There was a moment in September of 2009 that the Internet was sure David Cronenberg wanted to remake his remake of The Fly, and I have the Google Alerts to prove it. My reaction to the news was one of horror. I wanted to tell him that a re-remake runs the risk of turning another Fly into a footnote. This re-remake was projected to begin in what was once 2011 but rapidly became “sometime after the Freud movie.” Then he signed on for an adaptation of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, which has now wrapped and is in post-production, and The Fly seems to have gotten away, at least for now. Besides, the aforementioned Internet contains Cronenberg quotes saying that he would never remake one of his own films, and he shows no outward sign of regression.
There was a time when outward signs were what we could expect from David Cronenberg. But there are two David Cronenbergs. The first exploded a man’s head using the latest in 1980s practical effects for the filming of Scanners, and the second made a filmin which Jeremy Irons has an affair with a man he thinks is a woman . . . for 20 years. You can probably tell who the horror-heads consider their hero.
In June of 1986, my sister was born. In July, I celebrated a second birthday (my parents did, anyway). In August, Cronenberg released his version of The Fly. Considering how long it takes to get a film off the ground, I like to think that The Fly and I were conceived around the same time.
I don’t remember my birthday or my sister’s birth. They’re anecdotal. The Fly,on the other hand . . . I think I have blood-memory of The Fly. Granted a do-over, I would be in line outside a movie theater before I ate my cake, or as my mother went into labor, whichever came first.
I’d committed The Fly’s tagline to memory long before I knew it belonged to a movie. “Be afraid . . . Be very afraid” was my motto all throughout childhood. And it just so happened that I was very afraid of things like the “Brundlefly,” the uncanny and sticky-looking hybrid of man and insect Seth Brundle becomes in The Fly.
Thanks to the Bible, I knew very early on that the Earth is literally crawling with uncanny hybrids. My earliest non-anecdotal memory, I’m sitting in the backseat of a Plymouth Horizon. Surrounded by maroon plush upholstery, I listen with a growing unease to the sounds coming out of the stereo speakers my father never turned up over halfway.
On this particular day, we’re listening to Michael W. Smith’s 1988 album, i 2 (Eye), and Smith is singing about the throne of God and rainbows and angels and using synthesizers to do so. Since there’s nothing for me to air-drum to, I listen quietly. After Michael finishes his part, a choir of children comes in chanting “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Maybe it’s an effect of the synthesizers, or maybe it’s the shallow sound of chanting children, but I hear warbling, pitch-shifted voices coming out of the speakers, and they scare the hell out of me.
This pre-adolescent—heck, pre-everything—terror strikes me as perfectly justified in light of the creepy man/animal hybrid angels I’d learned support the throne of God on their wings. These are the cherubimand should not be confused with putti, a race of insidious flying babies who have somehow managed, with their stubby little fingers and their pudgy little arms, to steal the name of fearsome beings. Real cherubs are as un-putti as is angelically possible. With human bodies, calves’ feet, four faces (a lion’s, an ox’s, an eagle’s, and a man’s), they’re downright unwholesome. But worse still for my pre-everything self was this: these “angels” have six wings, each covered in eyes.
Twenty years after the release of The Fly, I made a short film (on video) called George and Eye.
Directed by David Cronenberg. (CC)
George and Eye
A young man grows large, bulbous tumors on his arms. After much worrying and many oaths, he lances them and finds eyeballs festering in their fleshy sockets. George: Jon Porter. George’s Friend: Brent Nowak. Directed by Chris Fletcher. (Not captioned.)
Touched by a Brundlefly: “Now That Dream Is Over”
Seth helps a child-psychologist deal with an event in his past that continues to
George and Eye is mostly in homage the scene in The Fly where, much to his surprise and consternation, Seth Brundle accidently pulls his fingernail off, then looks in the mirror and asks his reflection, “Am I dying?”
In his essay, “The Metamorphosis,” Nabokov does what I was trying to do with George and Eye. Nabokov dismisses a Freudian analysis of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, preferring to “concentrate, instead, upon the artistic moment,” and then proceeds to tell the story of The Metamorphosis all over again. The next best thing to experiencing a work of art for the first time is being instrumental in someone else’s experience of it.
As a filmmaker who quite naturally works Nabokov into almost every interview, it is surprising that Cronenberg is known as the “Baron of Blood” rather than by another, more literary, alliterative appellation. The Baron exploded a prop head filled with livers; the “Lord of Literature” would have exploded his own brains onto the celluloid. The Baron telegraphed the coming Lord by having characters spout things like, “I believe that the growth in my head . . . I think that it is not really a tumor. Not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling pot of flesh, but that it is in fact a new organ, a new part of the brain.”
“Works” is the wrong word for what Cronenberg does with Nabokov. It’s more like the entire point of his interviews is to talk about Nabokov, and his films are a way to get interviewed. One senses that in some of his genre-specific early interviews, the interviewers have almost no idea what is talking about. Maybe Cronenberg’s forthcoming novel (Consumed, according its Amazon page) is an attempt to attract the kind of interviewers who get what he is talking about.
Now that we’re getting hypothetical, what if the writing of this novel has freed Baron Cronenberg, who likes to use cutting-edge technology to bring people face-to-face with the human body, from the second, headier, Lord Cronenberg? And what if the return of the Baron is driving the rumors of a second remake of The Fly?
Of course, there can be no clear demarcation between Cronenbergs: like the Brundlefly,he evolved over time. The genesis of “The Fly” itself is an evolutionary one. It first appeared as a short story in the June 1957 issue of Playboy and was penned by George Langelaan, a British spy who knew little (a very little) something about what science could do to a body. His visage was transformed through plastic surgery during World War II, allowing him to better blend with the indigenous population into whose midst he was parachuted. (Apparently his ears were pinned so he’d look more French.)
“The Fly” captured attention right away and was almost immediately shaped into the 1958 Vincent Price vehicle. (David Hedison was actually top-billed, but Vincent Price’s name always comes up first.) In 1958, the first filmed Fly was about science and hubris and consequences. In 1986, The Fly seems to be about those same things, but since it communicates through, pus, hubris, and decaying flesh, it winds up being about disease, hubris, and death. In other words, it’s universal.
For the most part, when a movie is remade, the original is remembered as better, even if the remake is more popular. But in the case of The Fly, the 1958 version is only a shadow of the remake. I believe the reason why Cronenberg’s version of The Fly is so much better than the first is largely due to that self-interrogation in the bathroom: “Am I dying?”
Of course, reviewers and critics at the time of the movie’s release fixated on the disease-like symptoms of the fusing of man and fly and saw endless parallels between The Fly and the AIDS epidemic. Cronenberg took the longer view. He claimed that the movie was a metaphor for the disease all humans share, “the disease of being finite.”
Here is a partial list of my childhood fears in no particular order
Conversion vans with curtains
(I guess the previous six are in order),
Halloween candy, and
While by now you know why eyes carry the same sense of impending doom for me as necrotic flesh, it may not be immediately clear why life preservers made the list. Well, I was also petrified of things that could fail on me.
So in addition to tree forts (which one could fall out of), I guess I should add arms, which are usually necessary for gaining access to said forts. My arms weren’t very hardy at the age of six, and even now every time I find the need to hoist myself up somewhere, I still remember the stinging shame of being unable to clamber up after my cousin as he showed me his new creation nestled among the tall trees of his backyard.
If my arms could fail me, they were worthy of my fear.
By the time I was of an age that building tree forts was both desirable and possible, I was climbing all over my backyard with nails in my mouth and a hammer in my hand, thinking about falling and swallowing nails and puncturing holes in my stomach. Once my fort was up for a season or two, I was thinking about tetanus every time the peeling birch trees swayed in the wind and I heard them groan against the weeping nail wounds I had given them.
Tetanus was my first introduction to a Cronenbergian-type ailment (not that I ever had it). As soon as I found out about tetanus, I looked it up in Encarta 95. The prognosis went something like this:
You puncture yourself on a nail, but don’t notice it until a few days later. Then, because you are a hypochondriac and know this about yourself, you decide it is probably not a nail-caused puncture wound, but some other kind. So you wash the wound with hydrogen peroxide even though that does no good because it is a puncture wound and it says not to treat them with hydrogen peroxide right on the back of the bottle. Then you run around for a while, wondering when you will get lockjaw and die, until you get lockjaw and die.
As it turns out, Cronenberg feels the same way I do.
In an interview around the release of The Fly he said, “[T]he idea that you carry the seeds of your own destruction around with you, always, and that they can erupt at any time, is . . . scary. Because there is no defense against it; there is no escape from it.”
As a boy, Cronenberg watched his father be gradually overtaken over by his own seeds of destruction. Milton Cronenberg was a writer who spurred young David to write stories of his own. It is not hard to see a montage cutting from an earnest boy, pencil in hand; to a teenager, all pimples and angles, “writing pastiches of Nabokov;” to a confident young man, wearing glasses he stole from George Romero, directing his first film. But we have forgotten to splice into this montage scenes of bodily decay, scenes which lead just as naturally to a career in science.
But the lab coat didn’t fit as well as our protagonist thought it would, and he eventually wound up back in his element, studying literature in college. He started making movies after graduating with funding from the Canadian Film Development Corporation. Cronenberg’s Shivers was their first movie to turn a profit, but the press associated with it got him kicked out of his apartment in Toronto.
When Cronenberg started making films, it was almost immediately apparent that though he didn’t want to study the science of dying, he did want to study its philosophical and practical applications. He made movies about parasites, diseases, and cancers which exhibited an admixture of scientific detachment and irresponsible glee. As a character in Shivers says,“Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other.”
But it’s not just foreign invaders (or lovers) causing problems in Cronenberg’s films. For Cronenberg, the body is independent of the mind and very “cantankerous.” He’s compared the relationship of flesh and consciousness with that of colonizer and colonized. A character in Cronenberg’s The Brood, after revealing a sarcoma on his neck that looks like a tree fungus, says, “I have a small revolution on my hands and I’m not putting it down very successfully.”
This all sounds like too much J. G. Ballard ingested at the wrong age, or an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation. But maybe he just knows that disease and transformation are constant companions to live with, not in spite of. According to Cronenberg, “most diseases would be shocked to be considered diseases at all. For them it’s very positive when they take over your body . . . It’s a triumph.” Maybe this triumph of the viral will is part of what it means to be alive; after all, viruses don’t live long in a dead body. At some point, though, these agents of change make too many modifications, and devolution becomes the order of the day.
A death’s head hovers over Cronenberg as he explores the interstice between mind and body. In the documentary, David Cronenberg: Long Live the New Flesh, Cronenberg discusses one of the paradoxes of the classical Cartesian split between mind and body:
One of the bases of horror, in general, and difficult[ies] in life, in particular [is] how we can die. Why should we die, why should a healthy mind die, just because a body is not healthy? How do you have a man dying, a complete physical wreck and his mind is absolutely sharp and clear? There seems to be something wrong with that.
Though he may have some of the detachment of a man of science, Cronenberg is acutely aware of the outrage that is disease and death. In the sickroom, the mind of the loved one is as sharp as ever, but disease has taken up residence in their body, transmogrifying it into a hybrid of disease and human. As their flesh takes on new dimensions, textures, and smells, the initial cognitive dissonance of the experience fades, and the bereaved is left face-to-face with the uncanny loved one who is not entirely the person they once were.
Death itself is an uncanny event, and on the other side a host of Brundleflies waits to usher us into eternity. Or at least this is how I feel when I contemplate the beings who are supposed to engender numinous awe in me (the goal when someone decided Revelation was a good book to read to children) but instead fill me with horror. By resembling humans only in certain ways, the cherubim become uncanny rather than awe-inspiring. Because of those angels, I’m still not so sure I want to go to heaven when I die.
But the fact that there is a second Cronenberg, one who broke free from the constraints of the horror genre, the genre of death and disease, soon after releasing The Fly, suggests he found a way escape his fear. A part of me hoped I could transcend my fear of disease and hybridity with one bold artistic stroke.
My friend Jon, who plays the diseased in my movie (and whose latent acting career I have ruined forever), was driving us to a Minneapolis suburb with help from his GPS system. We’d already picked up liquid latex for the tumors and makeup to blend it with Jon’s skin, and fake blood (clotted and fresh) from a theatre supply store, and we were coming up to a house on the left that offered the promise of what we needed: realistic eyeballs. From the outside, it looked more like a harvesting location than a pickup point.
The house had been cut in half at one point, as one wall was not wood siding like the others, but made of cinder blocks, and there was a screened-in porch on the front. In front of this was a conversion van. I made Jon keep driving, prompting the Voice of his GPS, which had started the day sounding like a sexy woman in the dashboard, to become shrewish.
“Make a left u-turn in 50 meters.”
“Don’t,” I argued. “Pull into that McDonalds and call the place to make sure they are what they say they are.”
What Mrs. B’s was supposed to be was a doll shop, but what it looked like was the house of a cat lady. What really got me was that conversion van. It had those little curtains drawn in the windows, the curtains that look like they are made of the worn-out upholstery from ancient basement couches of unspeakable horror.
In the end, or next, depending on how you look at it, the shrew tamed us and we flipped the suggested u-turn and pulled into the parking lot. The porch was full of spidery plants and broken furniture. I pushed the front door open, even though it felt more like a place where one had to knock.
Inside the walls were lined with the tiny naked bodies of dolls of every conceivable height, girth, and color. There were dolls with closed eyes and long lashes in baby carriages in the middle of what I took to be an aisle. But seeing that this particular doll shop was more a personal collection that got out of hand, perhaps it was more like a route for taking out the kitty litter. There were dolls standing around looking at each other, at Jon and me, at the walls. Jon and I exchanged an uneasy glance.
We heard the sound of someone moving around, but everyone in sight was made of either porcelain or plastic. Then a woman emerged from a room in the back (which I later saw was full of little arms, legs, and heads). She was talking, but not to us. Another woman followed her out of that back room and they continued their conversation about the particular make and model of doll the customer-woman was hoping to locate, a doll she had owned in her childhood, but had lost along the way to middle-age. Neither woman used the words “make,” “model,” or “owned” in reference to the doll, instead preferring to refer to the doll as they would a small child—a small child who had gone missing and whose clone was readily available for a nominal fee.
When the shopkeeper was ready to help Jon and me, we asked to see some human-sized eyes, blue, if she had them. The customer looked at us and asked, “Oh, do you like dolls, too?” The question was innocuous enough, but what kind of person looks at two men, just barely out of their teens, still in prime rabble-rousing years and asks them if they like dolls, too?
I told her the eyes were for a movie we were making. What I didn’t tell her was that the eyes needed to be blue because that is the color of newborn eyes, or that we were going to make sores for the newly-erupted eyes to see out of and bathe them in mint-flavored fake blood. I didn’t want her thinking I was as weird as I thought she was.
I know that Freud thinks that the uncanny is about the fear of losing one’s eyes, but he’s full of it. The uncanny is about having eyes where there shouldn’t be any. The uncanny is insect hairs growing out of one’s back and human legs that end in hooves and sighted wings.
George and Eye ends with George telling his roommate that his sores are all better. These are the sores that last the audience knew were birthing eyes; eyes that rolled greasily in their bloody tumor-sockets. “They’re all better,” intones George, brightly, as he holds up a bloody steak knife. (Though the blood was real fake blood, it looked a lot like raspberry jam on that steak knife.)
In Western thought (and much of the Eastern, too), the existence of ugliness and disease reflects the presence of evil in the world. These symptoms of the fallen nature of humanity are to be vanquished with all possible haste through prayer and whatever other means comes readily to hand. Surgical strikes work for tumors and terrorists alike. But at the same time, the angels who hold up the very throne of God appear deformed. If this is so, maybe the uncanny is not something to be escaped, but absorbed.
I tried to escape the fear of disease the way Cronenberg seems to have been able to, but I couldn’t remake the remake. In the last shot of my movie, a close-up of a jar filled with blood and eyes fills the frame. I can’t yet live with my fears.
George and Eye is a ham-fisted metaphor that I don’t quite understand. All I know is that George is my thinly veiled doppelganger. I wish I could go back, rework the raw footage until it makes sense, and rerelease George and Eye to a larger audience, but the hard drive with the raw video on it does not belong to me. I seem to remember it was lost, stolen, or crashed.
I have buried my only DVD copy in a shoebox among some out-of-date software discs and have tried to forget about it. In light of this, my earlier warning to Cronenberg against his re-remake is probably a product of what Freud would call projection. But who cares about what Freud thinks anymore?
I’m afraid Cronenberg cares.
Chris Fletcher lives in Minnesota and writes creative criticism. He blogs at 10 Billion Canons.
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