An All-Consuming Love
Stereo, released in 1969, is David Cronenberg's debut feature. This experimental film gives the impression that you are witnessing the documentation of the parapsychological trials described by the narrators; or, given the original title of the film, Stereo (Tile 3B a CAEE Educational Mosaic), that you are perhaps directly watching training material constructed by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry (CAEE) intended to induce group telepathic cohesion and autonomy.
Amidst the backdrop of the Summer of Love and the sweeping tides of sexual revolution during the 1960s, Stereo brings a darkly speculative twist to the concepts of collectivism and liberation. It steers psychedelic communism toward one of its radical conclusions: complete psychic assimilation. A claim of the CAEE, whose motto is amor vincit omnia (love conquers all), is that the norms of both hetero- and homo-sexuality are both perversions of an unbound omnisexuality, and through the use of synthetic aphrodisiacs (appearing in the film as pills), a sort of "telepathic social situation" can be attained. This telepathic communion—where the capitalist individual is completely dissolved—can be seen as a metaphorical exploration of communism, albeit in a highly abstract and unconventional manner. In trad communism, the emphasis is on collective ownership and shared resources, striving for a society where everyone's needs are met. In Stereo, the telepathic bonds represent a deep, shared consciousness where thoughts, emotions and experiences are communally experienced. The idea of 'private thoughts' or 'individual experiences' disintegrates, and individuals become part of an integrated whole. However, we learn that not all reactions to this de-individuation, to this all-encompassing love, are euphoric visions of utopia. Two subjects commit suicide as a response. Another, resorts to trepanation in order to get relief from the mental pressures. Yet another individual employs "schizophonetic partition," creating a complete divide between her false psychic self and her true aural self, resulting in the complete disjunction between her speech and thought, and the eventual consumption of her vocal self by her "false telepathic self."
What sets Stereo apart is its bold utilization of silence: there is no synchronized sound, nor soundtrack. The only audio present is the didactic voices of the narrators. Given the ideas of extrasensory perception in the film, it is possible that Cronenberg is trying to experiment with silence as a mode of telepathic communication. Curiously, the film hints at the potential for telepathic communication through silence. We see a pacifier shared between some of the subjects: a literal means to stop a sounding mouth, and perhaps heighten psychic ability. Further, it is a notion that gains traction when we consider that two of the characters within the narrative undergo a peculiar transformation: the removal of their larynxes, rendering them mute and unable to speak (in the conventional sense). Yet, in the absence of vocal communication, they enter into an "induced telepathy," suggesting that silence, far from being a void, may be a fertile ground for the blossoming of telepathic connections. As we know, silent bodies can conceal an active mind.
At its core, Stereo is an exercise in narrative duality, a braid of two parallel sequences that rub off against each other in a complex dance. On the one side, we have the varied encounters between seven people that don't seem to proceed in any clear logic. (Perhaps we should imagine the mentioned eighth "Category A subject" as Cronenberg himself.) On the other side, we are confronted with monotone scientistic narration. Delivered by multiple voices, this narrative elucidates the existential-organic concepts of Luther Stringfellow and chronicles the parapsychological experiments he conducted within CAEE. The discord between the complex language we hear and the visually austere black-and-white imagery we see amplifies the sense of cognitive dissonance. What Cronenberg is experimenting with here is a specifically audiovisual stereo—not stereoscopic, nor stereophonic—that allows for an emergent film where sense is made somewhere between the phonic and the optic.
Stereo is a cerebral cinematic puzzle that beckons viewers to transcend the boundaries of traditional storytelling. It is an audacious experiment that challenges our perceptions and invites us to explore the enigmatic corridors of the extended mind. As we navigate the intricate web of narratives, we become not just spectators but active participants in Cronenberg's hypnotic exploration of the human psyche—and its potential expansion into a telepathic communism (gone wrong).
Lendl Barcelos is a sound artist, ,kataphysician and DJ, interested in exploring the vibrating matters, often of the aural dimension, even when these occur beyond normative human limits. Alongside Tarek Atoui, Allison O'Daniel, Myriam Lefkowitz & Valentina Desideri, he was part of the Council's Infinite Ear project, based on the premise that deafness constitutes a specialisation in sound. His work has been presented at Biennale Architettura XVIII (Venice), Centrocentro (Madrid), Garage (Moscow), Inkonskt (Malmo), Q-O₂ (Brussels), Pedreira (Porto), and has been published by Urbanomic, re:press, MIT and Norient.