Saturday, 18 September 2010

A most unusual film - 1910 - The Acrobatic Fly

The Acrobatic Fly is one of the more peculiar films I have encountered. Although it only lasts for three minutes, it is a film that has consistently perplexed me for the last week.

On its surface, The Acrobatic Fly is a simple trick film involving a housefly that balances various objects on its body. However, it appears that the ingenuity of the film is that there is no trickery involved (it is a real housefly balancing the various objects); although one wonders how Percy Stow managed to ‘convince’ the housefly to perform the various tricks it pulls off.

As the film begins, the viewer’s initial reaction is to delight at the gimmick of a fly lying on its back, juggling what appears to be a blade of grass. As the first few objects change, even 100 years later, the sense of novelty is tempered by an impression of disposability. It seems as though the film will be like many a gimmicky Youtube video that fascinates for a few seconds before drifting to the most distant backwaters of our memories.

But as the film transitions from the fly spinning a web around a plastic white cup to a fly lying at a different angle juggling a smaller fly, the film becomes both grotesque and deeply fascinating. The lighting of the initial shot allows us to see the fly’s transparent wings as well as suggesting its body is comprised of several colours. As the lighting and positioning of the fly shifts for the first time, the uniform blackness of both flies is accentuated. A few shots later, the two large flies weave a large black ball that the larger fly struggled to balance him/herself (see image below), and the allegorical nature of these images deepens.

It is a fruitless exercise speculating whether this was the directors’ intention, but there is no denying the effect this transition has a potent effect on the viewer; whereas before, the fly’s repugnant exterior was offset by how it was lit and the action it was partaking in, now its repulsiveness is accentuated by the fact that it is balancing another fly. Involuntarily, it is an image that has resonated and replayed in my mind for the last few days, as I could not shake the unerring feeling that this symbolism had significant depth and may in fact function as mirror for its audience.  

Unable to word this scene’s effect on my mind, the best inclination I can give my reader of this sense of apprehension is to say that I feel there is a significant overlap between this scene in the film and the following short story by Borges (which can be found in this collection):

Inferno, I, 3
From the half-light of dawn to the half-light of evening, the eyes of a leopard, in the last few years of the twelfth century, looked upon a few wooden boards, some vertical iron bars, some varying men and women, a blank wall, and perhaps a stone gutter littered with dry leaves. The leopard did not know, could not know, that it yearned for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing flesh and a breeze with the scent of deer, but something inside it was suffocating and howling in rebellion, and God spoke to it in a dream: You shall live and die in this prison, so that a man that I have knowledge of may see you a certain number of times and never forget you and put your figure and symbol in a poem, which has its exact place in the weft of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you shall have given a word to the poem. In the dream, God illuminated the animal’s rude understanding and the animal grasped the reasons and accepted its fate, but when it awoke there was only an obscure resignation in it, a powerful ignorance, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of a savage beast.
Years later, Dante was to die in Ravenna, as unjustified and alone as any other man. God told him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, astonished, learnt at last who he was and what he was, and he blessed the bitterness of his life. Legend has it that when he awoke, he sensed that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would never be able to recover, or even to descry from afar, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of men.   
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