#51: The Fly and  Fatal Attraction
Fly (USA/Canada, 1986; dir. David Cronenberg; cin. Mark Irwin; with Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, David Cronenberg, Les Carlson)

Fatal (USA, 1987; dir. Adrian Lyne; cin. Howard Atherton; with Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, Ellen Foley, Stuart Pankin, Fred Gwynne)
IMDb / My Page

Larval phases of cinephilia: I don't remember what movie taught me that movies could be good, or what movie taught me that a movie I liked and a "good" movie might not necessarily be congruent. Forrest Gump was my flashpoint occasion for realizing that a celebratedly "good" movie might not be all that good. But The Fly and Fatal Attraction acquainted me, jointly, with two more interesting ideas: that critics might trumpet a film for being better than it "had" to be (usually implying some condescension toward genre, personnel, or earnings potential), and that films might be about things that they didn't seem, especially to a child's mind, to be about. The latter disposition might foster the critical enthusiasm: a two-track film that furnishes accessible generic entertainment while subliminally nourishing the noggin was one dexterous way for a movie to be "good." That both of these films were whispered "actually" to be about the AIDS epidemic and its cyclones of fear, suffering, and paranoia surely inaugurated not only my lifelong fondness for sustained metaphors but also my now-professional habit of looking for sexual meanings and political implications even where they don't overtly name themselves. For some viewers, this feels like an awful lot to hang on a creaturely thriller where a guy finds himself barfing on his food in order to slurp it back up, or a slick, sometimes chintzily lit erotic thriller with a dog-eared ending and a bunny al dente. But I think that the old bromide "It's just a movie" is an awfully slender, polyester thing to toss onto two objects as strapping and insinuating as these.

Cronenberg's The Fly is pretty gangbusters stuff even without the barely-submerged narrative about bodily mutation, about sexual encounters yielding monstrous results, about the copious, terrified grief of mourning someone who's falling apart right in front of you, secreted though your relations may be from the rest of the world. The movie can't wait to get started. "What am I working on?" asks Jeff Goldblum's Seth Brundle in the opening close-up, clearly parroting a just-posed question, and his immodest answer ("I'm working on something that will change the world and human life as we know it") has the ring of laboratory self-confidence but also the punchy, delicious bravado of a compressed thriller making a jackrabbit start for your heart. David Cronenberg has never thought he needed to make a long movie in order to make a muscular or a profound one, and it's immensely to his credit and to Goldblum's that Seth's testy, eccentric bravado and his mordant facetiousness, established so early in this first scene, lends the movie enough raw, thick, vivid personality from which to spin an entire, complicated parable. He's a great, layered character, tragic and comic in conception and in performance; The Fly was also my introduction to the sad fact that Oscar was liable to overlook brilliant work if it came in the wrong generic package. Geena Davis also projects an astute, restless, pragmatic intelligence that serves the movie electrically. Her witty science reporter Veronica sees what is happening to Seth so quickly, and she responds with such decisive and revelatory actions, that we're driven to look closer into The Fly to see what Veronica sees, to grasp why this no-nonsense woman gets smitten and then pregnant so fast, why she knows to stick to her guns about not getting into that pod, and why her feelings are too full to cut Brundle off completely, even when he's pustulating and crime-prone, and is literally climbing the walls. Encasing and assisting these performances is a killer of a production design, with the tools for metaphysical revolution hulking inside the desultory clutter of a dingy warehouse, with Jurassic Parkian light smoking out from the glassy base of each telepod. Are they portals to nirvana, or hell, or transcendence or omnipotence or oblivion? It's no wonder The Fly recently made the leap to opera, and it's no wonder Howard Shore barely had to change his score to suit that purpose: the movie traffics in gigantic but detailed emotionalism, in tremendous and essential conflicts. And sure, the maker of Scanners still wants to explode some shit or melt some guy's leg here and there, and to see what it looks like when a human-fly remix gets disastrously re-recombined with the corrugated steel of his own dark materials. The answer is horrible and oddly ecstatic, but no matter how ghoulish or gross its eventual dénouement, the proud, predominating impulse of the movie is the channeling of prodigious grief. It's Brief Encounter with exoskeletons, plus one inside-out baboon, but call me crazy, it's just as stirring and sad.

Not that anyone balks anymore when you take a critical stand on behalf of a Cronenberg film. Fatal Attraction was and is a different story: plenty of tongues clucked the morning it scored its Best Picture nomination, and there's no way to silence the naysayers who see a glib straight-male fantasy stitched to a hoary, misogynist cliché about the ruinous ungovernability of female desire. Because honestly, those naysayers have a point. But let's not throw the knife-wielding banshee out with the bathwater she drowned in. This is the zestiest, pulpiest, most compulsively engaging movie that ever over-did its blazing-oilcan location props or its blonde, back-blown tresses for its resident Medusa. Yes, there are entire quarter-hours that play like that scene that won't die where some poor, entangled sop finds the convenient scrapbook of clippings where his new girlfriend/nanny/nurse has archived all of her killings. (Can somebody drown that scene?) But has anyone watched Fatal Attraction and not found it dangerous, sexy? Is anyone precisely sure where their sympathies do or don't fall? The self-admiring philanderer? The anodyne family with its Westchester house? The lonely, savvy, but deluded dame who, without need of a telepod, turns into a pterodactyl? Fatal Attraction thrives on the febrile momentum created by editor Michael Kahn, but I love that the eight-cylinder storytelling rush doesn't preclude quirky accents and atmospheric observations. The parents sitting around in their underwear before getting dressed for a party. The whimpering dog who needs taking out when Michael Douglas returns from his all-night assignation. The weirdly androgynous, spookily motionless daughter, somehow too small for her own stuffed animals. The shrill, demanding phones. The seasick, POV track toward the crafty intruder, perched with the wife over afternoon tea. The way Anne Archer's summary, furious question when she hears the bad news is "What is the matter with you?" and the way Glenn Close calls her stupid-you're-so-stupid. Also the way Glenn chuckles as she wheedles a dog-walking day in the park out of her new conquest, and the ferocious way she bellows, "And you get out!", kicking at Michael and letting her face sag, her breast poking out into the unforgiving light. It's only, only and heroically because of Glenn that Fatal Attraction is as sad as The Fly. She's the only reason its high-strung protectiveness of errant white yuppies tilts into a despondent, hard little aria about the addictive risk of passion and the grimacing, angry sorrow of people who know their love is trouble, for whom sex and death have an iron grip on each other, in imagination and then in reality. For whom eros is the sound of a caged elevator slamming shut.

Permalink Favorites Home Blog E-Mail