Originally published on August 14, 2016.
When we think about David Cronenberg’s The Fly we think about the grotesque transformation of Seth Brundle that drives the film and weakens our stomachs. 30 years later and the artistry of Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis on Seth Brundle’s six staged transformation into Brundlefly remain an unmatched feat in practical effects, paralleled only by Rob Bottin’s work on The Thing four years prior. Despite the effects wizardry that keeps audiences returning to Cronenberg’s film over and over again, The Fly’s memorable body horror and exploration of the flesh would be lessened if not for the compassion for character that binds each scene, even as Brundle’s body falls apart. So much of Cronenberg’s early years focused on the transformation of the body, with The Fly often at the forefront of this discussion, offering a critical examination of AIDS, aging, impotence, masculinity, and death. I’ve contributed my own brief analysis of these themes, and before tackling this film for its 30th anniversary I questioned if I had anything left to say about it, if there was one more transformation yet to be discovered, an extra appendage ready to break free from the plasma pool. As it would turn out, the answer lies in the language of romance, and the treachery of images.
The Fly, based on George Langelaan’s short story, is a love story at its core, and love is driven by communication and interpretation. In both Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original and David Cronenberg’s reimagining, the teleportation pods not only transform the bodies of their creators but also their means for understanding, driving a wedge between the romance central to both films: Andre and Helene Delambre in 1958, and Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife in 1986. Based on both film’s description of teleportation, it is the break-down and re-communication of atoms through time and space. This invention to change the world and the way humans travel also has the added benefit of changing the way we communicate with each other. There’s no need to call or write when you could be in front of your correspondence almost instantaneously. But what is lost through this teleportation process? What is gained?
Consider the game telephone. Many of us played this as children in elementary school, but basics are that the teacher has students stand in a line and whispers a sentence to the first student. “There will be no extra recess today,” for example. And as that sentence is whispered along through classmates, the words change, sometimes intentionally on the part of a student, sometimes due to poor speech skills, and sometimes due to simple misunderstanding, until that original sentence becomes something else entirely, a new idea driven by a new structure. “There will be no extra recess today” becomes “We’re getting Reese’s pieces at lunch today” and everyone laughs when the original sentence is revealed. The human fly hybrid that shatters Andre Delambre and Seth Brundle’s perspective on reality is this new idea, this structure changed through miscommunication, but in the end no one is laughing.
A parallel idea of miscommunication comes from Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte and his famous painting La trahison des images or The Treachery of Images. The painting, simple enough, displays an image of a pipe. Below the pipe are the French words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Translated, it says “This is not a pipe.” Admittedly it was the terrible French accents, which Vincent Price didn’t even attempt, of the Quebec set 1958 film that created the train of thought that led to the French words of this painting. If the image on the painting is not a pipe, then what is it? It is a reproduction of a pipe- a thing but not the thing itself. To hammer home his point, Magritte stated that the pipe in the painting could not be stuffed. It fails to perform the task that it was meant for and therefore cannot be that thing.
The inherent difference between an actual pipe and the painting is difference between 4D and 2D. But in The Fly, the original teleported material and the recreations that re-form in the second pod are both 4D (within the boundaries of the film, and not our screens). In the 1958 film, the first teleported object is an ashtray. The experiment seems like a success until the reverse of the ashtray is shown and “made in Japan” is printed backwards. Not only has structure and idea of the thing been miscommunicated a ala the telephone game, but the ashtray is no longer the ashtray because of this, it is simply an interpretation of it.
The idea of the ashtray exists as mere curiosity in the B-movie intrigue of Neumann’s original film, but I’d argue that it is the very foundation of Cronenberg’s take on the story. The Fly then, is not simply a tale of physical transformation—body horror, but of communication transformation and the greater horror that lies in misunderstanding. These themes of communication and misunderstanding are set up by two important character attributes at the very start of the film. The first is that Seth Brundle has poor social skills. The staccato delivery and odds facial tics Jeff Goldblum imbues Seth Brundle with perform the duty of letting the audience know about Brundle’s communication problems from the get-go. The second attribute is that Geena Davis’ Veronica Quaife is a reporter. This isn’t simple an occupation, but the entire basis of her character, to question and to be the bridge of communication. The film begins in response to a question she’s asked, one we don’t hear her say but hear Brundle repeat back to her: “What am I working on?” Thus the entire film, is set-up as a response to that initial question. The large gaps in time, sometimes months between scenes, that show us both the progress of Brundle’s experiments but also his relationship with Veronica, serve as journalistic entries, a clearly defined path of scientific discovery in an effort to answer a question that we’ve barely touched on when considering the film: At what point does a thing become something else entirely?
The first piece of flesh that Brundle teleports is a raw steak. When Veronica tastes the teleported steak in comparison to the un-teleported piece she says that it tastes synthetic and that she cannot eat it. The steak is no longer fulfilling its purpose as something edible and at the same time is communicating something different, something that can only be communicated through taste. Brundle explains that “Computers are dumb. They only know what you tell them. I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m going to have to learn.” Naturally, there are sexual undertones to this statement as Brundle’s struggle to communicate with his computer program is also representative of his struggle to communicate with women. Communication becomes the driving factor in both science and sex, and miscommunication destroys both until they become something that was never intended. Brundle follows up his initial statement about the flesh moments later saying “the computer is giving us it’s interpretation of a steak. It’s translating it for us. It’s rethinking rather than reproducing it. And something’s getting lost in the translation.” Brundle concludes that the computer must learn “the poetry of the steak” that basic idea and structure that makes steak steak, or man a man.
Seth Brundle’s drunken decision to send himself through the telepod after the successful teleportation of a baboon is driven by misunderstanding. When Veronica rushes away from their celebratory dinner to confront her old boyfriend, Stathis Borans, Brundle concludes she must be sleeping with Stathis. After all, she only rushed out after seeing the unopened package Stathis had sent to his apartment. This package is revealed to be a cover story expose that Stathis has written using Veronica’s notes on Brundle’s experiments. But the miscommunication of that unopened package and Veronica’s quick retreat have already done their damage, leading to Brundle’s accident where his atoms are integrated with that of a housefly. Thus the film that had so far been based on science and language of romance becomes something else: a tragedy. But the tragedy isn’t the transformation of the self, but a transformation of the way the self is thought about.
In respects to the film’s ideas on communication, Brundle’s transformation into Brundlefly is a metaphoric representation of his not-ness. It is the means through which we as the audience can understand that he has been reinterpreted—our eyes seeming to perform the same function as Veronica’s tongue when she tasted the teleported steak. The Seth Brundle who emerges from the telepod may as well be tattooed with “Ceci n’est pas une Seth Brundle.” The housefly itself is merely a means through which we can understand what happens to Brundle through the process of reinterpretation. Alongside the physical affects Brundle undergoes we also see changes in his personality as he becomes more aggressive, and uber-masculine. Isn’t this enough to convince us that the Seth Brundle who comes out of the telepod is not the same one who went in? I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia entitled “The Personality Myth.” In this episode it’s concluded that our personalities aren’t set, as much as we like to latch onto this idea for the sake of identity. Instead, personality is situational and capable of drastic change over time so that the person you were can seem entirely different from the person you are. Prison inmates who believed they were mentally no longer the person who committed the crime they’d done years ago, were used for examples. This led to questions about what we could rely on to know other people if personality was not as set as we thought. Physical appearance also fails at containing a concrete sense of identity. Nearly all the cells in our body, except for the ones that form our brain are replaced within a month or less, leading to the conclusion that it was entirely possible to see a person a month later as an entirely different person. Memory was the next aspect explored and that too was considered to be too pliable to exist as concrete evidence of the self. So if we’re constantly being made new, copied, and reinterpreted based on the effects of our situation and environment, what are we? Based on these recent scientific theories, Seth Brundle’s transformation isn’t so different from ours and it’s easy to see why the film is most often read as an allegory for aging. So if personality, memory, and physical appearance can change and be reformed, is there anything that makes us concrete? Are we performing the function we were created for, or are we in a constant state of not-ness after that first month of infancy?
At the end of “The Personality Myth” it is decided that it is our belief in the self and ability to communicate that self to others that defines us. I should add the caveat that these are just theories the podcast introduced and not facts. They are theories that I don’t entirely buy into, but will for the sake of the ideas that drive Cronenberg’s The Fly. So based on these ideas, my sense of self is defined because I can tell you who and what I am as a result in my belief in what I am and my ability to communicate that nature. This holds true for most of us. So Seth Brundle remains Seth Brundle until he loses the ability to communicate the belief of his self. In the initial weeks after his transformation, Seth Brundle believes the telepod purified him and that he has thus become his best self and so he acts accordingly. Later as the physical transformations take hold he believes he is diseased and has an aggressive form of cancer. He becomes sick and weak because he believes he is a sick and weak man. It is only when he discovers that a housefly was caught in the telepod with him that the belief in his humanity shifts leading him to wax poetically about the nature of his self:
“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’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake…I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.”
And with those words, Brundle loses his ability to communicate as a human and becomes man miscommunicated- a representation and reinterpretation but not the thing itself. But Brundlefly is neither man nor insect, he’s something new and thus is cut off from communication entirely and resigned to a lonely existence. But is this lonely existence so different from who Seth Brundle was before? The film is based around his communication failures, his existence only made better by Veronica’s ability to provide enough meaningful communication for the both of them. While the existential lines above seem like the words of a man on the verge of madness, they ring true: Brundle was always part insect, he simply didn’t know it and thus couldn’t clearly communicate it until after the accident revealed its divine purpose. But that divine purpose is perhaps best left unrevealed.
In Brundle’s efforts to reclaim the intimacy of communication from his man-dream, he attempts to merge with Veronica, the bridge of communication, and his unborn child, but mortally injures himself in the process. In his last act of communication, the “Brundlething” places the barrel of the shotgun Veronica is holding against his head and urges her to pull the trigger and end him. The final act is simple, direct, effective, and the film offers no dénouement, no chance for the pain and heartbreak that’s communicated in those final images to be lost or turned into something else. The film ends as it first established itself with Brundle grasping to communicate and Veronica providing the bridge to the answer.
The idea of the telephone game and Magritte’s painting seemingly lies in miscommunication, the distortion of that which seems simple. But perhaps the message passed from ear to ear reveals a deeper truth and desire that lies just below our conscious thought. Perhaps the greatest horror a human can know is the realization that we “are not a pipe” but simply an interpretation of our true nature. This horror is offset by our ability to teach ourselves the “poetry of the steak” and become convinced of our own identity through belief. And if that belief fails? Well it’s just as The Fly taught us thirty years ago, “be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox