Friday, August 26, 2016

Written on the Wind (1956)

Grand, melodramatic, colorful, and supremely entertaining, Written on the Wind in many ways seems like the definitive Douglas Sirk movie. The film oozes with melodrama to the point where you might question Sirk's sincerity, and its story doesn't feel as rooted in the 1950s as Sirk's most popular film, All that Heaven Allows, does. While the latter is certainly pretty great, its reliance on social issues for much of its dramatic weight makes it feel too of a time rather than timeless.

Written on the Wind, released a year after Heaven, fits within a grander tradition of storytelling, rife with portentous notions about family, friendship, honor, and jealousy, honesty, deception, expectation, fulfillment, disappointment, love, and the complex neuroses weigh down people with that much on their shoulders. I list these items with no intention of describing any of them in depth. The film, honestly, doesn't afford the viewer much opportunity to do so. It's aware that these themes are embedded in the narrative, and it's also aware that it doesn't really address them in any complicated way. It sounds like an epic, but at only 100 minutes, it's actually not interested in being one.

The movie opens with an impromptu trip to New York by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and Mitch Wayne (Sirk regular Rock Hudson). One's a alcoholic playboy and heir to a lucrative oil business, and the other his longtime chum and geologist for the business. One's reckless, the other responsible, and the former gets the girl the latter secretly admires, Lucy, an executive secretary played by Lauren Bacall. Despite her fairly distinguished position in New York, Lucy envisions settling down with a husband and kids, and describes herself at the beginning as a "soul searcher." Though she recognizes that Kyle is deeply problematic, the fact that he seems to see in Lucy an opportunity to change his ways and settle down indicates to her that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

After the film's lengthy opening bit, we skip ahead five weeks where Kyle and Lucy are now married, while Mitch saunters in the background, resentful from his secret love for Lucy and the fact that he did not act upon it as quickly as his friend did. At this point we're introduced the fourth major player in the film, Kyle's sister maniacal sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Cut from the same cloth as her brother, Marylee drinks too much, has serious daddy issues, and is both obsessed with and incapable of getting Mitch to fall in love with her. Her self-destructive behavior is both a cause and a result of her loneliness, and I'm reminded of a line from a certain song, "I drink 'cause I'm lonesome and I'm lonesome 'cause I drink." She also, as the plot progresses into something that borders on pulp, displays attributes of a Shakespearian menace, a little Iago here, a little Lady Macbeth there.

Like all of his 1950s melodramas, Sirk brings his trademark ornate visual style, loaded with artificial autumnal exteriors and intensely lit interiors full of blues and reds. But it's not simply Sirk's sense of production design and lighting that makes him such a memorable stylist, but also his ability to put together a memorable sequence. What happens in a Douglas Sirk movie is always dramatic, but how it happens is the reason he's so intoxicating. Take the scene in this film when Marylee returns from a reckless night out with a gas-station attendant which results in the police taking her home. She goes straight up to her room, puts on a silky red gown, blasts music from her record player, and starts to dance. Her father has just become fully aware of the sexual deviant his daughter really is, and when he hears the loud music from upstairs he decides he must confront her. Sirk intercuts Marylee dancing intensely in her room--like she's under some sort of spell--with her father moving up the stairs towards her room. Sirk frames Marylee from the waste down as she dances, like she's some sort of firestorm, crazed, not quite human. We finally see her face as she collapses in a chair, laughing gleefully, and at the same time her father also collapses down the stairs, dead from a heart attack. It's a sequence that's just as energetic as it is tragic. We see Marylee even more deranged than we'd seen her previously because now her father is fully cognizant of and forced to grapple with the degree of her promiscuity.

One aspect of the film I still have trouble with is the level of sincerity with which Sirk approaches this story. If you read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film, you'll find he spends much of it talking about Sirk's subversive approach to the material and the irony that pervades it. It certainly makes sense given Sirk's disdain for the cultural norms of the time coupled with just how serious a lot of the so called "great works" of the 1950s really were. But at the same time I still find in his films-even this one-a decent commitment to the characters' psychology, an attempt at capturing something like real emotion amidst the trashiness of it all. However, I think it'd be a mistake to read the film as somehow both sincere and ironic. It's one or the other, and I suppose the beauty of it is that both viewpoints work. When you consider the aforementioned "themes" of the movie you can't help but snicker a little. But at the same time the movie approaches them, however shallowly, with a genuine sense of emotion.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Two Men in Manhattan (1958)

This is the sort of movie that's main value is to satisfy the cinephile's need to find the unknown and unheralded works of a great director. Jean Pierre Melville's 1958 merger of French and American aesthetics and ideologies is ok in and of itself, but for anyone obsessed with his body of work it's a must-see. I suppose you've got to love the way he suggests a juicy pulp noir with a plot involving a French reporter and his sleazy buddy photographer as they attempt to track a missing French diplomat in New York, only to offer a fairly mundane journey into Manhattan nightlife that anticipates the calm coolness of the New Wave crime films that would emerge in full swing a year later with Godard's Breathless.

There's surprisingly little tension in the film, both in terms of characters and plot. There's also not any real sense of danger (the bulk of the movie consists of the main characters questioning various women, such as a singer, an actress, and a dancer, who may have connections with the man in question) and when the French ambassador is finally discovered, you almost laugh at how unremarkable the secret behind his disappearance really is. There's potential for a great examination of media exploitation for personal gain, as the French reporter, played by Melville himself, is at odds with the photographer, who wants to manipulate the events behind the diplomat's disappearance for personal gain. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in a great discussion on the DVD's Bonus Features, the movie presents a dichotomy between The French and American attitudes with regards to public scandal. In France, you remain hushed, but in America you muckrake your way to glory. It's not that the film sidesteps these issues, but it also never really commits itself to the issue the way, say, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole did.

Two Men in Manhattan is a minor film with minor pleasures. It paints Manhattan as a city that seems to stay awake just for these two ambitious scoundrels. There's a certain artificial and sometimes surreal quality to the nightlife painted here, as if Melville created a New York he imagined that in fact does not really exist (most of the interiors were actually just sets made in France). Perhaps the most American-obsessed of all the great French filmmakers, Melville finally got to make a film about America, yet it remains stubbornly French. Watching it, you sense Melville either gave up on the film, or didn't even fully commit himself to begin with. Unlike a lot of great directors, Melville's most popular works are, I think, his best. If you've never seen Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows, Le Samurai, or Bob Le Flambeur, start with those. Then perhaps check out Leon Morin, Priest, and The Silence of the Sea. Seen within the context of his great work, I think there's some real enjoyment to be found with Two Men in Manhattan. Outside of such a framework, it doesn't offer much.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lauren Wilford on Room

The immense accumulation of praise Room received last year from its debut at Toronto to its awards season push left me a little perplexed when I finally saw it earlier this year. I didn't think it was especially great even though I admired its intentions. People ask why film criticism matters, and while there are a myriad of answers, one is quite simply that a really stellar and thoughtful piece can alter your initial reaction to a work and make you see it an entirely new way. This may sound a tad trite, but it's not when you actually sit down and experience the act of reading and how great writing will alter notions and perspectives. That's not to say that one should not always try to come up with their own ideas about something and let criticism simply support those ideas. That, after all, is a chief academic ideal for anyone who's gone through an upper level English college course or beyond. But sometimes you find the criticism before you find your own ideas, and sometimes you have to simply accept and embrace its power.

Since I saw Room I've barely thought about it at all (not exactly fitting given the idea expressed in the previous paragraph, but hey, you can only think about so many movies!) I recently happened upon this essay by Lauren Wilford (a deeply thoughtful writer whose latest piece on Darren Aronofsky's Noah and the nature of literary adaptations is a must read) on the movie and started to read it and found it to be extremely enlightening, particularly in its analysis of Brie Larson's character. I found the performance to be good, but the character to be underwhelming as in: there's so much that could be done with this character but the film doesn't seem very interested in doing that. In retrospect, perhaps I didn't wrestle with this film enough. Wilford writes: 
Ma is a victim of affliction. Weil stresses that such a condition cannot be shared. It is “specific, irreducible to any other thing, like sounds we cannot explain at all to a deaf-mute.” When Ma decides to tell Jack part of the truth of their situation in Room, she must try to explain the unexplainable — about how there’s a whole real world outside, with room for all the cats and dogs — but for some things, he still has to stay in the wardrobe. Some days inside Room, Ma would have a “gone day.” We see Ma in bed, submerged in sorrow, in a montage of shots showing how Jack passes the time when she is away. There is a shot in the latter half of the film where Jack tries to follow a distraught Ma, but she slams the bathroom door behind her, shutting him out of her suffering. The camera stays outside the bathroom. It is an echo of the wardrobe door that Ma gently shut on Jack the start of the film. There are places that he cannot go. There are places that we cannot go.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

The last masterpiece William Friedkin made (though Killer Joe's pretty great), To Live and Die in LA is like The French Connection crossed with a Michael Mann movie only without that director's sense of painful longing and romanticism. However, you do get a fair amount of Mannisms here in that the film is set in LA, explores the fine line between cops and criminals, and uses action as a part of dramatic storytelling rather than for its own sake. Consider the film's berserk car chase two thirds through, which is predicated on the fact that the film's "heroes" have just committed a crime and must do anything to escape, as they, after all, are members of the Secret Service.

I bring up Mann though partly because this film almost feels like a precursor to his crime film, Manhunter, released a year after this. While the star of To Live and Die in LA, William Petersen, had actually appeared as a bartender in Mann's debut feature, Thief, this was his first major film role after a successful venture in the Chicago theatre scene. In Manhunter, he famously portrayed scarred detective Will Graham, who comes out of retirement to catch an ostentatious killer. In To Live and Die in LA, Petersen plays a similarly haunted and obsessed man of the law who is determined to take down a likewise showy deviant who has killed his long-time partner.

The antagonist, Rick Powers (Willem Dafoe, who, like Petersen, was prior more known for his work in the theatre, his casting in part due to Friedkin's determination to have a cast of unknowns), is a world-class counterfeiter who also happens to be a legit painter. One of the great villains in movie history, you get the sense that painting isn't enough for Powers, who's the kind of man who's so smart he thinks he can get away just about anything and hide in plain sight while doing it. When we first meet Powers, he's burning a piece of artwork, and afterwards we see him in his print house creating a fresh batch of 20 dollar bills. The sequence is meticulous in its details of the process, suggesting that for Powers this is a higher form of art than putting paint on a canvas (Friedkin found a a real-life counterfeiter to assist here, which, going back to Mann, recalls the opening of Thief where we witness the painstakingly realistic process of James Cann breaking into a safe). Dafoe plays Powers as a full-on kinky, off-kilter dude who nevertheless exhibits an alarming degree of calmness on the surface. He comes across less as a criminal than a man who simply has extreme hobbies (we learn he's also into making sex tapes) and an alarming degree of confidence than he can get away with anything. At one point, Petersen's Richard Chance and his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) try to infiltrate his counterfeiting business disguised as Palm Springs bankers. They meet at a gym and Powers gloats that he's been coming to this place regularly for years. "I'm an easy guy to find. People know they can trust me."

Watching the film, you get a strong sense that Chance doesn't really give a rat's ass about being an honorable agent for the Secret Service, that he's more interested in the environment the job offers him, the thrill of catching a perpetrator and, in certain cases, the need to (as mentioned, he's into this particular case because he wants to avenge the death of his old partner).

One of my favorite "making of" stories in any film is during a scene when Chance and Vukovich are trying to track down one of Powers' movers, a shady dealer played by John Turturro (another great actor in his first big role), at the airport. It's a foot-chase scene between Petersen and Turturro, and at one point Petersen finds himself on a crowded moving walkway and decides to jump on the rails to get across it more quickly. During the filming, this was a stunt that airport officials told Friedkin was prohibited. At one point, during a rehearsal shot, both Petersen and the director realized this would be an amazing aspect to the sequence, and so Friedkin hinted that if Petersen was so inclined, that he could "experiment" since this was only a rehearsal take. Of course Petersen, a former college athlete, leapt on the rails with the camera following on track, and of course Friedkin didn't do another take. It really livens up the sequence as a whole, and I laughed when I heard the story behind it, and also realized that it's sort of a perfect metaphor for the kind of character Chance really is.

To Live and Die in La wasn't revered upon its release, though it faired far better initially than Friedkin's best film, Sorcerer, did back in 1977. Today it lives in a better place among the minds of critics and moviegoers, though I still feel it's not talked about enough. It's an immensely complex film in terms of both structure and psychology. It's a counterfeiter action movie that ends up being about how the idea of counterfeiting extends far beyond making fake copies of twenty dollar bills. Consider every character in the film: Is there a case where counterfeit acts do not occur, either professionally, personally, or both?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Quote of the Day

"You want the photography to be almost caught by surprise by what the characters are doing..." William Friedkin, from the Director's Commentary for To Live and Die in LA.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hell or High Water (2016)

David Mackenzie, one of the most unique and unsung filmmakers working today, moves from the geometrically precise confines of the prison in his last movie, Starred Up, to the wide, expansive, and unpredictable world of West Texas (though it was actually shot in New Mexico) in Hell or High Water, easily one of the best new movies this year.

The basic structure of the film is nothing new, as two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), start robbing banks (for initially unspecified reasons) and are pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). But it's brand new stuff for Mackenzie, whose energy and commitment to the material makes it feel like something we've never seen before even though we simultaneously know that's not the case. It also helps that he's working from a script from hot-shot actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who previously penned last year's Sicario. In a film like this in which a great director is not involved with the script and that script happens to sizzle with interesting characters and rich dialogue, it can be harder to discern whose film this really is. But Mackenzie still brings plenty to the table, whether it's in his unobtrusive use of the long take (note the film's opening shot, or another halfway through in which Toby beats a young punk to a pulp), the way his shot-reverse-shots will alter based on who's talking (there's a scene in a diner with the brothers where the camera gets far closer to their faces than you'll normally see), how a two shot accentuates the creak of a windmill in the background, or in the way he gets Chris Pine to mumble his words in certain scenes to such somber effect that you'll think Michael Shannon's talking if you close your eyes.

And speaking of Pine, this is probably his best work as an actor, as he jettisons his Captain Kirk pretty boy sheen and charm in exchange for scruffy facial hair, sad eyes, and a persona altogether more weathered and gruff. While it's no surprise that he plays the more responsible of the two brothers (Foster is essentially a lose-cannon baddie with a boatload of reckless charm and intimidation--his encounter with a bitter Comanche is one of the best cinematic moments all year), Toby's hardly a saint. The bank robbing scheme after all is his plan, and while he seems fairly harmless when sized next to his brother, the fact that he's divorced and has a son for whom setting a good example has all but been forsaken sort of evinces the fact that he's tired of trying to be good in this world.

While this may all sound like fairly serious stuff, Hell or High Water supplies a surprising amount of laughs along the way, mostly from the male banter between Bridges and Birmingham. Bridges' partner is part Indian and part Mexican, and the majority of their interactions consists of racial insults from the former towards the latter. While these are played for laughs, mainly because we sense Bridges-who's in Rooster Cogburn mode here-needs something to entertain himself as they pursue the two brothers (one thing the film does really well is in showing how for the most part these sorts of "chases" are fairly uneventful and at times downright boring), Sheridan's script is too smart to let this humor simply exist for its own sake: underlying the facetious racism is the idea of the frontier and the expelling of native Americans, only to have the white settlers in turn be torn apart by modern day corporations. I won't reveal how this all makes its way into the narrative except to say Sheridan weaves it in with a kind of deft precision such that the film never feels like it's about "social issues" even though they underly the central premise.

Instead, Hell or High Water feels like something a little more raw and rough-hewn. Its pace is often gentle, its mood somber, its humor the result of men searching for ways to communicate with one another. Townes Van Zandt's Dollar Bill Blues plays during the opening credits (I should also note that the end credits include a song from Chris Stapelton's outstanding debut album from last year, Traveller, which I believe is the first time a song of his has been used in film), quite apropos considering that Mackenzie's picture as a whole sort of has the sad, languid feel of those Townes songs where people are fraught with trouble and do strange or bad things to solve their worries.

The Lobster (2016)

The Lobster, the new film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos continues his penchant for dark absurdist comedies set within the context of power structures. Take his cult-hit from 2009, the upsetting but strangely funny Dogtooth, in which he explored the notion of parental control by taking it to frightful extremes: If a parent has the freedom to rear their kids as they see fit, how far can they take it, and how and when will the kids find cause to rebel? Humans succumbing to the rigorous constructs of authority tends towards a wolf-pack structure wherein indoctrination is most effective when geared towards a group. A herd of people tend to accept what they are fed at the expense of their need for individuality and liberty. It's a familiar and popular subject in the world of novels and movies, one that is often predicated on the fact that a Neitzchian hero will break away from the pack and prove that before you need people in your life you've got to be free.

Lanthimos touched on this to an extent in Dogtooth, but he tackles it full-on in The Lobster. And just as he found startlingly new ways to look at domestic authority that film, The Lobster offers a version of the dystopian-power-structure-versus-rebellious-hero like we've never quite seen it before.

Colin Farrell, boasting his 'stache and melancholic demeanor from season two of True Detective, plus a hefty gut and pair of slouched shoulders that suggest a "life is boring and sad" mentality, stars as David. Recently left for another man by his wife, he arrives at a hotel/institution where singles gather and have 40 days to find a partner. Success will allow them to re-emerge into society as a happy couple, while failure will result in being turned into an animal of their choice. David picks a lobster because of their lengthy lifespan and the fact that he's a good swimmer. A new friend talks about becoming a parrot, while another relates how his mother was turned into a wolf and how he tried to pick her out amidst other wolves at the zoo. Lanthimos chooses a deadpan tone, somber and serious, funny only in its underlying absurdity. And it works: the film is full of sad people who are looking for love but aren't sure if they'll find it. When life seems painful and difficult, haven't we all at times wished to be a dog or a cat, content and stress-free? On top of that, this is a sort of alternate world where these transfigurations are perfectly normal, hence the utter compliance demonstrated by David (note that his dog was once his human brother).

 Lest you think that's the extent of Lanthimos' world-building, he's actually developed a plethora of additional details: the hotel is not simply built around the simple rubric of find a partner or become an animal, but includes all sorts of other strict rules and punishments (John C. Reilly gets his hand burned in a toaster for masturbating in his room), stupid performances extolling relationships, and extensions of the 40-day deadline by capturing singles who have disappeared into the woods. It all makes for a rich and compelling first half, culminating in David's desperate attempt to find a partner only to break free from the hotel when she mercilessly kills his dog. A shot of the aftermath of this senseless act of violence is borderline tasteless, but it nonetheless follows Lanthimos' penchant for honing in on the kinds of things we see on a screen and then immediately wish we hadn't  (Lanthimos, like Wes Anderson, seems to have adopted a thing for killing off pets with a vicious coldness).

The rest of the film plays out as a wilderness survival love story, as David joins the 'loners' in the drizzly woods, which in their dark brown and green hues aren't that much more comforting than the cold environs of the hotel. The loners, in their firm rejection of the institution, have adopted an even harsher system of control that denies the possibility of couples and demonstrates far more brutal methods of punishment. The problem is that David has fallen in love with a fellow loner, an unnamed woman played by a terrifically understated Rachel Weisz. Weisz narrates the film as well, and at one point relates David's realization that "It is more difficult to pretend that you do have feelings when you don't than to pretend that you don't have feelings when you do." David employs the latter in his first attempt to find a partner, but it fails because he is unable to withhold his emotion when his dog is killed. Ironically, when he's finally found a proper love in Weisz, he also has to "pretend" lest the wilderness people find out.

In case you think The Lobster is too cold and sinister, consider this idea and suddenly it becomes maybe the warmest film Lanthimos has made. Context is everything, never more so than in the movie's final moments, when David prepares a ghastly act of self-mutilation in a diner restroom while his new love waits at their table in anticipation.

In a time when it's tough to find romantic films of any real value, The Lobster shakes the stubbornly dull conventions that define today's love stories on the big screen. He's made something that has the disquieting feel of of a Lars Von Trier film with the heart of Wes Anderson. If you believe a human's capacity to love will allow them to do just about anything, then this is surely one of the best love stories of the decade.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


It's that time again...Netflix is letting me get another free month long DVD trial, which means I need to pack as many unseen movies into the next month as possible: On the list: The Cotton Club, Two Men in Manhattan, The Lost Weekend, Downhill Racer, The Gauntlet, Written on the Wind, My Ain Folk, Love at Large, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Cache, To Live and Die in LA...As usual, the Netflix DVD library is extremely lacking, as some titles I'm dying to see just aren't available. I understand that not everything by Frank Borzage can be accessed, but when you also can't get things like The Flowers of Shanghai, I'm reminded that once you've gone through the most esteemed classics, sometimes you have to dig to find the rest. And I should also say that I'm not at all complaining. The list of titles above is a treasure chest, and I truly cannot wait to see these movies. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016


"The worst thing that could happen to a director is that someone starts calling them a master. It's an empty word, one that runs contrary to the way cinema, which is bigger than any director, works. It's got a really bad tendency to catch on, too. Two possible things that can happen: a promising director will let the word go to his or her head; a great director will ignore it and keep living the same way they always have, though that tends to do nothing to stop the tales of their "mastery." Great directors are therefore always damned, and in a sense Renoir has been damned by reputation for unsurmountable perfection, even though part of the greatness of his films lies in their rough, human mess."

Sunday, April 17, 2016

More Stuff on The Fly

I wrote a little bit about The Fly several weeks back and have expanded on it for no real reason except that I feel deeply about it. And that feeling grows with each viewing of it. I can't get over how emotional this movie is, and also just how much of an outlier it is amidst its fellow 80s exercises in genre craftsmanship. It's also one of those films wherein the emotions I feel are probably limited due to my time on this earth and my experience on it. Matt Zoler Seitz wrote a pretty perfect piece on it a few years back and ended it with this: 

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.

I do realize that perhaps I don't entirely get the movie's emotional core, but that's a good thing, because I know that someday I will. The fact that I might appreciate The Fly even more down the line seems baffling given my deep love for it today. But that possibility also greatly excites me. 

Amidst rising steam and whizzing sparks, a giant fly fused with chunks of metal emerges from a broken pod, while a man lies wounded nearby and a woman watches in sheer horror. The camera cuts in close to the creature and we see its massive, round looming eyes as they squint in pain. It’s almost unsettling how mournful and pitiable it looks. For a film that’s a remake of a cheesy 1958 science fiction movie—itself based on a short story that premiered in Playboy—that tells the story of a man turning into a fly, and that’s directed by the often cold and clinical David Cronenberg, it does come as a shock that The Fly is so emphatically emotional, sad, and human. 

It’s the goal of many a science fiction narrative to grapple with the issue of what constitutes a person by sizing them next to things that are non-human. Because it’s a question ultimately limited to philosophical speculation, the way the question is asked takes on great importance. Perhaps just as crucial as the questions though is the idea that if a film can’t tell us what it means to be human, can it make us feel more like a human being than before we began watching it?

Though the film’s centerpoint is of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) fusing into a fly, and though the movie itself is a triumph of direction, visual effects, performance, and efficient storytelling, it’s all in the service of Cronenberg’s fascination with the human being: what it feels, how it feels, and why it feels. 

Love stories have always been great human stories because they’re about that part of humans in which ambition, money, glory, and utility are hindered by that nebulous but inexplicably powerful urge to care and feel for another—both our inner, deeper aspects and also our bodies encased in flesh. It’s no surprise then that despite its trappings as a special-effects filled science fiction thriller, The Fly is really a love story, a drama about men trying to love in childish ways and learning to love in more selfless adult ways.

In the world of The Fly, which is so limited in characters (three, plus a few bit parts) and locations that it could almost work as a stage play, there are two uniquely different men who are nevertheless dealing with love in the two aforementioned ways. First there’s the scientist Brundle, and second a magazine editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), who is attempting to expose Brindle’s teleportation device “that’ll change the world as we know it!” Though they’re wildly different types— Borans the smug, womanizing office man and Brindle the awkward, amicable genius whose experience with girls seems equivalent to that of a prepubescent twelve-year old—they both happen to be trying to love the same woman: Veronica (played by the ravishing Geena Davis). 

Davis radiates a kind of old school Hollywood charm as Veronica: As a journalist working for Borans, she’s cut-throat and crafty with a dose of sardonic wit and some Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and as a person she’s beautiful and slyly seductive, a la the Rita Hayworth of Gilda. These qualities are brought out from the outset, when Brundle takes her to his laboratory/apartment (a big, gray building made austere by slow tracking shots that accentuate its creepy shadows and hollowness), and she playfully removes a stocking to test in his teleportation device. Then, upon realizing that Brundle is serious about his pods and that they actually work, she discreetly flips on her tape recorder in her bag and starts asking Brundle questions about his invention. Davis plays Veronica with all the confidence and playfulness she can muster. When Brundle—having learned that Veronica had a previous fling with Borans in college—asks “is he still in love with you?” she answers with an air of flippancy: “how could he not be?” It also helps that Davis stands a striking six feet tall, so whenever Cronenberg frames her with either Goldblum or Getz in tight two shots, you really sense that she can hold her own and won’t be looked down upon.

Not that Brundle is a particularly intimidating presence early on, though. When they initially meet at a science convention, Cronenberg avoids an establishing shot of them and instead starts with a medium-close-up of Brundle explaining his invention to Veronica, followed by slightly awkward reverse one-shots that highlight Brundle’s own social naivete. While Brundle somewhat desires to showcase his invention, he’s just as interested in using it as an instrument of seduction. When he later explains that his pod can only transport inanimate objects, he claims “I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m gonna have to learn.” Whether he picks up on the multiple implications of his words or not, we certainly do. I grin every time I see Goldblum in this movie. He speaks in the excitable rapid tone of a geek who can’t say enough about his work, but he’s also tan with lush black hair and a large, well-built physique. It’s an intriguing mixture, and it’s no wonder Veronica falls for him so quickly. 

From Crash to A History of Violence, Cronenberg has always treated sex as a vital part of human interaction and he uses it as a way of investigating ideas that interest him—often dark and disturbing ones. He’s less bleak here. The physical relationship between Veronica and Brundle allows us to view her as sensitive and caring, someone who wants to give Brundle the sort of love he’s never had before. And for Brundle, it’s an ironic occurrence because just when he’s finally breaking ground with his teleporting device in which a living body can hopefully jump from one place to another, he’s encountering the very different thrill of an intimate interaction with another living body. Yes, changing the world with scientific advancement is a great, important pursuit, but what good does any greatness do if you can’t make time to simply exist with another human being?

As Cronenberg presents this dichotomy between science and love, there’s another drama that he gives a surprising amount of attention. Initially, the character of Stathis Borans seems created to be purely antagonistic. Even his name sounds like it was created for a great horrid villain. A more predictable film might keep him as the asshole who constantly pursues Veronica while attempting to use Brundle’s invention to help his own publication—like a real Harry Ellis type from Die Hard

Early behavior—like his sneaking into Veronica’s apartment and surprising her in the shower, or his attempt to exploit the teleportation device without Brundle’s consent—certainly indicates such a type. But there’s a scene between him and Veronica in a department store that always struck me as highly unusual and also as an indicator that Borans does not allow for easy categorization. He tracks Veronica down while she’s shopping and crudely berates her over her recent romance with Brundle. In high dramatic fashion, visible to everyone in the store, he exclaims “you’re a goddess! Thank you for making my most paranoid fantasies come true!” and then kneels down to her feet, as if in an act of worship. It’s very strange, and while you could just see it as childish or comical—he’s aggressive, jealous, and a spoiled brat all at once—it also implies that he really cares for and loves Veronica deep down inside, and is petrified of the idea that she would be with another. He loves her so much that he acts out like a kid in public not getting his candy. 

This is where parallel lines can begin to be drawn between him and Brundle: they’re both attempting to love, but they’re doing it in ways indicative of an adolescent mindset. Borans wants what he has lost so much that he becomes like a rash maniac whenever the possibility at getting it is threatened. Brundle wants what he has never had before, and similarly cannot handle himself when he learns that Borans is Veronica’s ex and then wrongly suspects that she’s still seeing him. 

What, after all, prompts the accident resulting in Brundle’s terrifying transformation other than in a fit of jealous rage getting drunk and throwing himself into the pod, failing to notice a fly has entered with him. Rarely have I seen a film that deals with the folly of scientific ambition contain so much raw, primitive human emotion. 

In all this, you feel the most sympathy for Veronica, who is like a tennis ball being whacked back and forth across a court scorching with male desire. She loves Brundle but is horrified of what he’s become, and disdains Borans but can’t escape his pursuits. 

Brundle’s physical transformation is disturbing, and Cronenberg lets it slowly manifest itself like a tiny trickle of water moving across the ground: a bristle sticking from his back, then a date scene in a coffee shop where he puts spoonful after spoonful of sugar in his coffee. His voice changes to slightly higher pitch, and words leave his mouth with an excited buzz, akin to the energy of a fly zipping around your face. Then comes the copious consumption of candy bars and doughnuts. A tooth falls out, a fingernail peels off. We cringe. Soon he’s lost enough little parts of his body his medicine cabinet “is now the Brundle Museum of Natural History.” Critic Dave Kehr suggests that this an “awful parody of puberty, with Goldblum discovering mysterious hairs on his body, devouring junk food and feeling himself possessed of a strange new power and self-confidence.” This make sense, especially given just how childish Brundle appears in the early stages of his romance with Veronica. The tragedy then is that his natural progression towards emotional maturity and a greater understanding of love is thwarted by the rapid rate at which his transformation occurs.

His emotions range from creepy, to confused, to ultimately sad (that Goldblum manages to convey so many different types of behavior in the movie is astonishing). When Veronica visits him and Seth Brundle as human is nearly unrecognizable, she cries in horror and disgust as one of his ears simply falls off, like some scab. Something like this could have been campy, but Cronenberg treats it all with utter sincerity, and when he follows it with Brundle weeping and begging Veronica to help him as he hugs her, you can’t help but feel a tragic pain inside. Sort of like The Elephant Man, when we encounter the grotesque and it’s treated with conviction and skill, we’re left feeling compassion. 

It’s the third act of the film in which both Brundle and Borans transition from trying to love to learning to love. With echoes of Grecian and Shakespearian tragedy, we see Borans realize the severity of Brundle’s condition and move from Veronica’s mad pursuer to her heroic protector. While his love for Veronica had previously been his weakness, now it becomes his strength, a chance to prove his worth. Brundle, the tragic victim of science-gone-wrong, clings to his last hope of maintaining any human semblance by attempting to fuse himself with Veronica with the use of a third pod. 

Borans intervenes with a shotgun, destroying the pod cables just before the fusion, and we’re back to that devastating image of Brundle, now a massive fly, begging for death. Brundle never quite figured out the proper way to love, but as his massive bug eyes stare into those of the woman he’s cherished, what but love could prompt him to point the gun in the direction of his head? Given the extreme circumstances, is this not the very act of learning to love? Veronica weeps, heeding her lover’s request with a shotgun blast. Since when has a climax been so submerged in sadness? 

Watching The Fly, we get overwhelmed by the amount of love that is present and how that love interacts with the grotesque. We cower at the sight of Brundle’s disgusting transformation. Humans are terrified of becoming something non-human, something non-loving. Perhaps the fact that we feel such terror only exemplifies just how loving we are. Cronenberg gets this. We don’t watch The Fly to cringe because it provides some sort of pleasure or thrill. We watch it because when we cringe as Brundle becomes The Brundlefly, we get overwhelmed with our fears and loves, our personhood.