Monday, March 20, 2006

A Buzz Film

Plenty of people — myself included for a time — couldn't wrap their heads around David Cronenberg's interest in making A History of Violence. After seeing his 1986 film The Fly it somehow seems to make more sense.

Though they are in completely different genres with different tones, Violence plays like a variation on The Fly. Both are about the painful, tragic process of synthesizing different aspects of a personality into a whole: Tom and Joey, Brundle and The Fly. There are quite literal human duplicates, sexual triangles and jealousy, and narrative trajectories where very likable characters are slowly transformed into characters we dislike, don't understand, fear, etc.

If A History of Violence is an adaptation of a 1990s graphic novel, The Fly feels a bit like a cynic's interpretation of a Silver Age Marvel comic (or, perhaps, a very faithful rendition of an EC comic). A talented scientist (Jeff Goldblum) invents the world's first teleporter then, in a fit of drunken stupidity instigated by jealousy over the relationship between his girlfriend (Geena Davis) and her former lover and boss (John Getz) uses himself as his human test subject. Unfortunately, a fly also sneaks into the teleppod. In the Marvel comic version, the hero — whose name would have to be a lot snappier than Seth Brundle, maybe something like Brock Brundle — would grow wings and realize that he must now fight crime as Fly Guy: Winged Protector Of Humanity! The EC comic version would have tamped down the sexuality (just a little) but otherwise it would have played the same: the scientist and the fly are spliced, the scientist becomes a man-fly, and body horror, shedding of flesh, excreting of fluids ensue.

It may not qualify as the standard definition "horror film" but Cronenberg's The Fly is one of the most disturbing films I've seen, largely because the horrific elements do not seem played for sensationalism, but for tragedy. Cronenberg's camera seems as horrified by Goldblum's transformation as we are and the makeup used on the actor is so downright repellent that it's sometimes difficult to even look at the screen. The stuff at the end may put it over the top as the most disgusting movie I have ever seen.

And yet! And yet I loved it. Cronenberg's crazy, proof-that-the-man-should-be-institutionalized personality is all over the film, from Goldblum's ramblings about fearing the flesh and penetrating things, to the circular nature of death and birth, genius and madness. The usually loathsome Goldblum gives perhaps his most Goldblumian performance ever, yet there's something magnetic about his performance in the beginning and downright tragic in the ending. Now if I can just go my entire life without ever seeing it again.


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