Scott and John Carpenter did with Alien and The Thing- he blends his fascination with the body with a chilly demeanor that’s destined to alienate certain cinephiles. It’s no surprise that Cronenberg has never been nominated for an Oscar (he’d join De Palma on my list of biggest Oscar shutouts). But Cronenberg might just be the most important horror filmmaker of his time. It’s impossible to imagine Guillermo Del Toro, Darren Aronofsky, or any other modern horror filmmaker without him. In anticipation for his new film Cosmopolis (to be released this week, but limited release means I likely won’t see it for some time), it’s time to look back on the work of David Cronenberg, starting with his early student film Stereo.

Grade: 42 (C)

David Cronenberg grew up with a strong interest in the arts- he played classical guitar before deciding he didn’t want to spend a life playing other artists’ work for a living, and he wrote constantly throughout his life before choosing film as his artistic medium. Inspired by the underground, do-it-yourself cinema of D.A. Pennebaker the Maysles brothers and the early Canadian film The Winter Kept Us Warm, Cronenberg worked on a handful of short films before releasing his first short feature, 1969’s Stereo. The film shows a talented young artist at work with a burgeoning, unique aesthetic. It’s unfortunate, then, that it’s mostly interesting in theory rather than practice.

Stereo is less a coherent dramatic story than a fictional series of futuristic scientific studies on film. The unseen Dr. Luther Stringfellow heads a study at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry. Stringfellow give their subjects telepathic abilities, which they believe can be further developed if the subjects explore their sexualities in new and exciting ways. They encourage homosexuality, bisexuality, and other new experiences for the subjects as a way to give the telepathic group a new social unit beyond the nuclear family. As the subjects explore themselves, some of them develop additional personalities to help ease themselves into their newfound abilities and consciousness. But as the volunteers become more assured in their psychic abilities, the researchers begin to lose control, and their attempt to separate the group has disastrous results.

Cronenberg does quite a bit to establish his signature style and obsessions from the get-go. There’s a chilly, clinical remove from the proceedings, almost as if an alien with an interest in human behavior and sexuality made a film. The striking black-and-white photography (done by Cronenberg himself) is rather cold itself, and his use of tracking shots, slow motion, and montage strikes a fascinating contrast with the work of, say, Scorsese or De Palma. Where the former might use these filmmaking techniques to heighten emotion, Cronenberg takes a more anthropological approach, focusing on faces and human interaction in order to force the audience to study from his point of view.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Cronenberg is not a major cinephile. One could pick up certain film influences by looking closely at his work (Bergman and Kubrick in particular), but Cronenberg’s influences, interestingly, are more literary. His two biggest influences are writers William S. Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov. Burroughs interest in blurring the lines of reality, struggling with identity, and exploring new territory can be seen as an influence on Cronenberg as early as Stereo, with its exploration of sexuality and the complexity of the mind and the idea of developing new identities. Nabokov, meanwhile, influences Cronenberg’s icy remove and fascination with sexuality. Cronenberg’s influence by writers speaks to the way he directs- he’s not a man with a film-obsessed worldview, but rather an artist who uses film as a portrait of his mind.

The film is strikingly photographed, idiosyncratic, and filled with interesting theories on identity, sexuality, and the mind. The problem: Cronenberg is a bit too removed for this to function well as a film. He shows considerable skill behind the camera and creates a fascinating world and concept, but his skills as a storyteller are as yet unshaped. In place of dialogue, Cronenberg uses narration to tell the story. The narration isn’t overly-expository so much as it’s a series of dispassionate observations on the subjects which are, quite frankly, impenetrable and uncinematic. Cronenberg’s later films often took difficult themes and structures, but they were far more accessible and proficient in their storytelling. This film somehow manages to be both fascinating and boring at the same time, and it isn’t helped by the fact that Cronenberg would explore this territory later, and better. It’s a striking debut that likely could have been distilled into a masterful short, but as it is, it’s only fitfully successful as a film.

But don't take my word for it. You can watch Stereo for free on Google Video yourself.

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