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Say, that's a nice bike

Short films are both a challenge and an opportunity for a director – a challenge because the cut-down running time makes character death and plot complexity harder to pull off than in a feature-length work (though looking at the character development in some recent American blockbusters you wouldn't know it), an opportunity because no-one expects there to be detailed character development in short films in the first place. This makes it perfectly acceptable to use the sort of short-cuts that look out of place in a feature film and to make a work based solely around a single idea rather than a fully developed story.

Short films are also seen as calling cards for wannabe feature directors, and for film fans, unearthing early short works by now famous filmmakers can be a fascinating and sometimes enlightening experience, allowing us to trace a director's development, to see where it all started and how much their style has developed, or perhaps even diluted. Early shorts by directors such as Hal Hartley and David Lynch clearly point the way to their later work and remain intriguing (and in the case of Lynch's The Alphabet and The Grandmother, disturbing) films in their own right.

For horror fans, David Cronenberg is a genre god, an auteur whose distinctive vision has repeatedly resulted in films that few others would have ever attempted, let alone delivered in such mesmerising fashion. Those who have more recently discovered Cronenberg's have had to look backwards to find the early gems, but I was lucky enough to be there at the beginning, one of the few extolling the virtues of Shivers (1975) when so many others were dishing out a critical pasting, trotting off to the cinema to see to Rabid (1977) as a birthday treat and enthusiastically defending The Brood (1979) as a minor masterpiece in my college campus magazine, despite the disgusted protestations of one of my film lecturers.

With that in mind, the discovery of a Japanese DVD containing two early short films by one of my favourite directors was a special moment for me. It was a chance thing – I was visiting a friend in Tokyo and one of his students took me on a trip round the more specialist shops in Shinjuku, the city's liveliest district, where I was introduced to an independent record store and a small room just crammed with DVDs. Searching shelf after shelf of disks with nothing but Japanese lettering on the spines is something of a challenge for anyone not fluent in the written language, and you tend to skip a lot, but for some reason Happinet Pictures (who also released the excellent 2-disk set of Tsukamoto's A Snake of June) had decided to put the title of this one in English. I was excited as hell – two early Cronenberg shorts, one of which had, as far as I am aware, never been screened in the UK. I'd seen Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) and though both are a tad heavy going in places, they remain fascinating and in many ways recognisably Cronenberg works. Just what had I discovered here?

I was back home and browsing through all the information I had on Cronenberg before I realised what I'd actually purchased. Two short films, sure, but both were made for TV as part of two different Canadian television series. Had I stumbled across two rare Cronenberg films or two examples of David Cronenberg, young director for hire, simply earning his keep until he could get the next feature off the ground? As it turns out, a bit of both...

The Lie Chair is an episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Company series Peep Show, which ran from 1975 to 1976. This is clearly a Canadian Tales of the Unexpected, each week featuring a new story of mystery and intrigue with a twist in the tail. The comparison extends beyond the structural style – the studio based, shot-on-video look also mirrors that of its UK counterpart. Interesting then, that Peep Show predates Tales of the Unexpected, which first began airing in 1979, by four years.

After their car breaks down on a stormy night, young couple Neil and Carol Croft arrive at the door of elderly Mrs. Rogers and her maid Mildred. They are initially mistaken by Mrs. Rogers for her grandchildren, Robert and Sylvia, who were expected for dinner; when they protest their true identities, each of the women suggests that they are merely putting on an act to comfort the other and ask for the couple's co-operation in this. As the evening progresses, Neil and Carol realise something is very wrong above and beyond the behaviour of their hosts.

Anyone familiar with the Roald Dahl-inspired series will find themselves at home here, but will also have little trouble working out what the big mystery is. That said, it does unfold with reasonable efficiency and the performances of the four leads are solid enough, despite the very hollow studio atmosphere. The show no doubt had its own look and feel, and Cronenberg here is clearly marking time until his next, more personal project. If you did not know of his involvement, there is nothing about the handling that would prompt you to wonder, "Hey, I wonder who directed this?" but few studio-based, multi-camera TV dramas of the time allowed for much in the way of artistic expression. Here the directive appears to be that the filmmaker do nothing to get in the way of the story and Cronenberg obliges. The result is an efficient but ultimately run-of-the-mill TV mystery play. The show runs for 27 minutes and includes a sizeable extract from next week's story at the end, which stars a young, very fresh-faced Martin Short.

The Italian Machine is part of the CBC series Teleplay, runs for 24 minutes, and is a very different story. Shot on location on 16mm film, this was written and directed by Cronenberg and is clearly a more personal work than The Lie Chair – I know little about the Teleplay series itself, but a far greater degree of artistic freedom is clearly allowed within its format. The resulting work would qualify, I believe, as a Cronenberg film, and will be of interest to the director's fans for a number of reasons.

Lionel, Fred and Bug are three motorcycle obsessives who hang around a workshop and listen to recordings of the Isle of Man TT races for relaxation. One day, Bug storms in with astonishing news – a glorious Ducati 900 Desmo Super-Sport, one of only forty ever constructed, has been bought not by a biker, but by an art collector who has no intention of riding it and instead plans to stand it in his living room as an exhibit. Insane with rage at this sacrilege, Lionel is determined to rescue The Italian Machine from this appalling fate.

1979's Fast Company is generally regarded as something of an atypical Cronenberg film because its principal concern is not body horror but fast cars. Cronenberg himself has on occasion expressed frustration that people seem to forget about this work when wondering why he never makes a non-horror film, especially given his own passion for motorised speed. Interviewed by Phil Edwards in issue 36 of Starburst shortly after the UK release of Scanners, Cronenberg was asked about this part of his life and responded, "I love motorbikes and cars and rock music. I don't get to work that into the other films I do." Fast Company, then, was as personal a work for the director as any of his genre films, and part of The Italian Machine's interest lies in its retrospective status as a forerunner and companion piece to that movie and this otherwise rarely explored aspect of Cronenberg's personality. It's certainly a story told very much from a biker's perspective – the anger that some middle-class art collector could take a great motorbike and turn it into an object d'art comes very much from the heart. This sense of outrage finds its on-screen expression in Lionel, who explodes into fury at the very idea, stamping a table to pieces and having to be wrestled into a chair by his companions and calmed by the soothing sound of TT racing commentary.

It's this character detail that make The Italian Machine an altogether more interesting work than the more by-the-numbers The Lie Chair. Being shot on film and on location, it also boasts a more distinctive use of camera placement and movement. That's not to say anyone is going to champion it as great cinema – a couple of the performances (notably Hardee Linehan as Bug) are seriously lacking, and though the journey there is enjoyable enough, the ending is completely surprise-free and again seems to have been written with purely a biker audience in mind. But a sound central concept, assured assured technical handling, some OK work from the supporting cast, an enjoyable turn from Gary McKeehan as Lionel, a handful of very neat character moments and a nice underlying oddness make The Italian Machine a very worthwhile find. This is doubly true for Cronenberg fans, who will find a fair few connections with some of his later work: Fast Company links aside, several of the cast went on to appear in subsequent Cronenberg features – Frank Moore (who plays Fred) and Louis Negin (Mouette) were both in Rabid, Hardee Lineham (Bug) was in The Dead Zone (1983), Géza Kovács (Ricardo) was in Scanners (1981) and The Dead Zone, Cedric Smith (Luke) was in Fast Company, and Gary McKeehan, who plays Lionel, appeared in Rabid and had a memorable turn in The Brood as psychoplasmics patient Mike.

Whether this constitutes enough for the director's fans to hunt the disc out on Asian DVD sites and cough up the required dosh is another matter. For Cronenberg completists it's a bit of a must, but others might like to hang around and see if the films turn up on extras on (hopefully) later Cronenberg special editions (Stereo and Crimes of the Future first appeared on DVD as bonus features on the Blue Underground's 2-disk release of Fast Company). Though the combined running time is just over 50 minutes, for The Italian Machine alone, I'm happy enough with my purchase.

sound and vision

Apart from the film-based opening titles, The Lie Chair was shot on 4:3 NTSC video circa 1975. Colours are very muted, leaning towards a green-brown palette (which may have been intended, of course), but the picture is glitch-free, reasonably sharp and with a decent contrast. Black levels are on the whole quite good, but can get a severely washed out in darker scenes. Some video noise is evident in places, but not distractingly so.

The Italian Machine was shot on 16mm for TV broadcast, is framed 4:3 and though very watchable, has not undergone any major restoration for this transfer – grain is visible, resulting in some minor artefacting, and there are a fair number of dust spots. On top of that the picture itself is a touch soft and washed out in places, with little in the way of solid blacks in darker scenes. It looks what it is – a low budget 16mm print, but the transfer could still have been a lot better.

Both films have a Dolby 2.0 mono track. The studio-recorded track on The Lie Chair is very clear, but leans towards the treble, resulting in some slight hissing on words that have the letter S in them and some very minor distortion in the louder sounds. Sound on The Italian Machine is mono, unfussy and generally clear.

extra features

Not a thing.


This is essentially a specialist DVD with a limited market: two short early films by a director whose very distinctive style is only partially evident here. The Lie Chair is interesting, but no more so than any other TV tale of mystery, but The Italian Machine has more going for it and is the one I have found myself going back to, for its character detail, its biker perspective, Gary McKeehan's twitchy central turn and Cronenberg's confident technical handling. The lack of extras is a huge shame considering the short overall running time, and makes the disk questionable value, but it's still something of a must-have for Cronenberg completists, and at present is the only way to track down either work on DVD.

David Cronenberg Shorts

The Lie Chair
Canada 1975
27 mins
David Cronenberg
Amrlia Hall
Susan Hogan
Richard Monette
Doris Petrie

The Italian Machine
Canada 1976
24 mins
David Cronenberg
Gary McKeehan
Frank Moore
Hardee Lineham
Chuck Samata
Louis Negin
Toby Tarnow
Géza Kovacs
Cedric Smith

DVD details
region 2 (Japan)
sound .
Dolby mono 2.0

Happinet Pictures
review posted
17 July 2004

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