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Anton Rouge and the Stringfellow hypothesis
A region 2 DVD review of STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE by Slarek
 

If the titles Stereo and Crimes of the Future ring no bells with you then you are no true David Cronenberg fan. At just over an hour each they can be viewed as either his first two feature films or extensions of the short film format he had already worked with in Transfer and From the Drain. Stylistically they are both examples of intellectual experimental cinema, meditations on the director's own theoretical musings on human communication, biology, behaviour and sexuality. If you're looking for early examples of Cronenberg's body horror then you're largely out of luck. Indeed, if you come to either of these films expecting an entertainment, even in the unique manner that Cronenberg has fashioned over the years, you're likely to be severely disappointed. Despite some telling thematic touchstones, the films have more in common with the work of William Burroughs, Anthony Balch and Chris Marker than the twisted takes on exploitation cinema that were soon to mark Cronenberg's career.

And yet they are both, in their way, distinctively Cronenberg pieces, most notably in the density of their behavioural and scientific theorising and their striking use of faceless institutional locations. Neither of them are narrative works in the traditional sense, having the detached sterility of information of educational films made by a government department interested only in evidence and hard facts. Emotional responses are discussed and to a degree observed, but never expressed. This is the sort of art school film-making that will instantly alienate a sizeable proportion of its potential audience, even those who count themselves as fans of the director's work, but just as many will take its anti-narrative and avant-garde elements dearly to heart.

Back in the 1980s, you could often find the two films playing together in London independent cinemas, and at the very same time Cronenberg himself was suggesting in interview that they would prove pretty heavy going as a double bill. To a degree he's right, but given that both are cinema as art and intellectual discourse, they demand to be read in a different manner to works whose prime purpose is to entertain. Whether you'll want to do so, or whether you'll be at all receptive to Cronenberg's very singular approach, is another matter entirely.

Stereo

At the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry, a number of volunteer telepaths are observed and studied by the staff. The procedures used and the conclusions reached are relayed in voice-over by a number of the researchers, as the volunteers go about their daily lives, interact with each other and participate in the described experiments.

Although a narrative is hinted at early on with the arrival of a black-dressed character (Ronald Mlodzik, a close ringer for a young Peter Cook) who could be either scientist or participant, the on-screen action is largely observational and often unrelated to surrounding scenes, at least in narrative terms. The film itself is devoid of sound effects and music, the silence broken intermittently by voices that explain the work of the Academy and its findings in such coldly analytical terms that it's all too easy to hear the voice but not the words. But it is here that the film is most recognisably a Cronenberg piece, the dispassionate meditations on the telepathic abilities of the subjects under investigation proving consistently intriguing, particularly the concept of telepathic addiction and the suggestion that telepathic ability is governed in part by the level of attraction between telepath and subject. This itself leads to some interesting postulations on the politics of sexuality, the suggestion being that heterosexuality and homosexuality are equally perverse and the only true norm is bisexuality.

The film is sometimes visually arresting, the large modernist clinic with its long corridors and featureless walls acting almost as an expressionistic extension of the emotionless voice-over, and inevitably foreshadowing the use of similar institutional constructs in Rabid and The Brood. The most obvious signal of things to come, however, is in the discussion of telepathy, some of which would find its way into Scanners, specifically the idea that drilling a hole in the forehead might alleviate the pressure caused by the thoughts of others.

The difficulty here is that much of the on-screen action is a tad too non-specific, casual interactions between characters that are often divorced from the information being delivered in voice-over. Although this itself is not an issue, at 63 minutes in length it can occasionally prove tough going, as minutes tick by with little to keep the eyes busy and nothing at all for the ears. As an experiment it is fascinating and sometimes intellectually arresting, but for many the length will prove self defeating, as there is little variance in the style and no development of story or, to any significant degree, character. But it IS intriguing, specifically for its often complex and well devised theoretical musings, its pointers to the director's later cinematic obsessions and for its visual panache. That it was shot by Cronenberg himself suggests that had he not chosen to direct, he could have carved a successful career as a cameraman.

Crimes of the Future

Despite boasting more in the way of story and being shot in colour rather than black-and-white, Crimes of the Future could in many ways be viewed as being the second part of the cinematic experiment begun by Stereo. Visually there are immediate and obvious similarities, notably in the concrete modernist institutes in which both films are set and the black-dressed lead character (again played by Ronald Mlodzik), and once again this is essentially a silent film driven by voice-over. This time around, however, it is spoken in the first person and the soundtrack is peppered with semi-abstract sound effects, recordings of water and sea creatures used by Cronenberg to create the sense of, in his own words, "an underwater ballet."

The lead character, and the man whose musings guide us through the film, is the splendidly named Adrian Tripod (the pronunciation of which is difficult to explain in print), a doctor at a clinic known as The House of Skin, which since the death of "the mad dermatologist" Anton Rouge has fallen into serious decline. Only one patient remains, and control of the clinic has effectively fallen to Tripod's two sullen interns, whose purpose he is unsure of. When the last patient dies of a condition known as Rouge's Malady, Tripod transfers to The Institute for Neo-Venereal Disease and develops a technique for treating patients by telepathically connecting with them through their feet.

I mean, look at that plot. Pure Cronenberg. But as played out here, driven as it is by an emotionless voice-over and with no 'live' sound or dialogue, it's not quite as thrilling as it sounds. The avant-garde minimalism of Stereo is also at the core of Crimes of the Future, and despite the addition of some plot development, this is likely to alienate almost as many hopeful viewers as its predecessor. But it also shares all of that film's strengths, from its intellectual scientific theorising to its cinematic fluidity, and also has its share of pointers to the director's future work, most memorably the patient who begins growing 'puzzling, functionless organs', which touches on territory that was to be more fully explored in The Brood and Dead Ringers. This blending of experimental minimalism and twisted storytelling is ultimately seductive, and towards the end involves us in a sequence as disturbing as anything Cronenberg has done since, though interestingly for what is suggested rather than what is actually shown.

Although the unsympathetic may claim otherwise, Cronenberg is not merely flirting with ideas or playing with the camera here, both films reflecting a very specific vision and demonstrating an emerging and exciting cinematic style. That's not to say they are going to work for everyone, and they are as likely to annoy and exasperate as they are to enthrall or excite. Both films require patience, tolerance and a willingness to go beyond the confines of narrative cinema, but if you're up for it then the rewards are most definitely there.

sound and vision

Despite knowing that both films were shot on 35mm, their status as low budget, little seen early films created in me unfairly low expectations for the transfer quality. Well Reel 23 certainly showed me. Despite some print damage (most noticeable on Crimes) that has been very effectively toned down, the transfers on both films are very impressive, boasting a very good level of detail and sharpness, impressive contrast and solid black levels. The colour on Crimes is faithfully reproduced, and vivid on the rare occasions when bright colours are used. There is some occasional frame instability on Crimes – it doesn't last long when it happens, but you can't exactly miss it. The framing is 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.

Both films feature Dolby mono soundtracks and there's not a lot to say about them, especially given that Stereo is silent for a good portion of its running time. The voice-overs are clear enough, but show their age and low budget origins more obviously than the picture.

extra features

None on the disc itself, but the sleeve notes fold out to a poster and include a director's statement on both films, which is very interesting, and an overview of Cronenberg's career.

summary

Previously only available as extra features on disc 2 of Blue Underground's US release of Fast Company, the release on UK DVD of these two early experiments by one of modern cinema's genuine masters is to be warmly welcomed, especially given the quality of the transfers, which are considerably better than I was expecting. They are definitely not for everyone, but are a must-own for Cronenberg devotees, even though a fair proportion will doubtless end up wondering what the hell big Dave thought he was up to. I've always had a soft spot for both films, and coming to them again on DVD after several years I've developed a real affection for them. And in an age of cinematic anti-intellectualism, the sheer range and imagination of the ideas under discussion, however dispassionately or satirically, is a joy in itself.

Stereo
Canada 1969
63 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Ronald Mlodzik
Jack Messinger
Iain Ewing
Clara Meyer
Paul Mulholland

Crimes of the Future
Canada 1970
63 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Ronald Mlodzik
John Lidolt
Tania Zolty
Paul Mulholland
Jack Messingers

DVD details
region 2
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
Dutch
German
Finnish
French
Spanish
extras
Poster artwork
Director's statement
Director biography
distributor
Reel 23
release date
29 May 2006
review posted
26 May 2006

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