Thursday, November 17, 2005

Get Back, Monkey-Cat

I've just had the pleasure of seeing a piece of film that I haven't seen in close to twenty years, and which most of the rest of you have never seen. I'm speaking of the infamous and legendary "Monkey-Cat" scene from David Cronenberg's THE FLY (1986), which I was originally privileged to see at a special preview screening at Toronto's Uptown Theatre, in the company of director David Cronenberg, director of photography Mark Irwin, and composer Howard Shore (who was also seeing the picture for the first time, and sat next to me while scribbling notes toward the score he would later write).

In the scene, Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, who is seen for the only time in the picture in his Stage 2 makeup, pictured above, which was the personal favorite of Chris Walas/Stephan Dupuis' makeup team) seeks to reverse what has been done to him by teleporting a baboon and a cat from two separate telepods into a third while keeping their molecules separate; instead it fuses them into a pained and angry "mistake" of science that he is obliged to club to death to put it out of its agony. Then he scales the wall to the roof and falls to an awning where a crab-like leg bursts from the hernia-like bulge in his abdomen, which he chews from his own body in self-disgust. Everyone who read Cronenberg's original script recognized this amazing stretch of incident as the highlight of the film, but it encountered endless trouble.

On the day the "crab-leg" scene was shot, DP Mark Irwin suffered a family tragedy and had to leave the set, which left this critical scene in the hands of another member of the camera crew. The footage came back from the lab too dark to use. (It has been miraculously restored on the disc by digital means unavailable to the film at the time.) Though I saw the footage in dailies, I don't remember it being included in the screening assembly for this reason. Thus, I remember the scene ending at the screening with Brundle bludgeoning the monkey-cat to a squirting standstill.
I thought then that the "monkey-cat" scene was the horrific highlight of the picture, and after the screening I stood in the lobby and pleaded its case to Cronenberg and producer Stuart Cornfeld, telling them that they had made a horror picture and they would be crazy to cut it out. The test results came back. I guess the questionnaire asked leading questions like, "Did you enjoy the scene where Brundle hurts the monkey-cat?" and "Did you care less for Brundle after he killed the animal in his lab?" and the majority predictably replied that no, they did not enjoy graphic demonstrations of cruelty toward animals, however misshapen. So the test got the result it wanted and the scene was out -- by popular demand. Audiences did not understand the reason for the scene (how many people do read those computer screen read-outs and comprehend them?) or they simply did not take the dispassionate, scientific view.

When I opened my disc of 20th Century Fox's special two-disc release of THE FLY, the "monkey cat" scene was the first thing I went to. Aside from the omission of an opening foot-to-head reveal of Brundle in his Stage 2 makeup, which opened the scene in the assembly I saw at the Uptown Theatre (and which can be seen separately in the very interesting "making of" documentary), the scene is everything I remember, only moreso -- with the addition of the restored "crab-leg" scene and Howard Shore's thrilling musical scoring. This scene transcends the biological horror of THE FLY as people know it by turning Brundle's teleportation lab into a witch's cauldron of hellish possibilities. Seeing the scene again, for the first time fully-fleshed with music, I felt my original views were completely vindicated. It is absolutely horrifying.

And yet THE FLY went on to become Cronenberg's biggest commercial hit -- which it probably would not have been, had this sequence been retained. It would have taken audiences to a place they wouldn't want to go, and which they wouldn't recommend to their friends. It doesn't matter that the movie tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a man who becomes a mutant who dissolves his food with corrosive vomit, or that it ends with the ultimate tragic fusion of man and animal mutely pleading with its former girlfriend to blow his brains out with a rifle, and getting his wish. All of that still works in the context of the love story the film somehow became in the editing room. In the "making of," even production designer Carol Spier remarks that she was surprised to discover that she had been working on a love story rather than a horror film.

So I came away from watching this new disc set, of a film I know intimately well, with a fresh understanding of its success. At some point while working with Ron Sanders on the editing of this film, Cronenberg saw in his material a way out of the horror ghetto and he went for it. The exit was already inherent in his script, of course, and it was fully realized by the calibre of the performances Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis gave to him. To have retained the "monkey cat" sequence may well have resulted in horror fans lionizing Cronenberg as a Master of Horror, but he'd already been there, done that. He was ready to move on to a new plateau. As a horror fan, it was difficult for me to reconcile these facts, but I am more appreciative now of the fact that it's sometimes necessary to make a creative sacrifice like this in order to evolve as an artist. To pull your punches is sometimes a matter not of cowardice or regression, but of creative modulation.

If either Cronenberg or Stuart Cornfeld had explained this process to me then in those (or similar) terms, I might have better understood why it was important to eliminate the sequence, but they didn't -- and perhaps, at that time, they were not all that aware of what they were doing, and why, themselves.

I spent two weeks on the set of THE FLY -- you can catch a glimpse of me at 2:58 into the David Cronenberg profile segment of the Electronic Press Kit, standing behind the director and star as they check a video playback:

It's hard to believe the film is now almost twenty years old; when the end credits roll, I can still put a face to almost every crew member's name -- a swell bunch of people. On my last day on the set, I swiped a copy of the crew picture that was taped to a wall in the makeup corridor -- because a lot of them had come to feel like family. (A couple of high-ranking people on the picture witnessed the act, smiled, and pretended to look the other way.) I later wrote two articles about the making of the picture, focusing on Mark Irwin's and Chris Walas' respective units, which appeared in Cinefex and American Cinematographer (who unbelievably put HOWARD THE DUCK on the cover). Both of these articles have been long out-of-print, but they are included as bonus content on Disc 2 in a new interactive form.

I'm happy to be on there. It makes me feel like I'm still part of the family.

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