*. So who is this Dr. Luther Stringfellow chap anyway? I at first assumed he was the youthful Caligari we see in the opening frames arriving by helicopter at an all-but-deserted sanitarium in the northern woods of Ontario, a place run by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (just thinking about that makes my head hurt). Decked out like a Victorian dandy complete with cape, walking stick and pocket watch, he certainly seems to be someone in charge.
*. But apparently this is not Stringfellow but one of the doctor’s guinea pigs, part of an ethically dubious experiment involving “induced telepathy” that is being conducted at the Academy. So is the doctor that fellow with the beard who shows the dandy to his room? I thought at first that he was an orderly, but his pacifier gives him away as another “Category A” resident in the program.
*. What is it with the pacifiers anyway? I take it they’re symbols of something, but what? They’re clearly made to echo the ankh on the back of the tarot cards, but I think they are less concerned with “life” than they are with preconscious urges. The Category A residents seem to have reverted to an infant-oral stage of sexuality.
*. Or at least that’s one interpretation. Various objects reappear through the film as leitmotifs: the pacifier, a walky-talky, pills, chocolate bars. They all have an oral connection, and a connection to childhood, but beyond that you’re on your own.
*. Nor is that the doctor’s voice providing any of the male or female voiceovers. These describe the doctor’s work in dispassionate tones, but all refer to him in the third person.
*. So Dr. Stringfellow may be Caligari. Or Dracula. Or Godot. Or Monsieur Maillard. Or David Cronenberg. Or all of the above. The only thing we do know about him is that he’s checked out of the sanitarium for . . . personal reasons. Maybe he came down with something.
*. Is he a hippie who went bananas? It seems his perverse goal was to set up a “telepathic commune” dedicated to free love (that is, “a fully three-dimensional sexuality”). This parapsychological structure would dissolve the obsolescent patriarchal family unit in orgiastic bliss, and, carried into the national context, would “presumably carry with it its intrinsic qualities of willing reciprocal dependency and mutual experiential creativity.” That is not psychobabble. It’s hippie talk.
*. 1969 was a countercultural watershed though, and we can see the backlash starting here. The telepathic commune or conglomerate is doomed to break down. In my notes on Shivers I remarked how the high-rise in that film might be viewed as a satire on Rochdale, an alternative-education co-op in Toronto, still in operation at the time both films were made. Stereo might be viewed as having a similar counter-countercultural message. Who is paying down the mortgage at this college for communards anyway?
*. A personal aside: I actually lived across the street from the old Rochdale when I went to the University of Toronto, in Rochdale’s sister building Tartu College. I also lived in the old Elrond College building when I attended Queen’s University, which was another experimental student housing co-op back in the day. They are privately owned today, and stand as ugly landmarks of the “brutalist” architectural style which we see on display throughout Stereo (which was shot on the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus). It was ugly back when it was new, and looks even worse now.
*. Is Cronenberg just laughing at the counterculture, or is there some ambivalence? I’m inclined to see ambivalence, but that’s because I think his take on the counterculture is grounded in his ambivalent attitude toward sex. About which more in just a bit.
*. The scientific shop talk in the voiceovers sounds like it might just be a string of buzzwords. And, to be honest, I’m not sure what relatively common words like “cybernetics” or “existential” mean in any context. But there is a sort of basic groundwork being set down that explains a bit about what’s going on.
*. Sticking with the voiceover, I find it gives the film, especially when added to the vaguely futuristic lost-in-time setting, a real La Jetée vibe. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not though.
*. In so far as I can sort out the underlying narrative supplied by the voiceover it goes something like this. The residents are all “telepathists,” though this is not a natural ability but the result of their having had different kinds of surgery done on them to enhance their telepathic abilities.
*. As noted, the point of the experiment is to see if telepathy can be used to form a new kind of social structure, allowing for greater freedom and less conflict. Since telepathy requires some kind of emotional connection for there to be any telepathic “flow” (the Stringfellow hypothesis), some attempt is made to increase such connections through psychic aphrodisiacs. Unfortunately, this can lead to a pathological condition (a “geometrically increasing rate of telepathic flow”).
*. In short, telepathy operates like a kind of sexually transmitted disease. At least one of the residents even develops a condition of “schizophonetic partition” (I think I have that right) as a prophylactic or psychic defence mechanism, which involves the creation of a false telepathic self. The down side to this, however, is that the false self can eventually come to dominate the true self as the latter atrophies through a lack of connection with other minds (and bodies). This leads to a morbid declension.
*. The only other defence is separation from the group mind. This is the option chosen by Dr. Stringfellow, who abandons the project, ostensibly so the commune can achieve group autonomy without him. However we are told that this has led to Stringfellow’s growing depressed, suggesting his own dependence on the telepathists. Perhaps he will become another suicide. We are told that this is the fate of a couple of residents who are separated from the group.
*. So what we have here is an early example of what would eventually be dubbed “venereal horror,” a genre Cronenberg can lay some claim to having invented. The point being that the human condition is to be torn between two seductive evils: isolation and infection. We can’t live with other people and we can’t live without them. Telepathy seemed to offer an out — non-physical union — but the cure turns out to be worse than the disease (another big Cronenberg theme). Now we have other people inside our heads. It’s a wonder they don’t explode . . .
*. Of course it isn’t a great movie. That would be expecting far too much of what is basically a student film, one that couldn’t even be shot with proper sound (the reason voiceovers had to be used was apparently because the noise from the camera was so loud). The structure is awkward and the story muddled. Nevertheless, its look holds up well and in hindsight it can be read as a calling card for a lot of the more sinister developments to come.