Japanese film scholar Daisuke Miyao once wrote that filmic representations of “the female body, as [a] privileged signifier of postwar liberation and defeat, continue to haunt the cinematic imagination and memory in years to come.” He is sure to include multiple implications — privilege, freedom, subjugation — intertwined with a leitmotif of lingering. How have female bodies lingered in our collective cinematic experiences? How are they shaped, or unshaped, for the screen? Who is shaping? And most importantly, how do those bodily representations figure beyond the screen’s limitations, in a sense both personal and historical?
Of course, narrative cinema’s fragmentation of the female body dates back to the inception of the medium. Drawing a line from canonical Hollywood auteurs like Hitchcock (who famously fragmented Janet Leigh’s body in Psycho’s shower scene), to Takashi Miike’s trademark fragmentation of the human body, at large, in his myriad body horror/action thrillers beginning in the early 1990s; we can see how the body has operated as an aesthetic minefield, and the chief purveyor of a filmmaker’s personal dogma. How could it not? Our bodies are above theory, above abstraction, inextricable from lived experience. They remain evolving personal texts that act as beat-by-beat roadmaps of our daily existence.
This consideration calls on the dialogue between bodies and oppressed groups, and how dominant-subordinate power structures shape our understanding of bodies on-screen. Certainly Hitchcock’s fragmentation of Leigh’s body, as a filmmaker with substantiated industry capital and a track record of sexual harassment, proves reflective of his own misogynist dispositions — and the general disposition of postwar American ideology reflected in cinema. He slices Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane into the most rudimentary of parts: screaming mouth, wet torso, flailing arms, little else, all shot in extreme close-up with rapid fire editing. The final product presents the body as object while simultaneously disseminating it all together.
But at what point is the body on-screen distinguished from the body of the medium itself? There is no distinction, argues anthropologist Mary Douglas, who dialogues similarly with Takashi Miike’s filmography. As Mika Ko writes in Japanese Cinema and Otherness:
The way the film treats…its own body (the filmic text) and…[how] the actual body…[is] presented in the film may also be seen, following Douglas’ framework, as embodying a notion of contemporary Japanese society to which the film belongs and which it ‘figures’.
Broadly, the body on-screen factors into discussions of ownership — of the embodied actor themself, of the director dictating the embodied actor’s movements, of the viewer watching the embodied actor presented on screen (as Laura Mulvey writes in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema: “[the] body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of a spectator’s look”) — and the state of a larger sociocultural identity. Somatic fragmentation on-screen and the literal fragmentation of film become interlinked phenomena: content an extension of form, and form an extension of the creator’s understanding of the context in which they live and work.
Ono contends with such entanglements in Fly, the avant-garde short she directed in 1970. Shot a year prior to the release of her album of the same name, the film turns 50 this year. Ono is an early pioneer of “body cinema”, immortalizing a surfeit of buttocks in her 1966 short Bottoms, in which our eyes are supposed to glaze over at the seeming “mundanity”. Fly adopts a similar practice by piecing together various close-ups of a housefly crawling across a woman’s nude body. Yet, unlike Bottoms and similar works that adopt the Warholian tactic of audience self-reflexivity (where the viewer becomes aware of themselves watching images on a screen), Fly offers deeper implications, admonishing the viewer to move beyond their own brain and read between Ono’s cuts.
Seeing Fly as an important cinematic statement demands an understanding of Ono’s positionality, and the circumstances in which she lives and works. Born into Tokyo elite (her father was a classical pianist-turned-banker, her mother a painter), Ono spent her early childhood vacillating between two continents: the family moved to New York in 1940 before returning to Japan the following year.
In the wake of the 1945 Tokyo firebombing raid, she faced starvation, and would later write in her 2013 book of conceptual poetry, Acorn: “Toward the end of the Second World War, I looked like a little ghost because of the food shortage.” Ono’s contention with the body thus begins at this early life stage: human combat has fragmented her social, familial, and corporeal existence. Her subsequent affinity for the sky: “even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was always there for me,” denotes the artist’s first engagement with defragmentation, or reconstruction, of the self, and the first “canvas” — that of the wild blue yonder — she used to accomplish that feat.
Ono would employ myriad mediums throughout her career, but it is within the “canvas” of the moving image that her talents are defragmented into a single whole, above compartmentalization. It is also through cinema that Ono successfully defragments the female body in a way reflective of her autonomous reclamation of the self.
Fragmentation is a long-standing motif in Ono’s work, notably in her performance art during the pre-Lennon years. As Fiona Sturges writes: “She began exhibiting and staging ‘happenings’ …her most famous work ‘Cut Piece’ found her sitting motionless as strangers snipped away at her clothing with scissors.” Exhibitions like ‘Cut Piece‘ reflect Ono’s familiarity with fracture and displacement — of people and forces beyond her control dictating her spiritual and bodily state.
Surviving a war-torn childhood in Japan, Ono would relocate to a xenophobic West, rocked out of Kennedy-era complacency and into race riots, second-wave feminism, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War draft, in the latter half of the 1960s. In those years, she made considerable headway in New York’s flourishing avant-garde underground (with work like ‘Cut Piece’), but was invariably cast as second fiddle to Lennon in the mainstream echelon (whom she would later lose to a brutal act of murder) and, more broadly, as the woman who “broke up the Beatles” — both destructive and erroneous assaults on her personhood.
By the turn of the decade, her focus would shift. As journalist Joshua Barajas writes: “Ono…often speaks of the heart’s role in dealing with atrocities in life. Her activism has long focused on recognizing the ability to repair in the wake of destruction.” From the ’70s on, her work would consequently emphasize reconstruction in spite of scission, as a body and soul disseminated — but never obliterated — between myriad worlds, perceptions, relationships, and states of mind.
The creation of Fly is a microcosm of this lived reality, and behind-the-scenes footage of the film illustrates how, on set, Ono constructed a fragmented working space, before fusing her disparate milieux. Against a black wall, her face peering through camouflaged folds of hair, she drags on a cigarette and asserts: “I just want the camera to always concentrate on the fly, so the film is about a fly.” A model subsequently inches onto set, surrounded by white walls awash with light. In darkness, Ono drags on her cigarette some more. The model removes her coat and lies atop a white comforter, in a white slip, cameras posed around her body.
Unexpectedly, Ono emerges from the off-camera abyss and enters the white phosphorescence, donning a red sweater. She commands the scene, mustachioed cameramen dangling from her puppeteer strings, as a black housefly descends on the model’s calf and begins its journey across her body. Then, Ono crosses back over, removing herself. Sitting again against the black backdrop (save for a curtain the color of her sweater, now draped behind her), she closes her eyes and begins to sing. Eventually, the singing dissolves into wailing as she leans forward in her chair and chants: “Fly! Fly! Fly!” while footage of the actual film unfolds.
Our housefly, gargantuan in close-up, pitter-patters over the model’s arm, then her nipple, then her stomach. Ono’s filmic cuts vanish into her vocal cords — two mediums coalescing into a combined mode of expression — and she now seems closer to the unfolding action than ever before. Via voice, the artist fuses herself (invisible amid the off-camera blackness) into the illumined world captured on-screen. Similarly, her housefly fuses the model’s limbs, scattered by that very screen, rethreading them at the insistence of Ono’s cries. Here, she posits the body as its own landscape, and offers a female participant witness to the mediation on, and defragmentation of, her soma.
Ono works within the same parameters as directors like Alfred Hitchcock or Takashi Miike. Yet, she reclaims their filmic toolkit to posit the intermixture of her celluloid images as reconstructive effort, not a destructive one. The female body is not torn apart, but rather, pieced back together, with a nondescript insect serving as its connecting line. Such visual productivity finds roots in Ono’s female gaze: she is not concerned with presenting her model as a digestible pleasure object for heterosexual male consumption, but rather, as a fully-formed (or reformed) epistemological source.
This style also finds roots in Ono’s lived experience of oppression and personal fragmentation. Delineating the artist’s 1964 exhibition involving the breaking and repairing of a vase, a recent PBS Newshour article notes: “Recognition didn’t come easily to Ono. She often described herself as a ‘misfit’… the broken piece of vase is a license for anyone to take part in that rebuilding — a promise to engage.” Derided and defamed, the artist charges ahead, reconstructing her narrative to ultimately reject subjugation, and destructive ideas about bodies that experience that subjugation, altogether.
The soundtrack of Fly would reappear the following year on Ono’s double album of the same name as its 23 minute-long title track. It is a revealing statement, capping off a sprawling and unapologetic LP, save for its 33 second-long coda “Telephone Piece“.
Ono’s choice to include Fly’s soundscape on her accompanying record fuses two media fractured by a siloed industry. It also sees the film Fly become as radical a manifesto as Ono’s anarchist, genre-bending album (with one artwork rendered a direct extension of the other), where bodily reparation and self-reclamation prevail as major themes, too.
Early meditations like the second track, “Mindtrain“, provide a cerebral entry into songs like “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)” and “Mrs. Lennon“, in which Ono fearlessly confronts a selfhood fragmented by inequity and circumstance. The former presents itself as a love letter to Ono’s daughter from a former marriage and seemingly former life, while the latter sees the artist reckon with her public positionality as the much-maligned woman of color ranked below her privileged white partner.
In the album Fly’s broader scope, such disparate narratives, exploring various pockets of Ono’s lived experience, are pieced together to present herself in full. The LP cover: Ono’s visage, unfettered, comprehensive, presents a fully-rendered portrait in which the woman photographed has reconstructed and reaffirmed her own image. In the film, Ono performs the same act, projecting her visage onto the body of another woman, and the infinitesimal, impelling force that traverses its every inch.
Ono herself asserts that her film is not about a body, but “about a fly”. Sure enough, Fly remains Ono’s premier filmic declaration of personal and bodily autonomy, where surprisingly, the body itself is not paramount. Rather, we are asked to celebrate the film’s ever-moving namesake and its continuous act of rebuilding the body — or in other words, the vessel of one’s lived experience: small but powerful, dark but illuminating, the ultimate impetus of re-creation.