Beyond the Veil of the Flesh: David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986)

Beyond the Veil of the Flesh: David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986) on Blu-ray

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I’m glad I re-watched David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly on Blu-ray. I haven't watched it in decent resolution since I saw it in a theater on first release. It's still brilliant and perfect, and profoundly moving—maybe Cronenberg's greatest and most perfect film; a horror tragedy that doesn't cop out, ever. Deftly combining aspects of romantic comedy, science fiction, gross-out midnight movie, and parable of the consequences of hubris, The Fly also works as a metaphor for what happens to couples and individuals when the body breaks down, decays, or merely ages. (When the hero’s “disease” starts to snowball, he totters into the lab on two canes like an old man; something about the makeup reminded me of the “old” Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane.)

Charles Edward Pogue's original script was heavily rewritten by Cronenberg, who fleshed out the main characters and the central love triangle and infused the whole story with his distinctive brand of pulp poetry, which is fundamentally rational yet prone to flights of romantic obsession and grandiose theatrical monologues. Since the film's original release, Pogue has been very open about Cronenberg’s contributions, and why wouldn't he be? They give the film much of its flavor. The Fly is filled with quotable lines and phrases, including "the poetry of steak" and "insect politics" and "Not to wax, uh, messianic" and "Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring! Y'see what I'm saying? And I'm not just talking about sex and penetration. I'm talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!"

nullIt's also a genuinely sexy film, at least at the start, before the body parts start falling off. (That closeup of the "Brundlefly Museum" of "redundant" body parts in the hero's fridge still makes me gasp; his cock is in there!) Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Geena Davis’s Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife are one of the most real-seeming screen couples of the ‘80s. You can tell the actors were lovers during this period: they know each other's bodies as well as they know each other's senses of humor. They even share physical and vocal tics, as couples who've been together a while always do. Neither has ever looked more beautiful, but they’re attractive in a real way, not an airbrushed Hollywood way. Cronenberg treats them as real people whose wit and intelligence are as attractive as their bodies. The way Veronica plucks that bit of circuit board from Seth’s back post-coitus, and helps him clip those “weird hairs” as he's eating ice cream from a carton later; all the scenes of them eating in restaurants and walking through city marketplaces, doting on each other, exchanging the sorts of glances that only real lovers trade: these details and others make it feel as though we are observing a relationship, not a screenwriter's construct. Ditto the wonderful little character-building touches, as when Seth, who suffers from motion sickness, gets out of a taxi before it has even come to a full stop, and Ronnie gripes about a substandard cheeseburger, then eats one of the pickles first before biting into the sandwich.

When Goldblum sheds his geeky facade and embraces what he thinks is his Super Fly destiny, he becomes even more attractive because he's so dangerously confident; he walks with a swagger, tossing his long hair like a Persian prince in a fairy tale. (This film is my favorite take on Frankenstein ever, because the hero is both Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature—it's one-stop shopping!) Seth and Ronnie seem perfect for each other, which of course makes the ensuing tragedy so much harder to take. The third point in the triangle – Ronnie’s ex-lover and boss, John Getz's Stathis Borin, at first seems a caricature of an 80s Yuppie swine, but he deepens as the film goes along; we see that he's still hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend and wants to protect her, and we get that his more asshole-ish remarks are the product of self-loathing, a way of trying to distance her from him, perhaps for what he believes is her own good. (Weird that the character's name has the same first letters as the hero's. Surely it was intentional, but it’s one of the few touches Cronenberg doesn’t elaborate on.)

nullRonnie goes from cynical opportunism to deep and true love, but without ever losing her rationality. She looks out for herself, and not once does she seriously consider giving into Seth's, um, messianic waxing. But she never stops loving Seth. In the film’s final third, she’s wracked with guilt over finding her dream man suddenly repulsive and sad. The script is wise about how people in relationships keep feeling love and lust even when one or both are changing. When Ronnie realizes she’s pregnant with Seth’s probably-mutant baby, she decides to abort it, and it’s the correct decision; and yet when Seth crashes through the glass-bricked window of the hospital operating room to “rescue” her and their unborn larvae, she lets herself be swept into his arms anyway. It’s as if she’s in thrall to vestigial, or perhaps primordial, feminine desires to be protected and to bear a lover’s offspring. Her relapse into love is extinguished by horror once she returns to the lab and realizes what Seth has in store for her: a genetic sifting operation designed to minimize the physical presence of Brundlefly by merging him, Ronnie and the “baby.” But there’s never a sense that The Fly is copping out by trying to have things both ways—that it can’t make up its mind what it thinks of the situation. It’s fiercely true to life even though its physiological details are fiendishly unreal. Every stage of Ronnie’s emotional journey rings true. Extricating yourself from a failing relationship while pregnant is a predicament that countless women have experienced; ditto the pain of being in love with a man who’s dying and/or losing his mind, and becoming ever more frightening and repulsive, instilling his survivor with feelings of guilt and shame that she’ll never shake, only learn to manage. Mainstream movies rarely dare to depict such fraught situations in all their messy realness. The Fly does so in a science-fiction setting, with telepods and freaky prostheses and an operatic Howard Shore score that could be the music Franz Waxman heard in his head as he lay dying. It’s all quite astonishing.

Cronenberg is one of the most sophisticated chroniclers of romance in modern cinema, and I’m surprised critics haven’t made more of this over the decades. Why? Perhaps it’s because Cronenberg deals in symbols and metaphors as well as witty dialogue and plausible behavior. It can be hard to sense the human heart beating beneath the blood and goo that engulf some of his finest adult dramas. The Fly is a rare horror film—and a rare big-budget Hollywood movie, period—that is adult in all the ways that count. I would never show it to a child, or even a young adult, not because of the sex and gore, but because they would have no way of processing the feelings it evokes. You have to have lived a bit to truly appreciate this movie, and it only becomes more powerful as you grow older.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

NARRATION:

nullDavid Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly would have been a shoo-in for a theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. What makes it truly special is its empathy for its arrogant scientist hero, Seth Brundle, who tests his revolutionary new matter transporter on himself and becomes genetically fused with a fly that was not supposed to be in the telepod with him. Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle is a nexus point for all the film’s creative elements: direction, writing, acting, makeup, optical effects, miniatures and puppetry. Goldblum’s work here brings everything together. It’s kind of a thespian telepod.

The original The Fly is a triumph of visual effects and special makeup. But these aspects of filmmaking are, for the most part, separate from the acting.  
This is the other one.

Where the subtext of the original was deformity, the remake is about mortality and decay. It’s a tragic love story about the fragility of flesh. And that requires a more ambitious, and subtler, merger of special effects, makeup and acting.

Seth Brundle impulsively enters his invention, the telepod, because he’s despondent over a misunderstanding. He mistakenly believes that his lover, reporter Veronica Quaife, played by Geena Davis, is still in love her previous boyfriend. For a while after, Seth thinks he’s superhuman — an outwardly normal-looking person with extraordinary physical powers, which the movie sells through old-school filmmaking tricks. These include a gymnastic stunt double … and a rotating set.
Unfortunately for Seth, the merger of human DNA and fly DNA isn’t quite done yet. With each passing hour, Seth becomes less of a man and more of an insect. And Jeff Goldblum’s performance becomes incrementally submerged beneath ever-more-unsettling layers of gruesome makeup.

nullThe effects are layered on incrementally, scene by scene, and they are showcased almost entirely through a single character, Seth Brundle, and a single performance, Jeff Goldblum’s.  

But it’s the very last scene in the film that makes The Fly qualify, beyond any doubt, for our theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. When Seth tries to disentangle his DNA from the fly’s by bringing a third teleporter into the mix, Goldblum is nowhere to be seen, and the resulting, even more repulsive creature is played by a puppet. This is one of the saddest endings in all of horror, and it’s not just because of the writing, the direction, Howard Shore’s music, or that magnificent puppet. It’s because when we look at this pitiful creature, we’re remembering Seth as played by Jeff Goldblum.  

Makeup masters Chris Walas and Stephen Doo Pwah deservedly won an academy award for their makeup effects on The Fly, and they graciously remembered to thank the film’s star.

But that moment also underlined a persistent problem in genre films that showcase nonhuman, or partly-human, characters. Whether it’s the acting, the makeup, the sets or the special visual effects that are being honored, the acclaim always has an implied asterisk next to it.  Would the makeup and visual effects in The Fly have been as effective without Goldblum’s brilliant performance? No. And would Goldblum have been as magnificent and terrifying without the effects and makeup? Of course not. This was a collective effort that resulted in a singular achievement.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at StevenEdits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY And the Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance goes to…

VIDEO ESSAY And the Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance goes to…

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In this series of video essays, Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz argues for the creation of a new Academy Awards category: Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor memorable characters created by mixing performance with CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry, or other behind-the-scenes craft. Part 1 — a piece the motion capture performances of Andy Serkis, edited by Press Play contributor Steven Santos — is embedded above; to view the piece on an Apple mobile device, click here. David Cronenberg's make up and effects team in The Fly (1986) certainly would have garnered this award had it existed at the time. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Click on the links!]

Why hasn't Andy Serkis won an Oscar? Should he win one? Is Serkis an actor, or is his physical performance in a CGI-assisted role just a guide for digital effects?

Press Play's staff kicked these questions around last summer following the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie dominated by Serkis' magnetic performance as the rebellious ape Caesar. We discussed them again when Serkis co-starred as Capt. Haddock in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. It was not a new conversation. It's been happening among moviegoers all over the world for long time. And it's the subject of a new series of four Press Play video essays titled "Collaborative Performance."

nullThis series argues for a new Oscar category that would honor characters brought to life through a combination of acting and behind-scenes-craft. This new category would not just acknowledge the important role that motion capture plays in modern cinema; it would open the door for honoring other forms of performance that have traditionally gotten snubbed by awards groups, including puppetry and acting under very heavy makeup.

Some background: In late 2001, Peter Jackson's first Lord of the Rings picture The Fellowship of the Ring merged special effects and acting with a new cleverness. That film and its sequels, The Two Towers and Return of the King, were populated by CGI characters whose movements were based on human actors. The performances were later merged with CGI brushwork — basically digital costumes and makeup. Earlier movies had attempted similar CGI trickery, notably 1999's Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and the practice itself was descended from Rotoscoping, a cel animation process that traced over live-action performers. (For historical context, read James Clarke's article here.) But the crew at Jackson's New Zealand-based special effects shop Weta Digital raised the bar, especially in scenes featuring Gollum, a character portrayed by Serkis.

Each time a new chapter of the Rings saga came out, there was a buzz about Serkis being nominated as an Oscar as best supporting actor, or perhaps getting a special award.

It never happened.

nullIt also didn't happen for Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey, who played multiple roles in Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol respectively, or Crispin Glover, who was brilliant as Grendel in Zemeckis' Beowulf; all three films used motion capture technology.

Collaborative performance has a long history of greatness, and an equally long history of being snubbed by awards groups. That's a shame, because the best collaborative performances have a huge number of moving parts, yet result in characters that seem as real as any created by solo actors.  Back in 1981, fans of The Empire Strikes Back floated the idea of giving Frank Oz a special award for his masterful puppetry in the role of Yoda, but in the end Oz had to be content with being implicitly honored as part of a team that also created tauntauns, walkers, TIE fighters, asteroids and space worms. There was talk of Jeff Goldbum getting nominated as Best Actor for playing Seth Brundle in The Fly — one of the most moving performances in all of horrror — but he got snubbed; when Chris Walas and Stephen DuPuis won a special makeup Oscar for their work on the film, they thanked Goldblum for making their victory possible. The irony, of course, is that, like many genre films, The Empire Strikes Back and The Fly were hugely dependent on the intuitive genius of performers.

Yes, it's true; these films and others won awards for their special effects. But the specific characterizations — the performances — that gave the films their magic were never given their due. To be fair to the Academy and other awards groups, there's no established method for judging the kinds of performances that somebody like Andy Serkis gives. What Serkls is doing in Apes and Tintin counts as acting, but not in exactly the same way as, say, Brad Pitt in Moneyball. In the latter, Pitt is playing a regular person in real surroundings. We can look at Moneyball and say, "That's Brad Pitt playing Billy Bean," and judge the performance's quality apart from other aspects of filmmaking that surround and/or support it. We can't really do that with Serkis' motion-capture performances because we can't see Serkis. He's wrapped in digital skin.

nullHowever, Serkis' motion capture acting can be compared, sort of, to Brad Pitt's work in 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the star played a man who ages backward. Pitt's performance generated the expressions and body language that CGI artists needed to create Button's gnarled-old-man physique in early scenes, as well as the "youthful" face and body that he acquired later. Pitt earned an Oscar nod as Best Actor for Button but did not win; I would not be surprised to learn that the special effects disqualified him in voters' minds. Some people consider this kind of performance to be "cheating," and think the same of performances given under immersive makeup. John Hurt's makeup-submerged performance as the disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) was nominated as Best Actor that year, but didn't win, maybe for similar reasons. That year's eventual Best Actor winner Robert DeNiro sported heavy makeup in the fat-middle-aged scenes of Raging Bull, but you could always tell it was DeNiro; he wasn't swallowed up like Hurt in The Elephant Man, Pitt in most of Button, and Jeff Goldblum in the second half of The Fly.

The devil's advocate might argue, "The Oscars already have categories honoring visual effects and makeup. Why should they add yet another category? When E.T. won an award for its visual effects, that basically counted as an award for creating the charater of E.T."  Such objections miss the point of my proposal, and betray a prejudce against anything but the most plain-vanilla types of performance. E.T. is the result of a collaborative performance among many dedicated professionals who are tasked with a single purpose: to make us believe that this character is real.  He is not one more special effect among many. The character is a singular achievement that deserves recognition apart from other accolades bestowed on the movie, just as Marlon Brando's performance in On the Waterfront deserved to be cited apart from that film's script, direction and photography.

The current method for judging collaborative performances factors makeup and special effects out of the equation. Why not change our way of thinking, and factor them in?

All the existing Oscars categories would still exist. We'd just add a new one: Outstanding Collaborative Performance.

Collaborative Performance would be a character-based category. It would be distinct from actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress. It would also be distinct from special effects and special makeup, which honor excellence in design and technique for whole films, not just a particular character.

The actor and the heads of any relevant filmmaking departments would be cited in a Collaborative Performance nomination. The actor's name would come first.

nullFor example: "The Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance of 1980 goes to: Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Frank Oz, performance and voice; Jim Henson's Creature Shop, fabrication; Industrial Light and Magic, motion control."

Or: "The Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance of 2011 goes to Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis, performance and voice; Weta Digital, motion capture and computer-generated imagery."

I don't know precisely how a Collaborative Performance category might be administered, which branches of the Academy would choose it or vote for it, or which individuals or groups might be eligible to win it. I don't know how many nominees there should be, either — although considering the large number of special-effects driven movies being made every year, I bet you could find at least three characters worthy of nomination.

What I do know is that awards groups should find a way to honor one of the most potent sources of magic throughout movie history: the Collaborative Performance.

Discuss.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based who has cut docu-series for cable networks such as MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet.