Learning to Fly

“Be afraid.  Be very afraid.” This quote originates with David Cronenberg’s The Fly.  Of course, after watching the original, how could I not watch its successful remake?  I initially saw this one upon its 1986 release in a Boston theater.  I hadn’t seen it in some 35 years but some of the scenes were as fresh in my memory as if I’d seen it last year.  It’s safe to say that it made an impression on me.  Even usual critics of horror gave the film high marks.  Both it and its predecessor with the same title were quite successful in the financial department and became part of popular culture.  The remake ends without the philosophical statement of Vincent Price in the original, choosing despair instead.  I’ve never seen the sequel.

I picked this up as a used DVD many years ago.  Mainly I wanted to have it on hand in case the mood struck to see it again.  I did recall that, as a Cronenberg film, it was a gross-out of body horror.  So much so that it’s difficult to classify it as science fiction.  It, along with its near contemporary Alien, demonstrated that the fusion of the genres was possible.  Perhaps inevitable.  At the same time, movies, like most other media, have proliferated to the point that such standouts are rare.  Yes, there are still Academy Awards and Golden Globes, but who but a professional can see all the offerings out there?  It feels like we’ve moved beyond the time when a movie could define a generation.  But on a deeper level, that’s why The Fly is about.

We, on the far end from the white male oligarchs, are blending.  We’re no longer simply accepting what we’re told.  We’re becoming more global and more people are starting to break into the power structures.  Even if they sometimes transform if they do.  I saw a recent newspaper article about what to do with your second home, as in decorating it.  Second home?  The majority of us are having trouble up keeping our one home, and that’s if we’re even owners.  Society needs a telepod.  The end results may be messy, for sure, but we need to stop thinking in exclusive terms.  Cronenberg indicated back in the eighties that the movie was about disease and aging and letting those we love go.  That gives the film its poignancy, in a kafkaesque way.  At the same time it may be a teaching tool.  Yes, we can be afraid, very afraid, and still learn.


Original Fly

Thinking about it made me do it, I suppose.  Watch The Fly, that is.  This is a movie I grew up knowing about.  I knew the basic plot but somehow was never in the right place at the right time to see it.  Until now.  For a movie from 1958 it remains strangely affecting.  I was wondering whether religion would enter into it, and indeed, in a moment drawn from Frankenstein, André Delambre expresses that he knows what it feels like to be God.  No thunder to drown it out this time.  A short while later his wife Hélène asks him what he’s doing as he is relaxing in the back yard.  He says he’s looking at the sky, or maybe looking at God.  In the light of other mad scientist movies this is a somewhat self-aware moment.

The Fly is one of those movies that had great influence on popular culture.  Although critics at the time thought of it as a gross-out (they obviously had no idea what David Cronenberg would do!) it nevertheless managed to find its way into dialogue with other movies.  The correlation to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teevee’s scene is remarkably close.  (Adult’s who’ve read Roald Dahl and who’ve paid attention to the movie know that this is kid-friendly horror.)  I’m also pretty sure some of the writers from The X-Files knew The Fly as well.  The Fly, coming during the atomic age, is clearly a warning about using technology that we don’t understand.  Although the movie made a great return on investment for the time, the message still hasn’t been received.

In many ways The Fly set Vincent Price’s trajectory toward being a horror star.  After all, just two years earlier he’d been in The Ten Commandments.  Isn’t he another connection between religion and horror?  Although not the lead in The Fly, as André’s brother François, Price has the most philosophical line: “The search for the truth is the most important work in the whole world and the most dangerous.”  Like the warning about technology, this is a bit of information that might have usefully been heeded.  The political events of 2016 to 2020 demonstrated just how important the search for truth is (and demonstrated religion and horror).  Even with a partial fly brain, André Delambre destroys his notes after making Hélène promise never to reveal what happened.  The truth gets out, of course, leading to the observation behind many mad scientists’ ravings: what is really being sought is the rush of knowing what it feels like to be God. 


Brooding

Horror was undergoing a serious development beginning in 1968.  Into the seventies many boundaries were being crossed and new areas of fear were opened.  David Cronenberg is known for his body horror.  Being the squeamish sort, I don’t always seek out his films, but I’d been curious about The Brood for several years.  A holiday weekend afforded the opportunity to see it and, in a strange way I’m glad I did.  The story concerns a psychiatrist who helps his patients embody their neuroses physically in order to deal with them.  The patients manifest in their bodies their deep-seated rage, generally from childhood parental issues.  Those of us who grew up in broken families may seem to wear them on our sleeves, but I suspect most people have issues that were unresolved from that complex parent-child relationship.

The interesting thing here is that there is really no antagonist in the film.  Dr. Hal Raglan isn’t evil, but he does have secrets.  He tries to help his patients, but one of them, Nola Carveth, has major, well, issues.  Abused by her mother, she enters Dr. Raglan’s institute while her husband cares for their five-year old daughter.  Nola’s rage, however, bears a brood of small, gargoyle-like children who, when she focuses her anger on one person, attack and kill them.  Her parents, their daughter’s school teacher, and even Dr. Raglan receive her rage, all murdered by these children born purely from herself.  This strange kind of parthenogenesis makes for a distinct form of body horror.

It’s pretty clear that there is a critique of therapy going on here, but also a kind of therapy is being offered.  I’ve had people ask me if I watch horror as therapy and I freely admit that I do.  The movies I watch are often self-care, or even a spiritual practice.  Many people suggest that horror portrays a negative view of life.  Others of us tend to think of it as more metaphorical.  And besides, the message is often an upholding of conservative social values.  This particular film is difficult to interpret in that regard.  It was written after Cronenberg had gone through a divorce and that makes sense of the central conflict of the movie.  Parenting is as difficult as it is life-changing.  While The Brood may not give solid parenting advice, it may offer a way of understanding ourselves.  If a film does that, it can’t, in my opinion, be all bad.


Inception of Theseus

Never the first for new cultural memes, but often among the last, I finally took my family to see Inception over the holiday weekend. The Internet has been buzzing with comments about the movie for the last couple months, so it was difficult not to have preconceived notions of what to expect. Nevertheless, I found the film utterly engrossing. At one point I realized that I hadn’t blinked in so long that my eyes had begun to dry out. Having just finished Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves at the end of June, and having begun my Mythology class on Friday, the Theseus myth has been on my mind anyway. Inception takes the hero’s journey through the labyrinth of the subconscious.

The first hint that Inception was the Theseus story, for me, was the introduction of Ariadne. The daughter of King Minos, Ariadne informs Theseus how to escape the labyrinth, and her first task in Inception is to draw a maze that takes a minute or longer to solve. Dom Cobb, like Theseus, is a deeply flawed hero. Part Theseus, part Daedalus, Cobb has trapped an unlikely Minotaur in the form of Mal, his wife, deep in his subconscious mind. She stalks him in his unsavory work, and when she threatens his very concept of reality, she is slain by Ariadne.

Coupled with classical mythology, the film also raises the unresolved question of the nature of reality. Is conscious existence any more real than the subconscious? This theme was explored in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ back in 1999 with a similar ending that refuses to answer the question. Both films raise the troubling interference of technology with the most secret of human psychological repositories, the uninhibited subconscious. The closer the Internet comes to a global intelligence, the more the individual mind recoils into its own obscure and unexplored territory. Despite Freud and his disciples, we have not yet even begun to understand our own subconscious minds. Movies like Inception draw on classical sources to help us deal with the Minotaur that surely lurks there.

Ariadne explains her dream to Bacchus