Welcome, my friends to the start of a brand new series here on Machine Mean. I’m more than ecstatic to present to you the first of many Creature Features that will be reviewed during this duration. And what better way to kick things off than with one of my favorite horror sub-subgenres, mad science. Looking over the landscape of Creature Feature movies, there seem to be plenty that fit the bill of mad science, including, I would argue, those radiated atomic age giant sized monsters. How could we not include those? Did Dr. Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project not considered (if not to each other to be) mad scientists? Following a successful test of his bomb, Oppenheimer dedicated his life to restricting the use of such a device. His intellect pursued the impossible and when said impossible was achieved, he drew back in quiet revulsion. Mad science…and even creatures of the macabre have a tendency to show us the things we most fear. Considering the mad scientists of the atomic era, they created and let loose upon the world a weapon so powerful that it changed the global culture and set us into a new age. Most had their own motivations, no doubt about it, but I would be confident to assume a majority of those motivations were intellectually based. Pushing the boundaries, so to speak. Creature Feature movies come from a similar vein. Unresolved fears gleaming into a new dawn. Numerous what if scenarios. Of invaders. Of the future. Of what lurks in the basement or in the woods or under the bed or out in the swamps. And some relate to our unresolved fears within our own bodies…and our minds. David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is a masterpiece of body horror, also known as venereal horror. Let’s take a closer look.
Here’s a synopsis of the film from the always wonderful IMDb:
“A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong.”
This IMDb synopsis isn’t wrong. It just feels horribly simplified, right? There’s so much more to say about The Fly. One could point out the romantic triangle between the “mad” scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his newly minted lover/journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and her ex-lover/editor Stathis Borans (John Getz). One could also point out a possible allegory of puberty, as Seth undergoes “changes” in his body, pimples, and other oozing features while becoming obsessed with his physique and sexual intercourse. Or we could go with the basic plot of an eccentric scientist and his doomed experiment. But neither of those feels quite right, do they? No. Something deeper is going on.
Before we consider The Fly, we ought to consider the director. David Cronenberg, also known as the King of Venereal Horror, back in the 80s and late 70s, set in motion a series on what film nerds refer to now as organic-horror, biological horror, or simply body horror. Anything to do with the horror of the human anatomy. For Cronenberg, we can look to Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, Shivers, The Brood, eXistenZ, and Rabid that could arguably be counted toward his run on body horror themed films. Each one taking on a different aspect or story regarding our humanistic fears about our own bodies juxtaposed to our vulnerability to disease or technology or parasites. In The Fly, this fear seems to be centered around the fear of mind versus body. Fear of what our minds create, that is technology, doesn’t feel dominate, though it definitely plays a part in Cronenberg’s philosophy.
We cannot ignore it.
Seth Brundle admits during the first hour of the movie that he has extreme motion sickness and he feels that this is a crippling condition. He cannot travel very far without getting sick. So, motivated by this horror he feels handicaps him by isolating him, scientist Brundle sets out to create a teleportation device, so that he may beam from one point to another without ever getting sick. His endeavor works. He has invented and created a teleportation pod, or tele-pod. But there’s a catch. The machine cannot properly read or understand flesh. This failure is clearly and disgustingly seen in the teleportation of Baboon #1 as the poor monkey is turned inside out. The machine doesn’t understand flesh, just as the character Seth does not understand flesh. He works exclusively alone, isolated from even his peers until he can no longer tolerate being alone. As he says to Veronica, the reason why he sought her out in the first place was because he had been alone for too long, he desires, craves, lusts for human contact. In a way, this illustrates the drama taking place between mind and body. His mind wants to continue its intellectual pursuits, but the body demands human interaction and thus intervenes and creates obstacles in the path of his goals.
While the mind is presented as being purely objective, the body is thought of as being subjective. During the duration of the movie, these ideas of mind and body are turned inside out, just as the Baboon was, and exposed for the ugliness this philosophy can bring upon us. Ideas become twisted. Seth creates a machine to solve his motion sickness problem. Okay, but he’s alone and finds solace in journalist Veronica. His bodily craving is resolved, for now, until more fleshly desires present themselves when Veronica puts the moves on our bumbling scientist. Suddenly he understands the dilemma between mind and body due to his ignorance of body and correlates his discovery with the tele-pod machine. He then successfully transports Baboon #2. They celebrate. Unfortunately, Veronica has to, as she says, “scrape off the heel” of her shoe the problematic ex-lover/editor Borans. Unschooled in the ways of human interaction, let alone women, Seth believes his new girlfriend is cheating on him or whatever and gets drunk and decides to go through the pod himself. Abandoning mind for bodily created jealousy. Unknown to him, a fly joins him in the pod and away they go. The machine wasn’t programmed to account for two separate genetic codes and so decides on its own, or more likely a fallback program, to splice them together. Seth emerges from the other pod in a cloud of white smoke seemingly unharmed or changed, instead, he is glistening and muscular, perfection one might say of both mind and body…but as horror fans, we know all too well there are no such guarantees.
Something went wrong.
It is interesting how Cronenberg differed here from the original 1958 film. When scientist Andre Delambre (played by Al Hedison) emerges from his pod he is instantly changed. His head is that of a fly’s head and his once human hand is a mandible-like claw. Differing, in this 1986 adaptation, Seth Brundle emerges seemingly unchanged but then goes through a slow and grueling deformation of his flesh and eventually his mind too. At first, he denies what’s happening, as any good horror character will do. When Veronica realizes something is amiss and tries to make him realize he is different, Seth screams at her, “You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you? I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh. 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!”
The pacing of this film is magnificent. Shortly after the above scene, Seth witnesses the first of many parts of his body that begin to fall off. Slowly, with each stage of decomposition, which quickly is realized as a perverted form of evolution, his bodily-humanity is degraded, ruined, being transformed into something else. At first, Seth accepts this new discovery, jokingly referring to his medicine cabinet as a Brundle Museum of Natural History. But the more insect he becomes, the more he realizes his once beloved intellect will also slip away into the obscurity of a brutal body-dominate fly. This realization is made in one of the movies best lines when Seth asks Veronica is she “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… I’m afraid, uh… 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.”
Seth quickly goes to work to try and resolve this transformation before he loses his mind to the bug. The machine analysis in an algorithm that he would have to splice two or more pure humans to reverse the insectoid growth. Devastated over Veronica’s departure, Seth discovers she is pregnant and chases her down when she seeks an abortion. Ina dream, Cronenberg himself plays the gynecologist, which is stoically brilliant. Seth, of course, crashes into the changing room and takes her away, imploring that she does not kill what remains of his humanity. She cannot and so he goes about his last-ditch attempt to reverse the progression of the insect with one of the best transformation effects ever conceived on screen as Brundle becomes a fully matured Brundlefly. The attempted abortion and the splicing algorithm give clues to this “other” possibility of resolving the conflict between mind and body. The mind can take action to destroy physical progression. Consider how people are outside of the movies. Why do people pursue cosmetic surgery? Why do we have organ transplants?
The Fly calls to our extremes. The war between our minds and body’s. Seth ignored his body, pursuing only the mind, to end up pursuing his physical desires over the discovery his intellect had made, only to realize all too late the need for an equal relationship between both mind and body. The Fly is definitely one of my favorite 1980s horror flicks and one of my favorite Cronenberg films. Great composition. Amazing practical effects. Top notch character acting. And gratifying gross-out scenes. But not just that, The Fly also has a deeper meaning that I find equally satisfying to all the blood and guts and giant humanoid insects, what would I be without my mind? What would I be without my body?
My Rating: 5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
In Raphael’s School of Athens, a painting that celebrates not only classical thought, but also the liberal arts, symbolized by the statues of Apollo and Minerva. Grammar, and Arithmetic, there are two key figures central to philosophical thought, Plato and Aristotle. Plato (427-347 B.C.E), for obvious reasons, points toward the heavens; whereas, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E) motions his hand toward the earth. The significance with how Raphael choice to paint these two key figures has much to do with how each of them regarded the world. For Plato, his hand pointed upward, the space separate from the physical world and into an ideal realm of Forms, “of which the things we see are imperfect copies or approximations” (Gottlieb, pg.170). This realm, of course, according to Plato, could only be fully realized by the awakened, the true philosophers. This ideal of a transcendent reality is more commonly connected to the term “Platonism,” especially among mathematicians in their attempt to “describe the nature of mathematical objects (such as numbers) or of mathematical truth” (Gottlieb, pg.170), a concept accessible only through intellectual thought. Plato’s theory of Ideal Forms continued to develop and evolve through much of his career, and some have speculated that towards the end of his life he had abandoned the theory altogether; however, it remains important for us to remember the objective of the theory itself, which was, the idea of being able to purify the soul through pure rational contemplation on a fixed reality beyond our ever changing physical world. Without the Forms, according to Plato, “the [physical] world would be too messy to make sense of” (Gottlieb, pg.171) because the two are in relationship with one another. According to Plato, when we are able to understand the ambiguous physical world with their Ideal Forms, then the unintelligible becomes lucid. One of the most interesting notions regarding Plato’s theory is his belief that people are born with an inherent knowledge of Forms and through birth, we’ve simply forgotten. Therefore, through a rational dialectic pursuit, we can be “reminded” of what we have lost.
With Aristotle, we see in the painting that he stands beside his old teacher, but instead of pointing up, he levels his hand, gesturing toward the ground. Raphael painted Aristotle in this way to illuminate how “the master of those who know” believed the world could be understood through natural explanations. Why? First, to be clear, in understanding why Aristotle differed so much from his teachers Ideal Forms, Aristotle was foremost a marine biologist. That is to say, as much as we can estimate, Aristotle’s true passion was in understanding the world through physical observation, as Aristotle had spent most of his time observing the biology of various specimens, especially marine life. For Aristotle, the only way to understand nature was by asking the right kinds of questions. Basically, again according to Aristotle, there are four main things, or causes, one should ask. “First, what is it made of (material)? Second, what is its form, [not Plato’s transcendent Forms; but rather, the physical form]? Third, what purpose does it serve [what is its efficiency, what sets it in motion]? And lastly, what made it come into being or made it change, [the telos; the reason why it’s here]? By tackling these four causes, one could move past the Democritus-esk ignorance of purpose, because without understanding purpose how can we understand the very object we are investigating? One could say, even Plato valued the notion of “final causes;” however, Plato too often found himself tangled in his own web of understanding the physical world by understanding the “non-physical entity that is separate from any particular…thing” (Gottlieb, pg.230). Basically, Plato contemplated the material of a bed by contemplating the Form (transcendent image) of the bed. Aristotle was way too down-to-earth to accept this kind of abstract sentimentality from his old mentor who saw beauty in “unrealized, unworldly things;” whereas, “Aristotle saw [beauty] all around him” (pg.233). The form of something, for Aristotle, was not a ghostly separate entity, but something “somehow twinned [deep] within it” (pg.230).
The differences between these two great thinkers did not stop with how we understand the world; Plato and Aristotle also had differing views with how the world develops and maintains an ideal society. With Plato, we learn his views from his epic work, The Republic, which, through the mouth piece of Socrates and Thrasymachus, at first glance can seem dangerously similar to modern fascism, especially considering the characters remarks regarding democracy, which was stated basically that the “love of freedom will snowball [and] the citizens will become ‘so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it’… [Thus] democracy leads to destructive chaos…The naturally pushy and corrupt members of society will thrive and elbow themselves into prominence…masquerading as loyal servants of the people” (Gottlieb, pgs.196-197); however, as author Gottlieb has noted, we have to first understand Plato’s objective. Plato’s objective, according to Gottlieb, was not to define the function of state; rather, the differing relationship between city and soul in relation of justice (just action) and happiness, which can only be attained equally through “the rule of reason” (Gottlieb, pg.201).
Plato understood that “utopia” could not exist in the ideal “civic apparatus,” which is why he developed the “noble lie” to help construct a government for those who could not govern themselves. The “noble lie” is basically a structured formation of society where the lower echelons (the bronze) are made up of average everyday men and women, who deal with trade and merchant craft. The bronze are ordinary folk ruled by their appetites (basic needs), which are the culmination of a good and comfortable life. According to Plato, the bronze are naturally made to be governed and should be taught from early age the virtue of obedience. A step higher from the bronze are the folks Plato described to have “silver” twinned with their souls. These people are motivated by honor and want to be recognized for their rigorous militaristic life. The silver echelons, according to Plato, should be taught obedience, which ought to work side by side with their desire for courageous acts. And higher still, a small minority of folks, called the “guardians,” are considered to have gold entwined with their soul. This upper echelon, according to Plato, is obedient, courageous, and also has reason and wisdom. They should be taught the philosophical discipline of dialectic and should also be prohibited to govern until they reach the age of fifty. Why? Similar to our own standards for presidency, the age limit set by Plato was to ensure that the guardian was able to see and apply the eternal transcendent Forms of nature and goodness. A guardian could only achieve guardianship through means of living a full philosopher-king life; essentially, an experienced life.
Aristotle, on the other hand, had differing opinions regarding the ideal form of society; whereas, the ideal society can only be achieved by developing the ideal individual. People, according to Aristotle in his work, Nicomachean Ethics, are rational social beings with an inherent desire to live in community with others. However, again according to Aristotle, to live within a community one must live within certain proximity of moral codes (or virtues, dealing with emotion in a rational way), which are: courage, justice, generosity, and temperance. Courage and justice ought to be self-explanatory; though, we should probably expand what Aristotle meant with generosity and temperance as these terminologies have somewhat changed over the years. Generosity is basically the moral virtue of being a balanced person, generous both monetarily and with time, but also emotionally. Temperance was meant as its most basic definition, which is self-control. For Aristotle, “life is too complicated to navigate by means of just a list of Dos and Don’ts” (Gottlieb, pg.263), and so did not see much value with understanding Plato’s abstract nature of “good.” Ethical issues played second fiddle to Plato’s assumption in the responsibility of the “guardians,” which was basically to somehow “get hold of the Form of Good” (pg.263). Aristotle’s objection to his old mentors abstract transcendent funky notion of obtaining the “good” by contemplating the higher Form of said Good and so forth, has much to do with the kind of man Aristotle was. Aristotle was a biologist. For Aristotle, understanding the happiness (or eudaimonia) of humanity was in understanding the function (or aim, purpose) of humanity in the same way he understood the function of everything else in nature.
According to Aristotle, folks tend to take the side of two extremes. Some believe that the aim of life is pleasure, [while others] identify it with honours and reputation” (Gottlieb, pg.265). Neither expresses a balanced virtuous life. Unlike Plato’s idea that people are born with knowledge of Forms, Aristotle understood that “the moral virtues are neither innate nor unnatural” (Gottlieb, pg.268). Virtue must be learned overtime and practice until it becomes habitual. There really is no better example for this than watching a toddler denied something that gives her pleasure. For Aristotle, people are responsible for their own actions and habits they allow themselves to become accustom to. The aim of virtue is to “steer a middle course between [morality and vice]” (pg.268), basically, too much courage and you would be considered foolhardy; too little, cowardice. Again, there are no predetermined formulas that would work for every single person; everyone must know themselves, know which way to pull the reins, so to speak, (also known as the Golden Ratio) between whatever quality you are seeking to develop. Know yourself, be honest with yourself, says Aristotle.
When comparing the way Plato and Aristotle understood how the world should be, we see precise swings of the pendulum. Aristotle wanted the individual to know themselves, to develop themselves from the inside out, thus making them a functioning eudemonic member of society; however, Plato dismissed the happiness of the individual almost completely in favor of the happiness of the whole. Aristotle simply could not accept this abstract notion of the whole. Understanding the whole, for Aristotle, must begin with understanding the single individual, much in the way he understood everything else in nature; that is to say, you cannot fully understand the nature of a seagull by looking at the flock of seagulls; but rather, the biological function of a single seagull. Plato believed happiness (if there is such a thing) could be obtained when folks accepted their prescribed roles in society; whereas, Aristotle believed people should know their function and to live a life balanced between the “narrow course [of] buffoonery and boorishness” (Gottlieb, pg.269).
Sources: Anthony Gottlieb. The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, W. W. Norton & Company, January 22, 2001.