In Emily Dickinson's Poem 465, the narrator famously hears a fly buzz at the moment of her death. As family gathers around, she wills away her belongings and prepares for a moment of revelation, when suddenly the fly appears "With Blue - uncertain stumbling Buzz." Dickinson's synesthesia allows the unexpected visitor primacy in two senses, sight and sound, coincidentally the two senses that cinema engages. Many films have taken up Dickinson's example and used images of flies or other insects in connection with death. In the following brief discussion, I will take a look at three films that explore the correlation and offer their own variations on Dickinson's poem.
The most explicit cinematic reference to Dickinson occurs in the second episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, where the image of an insect, in this case a bee, manages to reverse the situation of the poem. The episode concerns a woman (Krystyna Janda) whose husband is in a coma, and who is pregnant with her lover's child. She begs her husband's doctor to tell her whether he will live or die. If he will live, she will have an abortion; if he will die, she will have the baby. The doctor refuses to commit to an answer and spends most of the episode rejecting the woman's repeated entreaties. When he finally accedes and tells the woman her husband will die, he is quickly proved wrong.
The husband (Olgierd Lukaszewicz) soon awakens and the first image he sees in the dim lighting of the hospital room is a bee perched on a spoon in a glass of fruit. He also hears the buzz. In the reverse of Dickinson's "and then/I could not see to see," the husband's eyesight suddenly returns and he is granted his "revelation". As in the poem, the insect, an element of banality, here further emphasized by its association with a spoon, an everyday object, intrudes on a momentous occurrence, where an image of great import is expected. Whatever the metaphorical associations of the bee, it is the intrusion of this unexpected element, an element so at odds with the proceedings, that grants both scenes their enormous power.
In the famous opening sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, the fly disturbs a tense scene of waiting that is understood will result in death. Not an explicit reference to Dickinson, the scene nonetheless offers an interesting variation, illustrating the unexpected appearence of a fly in a scene where mortality dominates.
Three gunmen wait at a Western train station. Although the audience is not sure exactly what they're waiting for, the quiet menance of the setting and unscrubbed, jagged faces of the gunmen, as well as their abusive treatment of the station agent, quickly presage a scene of impending fatality. After waiting for several minutes, a fly appears on the bearded chin of one of the gunmen (Jack Elam). Leone keeps his camera fixed in close-up on Elam's face. Elam unsuccesfully attempts to blow the fly off. Finally, he swats it away, only to see it take up residence on the bench where he's sitting. In a single violent gesture, he swings his weapon onto the fly and traps it in the barrel, causing it to buzz horribly. At this moment, a train enters the station and Elam releases the fly. The object of the wait has arrived, and the victim of the dry run is no longer needed. The Man (Charles Bronson) appears behind the train and quickly guns down the three killers. Elam's gunman may have gotten the best of the fly, but in the real event he is unable to escape death. The intrusion of the fly serves to heighten the tension of the approaching showdown; the annoyance of the visitor foreshadows a much more dangerous encounter.
Finally, in Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, the fly appears after the moment of death. The film, which consists entirely of footage taken from autopsies, reduces human life to the level of decaying flesh. The flaps of skin peeled back, the brains sliced open, and the various indistinguishable organs are all that remain of the inanimate beings. The clinical mercilessness with which the incisions are made is mirrored in the image of the fly, which makes its brief appearence early in the film as a body is being prepared for autopsy. The fly (buzzless this time, since Brakhage's films feature no audio) lands on the corpse's foot and explores a little before the camera cuts away. The fly, in its idle play, embodies the supreme indifference of nature to human life, in a film in which humanity is reduced to its most basic elements. Embracing a more pessimistic view than Dickinson, Brakhage, through the happy accident of the fly's appearence, is able to appropriate her image to his own worldview. The intruder here appears well after death has occurred, the moment of revelations long past. There remains only for the body to be cut open and the doctors to deliver their verdict.