Archive for The Fly

From a clear blue sky

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2017 by dcairns


Joe Adamson’s book Tex Avery King of Cartoons is a majestic summation of the work of a great artist — a filmmaker whose cartoons express a coherent and unique view of life and the universe just as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s films do. This book should be in every school. And it should certainly be in print, which it ain’t, though you can get second-hand copies for a reasonable price.

I can’t add anything much to Adamson’s account of Avery’s 1949 classic BAD LUCK BLACKIE except better stills — I haven’t seen the 1975 edition of his tome but the 1985 one is alas illustrated with fuzzy b&w frame enlargements that capture nothing of the vivid colouring and intensity of an MGM toon.


Plot summary — a nasty bulldog is persecuting a cute white kitten. Adamson points out that this is a unique sequence in cartooning, since it’s so mean and unevenly matched. Avery didn’t usually go for cuteness, and here he uses it as a weapon against the audience, making us uncomfortable whenever he forces laughs from us with outrageous gags whose subject is the mistreatment of a blameless and defenceless infant.


Help arrives in the form of the title character, who presents his business card and says he can deliver instant bad luck to an enemy. Despite the business card and the air of a sharp freelancer offering a service, no money changes hands — it’s hard to see how the kitten could have paid, and to raise the question of financial reward might evoke the spectre of the protection racket (Blackie has the rasping, plebeian tones common to many Avery characters, and could be mistaken for a gangster. Don Bluth, maker of saccharine and inferior animated features, couldn’t bear those voices).

What happens next is peculiar. Whenever Blackie is summoned by a blast on a whistle, he crosses the evil dog’s path and some stray object, a flower-pot, say, will fall on the dog’s head. Instant bad luck. Avery described the cartoon to Adamson before the latter had been able to seen it, and he asked, reasonably enough, where the falling objects were falling FROM. “Avery’s answer was a small stammer and a vigorous waving of the hand, as if I had asked the most irrelevant question in the world. Which, in a sense, I had.”


As the cartoon develops, the falling objects become more varied and, by some inscrutable but easily accepted logic, more dangerous. The dog is beaned by a horseshoe, then another, then another, then another, then flattened by a confused looking horse which drops from above without explanation. A cascade of bricks, a refrigerator, a piano, all drop without visible source or reason, seemingly teleported from the Twilight Zone into the perfect midair spot to do the most damage to their target below.

What fascinates me most, as it did Adamson, is the plot’s final twist. Blackie gets painted white and loses his power. The bulldog snatches the whistle from him and blows on it to prove its impotence. So the kitten paints himself black and crosses the dog’s path. A falling object stuns the dog, who swallows the whistle.


Now the dog gets hiccups, and each involuntary contraction of his diaphragm causes the ingested whistle to let loose a shrill blast. By some strange simplification of the rules previously established, the whistle now causes objects to fall from the sky, with no crossing of the path required by anyone. It’s as if God or Fate of whoever is in charge of dropping things on dogs has developed a Pavlovian reflex response to the sound of a whistle anywhere near this dog. “And then, with a hiccup-tweet-THUD, there’s a rapid culmination of all the operating threads, as fate becomes more vindictive, more absurd, and more resourceful all at once, smashing the dog with a steamroller, a passenger plane, a Greyhound bus, and, as a coup de grace, the S.S. Arizona.” As the celestial brickbats enlarge, the dog diminishes on the horizon (little black dot visible above Greyhound bus, below).


I think rapidity is key here. A set of clearly understood rules has suddenly been reduced in complexity so that an initial cause leads to a final effect with all the essential in-between steps inexplicably omitted. In a weird way it reminds me of the ending of Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The movie has established that when two creatures go into a telepod together, molecularly disassembled, transmitted and reconstructed in another telepod, they get genetically spliced together. This causes, for some reason that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, the larger of the two organisms to slowly mutate into a cross between each passenger.

At movie’s end, this hybrid of scientist Seth Brundle and a house fly, known as Brundlefly, attempts to repeat the process with his pregnant girlfriend, so as to become more human — two adults, a foetus and a house fly will make him less Brundle but a lot less fly. However, at the last moment the girlfriend telepod is disconnected (not sure why she needed her own telepod — the fly managed fine) and the computer screen announces that Brundlefly has been fused with… his telepod.


I read an account of this plot point in, I think, SFX magazine, which claimed that the fusion was with “the organic elements of the pod” — upholstery and stuff, I guess. But upholstery doesn’t have DNA, and so the idea of gene-splicing with it makes no sense. Also, the effect in this case is not a slow mutation but an instant melding of insect-man and machine, to create a hideous, disabled biomechanical nightmare.


As with Blackie’s apocalyptic whistle, the filmmakers have used the frantic energy of their climax to hotwire the narrative, jumping from original cause to final effect with all the essential in-betweens left out. If we’re engaged in the film, we seem to accept this crazed leaping, though we can certainly analyse it afterwards and see how audaciously illogical it is. Am I saying it’s good or bad? Well, faultless narrative logic that achieved the same effect might be preferable, but I love both BAD LUCK BLACKIE and THE FLY so I guess I’m saying insane leaps of logic are good.

Is that any comfort on this Inauguration Day?



Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 7, 2011 by dcairns

Max has his ass watered.

Over at The Daily Notebook, this week’s edition of The Forgotten casts a sympathetic eye over unfunny ethnic comedian Max Davidson, captured at the height of his limited powers in an excellent DVD double-disc edition from Filmmuseum Munchen. It’s amazing how affectionate I can get about a guy who’s basically about as funny as fibreglass.

Meanwhile, at Limerwrecks, THE FLY gets another ode in its honour.

When you’re feeling fly-blown and flea-bitten,

By the muse you get suddenly smitten,

A lim’rick or haiku,

Whatever may strike you,

Some doggerel has to be written.

The Mysterious Mr If, Part the Fifth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 4, 2011 by dcairns

It’s Monday, which means it’s time once again for me to court your baffled silence with another enthralling episode of my inexplicably unproduced screenplay, THE MYSTERIOUS MR IF. This week’s edition features a heavy nod in the direction of Lindsay Anderson’s IF… as we meet a man in a filing cabinet. A friend who read the thing entire asked if perhaps I was breaking one of the unwritten laws of comedy by making the straight characters as silly as the surreal ones. He was probably right, but who wants to write a scene with Zeppo Marx and Bud Abbot? 

For those not in tune with popular movements in modern screenwriting, I have another “poetic” contribution to the Vincentennial over at Limerwrecks. Topic: THE FLY, as fitting a subject for five-line doggerel as any I can think of.


So — last we saw, Edinburgh’s police exhibit/archive The Blue Museum had been vandalized by a master-criminal freshly escaped from the nineteenth century: policeman mannequins dressed in tacky lingerie. Sheena McQueen, cop reject, has stolen a file on this miscreant, and her cat, Edward Woodward, has been savagely blacked up as a result. Sheena has left said cat in the care of Howie, human exhibit at Edinburgh Zoo, and alerted Detective Inspector Turner of the Lothian and Borders Police to these unruly shenanigans. Clear? Now read on…


Sheena peels the lingerie from a Victorian bobby –


Victoria’s Secret Police.

Tring! DI. Turner and PC. Thrower enter. Turner nods briskly to Sheena but doesn’t stop – both men proceed to the back of the museum.

Sheena moves towards the rear of the museum.


Ah, DI. Turner. All is in readiness. Descend with me to the Files Room.


Sheena sidles in just as Netherbow, Turner and the constable disappear below stairs. Sheena creeps to the top of the stairs and crouches to watch.


Howie sits in his cage facing Edward Woodward the cat. Edward Woodward is still in blackface. Howie has a banjo. Edward Woodward has a banjo.

Duelling banjos!

Howie plays the first part of the tune.

Edward Woodward stares at him mutely. For a long time.

Howie plays the third part of the tune.

Edward Woodward stares some more.


There’s no keeping up with you.


Sheena watches from the top of the stairs.


Still no sign of the If File?

Sheena looks guilty.


I’ve turned the place upside out, Detective Inspector. I can’t conceive of what –


The business at hand, then.

Netherbow goes to a filing cabinet and opens a long drawer.

Inside, morgue-style, is Inspector Rathbone Shinty, still dressed in the height of Victorian fashion. He is adorned with cobwebs.

Sheena jolts in astonishment.


Inspector Rathbone Shinty. A hundred and fifty years old. Is it possible he can tell us anything?


He was mesmerized at the instant of death. He ought still to have all his faculties.

Sheena looks dumbfounded.

Turner leans very close to the dusty inspector, clears his throat, and then yells in the cadaver’s ear.



Shinty’s mouth opens and a long-legged spider crawls out.

Then a musty gasp exhales. Shinty stirs slightly. His skin makes a sound like dead leaves.

A voice, distant and desiccated, wafts from the cracked and barely mobile lips.


So If has returned… I knew he would.




Mr. If is attempting to become… unreal. But has only half-succeeded. As a semi-real person, he has… unspeakable power. Should he become completely… unreal, he might… start a chain reaction which would… unravel the universe. Fact and fiction would… blur, and the world might well… come to an end… of some sort. He must be stopped. Stopped.

And with that, Shinty’s face caves in. His suit crumples. His hands twitch and flake.



The strain was too great.

Thrower doffs his cap. Netherbow clasps his tit theatrically.


Break, break, oh heart!

Sheena, transfixed, comes to her senses and finds herself leaning dangerously far forward at the top of the stairs.

Turner, Netherbow and the constable pivot in surprise at a loud CLATTER.

Sheena slides down the last few stairs on her belly, reaches the bottom, and looks up.




A silhouetted Mr. If, in opera cape, surveys the cityscape.


Soon, soon, my pretty world. Nothing was, and nothing will be again.

He reaches out as if to touch a distant street… a car drives up it and If brings his fingers together as if to pinch the apparently tiny vehicle.

He moves his hand to his lips, clutching a tiny car. Muffled screams and honking as he delicately chews the miniature motor.


Mmm, the 1982 Datsun. A very good year.

FREEZE FRAME on his evilness.

Will Sheena get her stripes? Will Howie change his spots? Will Mr. If eat the universe? Tune in next time, or you may suffer baldness and stammering. Good evening.