by Seb Manley
The famous speech in The Fly (1986), David Cronenberg’s gruesome, almost unbearably melancholic version, goes like this:
You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects … don’t have politics. They’re very … brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first … insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but, oh, I’m afraid, uh …
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is by this point at an advanced stage of his metamorphosis from man to ‘Brundlefly’ and is talking to the object of his affections, Ronnie (Geena Davis), in a wistful tone about his prospects, which by all accounts are fairly unappealing. He is facing life as a hybrid man-fly creature consumed by violence (‘I’m saying … I’ll hurt you if you stay,’ he says to Ronnie). His identity, the ‘Seth’ who Ronnie fell in love with and who viewers will probably have identified with, is to be destroyed and replaced by an insect Other. He wants to become an ‘insect politician’ – that is, he wants to perform a kind of ‘mediating function’, as William Beard puts it (1), between humanity and insectness – but he knows really that that isn’t going to happen: there just is no bridging the gap between the human world of science, love and press parties and the insect world of bodily horror and brutality, and that he fantasises there could be just underlines the tragedy of his situation.
The Fly is a remarkable study of the horror of the loss of the self (Cronenberg saw Seth’s transformation as a metaphor for ageing) that makes frighteningly effective use of the fly as a figure of horrific Otherness. Several of the film’s scenes focus in unnerving detail on Seth’s new fly characteristics, including his taste for sugary foods, his uneven, hardened skin and, most memorably, his method of eating, which involves vomiting a milky enzyme substance onto his food – an act that occurs first in front of our and Ronnie’s eyes and later off screen in a video (which we can hear but not see) and is almost as disgusting the second time. The horror of the film is partly, of course, the horror of losing control of the body to alien forces. But partly it is the horror of seeing the human body starting to develop the characteristics of the fly, a creature unpopular enough with humans for Beard to describe its existence as ‘intractably and horrifyingly evil in human terms’ (2). I think this is maybe a bit strong, but certainly it has a history of unpleasant associations in many cultures, including, as Steven Connor outlines in his book Fly, death, disease, decomposition and categorical disturbance (the fly being a creature disposed to moving freely between food and excrement) – all significant elements of Cronenberg’s film, particularly in its later stages.
Might someone agree with the above about The Fly’s representation of ‘flyness’ but claim that the film also prompts us to question our instinctive reactions to the fly and to consider the possibility that ‘what it is like to be a fly’ is a state of being with some value, despite its more (for us) unpleasant aspects? Perhaps. Certainly there is a thrill to the sequences where Seth shows off his astonishing new strength and agility that could be seen as contributing towards a representation of flyness grounded partly in respect (respect for animals being an important consideration in some animal ethics; see Jean Kazez’s excellent book Animalkind for more on this). Even in the later stages of Seth’s transformation, when he is starting to look not so hot, we might be impressed by Seth’s ability to walk on walls. Connor goes so far as to suggest that Seth can be characterised along with several other Cronenberg characters as a human subject who begins to ‘experience horrifying transformation as a positive experience, or at least one to be explored’ (3). But I don’t really see this: by the time Seth has reached the horrifying stages of his transformation, he is a man gripped by fear and a kind of melancholy desperation, and even in the early parts of the narrative, when Seth is feeling like ‘a million bucks’, it still seems unreasonable (as a viewer) to imagine that the changes he is experiencing are good news – he is in love and has too much too lose, and this is a horror film sold with the tagline ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’, after all. I think Cronenberg’s masterful film can be fairly characterised, then, as a film that is interested primarily in exploring human being through familiar animal imagery and associations, rather than exploring animal being, but it’s easy to imagine a human-to-insect metamorphosis movie that did take a more innovative, animal-focused approach. And Cronenberg has a Fly ‘remake’ script that may yet see the light of day, so maybe he’ll be the one who makes it.
1. William Beard, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, revised and expanded edition (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press, 2006), p. 220.
2. Beard, p. 220.
3. Steven Connor, Fly (London: Reaktion, 2006), p. 163.
Jean Kazez, Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).