Cronenberg’s Stereo Program Note


In lieu of a review on Cronenberg’s first project Stereo, which there aren’t any out there,  I’m including here the program note available at the screenings tonight and tomorrow. Pick one up at the screenings, or just check it out here on our blog.

(David Cronenberg, Canada, 1969, 35mm, 65 min)

Born in Toronto to a journalist father and pianist mother, a young Cronenberg wrote brooding, cerebral works of SF and fantasy, which he submitted (unsuccessfully) to magazines for publication. Enrolling as an English major at the University of Toronto in 1965, he became interested in taking part in the burgeoning student filmmaking scene. The young, would-be filmmaker struck up a friendship with a young Ivan Reitman (who would become a successful Hollywood producer-director a few years after producing Cronenberg’s first commercial feature), and established a deal with a local camera-rental service who would provide him with equipment. Learning his technical craft by voraciously consuming cinematographer journals, he produced his first two films in mid-1966 and 1967: a seven minute experimental work shot in colour on 16mm, entitled Transfer; and a fourteen minute, color short with the enticing title, From the Drain.

Although neither short made much of an impression at the various student festivals where they were screened, Cronenberg persevered, and by 1969, at the age of 26, he produced his first feature film Stereo, shot in 35mm and black and white. The film is about experimentation on telepathic subjects, and introduces his familiar obsessions with the tyranny of medical science and corporate control of technology coupled with the vulnerability of the body and the intersection of technology and sex. Stereo was largely financed by a Canada Council writing grant and was extremely well received at festivals throughout the country and abroad even though it was made on a budget of only $3,500 and without the benefit of synchronized sound.

When asked, at a screening of Stereo about his introduction into film and how he went about it, Cronenberg had this to say, “I did go to the University of Toronto and take a year of biochemistry, which is a very intense and very hard, difficult science. But I found myself spending most of my time at the Arts end of the campus; it was very polarized (speaking of polarization, as we do in Stereo). I was hanging out in the junior common room there and talking to everybody about literature and movies and things like that, and gradually I felt that I couldn’t connect with even my classmates in science, that they did seem to be a different species, which kind of destroyed my theory. I remember two students who were together, they were a couple, they were dating. And I remember watching them, wondering what the nature of their sexuality could possibly be, because they were just so alien. I still don’t know. If there are tapes anybody has, I’d like to see them.”

“Anyway, so I ended up dropping out of Honor Science, as it was called at the time, and I ended up going into Honor English, which was a four year English course, which was very intensive with lot’s of history and philosophy and of course literature. And at that point I gave up my dreams of being an actually scientist, so I became kind of a fraudulent, vaguely art scientist. So, there it is. And Stereo is, primarily, on one level, a parody of academia, an attempt to engulf actual human experience with jargon. Literary jargon and scientific jargon and so on. And that’s why I am glad to see there were a few laughs because it’s meant to be a comedy. So, that’s basically the way that I worked.”

“There was a lot of experimentation amongst a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists, all of which gradually lead to “The Sixties”, which really was sort of into the ’70’s. So the idea of using drugs as a sort of psychotropic methodology to shift psychology in a measurable way, that was all very much in the air at the time. So I was absorbing and playing with a lot of those ideas.”

“Ian Ewing, who is in Stereo, was one of the founders with me and Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and a few other filmmakers of the filmmakers Co-op, which was based on the New York Co-op. And the idea was that we would distribute our own films. This had nothing to do with making money, obviously, so to get the films out to whoever wanted to see them, whether it was universities or just film groups, we established a Co-op, where you could rent the films for very little money. And even if you were just an individual and you wanted to rent them and show them on your own projector. That was the idea of the Co-op, and it was run by the filmmakers who had films in the Co-op. And we were underground. Because it was the ’60’s, no, you don’t have to apprentice for somebody for twenty years before you get a chance to direct, whatever. It just seemed to be the way it was at the time. It was just grab a camera and do your own thing and that was it. So, these early films, and I would include Shivers and Rabid as well, you’re really watching me learn to make movies. Basically that was my learning on the job, except it wasn’t really a job, because I didn’t get paid.”


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