This Movie Changed Me

The Fly

Tony Banout

Last Updated

March 2, 2021


David Cronenberg’s The Fly tells the story of one man’s quest to develop teleportation — and everything that goes wrong along the way. The 1986 sci-fi horror movie stars Jeff Goldblum as Seth, the genius scientist, and Geena Davis as Ronnie, a journalist who falls in love with him. After an experiment goes awry, Seth begins a grisly transformation into a human-fly hybrid. Tony Banout, who works in interfaith dialogue, says he saw the movie as a cautionary tale about the dangers of an unchecked ego — and took lessons from it about grappling with death, decay, and grief.

Guest

Image of Tony Banout

Tony Banout is the Senior Vice President of Interfaith Youth Core. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied at the Divinity School and was a Martin Marty Center and Provost fellow.

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Tony Banout about the movie that changed him, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry. We’re gonna give you all of the details you need to follow along. And if you have seen it, I promise, you won’t think of it in the same way again after this episode.

[music: “Main Title” by Howard Shore]

The first time that I saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly, it was with my brother, who loved to torment me by showing me things that would scare the shit out of me. And all of my memories of The Fly were of it being a gross horror film, which is why I was so surprised when one of our producers pitched the idea of doing an episode about The Fly. The person that he found, Tony Banout, talked about The Fly as something that, quite frankly, I didn’t understand. He saw this movie as an interpretation of Icarus — of the reality of what happens when someone flies too close to the sun.

[excerpt: The Fly]

You don’t really need to know much about The Fly to understand the premise. Here’s what you do need to know. Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, this genius scientist who is inventing teleportation. But his plans go awry when a little fly ends up in one of the machines. And that begins his slow and horrific transformation into a six-foot fly.

[excerpt: The Fly]

As Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle is experimenting with this new technology, he meets Geena Davis’ character, Ronnie, who’s a journalist — a science journalist, who is interested in interviewing him, getting to know his process.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Ronnie agrees. And soon, the two of them fall in love, and it becomes one of the most unlikely love stories in human history.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Even as Geena Davis’ character Ronnie watches Seth Brundle turn into the fly — and there’s a whole pregnancy storyline that we won’t get into because it’s just too disturbing — even after all that, she still loves him. She still sees the man that she once knew and tries her best to stand by him.

[excerpt: The Fly]

For Tony Banout, who works in interfaith dialogue on college campuses and in different communities across the country, the character of Seth Brundle really gave him a moral lesson, the lesson being: this is what can happen to you when you enter a room, when you enter a field of study, when you believe that you know more than everyone else. And that lesson, for Tony, translated into all of his work, as well as his personal relationships: Don’t dictate to other people what they need to learn from you. Listen, and be present to them.

[music: “The Phone Call” by Howard Shore]

Well, I’d love for you to take a moment and close your eyes and think about that first time you saw The Fly — just ten seconds, and I’ll keep watch of the time. And just think about where you were, how old you were, if you were with anyone, if you were alone — and then I’ll just chime in.

So what memories came up for you, from that first time watching The Fly?

Tony Banout: So I’m a college student. And it was not love at first sight. [laughs] I think my first reaction was, “This is kind of creepy.”

Percy: Oh, yes. [laughs]

Banout: And I… [laughs]

Percy: And gross — let’s not underemphasize gross. [laughs]

Banout: And it’s so gross. [laughs] It’s so gross, especially at the tail end of it. So I’m in college, and I rented it with a girlfriend I had at the time. And in part, it was kind of funny, because I had not heard of The Fly — this is out in ’86 or ’87 — and folks would be like, “Dude, you kind of” — I still get this in my life, from time to time. Usually, it’s someone I don’t know, and they’ll walk up with a smile and say, “Hey, has anybody ever told you, you kind of look like Jeff Goldblum?” And I’m like — [laughs] “Yeah, I know.” And it’s actually a nice thing for people to do, because it’s a conversation with a stranger who approaches you with a smile on his or her face, which is nice. And so I think part of that was, what is this film, and what is this dude about?

But later, a few years ago, I’m on a flight back to Chicago from L.A., and I queue it up and I watch it, and I’m like, this is actually really, really interesting and moving, in ways that it was not when I was in my late teens, early 20s. And there were several things, thematically, that caught me on reviewing it and then seeing it again, coming back to it over the years.

There’s such an innocence and absorption in his work that —

Percy: And this is in the character of Jeff Goldblum, Seth Brundle.

Banout: Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle. Seth Brundle is a socially awkward, brilliant scientist who works way too much and has way too little social contact — [laughs] his own admission.

Percy: [laughs] Yes.

Banout: And the opening scene is a very charming, I think, interchange between him and Ronnie, Geena Davis’s character, that sort of shows his awkwardness.

[excerpt: The Fly]

And his eyes are darting back and forth in an insect-like way that’s foreshadowing, but he’s also saying flat-out, “I’m changing the world and human life as we know it” — a line that he repeats a couple times.

[excerpt: The Fly]

But the way that the first third of the movie unfolds is — this character, to me, that is fully absorbed in his work, which you can put stand-in for me, being someone who’s done a lot with social change and activist organizations, and some stuff in the arts — that feeling of being consumed by one’s endeavor is both thrilling and a little bit dangerous, in how it affects how you relate to other people and how present you can be to others.

Percy: That’s a great point, because I think that presence that you’re talking about is something that he lacks. [laughs] He’s so obsessed with the idea of pushing the boundaries of what he knows of science that he isn’t really present to the moment, or even present to ask himself very important questions of, essentially, checking his ego. He’s not present enough to his own ego.

Banout: Right, which feels like the core tragedy in his character, which is how his jealousy gets away from him, when he decides that he’s gonna teleport himself because he suspects — after they get into a relationship — that she is still running around with her ex-boyfriend. He’s driven by jealousy, and things go wrong, obviously. [laughs] But the inability to be socially aware and relate to her and be present is part of his character structure and, I think, part of what makes it fall apart.

So, to me, it’s like the lesson and the balance is, just watch that. There is some thrill to being absorbed in one’s work that I’ve certainly felt, and it is possible to do that and also be present to people you love, [laughs] and socially aware and connected. And of course, this is highly dramatized in the film. But when you’re not, things don’t go well.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Percy: I’m curious as to how that lesson — that relentless pursuit of pushing the boundaries of your own work, and thinking of Brundle and his work — and also how that ego, that idea of thinking you know more than science, in his case, and in your case, working with different religious communities, working on religious diversity — how that has shown up for you.

Banout: I hope not in the sense of, “I think I know more than everyone else” — I hope not. [laughs]

Percy: [laughs] But there is a bit of — I’ll just use my own experiences growing up in an evangelical Christian community. The leaders of the church come into a room in that way, in my experience. And that changes the room. There’s an expectation that you have of them, and it does create — kind of force them into being kinds of deities, in a way, for all of us. [laughs]

Banout: I think, for me, something I’ve worked on more, later in life, is really just trying to be present to those around me. And that has involved both an awareness of what I’m bringing into the room, where I am, while also then, at its best, saying to myself and permitting myself to really hear and be and experience with the other person or the group.

That’s a constant balance. And I know when I’ve done it better, I’ve been happier, and I’ve felt more authentically connected to those around me. I think of my work with Interfaith Youth Core, but also just my personal relationships and the things that — the core things that drive us are there in whatever contexts we happen to be in — in our professional roles, in our social and civic commitments, in our personal lives.

Part of what makes me tick is getting really inspired by an idea or a piece of music or an intellectual essay. And that brings with it an energy that, if I’m not careful, can be — it can be a way to deepen connection; it can also be a way to make me less sensitive to those around me. So I think, for me, it’s turned on greater awareness of where I am and an acknowledgement of just what makes me tick — which I understand isn’t true for everyone. I just know I can get lost in those things in a way that can be less helpful in certain circumstances.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Percy: There was a really great piece in the website Film School Rejects, and it’s one of their columnists, Brian Salisbury. He described Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, as “a character whose greatest flaw at the onset of the film is a relentless desire to advance the boundaries of knowledge. He proceeds with his teleportation experiment with the express intention of bettering humankind. But in the process, however, he is graphically robbed of every aspect of his own humanity.” And that’s so well-written and so astute, as to what happens to him. [laughs]

Banout: It really is. And so there’s this balance, I think, in social change work by this fervor — and I certainly felt this more, when I was in my late teens, early 20s, and just coming to activism — of wanting to change the world, and being a little bit on fire about that.

Percy: And having the confidence that you could do it.

Banout: Having the confidence you could do it, maybe the ego to think you could do it — it’s actually a good thing to want to do; [laughs] I’m still involved in that.

Percy: It is. It is.

Banout: But the dangers of not paying attention to those you’re in relationship with while you’re doing that has the potential of robbing you of something very valuable.

Percy: Can you give me an example of those early days when you felt that way; when you came into your activism and felt, “I am gonna change the world,” and realizing it wasn’t so simple?

Banout: I think after college, I was living in D.C., and I was part of a broader social group that included Catholic Workers and other antiwar activists. And there was this just fervent conviction that the system was through-and-through rotten, and we needed a sense of — like, Christian anarchism was the solution, and we could do this. And if you weren’t down with us, you were just irrelevant. Right? [laughs]

There’s actually a case to be made, but I think the way you make the case matters a lot. And the way, in those years, that I was writing off those who disagreed, I think was the problem. It wasn’t so much — and this is still true, the way now I think about civic life — it’s not so much one’s conviction as much as how one orients or relates to those of different conviction.

This is constantly the balance in a diverse democracy, broadly speaking; but just in our personal lives, holding true to what you think and what you believe and your conviction, and holding space to meet others where they are and experience them without needing to evaluate or judge or predetermine — I did not do that well. That was not part of the world I was in, and it was not a part of my posture toward my work or what I thought it meant to be an activist.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Percy: So how did you come to learn that?

Banout: Assuming I have learned it [laughs] to any degree, I think maybe what middle age has given me — and for whatever deeper reflection is worth, the greater sensitivity to the connective tissue of the whole and how we are held together, both inextricably and inexplicably — protecting that has taken more of a priority, for me, than pushing my particular position or understanding of the truth. So I hope that’s made me a little bit softer and more understanding and more easy to get along with and present to people.

Percy: I feel like you’ve gotten to a place where, had Brundle not become a fly, [laughs] he may have gotten to, in his best version of himself.

Banout: [laughs] So the way that I read it is, this is the dystopic possibility in this wildly dramatized, sci-fi, gross way. So, what the film does for me is push those questions and themes by framing them in a “here’s how it goes wildly wrong” scenario. [laughs]

Percy: This could happen to all of us.

Banout: We all will deal with — so we will all hurt the ones we love and be hurt by them. We will all deal with bodily decay and death. We will all be in situations —

Percy: Hopefully our ears won’t just fall off. [laughs]

Banout: [laughs] Hopefully there won’t be bile that we are vomiting, in order to digest the donut we’d like to eat.

Percy: [laughs] Exactly.

Banout: But how — part of that ear falling off scene that I thought was so powerful was the way — we could talk a lot, probably, about Ronnie’s character and the way she is portrayed in this, but he’s entirely disgusting. And when that happens — I think it’s right after that happens — he says, “I’m scared.” And she hugs him. And the physical contact of that, we find at some level repugnant.

Percy: I definitely did. I thought, I would not be able to do that in that moment. [laughs]

Banout: [laughs] Right. The power of that was really palpable to me.

Percy: And you’ve actually described their relationship in particular, which I find beautiful, the way you’ve said it — that it’s almost as a mirror to the plain suffering that is always a part of being in love.

Banout: How wonderful, beautiful, and deepening, and challenging, and difficult it is to be knowing someone intimately, and what that does to the greater self-awareness and the greater awareness of how we want to be loved and love. I’ve been married for close to 20 years, and there’s endless layers of that, that we’re discovering. I feel like what happens in their relationship is a wildly accelerated microcosm of that, like the idea of, we probably all have felt some jealousy and some possessiveness and have done things out of that that we look back on and think, “I wish I had just talked to my partner about that.” [laughs]

Percy: Exactly. How much could have been resolved, had I just asked the question? [laughs]

Banout: [laughs] Right.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Percy: Well, we’ve been kind of talking about this in a lot of ways, throughout this conversation, but there’s something so beautiful that happens when you see a movie for the first time at a certain age, and then you continue to see it throughout your life. It really does grow with you. And I’m just curious to know how this one has continued to grow with you — where you are now, versus where you were in college, when you first saw it.

Banout: I think retrospect can be so rich, having more material to reflect back upon. And I feel like that’s woven into the film itself. So my initial viewing of it, it was really just kind of creepy, without too much to extract, lesson-wise or anything like that. I’ve come to see it more as an encapsulated life journey in how we deal with bodily decay and death, and tragedy, which we all deal with. And I think I’m more sensitive to that in my 40s than I certainly was in my 20s, because the physical frailty breaks in more, for me and for the ones I love. And vulnerability on a physical level is real; aging is real. Decay is real, that kind of — again, highly dramatized and tragic in the film, but frightening and very present to us in ordinary ways.

[excerpt: The Fly]

Percy: Tony Banout is the senior vice president of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization aimed at making interfaith cooperation a vital part of college and a positive force in society. Being a positive force is something that Tony learned from the only “boss” he and I answer to — Bruce Springsteen.

SLM Production Group and Brooksfilms produced The Fly, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. Howard Shore scored The Fly, and the label Varese Sarabande released its original motion picture soundtrack.

[music: “The Fly” by U2]

Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about the sex comedy Blockers. You’ve got a week to watch it before our conversation, and full disclosure: it is raunchy and vulgar. But that’s just on the surface. It’s also one of the most intimate and aspirational movies about sexuality and gender that I’ve ever seen.

The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Gautam Srikishan, Chris Heagle, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Christiane Wartell, Tony Liu, and Kristin Lin. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, and Poetry Unbound. Find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

I’m Lily Percy, and even though I still think The Fly is gross, it also has a lot to teach us about getting older and being vulnerable and open to love.

[music: “The Fly” by U2]

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