This is the first part of a series of posts where I watch and write about all the films of David Cronenberg. If you enjoy this post, consider supporting this blog on Patreon.
There is a point in Stereo where a reader calmly explains to us that the subjects of the experiment we are watching consented to various surgical procedures in order to become part of the experiment. None of it is true, of course, but it doesn’t make any of the tonally flat descriptions any easier to stomach. Some had the verbal centers of their brains obliterated. Others allowed for their laryxs to be surgically severed. We’re told this. so smoothly, by a very academic voice speaking in a very academic way, and it is in that moment that I experienced aural body horror.
I’ve read things that have turned my stomach (and there’s a hefty trigger warning on both of those things for general body horror). This was the first time that someone had ever read something to me that pushed me to the edge, filled me with bad affect, not dread or disgust, but something totally unrefined and raw.
Of course, that is the core of Stereo. The story is composed of narratives, read to us by mostly disinterested people, concerning a series of experiments undergone under the auspices of the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry, an institute that wants to understand the new modes of sociality that the future will demand of the human; their solution is the induction of telepathy in people in order to create a pansexual human who is in deep connection with everything around her. It is only in this mode, the texts tell us, that the traditional family structure can be replaced, which will allow humans to move onto the next stage of their collective history.
So it is a strange and amazing moment when content and expression meet in such a way that I feel like I’m being communicated to in the same way that everyone in the film is — telepathically, without a mediator, just pure affect flowing into me. While the film is silent except for narration, the first half has many scenes of people talking to one another; as time goes on, these drop out completely. We’re in the realm of abstract concepts communicated from mind to mind, an extended network of the brain.
I had a trick played on me, though, in a strange moment of form. We’re trained to think of voiceover narration as a direct and intimate linkage from our mind to that of the character we’re seeing. Voiceover gives us direct access to truth in a film, whether that is through narrative about what we’re seeing or in the difference between the two. I was lulled into thinking that I was getting something “true,” but instead I was getting what might be the furthest from the truth — an academic explanation. This trick of the medium, of comfort, is an inherent critique of the cybernetic connections that the characters of the film are experiencing. They feel connected, but as some of the narration explains, they are actually in a process of dominating one another psychically, replicated in the screen/body relationship when I’m watching it; I feel like I am in control, but I’m hooked, caught up, not feeding forward as much as living in a feedback loop.
And there’s no resistance for me. I could turn it off, sure, but I don’t want to. I’m creeped out, I have this awful feeling, I feel ethically disgusted, and yet I sit through the whole thing.
At one point we’re shown a scene of playful exchange between a young man and a woman. They chase and play, eventually giving into erotic impulses (as everyone in the film does, eventually), but over this long scene we’re presented with an act of resistance via voiceover. It is explained to us that she has created a dual psychic self, a dummy mind that is accessed by the other telepaths. Her physical self changes to match, becoming playful, silly, totally unlike her “real” self, which becomes suppressed yet still psychically alive. Eventually her “real” self starts expressing itself, sending telepathic messages of death, decay, and necrophilia into the collective mind of the group, depressing everyone, altering them in ways that they cannot fully understand. Her abject asserts itself and violently effects everyone around her. It is a truly amazing piece of science fiction storytelling, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything quite like it. I’ve pulled a transcript of the explanation from William Beard’s The Artist as Monster to give you the full effect:
Of course, with that high note, there is also the low. Cronenberg is often charged with a latent misogyny, and we see it here — of the many things in the film that happen with no explanation, more than one is of a woman being slapped or otherwise dominated by a man. Shots linger on their bodies, on violence against them, and there’s no way to read them — we can say that they merely happen, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I can’t intellectualize it into pleasure the same way that I can with the body horror.
There’s so much in Stereo that I can’t talk about, not because I lack the words, but because I can’t make it all fit together. The characters walk around in medieval clothing, cloaks, sleep in monk’s cells, and read tarot. I have no idea what to do with it. One person cuts himself off, fixates on knives, clearly wants self-annihilation. Everyone has a baby pacifier as an item they constantly touch, suck, hold. Why? The film proliferates questions that we can’t help but want to solve. They’re unsolvable. And that’s the best trick that it pulls, the academic one. Stereo presents itself as a set of empirical facts, but as we’re told straight-up, there’s no repeatability with these sorts of social experiments. There’s no ground from which to speak. Instead, we can relate what we see, give the facts as we saw them, because there is nothing else.