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Sunday Shorts: Things That Crawl and Fly

Last night watching TV I noticed a little stream of ants coming into the living room, who knows how they got in, or what they wanted, a small invasion perhaps, but who actually owns the space anyway?

At the same time, my sister was urging me to google bootlace worms as it would ‘freak me out’ as apparently, they are the longest animal in the world with highly toxic mucus. I did and a few videos later I was equally fascinated but ‘freaked out’ at the same time.

Insects don’t just exist in real life and are often featured subjects within cinema, A Bug’s Life (1998), Antz(1998), The Human Centipede(2009) and obviously David Cronenburg’s The Fly (1986) were all suggestions I got from the family when mooting the idea of insects in films.

The animated life of insects was anthropomorphised in the first two mentioned, humanising them, exaggerating their creaturely stereotypes, whilst also doing great PR for species that people are often ‘freaked out’ by. The latter two films mentioned above feed more on the human paranoia of insects, the fear of them not only invading ‘our’ spaces, but also more irrationally our bodies too.

More recently the relationship of insects and cinema has shifted somewhat, with a greater awareness of their importance to the ecology of the world. Honeyland (2019) offers an example of this and was screened at a sea/film event last year. The film follows Hatidze a woman in her mid 50s a natural beekeeper in North Macadonia whose way of life becomes threated when a family move in with very different views and methods of working with the land and bees. If you didn’t manage to see it at the cinema, I urge you to try and catch it on demand, as it offers interesting ideas around the ethics of care in relation to the environment and the way we cultivate natural resources.

For this Sunday shorts then I bring you a series of films where insects play a key part.

We start with The Acrobatic Fly, a silent film from 1910, by F. Percy Smith. It features close-ups of a housefly who has been secured to the head of a match by the filmmaker in order to give the illusion that the insect can do juggling acts with its feet. It was part of a series of films titled The Strength and Agility of Insects and caused much debate at the time over how Smith had apparently taught the fly to do the tricks, meaning he was eventually forced to justify to the press, how he had created the film, and that no tricks or cruelty was involved.

Another film as part of this series by Smith was To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909), this was created in the hope of curing people of their fear of insects and show the natural marvel of web-creating that spiders untake. Unlike The Acrobatic Fly, this film is an animation, with Smith creating an intricate eight-legged model to demonstrate how spiders move and fly. Maybe live action was not viewed by Smith as capable of capturing the act to the correct standard, but like Bugs Life the animation of the insect here creates a subject that feels much more accessible to audiences; who might otherwise be squeamish around the real life arachnid subject matter.

For the next film we move to the 21st century, and Alex Mackenzie’s Underfoot (2006) which offers a different way of capturing insects, and is described by Mackenzie as ‘a rapid-fire dissection of the earth's surface and soil, teeming with life and pulsing abstraction.’ Using a specially created exposure device to capture the insect world, the film offers a frenetic and unpredictable view of them. It mimics somewhat the reality of our encounter with insects, where we interact with them largely by chance/unwelcome meetings, abstract forms in our supposedly ‘rational’ lives.

The last film offers something slightly different and is a narrative short by Andrea Arnold, Wasp (2003). It tells the story of a mother, Zoe who is determined to go a date despite having her four children to look after. We first meet the eponymous wasp in Zoe’s house, annoying her, she lets it out of the window. It does however make a reappearance later in the film, after leaving her children outside a pub whilst she is on a date, they become upset and tired culminating in a wasp crawling into the mouth of the youngest child. Zoe hears the screams of the children at the incident, which brings her to realise what she has done by leaving the child alone.

The wasp here acts almost as an incidental sign for Zoe which at first she tries to ignore letting it go from the window, much like the children she leaves alone outside the pub. But it comes back to haunt her and remind her of the responsibilities that she is neglecting. It is noticeable also that throughout the film there are other insect references notably the drawings of bees and a large ornamental butterfly on the walls of the family home, more ‘friendly’ insects that hint to the possibly of a more positive family relationship moving forward.

Links to Films:

Percy Smith, The Acrobatic Fly, 1910:

Percy Smith, To Demonstrate how Spiders Fly, 1909:

Alex Mackenzie, Underfoot, 2006:

Andrea Arnold, Wasp, 2003:

words and films selected by Martha Cattell

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