Film Review: The Fly, 1958

Happy October 31, everybody!

In keeping with the fine tradition I began last year with Nosferatu, this Halloween I bring you a review of another classic horror film, this time with a dash of science fiction:  the original version of The Fly, released in 1958.  No messing around on the spookiest night of the year; let’s get down to brass tacks.

Acting

Fair warning – The Fly may be sold to you as a Vincent Price film, but to say it stars Vincent Price is a gross exaggeration designed to cash in on the film’s most well-known name (much like how the packaging on my copy of the original Roger Corman Little Shop of Horrors gives the impression that Jack Nicholson stars in it, when his part is actually quite minor).  Make no mistake, the real star here is Patricia Owens.

The only character in the film presenting an acting challenge.
The only character presenting an acting challenge.

Owens’ biggest challenge in this one was to portray the crumpling of Helene’s ideological resolve in favor of life’s sacredness, when Helene must face the monstrosity her husband has become and the impossible task of finding a specific fly (so that Andre the supposedly noble scientist can reassemble himself – which begs the question, if it’s the fly’s head on his body, why does the body act like it still has his mind – able to communicate with Helene through the typewriter, etc.?  Shouldn’t the fly head think like a fly?  I guess one might as well ask why the story is set in Canada.  But I digress).  Did Owens meet this challenge?  Personally, I wasn’t convinced.

Use of Color

Does that red look a little too red?
Does that red look a little too red?  This jpeg kind of tones it down.

Remind me to watch as few films which tout their “Color by De Luxe” as possible.  I’m sure that many great films were made in the 1950s but the hyper-colors present in The Fly really distracted me, particularly for the first quarter or so before I adjusted enough to mentally dial them down.  The reds and the yellows were the worst.  Too bright, too strong.  Not painful to look at, but as I said, distracting.  Maybe they would have been appropriate for a musical, or something starring Marilyn Monroe that ends with a wedding –  but here, they were the opposite of spooky.  Maybe for my next October 31 feature, I’ll track down something else in black and white, like Nosferatu was.  That worked much better.

Themes

When I told my husband after the credits rolled that the moral of The Fly is that all men are idiots, I was only half-jesting.  I’m sure that wasn’t the intended message, but this film’s optimistic attitude toward scientific progress, questioned only once and only by a woman, got repeated decades later in the blockbuster Jurassic Park – except in Jurassic Park the character who delivers the moral, Ian Malcolm the chaotician, warns that ‘life will find a way’ to mess with scientific plans.  Period.  In The Fly, ‘life’ takes the form of a hapless housefly.  But chaoticians hadn’t been invented in the 1950s.  There’s no one there to warn the viewer except Helene, and not even her own son takes her seriously, so why should the viewer?  The character who gets to deliver the last word on the theme of scientific character is Price’s businessman, François, and he writes off Andre’s tragic fate as due to “carelessness”.  If Andre hadn’t been careless…  Bah.  More like If Andre had possessed inhuman perfection… or If the nature of existence were fundamentally different…  But that’s the 1950s for you.  Where we weren’t cruel, we were naive; where we weren’t naive, we were short-sighted; where we weren’t short-sighted, we were greedy.  I’d like to think that decades of postmodern philosophy have made a difference.  It’s quite possible that all they’ve made us is depressed.

Overall Rating: 2.0 out of 5.0.

Have a nice holiday, everyone.  Do some fortune-telling if that’s your thing; if not, stay out of the graveyards, the cops pay more attention tonight, you’re likely to get busted.

samhain

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Bees”

the rough outline
curls around the corner of the window
fur covers the body
the hive mind on its mission
sustain, sustain

Bees exist in order to keep existing.
They leave nothing behind
except sweet vomit and satisfied flowers.
They own nothing.
Bees do not make art.
Bees do not make war.
Bees do not make love.
Without bee footprints, where would pollen go?

fumble from blossom to blossom
wings shiny, fuzzy body matte
always in motion

Have you ever seen a bee rest?
If a worker bee were ordered by her queen
to drink hot chocolate with marshmallows
and wrap up cozy in a fleece bathrobe
for a lazy Sunday morning,
would there be revolution?
Bees do not feel gratitude.
Bees do not feel envy.
Bees do not feel love.
When the system came to be, what gave the first bee flight?
What made it seem like a good idea
to start the buzzing,
when for the bee
the buzzing connects to nothing else,
benefits only more of itself?
Seems like the buzzing outwitted the buzzer.
How smart can a living being really be
to get outwitted by an inanimate process?

take the time to see my eyes
where you see red and orange, I see only black
the voids in my vision make purple more beautiful
my feral buzzing fades from the world

Commentary

For most of my life I have considered the frog to be my favorite animal. I still find them cute and symbolically significant, but for a little more than a year I have found myself fascinated by bees. Hey, insects are animals too. I thought I would take a little time to explore the lives of bees in this poem.

One of the reasons I respect bees so much is that while they repel many people, because they are capable of stinging they generally get left alone, whereas many other insects also repel people and in turn get squished. But unlike certain other stinging insects (I’m looking at you, wasps and hornets), the bees I have encountered in my life don’t generally take advantage of their stingers to actively strike fear in the hearts of picnicking folk. I’ve never heard of a honeybee following someone inside their home, whereas we had to do a cup catch-and-release of a wasp just last week. Bees would very much prefer to just be left to do their thing. Their stingers are for defense.

However, as I wrote this poem, I did not find myself wanting to explore this aspect of bees. I didn’t want to write about why I respected them, because that was something I had already devoted some thought to; I wanted to write about what I had not devoted much thought to, namely, how joyless their existence must be. It’s a good thing that bees do not have nervous systems capable of the human consciousness we are familiar with, because I think little pleasure would be found in the rote activities of their lives and, as I stated in the poem, I don’t see how those activities can be connected to any “greater purpose”. Bees have the sort of dilemma explored by Marx regarding factory workers of being divorced from the end product of their labor, except bees have it much worse.

So now that I have written this poem, I am not sure whether I really want to continue to identify with bees. Maybe I should find a new favorite animal.

Specific lines worth commenting on:

  • the hive mind on its mission – If I ever have the opportunity to take a class on the phenomenon of the hive mind as it actually exists in a beehive, I think I’m going to do so. The concept gets used a lot in science fiction and I can’t shake the feeling that use crosses the line into abuse at times. I want to understand more about how the hive mind operates biologically. A trip over to Wikipedia might be a good starting point.
  • sweet vomit and satisfied flowers – Yes, if you stop to think about it, honey is bee vomit, and yes, my use of the word “satisfied” was supposed to be a veiled reference to the reproductive function of pollen. I have been known to write poetry for mature audiences only.
  • fumble from blossom to blossom – I took a significant amount of care in choosing the word “fumble” for this line. I wanted to try to capture the inelegant way I have seen bees move between flowers. They look clumsy at times. But I wanted to convey the motion with a single verb. “Fumble” was the best one I could think of. Let me know if you think of a better one.
  • drink hot chocolate with marshmallows / and wrap up cozy in a fleece bathrobe / for a lazy Sunday morning – I selected these images with care too. I wanted to convey an image of both comfort and femininity as powerfully as I could in as few lines as possible. Again, let me know if you can think of a better way to convey this image (in no more than three lines). It’s important that the words chosen be easy for First World readers to relate to, while not feeling completely stereotyped.
  • How smart can a living being really be / to get outwitted by an inanimate process? – These lines are my personal life leaking through. I have been trying very hard to change some aspects of my behavior recently. I am very frustrated on this score this week and that frustration came out in this poem. If I wanted to wax philosophical, I would pretend that these lines are about capitalism and the futility of the accumulation game, but that would be shadow play. These lines are more self-directed than anything else in this poem and could probably be cut and placed in a journal entry without the poem losing very much, but I’m not re-baking this cake.
  • my feral buzzing fades from the world – Did you know that feral bees are dying at an alarming rate? Like, they’re being decimated. Climate change plays a role, but from what I’ve heard, human use of pesticides is a greater cause. If we don’t have bees to pollinate plants, we’re going to be in trouble. Something to think about.

Television Series Review: Firefly

As far as I am concerned, Joss Whedon is the walking definition of a big fish in a small pond. Many of the people of the U.S. who do not self-identify as geeks don’t even know his name, but among members of the geek subculture he inspires diehard fanaticism like few other artists. I’ve heard a Whedon fan toss out the phrase “In Joss We Trust” into casual conversation, comparing Whedon to God without a second thought.

After watching Firefly, I finally understand why my friend would talk like that.

I’ve seen other Whedon material – a little Buffy, a little Angel, his recent work on comic book blockbusters. I liked what I saw, it was good, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fervor of the fandom for it. It seemed to me like Whedon cashed in on tropes too often. It seemed to me like he was pandering. To me, that made it good, but not great.

But someone finally persuaded me to watch Firefly all the way to its premature end. And now I too say In Joss We Trust. When he worked on Firefly Whedon made the choice to stop turning to the easy answers and feel-good formulas. He showed his audience what he was capable of. He produced something true to an artistic vision, a world in which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. To lift a lyric from another favorite artist of mine, he took us where the drop contains the sea. For that, I owe him a debt of thanks as an artist, and a roll of the eyes to those who decided Whedon’s vision was not profitable enough to pursue to denouement. I look forward to watching whatever resolution the film Serenity provides – no spoilers, please!

Let’s explore why Firefly lifts Whedon from the realm of the good to the realm of the great.

Authenticity of Setting

Alliance officials take heed: the Resistance is here already.
Alliance officials take heed: the Resistance is here already.

When I created “authenticity of setting” as a review point tag, I had period pieces in mind. This is the review point to use to evaluate how well a period piece displays internal consistency with historical fact, vs. the extent to which it relies on anachronism. When DiCaprio’s character uses the work “malarkey”, which was not coined until the 20th century, in the film Django Unchained, set in the 1850s, we see Tarantino displaying a lack of authenticity of setting.

And yet I am now using this review point for a science fiction series set 500 years in the future. There is a measure of irony in this, I think, but I’m using it anyway, because one of Firefly‘s biggest selling points for me will always be the internal consistency it displays with (its self-created) history. Firefly blends elements of historical fiction found in classic Westerns such as True Grit with futuristic technology to explore the question of what is truly timeless. This pastiche of chronological elements is expressed perfectly in the closing image of the series’ title sequence, in which the flight of a spaceship scares a herd of horses. The reason Firefly feels so authentic is the work that was put into keeping this blend of elements in balance. Some episodes lean a bit more towards the Western genre while others would be absolutely impossible from a plot perspective without the futuristic side of the show, but really Whedon establishes the balance in the first episode and sticks with the ratios initially laid out, on the whole. By maintaining his balance so carefully and consistently, Whedon makes his story more believable. Because the show is about the degree to which “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” as long as Firefly‘s characters keep behaving like human beings, the audience continues to identify with their struggles, and the magic just builds as the scale of the show gets bigger and the characters shuttle from frontier planet to frontier planet.

Characters

Note the sheen on Inara's dress (far left).  That gal knows her fabrics!
Note the sheen on Inara’s dress (far left). That gal knows her fabrics!

Speaking of characters behaving like human beings. The crew of Serenity are people. Full and multi-dimensional. The show’s villains don’t get explored in as much detail, because there simply isn’t time (although Saffron is given a repeat performance, to my irritation – I would much have preferred more time be spent on an Alliance officer, to give a face to the hated entity, like we are given the characters of Servalan and Travis in Blake’s 7, to which I suspect Firefly deserves a nod). Whedon made the artistic choice to thoroughly establish and ground the characters of the crew in Firefly‘s first season, and it was a great choice. Mal doesn’t want to admit what type of honor he has. His best friend, Zoe, has a story to tell, hinted at in flashbacks and re-tellings of how stone-faced she used to be – somehow she fell for a jester – Wash, who I can’t watch on screen anymore without seeing my husband’s face, that’s how lovable he is. They’ve hired a mercenary, Jayne, who names his guns and loves his mother enough to wear her knitted hat. They’ve hired a female mechanic, Kaylee, who can’t decide how comfortably the tomboy role fits. They transport a “Companion” – a prostitute given honored social status by membership in a guild, the closest parallel I have been able to think of from history being a geisha – Inara, whose name I suspect to be a reference to Inanna, another name for the ancient love goddess Ishtar, though how I would go about proving the reference I’m not sure. And they transport a “Shepherd”, a missionary priest named Book (once again Whedon demonstrates his love for naming characters obvious references to concepts from the real world – I think back to Angel, Harmony/Harm, Willow, and Spike from Buffy days) with a past that never gets explored but referenced enough to clearly be a doozy. And then there are the star passengers – Dr. Simon, and his sister River, whose unusual mind and behavior hit a little close to home for me as someone who has experienced altered states of reality as a result of mental illness.

(Potential viewers should take note of this, River’s behavior and dialogue in episode 14, “Objects in Space”, were particularly disturbing to me and triggered a very strong reaction of hurt, guilt, and recognition. Viewers with a history of mental illness, especially if that history includes psychosis, should be warned that this material has the potential to be disturbing, and should recognize that there is no shame in employing the “pause” button to take a breather if they find their reaction becoming intense.)

While Mal is the show’s protagonist, Firefly employs ensemble cast techniques very elegantly. The only time that I noticed a character was missing was episode 11, “Trash” – the next time I sat down to watch, I asked my husband what had happened to Book in the previous episode. The sensation I had when I realized Book had not been present was that the writers had pulled a fast one on me, and I didn’t like it. Like a single dissonant note during a masterful piano performance, it stuck out all the more because the other episodes had employed the suite of characters so skillfully. Everyone’s likeable – even Jayne, which amazed me because he is clearly sadistic and I normally severely dislike sadistic characters. It is possible that Jayne is likeable due to a phenomenon I once heard a pastor refer to as the reason why Forrest Gump gained such popularity in the 1990s: “redemptive stupidity”. Of course, Gump is clearly labeled in his film as intellectually disabled, whereas Jayne would slit someone from nave to chops if they called him such.

Themes

Burn the land, and boil the sea - you can't take the sky from me.
Burn the land, and boil the sea – you can’t take the sky from me.

So what’s eternal?

If Firefly is to be believed, the struggle for freedom against oppression is eternal.

Mal and Zoe lost a war with fronts against an oppressive government, the Alliance. So now they fight a war without a front, a very private, very guerrilla war. But they’re still fighting, and no matter what Mal says about Serenity being willing to take any job, their primary mission is still to free people from oppression. Sometimes the oppressor isn’t a political one; Whedon’s extremely laudable personal quest to explore gender oppression and the strength of character frequently demonstrated by women who don’t necessarily have combat ability is given ample play in Firefly. But sometimes it is. To what extent does Mal harbor River and Dr. Simon because he cares about them? To what extent does he harbor them simply to make an object lesson for the Alliance, still the enemy, always the enemy? Again, no time to explain. In the 14 episodes of Firefly‘s run, the can of worms is opened and dumped on the table. There’s enough time to get a good look at the worms and to see that they are alive and moving around. There is not, however, enough time to find the bigger can. And that is the biggest drawback to watching it and liking it. The only dramatic resolution fans are going to find is the resolution they can create for themselves. They are forced to create their own trajectory for the story’s arc. They are forced to decide for themselves where the bullet hits, even though they never fired it.

The show’s title is taken from the class of spaceship to which Serenity belongs. But that class was named after an insect that most of the show’s viewing base would be familiar with from personal experience. A creature that has been a source of ephemeral wonder from our childhoods til today. The firefly appears at dusk and leaves evidence of its existence for only a few hours of night, for only one season of the year. For its fragility, we value its glow all the more. Would Firefly have finished as strong as it started, if it had lived a full narrative life? Yeah, I think it would have. In Joss I trust.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.