Thursday, January 24, 2008

Stereo/Sylvia Scarlett

Stereo is an early student film project from David Cronenberg, an hour-long feature made almost entirely on his own, on such a shoestring budget that he decided to entirely forgo sound recording. The result is a film that, even in its extreme minimalism and obvious amateur nature, is pure undistilled Cronenberg, an early indication of the themes and obsessions that would continue to haunt him throughout his later films. The film's central conceit is that the footage shown here is documentary material from something called the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry (only in Canada!), where the mysterious Professor Stringfellow is conducting strange experiments in telepathy and sexuality with a group of eight young men and women. The bulk of the film is entirely silent, with the only sound being provided by an occasional voiceover, reading clinical and scientific descriptions and analyses in a detached, objective tone. Otherwise, the film plays out in a dead silence. This eerie stillness may have been necessitated by budgetary constraints, but it is nevertheless a perfect aesthetic complement to the film's inquiry into sensory deprivation, human communication, and the objective/subjective divide, especially as regards scientific research.

This divide between objective and subjective is most present in the gulf between image and sound in this film. While the voiceover impassively discusses the nature of telepathy and describes the theories and experiments of Stringfellow, the images present a messier world of social interaction and sexuality, far removed from the dry, textbook-style readings on the soundtrack. This gulf is almost never bridged, and as a result the sound and image seem to exist on different planes, commenting on and feeding into one another, but rarely coming completely into sync. The voiceover rarely ever seems like it's actually talking about the events of the images, which it purports to describe.

The best way to capture the film's mood is perhaps to quote from one of these lightly absurdist but earnest monologues: "We understand that the unique way in which an individual perceives and reacts to his environment is a function of his own experiential space continuum," the narrator says halfway through the film. "When object events enter the experiential space continuum of that individual, they become an integral, organic part of that space... But we are now feeling with telepathists, in theory, the interior space continua of two or more telepathists can merge, can blend together to an extent far beyond the range of normal human experience. What would be the organic nature of communal experiential space, shared among eight psychosomatic entities?"

Obviously, this psychological mumbo-jumbo points forward in many ways to Cronenberg's own Scanners, just as the film's clinical exploration of sexuality would later be taken up in Dead Ringers and Crash. This film is concerned, as many of Cronenberg's films would be, with alternative modes of human society and interaction, the creation of a new "experiential space." This expansion of human capability is located, as it usually is in these films, in the human mind itself, in expanded use of brain functions usually left undeveloped. Just as the community of telepaths in Scanners represented a new human social unit, tightly knit together within their own minds rather than through sensory or verbal interaction, the experiment depicted in Stereo is an attempt to reach a similar new paradigm in human society. The obvious subtext in these scenarios is an awareness of the inadequacy of society as it is now, and Cronenberg's films often represent imaginative recreations of social functioning in order to create a new and better society. That these transformations inevitably necessitate tremendous psychological and physical violence can be seen as a byproduct, an indicator of the rigidity and strength of the social norms being broken.

These themes are less developed in Stereo, really just a skeleton of the ideas they would later blossom into, but the film is nevertheless interesting, especially for Cronenberg admirers. The imagery of the film consistently belies the objective tone of the narration, as the camera (handled by Cronenberg himself) fluidly glides through the distinctive, angular corridors of the CAEE (actually the University of Toronto). While the voiceover maintains a clinical distance, the camera swoops in on the telepathic volunteers at the institute in even their most intimate moments. As an early sketch in the career of a director who would later fill in this broad outline with much richer details, Stereo is perhaps most worthwhile as a beginning, a starting point. But it is by no means worthless on its own merits, and its coolly detached examination of human subjectivity and relationships is a seminal example of David Cronenberg's keen eye for such subjects.

George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett is a deliriously strange and unsettling mess of a film, an irreconcilable collision of gender-bending sexual mutability with old-fashioned Hollywood normative romance and melodrama. The film casts Katharine Hepburn as young Sylvia, who disguises herself as Sylvester in order to help her father (Edmund Gwenn) escape an embezzling charge in France. The duo flee to London in disguise, as father and son, and along the way pick up the lowlife smuggler and thief Monk (Cary Grant). Together, the trio attempts to make a dishonest living by pulling cons. There are a great many twists and turns after that, especially when the trio is joined by a Cockney maid (Bunny Beatty) who the father falls for, and the quartet starts up a traveling vaudeville-type show performing for the rich all across the countryside. But the narrative is largely unimportant to the film's successes, and its increasingly baroque machinations are clearly not where Cukor's interests lie. Rather, the first half of the film is a clever inquiry into gender and sexuality, as the cross-dressing Hepburn charms both Grant and the upper-class artist Michael (Brian Aherne) with her boyish ways, while also seemingly attracting several women.

This bisexual play animates the film as long as Hepburn remains in drag. She is, it should be added, an almost totally unconvincing man, but it doesn't particularly matter, since the film as a whole is so unconcerned with being convincing in any regard. It starts with the accents, which are uniformly horrid and in any case keep slipping away and then back again at random. Grant is supposed to be sporting a lower-class Cockney drawl, which is bad enough, but he constantly forgets and falls into his standard Cary Grant persona — it's to his credit that he's such a natural that the shift is often barely even noticeable. It's harder to figure out quite what is going on with Hepburn's accent. She's supposed to be half French and half English, so I guess in some sense her all-over-the-place melange of accents and voices might represent her mixed heritage and upbringing, but it's still distracting, especially in the more melodramatic scenes. In lighter moments, she allows the accents to fall away, forgotten, and that's a relief, since her voice and natural comic poise go hand in hand, as in her more conventional screwball comedies. She's especially good at projecting her character's awkward attempts to sound like a man, as well as the moments when she forgets and slips up. This babble of voices, faked and put on, results in a meta-layer in which it's difficult to tell when the characters are meant to be faking a voice, and when it's the actors who are faking and forgetting. The scenario complicates things further by having the group pose as rich society folk for one of their scams, with Sylvia's father affecting an upper-class British whine for the ruse. It's a film about "passing," in terms of gender, sexuality, and class, and the emphasis is always on the voice as a marker of identity — one reason that the actors' missteps with their accents are so galling and ironic.

Despite this sometimes awkward execution, Hepburn's adventures as a man are riotously fun, and the closeted gay Cukor was clearly having a ball with this resonant scenario. From the moment Hepburn and Grant meet, there's a weird chemistry between them that clearly hints at some underlying (homo)sexual tension. At one point, getting ready to bunk up on a cold night, Grant tells Hepburn that "he" will make "a nice hot water bottle" to cuddle up next to. In another scene, Hepburn is kissed on the mouth by her father's lover, and later the lover of the man she wants (Aherne) can't resist giving her a peck on the cheek either. She seems to gather attention almost without regard to conventional sexuality, as though the confusion of gender roles serves to make her attractive to all genders and sexualities at once. Cukor stretches this material as far as it will go, and presumably as far as the strictures of 1930s Hollywood would allow; it's hard to imagine him getting away with much more, and even the obvious innuendo here considerably stretches the boundaries of the Hollywood romance. Nevertheless, this obviously couldn't be sustained for the whole picture, and the film inevitably has to unmask Hepburn and return her to her proper sex role, which is precisely the point when it ceases to be exciting and begins to drag and falter.

The plot complications necessary to affect this role reversal quickly descend, in the second half of the film, into trite melodrama — the kind where characters run out into the rain and scream, or jump to their deaths in the ocean — and it's obvious that Cukor loses much of his interest in the plot once Hepburn sheds her suit for a dress. There's a delightful moment, when Hepburn reveals herself as a girl to Aherne, when he simply cackles and yells out, "So that's why I was talking to you the way I was!" It's a telling line, suggesting that even before he knew she was a woman, Aherne was feeling the stirrings of attraction for her, and that while her revelation might sanction those feelings, make them acceptable, it doesn't substantially change the feelings themselves. This understanding of sexuality as a universal fact not always bound by traditional male/female dynamics is quickly discarded by the narrative, however, in favor of some much more conventional Hollywood theatrics. Cukor is so disinterested in this fluff that at one point he obviously dubs in a whole conversation of exposition while no one on screen is moving their lips at all. Sylvia does briefly change back into Sylvester during the second half, though, and Cukor takes the opportunity to insert a prison sequence with a knowing wink, having the two "men" spend the night in a jail cell together on the flimsiest of pretexts.

What all this adds up to, ultimately, is a totally confused and uneven film that's nevertheless a joy to watch, messiness and all. There are plenty of moments of great fun and pleasure, and the handful of rioutous party scenes look forward to Cukor's own later Holiday with their celebratory free spirit. The second half's melodrama often drags, and the conventional romantic resolution is something of a disappointment, if only because the film's first half promised such freshness, candor, and originality with regard to the Hollywood treatment of romance. That the film doesn't quite deliver on that promise doesn't diminish the sloppy, sporadic brilliance of much of this film, which in fits and starts serves to question and undermine the whole heterosexual, upper-class foundations of the Hollywood cinema.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Sylvia Scarlett was a famouns flop, massively contributing to Hepburn's "box office posion" rep. In Gavin Lambert's interview book Cukor still seems slightly ashamed of it, though he knew its rep was growing. He says the parts that work least was where he was trying to "playing it safe." Moreover he says this is the film where Cary Grant really discovered himself as an actor -- relaxed into his role and had a great time. In fact everyone had a great time making it.

Sylvia Scarlett is as one with a number of other very loosely constructed 30s movies. I'm thinking especially of Boudu aved From Drowning and le Crime de M. Lange (two of my favorite Renoirs). But the 1940's the studio system had "locked" production procedures so a film like this was simply inconcievable. You don't find its like again until the arrival of the New American Cinema in the late 50's and early 60's ie. Shadows, Guns of the Trees, The Flower Thief, Hallelujah the Hills. Later on its reflected in Warhol/Morrissey cinema, particularly Lonesome Cowboys, Flesh, Trash, Heat and the underrated and scarcely known L'Amour.

I don't hink it's quite correct to call Cukor "closeted" exactly as no one was really "out" in those days as we know it today.

Let's just say that Cukor was "very Anderson Cooper."

Anonymous said...

Stereo sounds intriguing. Your article has definitely piqued my interest. Is the film easy to come across?

Ed Howard said...

CG: Stereo is definitely worthwhile for Cronenberg fans, and it's intriguing on its own too. It's available on the two disc edition of Fast Company from Blue Underground, along with Cronenberg's other early short feature, Crimes of the Future, which I haven't seen yet.

David: Thanks for the comments. I think Cukor's right to attribute his own missteps here to "playing it safe," though it's probably also true that he couldn't've done it any other way and still gotten the film made. Considering this is 30s Hollywood, the first half of this film is somewhat shocking in its openness and gender/sexual ambiguity. I really loved it, warts and all. You're probably right about "closeted," too, though as far as I know Cukor didn't really come out until the late 70s or so, which is why the description seemed to fit him.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well strictly speaking he never came out at all. Towards the end of his life he was gettign an enormous amount of acclaim and thoroughly enjoying himself as the "Grand Old Man of Hollywood."
He would always have the foreign film nominees over for a special lunch and was only too happy to have undergraduate film students interview him about the Good Old Days. But he was part of that world and he new it -- not the new one that was just coming into being. Today we talk about his gayness and the role it may have played in his career quite feeely. Obviously it figures in Sylvia Scarlett more than anything else. And then of course there's his being thrown off of Gone With the Wind at Gable's insistence because (and this didn't make it into the book but Gore Vidal who knew Cukor told me recently) Gable was a hustler in his youth and Cukor had been a client.

But Cukor was really tough. He lived through that and had a fantastic career.

Cukor was a highly cultured man. When I was doing research for my book Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 I went through his files at the Academy. He left all sorts of teriffic things, including a great many letters. I turned his correspondance with Robert Bresson into a piece of Positif. In any event I believe you can find the real Cukor in The Actress. It's Ruth Gordon's memoir but when Jean Simmons sits way up in the balcony and looks down at "Hazel Dawn" sign ign and playing the violin, its the young George Cukor falling in love with the theater.