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The word “Cronenbergian” is a word that has trickled its way up through the decades and into cinematic lexicon, a descriptor for works that connect the academic to the intimate and the clinical to the visceral. At 71, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg remains one of the most challenging and transgressive iconoclasts in the history of motion pictures. He begins where most directors end, giving flesh, blood and literal presence to the most inscrutable abstractions of the human mind. Yet despite over four decades of shattering convention and paving a precious cinematic road, it is in his earliest endeavors that his fascinations are most evident and unfiltered.
The first of a pair of short features, Stereo, begins in boldly composed black and white as a helicopter drops a test subject (Ronald Mlodzik) onto the grounds of a parapsychological research facility founded on the theories of mind scientist Dr. Luther Stringfellow. What follows isn’t so much a story as a series of seemingly disconnected moments strung together by the off-screen narration of various researchers, all expounding upon the complexities of rigorous parapsychological study. The second film, Crimes of the Future, has a similar conceit and construction, although with a twist: where Stereo unravels its mythology through rigid hypothesis, Crimes follows the introspective intellectual wanderings of one character in particular, Adrien Tripod (also by Ronald Mlodzik), a physician at the House of Skin, once an experimental cosmetology facility now revolutionized through the ideas of theorist Antoine Rouge.
As far as story is concerned, that’s about all there is of either of them, which develops into a kind of backwards pleasure. In a 2013 interview, Cronenberg claimed the films were born out of the mania of 60’s underground filmmaking, a movement bolstered by the liberation of handheld 16mm cameras and an attitude low on discipline, high on courage. A film like Stereo could never be made in the 21st Century. Nobody would want it. It is as antiseptic as any movie I have ever seen, and yet I found myself consistently floored by its commitment to singularity. The film has no interest in the drama of its characters, only in the technicalities of their ailments and conditions, painted in unprecedented detail by the narration. Cronenberg’s beginnings were not in filmmaking but in the sciences, and listening to the beautifully vivid descriptions of parapsychoanalysis give an iceberg’s impression of not only the vastness of his knowledge but also of his keen ability to connect and relate theory to things more immediate, more human. The film plays like a college lecture, but it’s an interesting one, a professor’s eye-view into a fictional world as textured as our own.
There are inflections of this in Crimes of the Future, but its ambitions leans towards the more traditionally dramatic, yielding a less satisfying experience. It’s meditations contain more of the physical fixations refined in Cronenberg’s more successful work, but its mythos is less mercilessly defined than that of Stereo. It plunges its character into a world of cultish, socially-charged pedophilia, but its attachment to narrative makes for a less ground-breaking experience. Yet the film retains a disquieting power. As with all of his work, beneath the surface, there is a melancholy that comes from the human animal’s inability to understand itself in its entirety, as if every conclusion we draw comes tethered to some sad, anxious truth we hadn’t yet considered.
Watching the creaky early films of Brian De Palma, specifically Greetings, one gets the sense that the lurid visuals of Blow-Out and Phantom of the Paradise were things the young director had to grow into. What’s most staggering about Stereo and Crimes is that they contain the same acuteness of visual language as can be seen in his finest work. It’s nowhere near as polished, naturally, and yet in his fledgling understanding of movement and composition, Cronenberg proves just as precocious cinematically as he was intellectually. In Stereo specifically, one wonders where such a sophisticated sense of craftsmanship came from given the freeform environment in which Cronenberg was immersed at the time of their conception.
Viewed as dual elements of a single lens, Stereo and Crimes of the Future established, if nothing else, a unique voice that would become one of the most distinctive in all of cinema. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how Cronenberg affected the mainstream stylistically, and yet thematically, his influence on narrative cinema continues to reveal itself in new colors every day. His first two films are, in the Cronenberg tradition, quite short — neither of them last much longer than 60 minutes — but their brevity is arguably the source of their fullness. Within these short 60 minute segments bubbles every idea Cronenberg has ever explored: duality, the fluidity of the human psyche, the indestructible connection between the physical and the psychological, and deeply buried Freudian impulses. That, I think, is the primary joy of both films; they function not only as products of their time but as illuminations of a pregnancy of genius that few have ever rivaled.
Spencer Moleda is a freelance writer, script supervisor, and motion picture researcher residing in Los Angeles, California. His experience ranges from reviewing movies to providing creative guidance to fledgling film projects. You can reach him at: www.spencermoleda.com