Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

1. You know how live albums are sometimes described as a band’s greatest hits played faster and louder? This sequel to Planet of the Apes feels likes the original movie’s greatest hits played slower and quieter. With a new astronaut landing on the planet, Beneath the Planet of the Apes goes through many of the same revelatory moments—the initial exploration of the desert, the discovery of the ape city, and so on—while making each retread a lesser version of the original. One need only compare the early scenes in the Forbidden Zone to see the difference. Original director Franklin J. Schaffner was almost too stylish at times, but his crane-drunk, angle-sniffing camerawork in the desert at least resulted in some evocatively lonely imagery. By comparison, sequel director Ted Post brings the brusque literalism of a television director to his desert sequences. The camera simply pans over a flat plain with a mountain in the distance. Yup, that’s a desert alright.

Our hero, Lean Beef McStudly (James Franciscus), continues this trend towards diminishing returns by giving us a watered down version of Charlton Heston’s brittle astronaut from the first film (luckily, Heston shows up at the end of the sequel to lend a touch of movie-star grandeur to the otherwise debased proceedings). Worst of all, the all-important they-blew-it-up revelation is a mere whisper next to the original’s melodramatic roar. Whereas Heston realized he was on Earth when he discovered the Statue of Liberty, Franciscus has to come to terms with the annihilation of 20th century civilization when he stumbles across Queensboro Plaza. The setting trades the iconic for the mundane, and the performance is similarly diminished. You’ll find more dramatically persuasive emotional breakdowns on the subway every single day at rush hour.

2. Let’s talk about film editing for a moment. Film editing is a fine and difficult alchemy, with results that are not always expected or desired. When you put together 1 and 2, you don’t always get 3—sometimes, you get 12. I’ll put this into context using an example from Beneath the Planet of the Apes: cutting from a deathly wounded man to a scene where someone is patting down dirt on a freshly dug grave does not necessarily imply that the man died in his sleep while angels whispered sweet lullabies in his ears and god tickled his toes. No, it suggests he was buried alive.

3. When Franciscus is locked up in the slave cart, Zira—the friendly ape scientist from the first film, if you’re keeping track of these things—grabs the key and unlocks the cage for the man to escape. You would think someone would ask why she was opening the cage when they just closed it, but she justifies her actions by saying, “I’ll just double lock it.”

Really? Is that a thing now? If I was a guard and someone said they were going to double lock the cage, I would say, hey, whoa, hold it a minute now, don’t go sticking that key back in there. That lock ain’t getting any more locked than it already is. What, do you think you can make it extra locked? Twice locked? Is there some special, secret level of locking things that I’ve never been told about? Let me tell you something, most locks tend to have just two settings: locked and unlocked. So just leave that cage double unlocked (you know, locked), if you would be so kind.

Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I would care about if I were a talking gorilla in the year 3955.

4. Due to the whole double-locking fiasco, we are gifted with a fight scene on a fast-moving slave cart. Unfortunately, the movie awkwardly (and obviously) cuts between Franciscus in a studio in front of a rear projection screen and a stunt double on an actual moving cart outside. I suppose the star did not want to risk his life doing stunt work, and can you blame him? Who would dare risk the shame? “He died for his art” is a particularly stupid statement in almost any context, but none more so than a sequel to Planet of the Apes.

That said, I find this to be a helpful rule of thumb: if your star isn’t willing to die for your movie, then you either need to find a new star or a new movie.

5. For all the inherent goofiness of having people walk around in monkey masks debating science and religion, the Ape movies have always had a dark edge to their satire, and this one is no different. This incarnation of the series introduces the gorilla class of ape society, a warmongering lot who are thumping their chests (quite literally) and agitating for invading the Forbidden Zone.

The scenes of the army running preparation drills possess the innate comedy of people doing very serious things while wearing very stupid outfits, but that’s about all you can say for this whole ill-conceived invasion subplot. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that this would make a nice bit of social commentary. I suppose it might have if it had actually made any sense.

Here’s the thing about wars: you need an enemy. There are a lot of forms this enemy can take. You can have a traditional war and meet your enemy on contested ground and battle for position. You can have a cold war and never directly engage your enemy in armed conflict. You can have a war on terror and fight a network of shadow-enemies across many territories. But you’ll notice that most wars have some sort of opposing force, which makes the fighting that much more photogenic and helps disperse the burden of organizing things and split costs on costume rental fees.

In this movie, there is no enemy. As the army marches off into the Forbidden Zone, protestors block the way while waving signs that say, “Wage Peace Not War.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and completely nonsensical in this context. The army certainly isn’t waging peace, but they can’t really wage war either, seeing as how they’re heading into uninhabited territory with no knowledge that any enemy force even exists. In essence, they are invading a desert. One would think this is a brilliantly undefeatable military strategy, except that they still somehow fuck it up and die anyway.

Moral: always have an enemy when waging a war. It’s much more difficult to win, but much less embarrassing when you lose.

6. Giant stone monkey Jesus weeping tears of blood!

I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy. Avert your eyes.

7. The “beneath” part in the title of this movie comes from the cultish society of telepathic mutants living below the ruins of New York City projecting trippy hallucinations to fuck with the apes and astronauts. As you can imagine, they are a dour, smug, and uniformly loathsome bunch, spending all their time worshipping an active nuclear bomb while singing bizarre hymns about how the weapon will kill the devils and make angels of everyone. All of which begs the question of how a nuclear weapon got to be stored in the New York subway system in the first place—or should we just take this as more proof of the stupid recklessness that damned humanity in the first place?

In one of the movie’s more inexplicable reveals, the telepaths peel off their faces, exposing their hideously veiny, pink-grey heads. Now, if I could, I would like to seriously consider the tomato head mutants for a moment. Why would a civilization in which everyone is equally disfigured need to wear latex masks? Are their rotten tomato heads simply too sensitive to be exposed to the air, or are they just that vain? I incline to the latter explanation, as it fits with the movie’s bleak opinion of humanity. Even in an apocalyptic wasteland where everyone is similarly scarred, even when you can read everyone else’s thoughts and always know for certain if they are thinking about how fat your ass looks in your robe, even despite all of that—people will still feel insecure. We’re just that shallow and stupid, apparently. Maybe we did deserve to be nuked after all. Tomato head mutants, you’ve convinced me.

8. If you have to talk out loud when communicating with a telepath, maybe you should think before you speak.

9. The first time I saw Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it left me positively giddy (yes, that’s right, I’ve watched this movie more than once). No, it’s not a good movie by any objective measure. But it does have one thing going for it: the death of all life. The movie ends with Charlton Heston, oozing red paint, gasping a dying curse (“You bloody bastard!”), then falling on the trigger for a nuclear weapon that destroys the entire Earth. And then there are three sequels! You can understand my excitement.

The glory of this nutty shit-bar of a movie—and it is glorious, for all of its innumerable flaws—lies in its sheer bleakness. If the first movie were a person, it would be a crazy derelict carrying a sign that reads, “The End is Nigh, Repent.” If this sequel were a person, it would be a crazy derelict carrying a sign that reads, “The End is Nigh, We’re Fucked.”

In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, there’s no redemption, no false hope or appeals to virtue. The original Ape movie suggested primitivism might be the only way to avert nuclear disaster, but even that escape route is closed to us now. The anti-science apes are just as likely to trigger the bomb as the all-powerful mutants. Both knowledge and ignorance lead us into the same smoldering pile of ash. Strap yourself to this movie and it will rocket you straight into the blackest void, with you laughing all the way. You remember in Dr. Strangelove the cowboy bombardier riding his nuke, yee-hawing on his way to the grave? Imagine that scene without a trace of irony and you will understand the sick appeal of this movie.

After all, this is a movie where the hero happens to be the destroyer of all life on Earth, a movie either too clumsy or too deranged to staunch the horror that seeps through the cracks in its story. You would think that all of this cold-war nuclear anxiety would have lost its sting over time, but that isn't the case here. Something about this vision of inevitable nuclear annihilation feels stranded from its time, a marooned howl, like a message in a bottle washed up a beach. You would think the contents of the bottle couldn’t be relevant anymore, but when you open it up, the only message you find is, “You’re going to die.” And in that hesitant pause between laughter and scream, this movie lives its life.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Planet of the Apes

My earliest memory of Planet of the Apes comes from when I was no more than nine or ten years old. It was a Sunday afternoon, and my father had been watching the movie on TBS. I didn’t actually watch it—probably I was in my room reading comic books—but I recall standing on the stairway and watching the final scene through the banisters as if I were sneaking a peak of something sordid and secret. It disturbed me enough that I wouldn’t come back to it for fifteen years.

After the movie was over, I stepped out of the house and into the farmyard, feeling this queasy churning in my guts. The sky was like a giant pit I might fall into; I didn’t trust the ground. But it wasn’t the apocalyptic implications of Charlton Heston on the beach, howling into the surf as he pounds the sand, which frightened me. It was the depthless loneliness that he surely must have experienced at that moment. (Returning to the movie, I was surprised to realize there was a woman with him in that scene, although this mute, uncomprehending primitive can only offer limited solace.)

When I think back to me alone in the yard, I have trouble locating my parents anywhere, even though they were certainly there somewhere. The television glows in an empty room, even though I know my father must have been watching. Everyone has been evacuated from this one memory in my mind, leaving me to wander all on my lonesome after the end of the world.

Perhaps the destruction of all human life was a little too abstract a concept for my young mind. Besides, what does nuclear war mean to a kid at the end of the Cold War who wouldn't have been able to tell Gorbachev from Grimace? (Now that I'm all grown up, I know the answer: Grimace smiles more.) Looking back at the movie, its vision of nuclear annihilation is really only good for providing that iconic final image of the mangled Statue of Liberty on a lifeless beach. Beyond that, there isn't much bite to it. The idea that scientific progress might destroy us all is hardly new, and the movie mostly just trades on that well-established anxiety while engaging in easy ironies punctuated with a few snappy chases and assorted histrionics. Anti-scientific sentiment was hardly a fresh—or even particularly useful—addition to the nuclear debate, even in 1968.

But the movie still resonates, due largely to Heston’s performance as George Taylor, all-American hero and smug prick. This is a man who so loathes both the warmongers and peaceniks of his era that he volunteers to pass centuries at light speed while waiting for all the jerks on Earth to die. Why even bother coming back if that’s how you feel, George? (Early foreboding scenes where he insists there must be a species better than man somewhere out there can barely contain their anticipation of his ironic comeuppance. Turns out your primate forebears are better than man, jerkwad! Oh, and ha-ha, everyone you love is dead.)

This is by no means one of the most subtly modulated performances of Heston’s career—in fact, it’s overwrought ham of the first order. Heston pounds the dirt, curses the sky, and gnashes his teeth. His dialogue is alternately delivered in a hiss or a bellow, save for a blissful interlude where he cannot speak (thus dropping the volume of his emoting to a muffled roar). The horrible rictus he bears throughout the film never lets us forget that we are watching an intense actor acting intensely.

And yet this might be the best role of his career. With his towering frame and stentorian voice, Heston was a natural fit for righteous authority figures, so rigid and upright that one could only assume Moses’ staff was firmly lodged up his ass. Taylor’s condescension and contempt are merely the darker side of this familiar type that Heston made a career out of playing. The film lets his usual high-minded air turn abrasive (or more deliberately abrasive than usual, I should say). The sense of superiority behind his strident morality easily turns to loathing for the rest of humanity.

Taylor remains an unrepentant prick right up to the very end. Even when two sympathetic ape scientists help free him before he can be lobotomized (and gelded!), he can’t help but be a bit of an asshole towards them. He complains about the stench of the rags he is asked to wear while sneaking away and pointedly reminds his saviours, “You’re not in charge of me.” Even though Taylor makes it sound like he simply could no longer live with the rest of humanity, it’s quite clear that the rest of humanity likely could no longer live with him either.

So forget about the end of the world for once. We all know we’re riding this spinning blue top right into oblivion, so there’s no need for another toothless sermon about our warlike nature (especially when you can peg most contemporary apocalypses on the excessive consumption of peacetime—how’s that for bitter irony, and oh yes, ha-ha, everyone you love is dead). Planet of the Apes is about more than the folly of science and nasty nuclear death. It’s about the impossibility of living with other people, and the horrible need for them all the same. It’s about a thought so scary that it rattled my young self and made the whole world for a moment seem like an extension of that desolate beach. It’s about that simple phrase Heston utters as he stares into the void, obliterated by its vastness: “I feel lonely.”

Oh, poor baby, you might say, why not try being less of a jerk and then see how lonely you feel? But the poor bastard can’t help it, he really can’t. He yearns for kinship but sees it nowhere, pushing against the folly of the human race, ignorant of the fact that he is no better. When he sneers that back on Earth there was lovemaking but no love, the words don’t sound like those of a wounded romantic—this is the cold, hard speech of a man who has used others and taken refuge in their weaknesses rather than face his own. He disdains the warlike nature of the civilization he so readily left behind, but he is a more capable fighter and killer than anyone else in the movie. His misanthropy lacks only the glimmer of self-awareness necessary to turn inwards and finally rip him in two. Goddamn you all to hell? No such luck, George—hell is other people, and you’ll yet learn to beg for it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The White Ribbon

(When I initially reviewed The White Ribbon at the Edmonton International Film Festival, I found myself enjoying it, despite my reservations. Yes, it was a bit of a bloated, self-important piece of white elephant art, but it was also well made and engrossing. Amid all the dead termites of the EIFF, a robust white elephant starts to look pretty appealing, you know? On the occasion of the film’s theatrical run, I’ve decided to revisit it in more depth and give it the proper shit-kicking it was due.)

“I feel like I should see Slumdog Millionaire,” the man said, “just so I can fulminate against it.”

The scene was a Michael Haneke retrospective, moments before beginning a perilous exploration of The Seventh Continent, the director’s dour first feature film. The speaker was a local film studies professor—an excellent and insightful man, in fact—chatting with someone in the audience as we waited for the film to start. And while I appreciated the professor’s healthy distrust of Slumdog Millionaire (which I shared, incidentally, and which would be ratified when I finally saw that film myself), I was also struck by how disconnected we all were at that moment. Sitting in a near-empty theatre about to watch a 20-year-old film scold the modern world for being shallow and numbing—that’s a pretty comfortable spot from which to hold the plebeian masses in contempt for what they’re doing for fun on a Friday night.

In its clinical depiction of a middle-class family losing its collective mind, destroying its possessions, and then committing suicide, The Seventh Continent is in many regards a masterpiece—a masterpiece of control, of method, of concision. It is utterly precise and unflinching in cutting the heart out of its subjects, and lord is it smug. The film exudes condescension towards the spiritually impoverished, culturally bereft middle-class world—a scene of the family watching Meat Loaf sing on television is held up as exhibit A—and the surface of that world unsurprisingly begins to shrink out of view from these lofty heights of disgust. And exhibit B could easily be Slumdog Millionaire.

But perhaps it is time to put the judge on trial. By engaging so freely in oversimplified scorn and flattering the sophistication of its audience, The Seventh Continent is no less pandering than the easily derided crowd-pleaser. The worst impulse that Haneke provokes in any audience—which I contend with even as I admire his often impressive cinematic mastery—is the sense that we are above the subjects, not watching our own lives laid bare but rather witnessing some contemptible strangers. Anyone willing to enter this audience is allowed to share in that same superiority towards banal middle-class existence, and the more people outside the walls the better. The Seventh Continent is a devastating film, and it only grows in power as its audience shrinks.

What then can we make of The White Ribbon, Haneke’s latest film, anointed with a Palme d’Or at Cannes and Academy Award nominations in Hollywood? With its historical subject matter, immaculate black-and-white visuals, and somber sense of import, the film seems poised to achieve the middlebrow respectability denied more punishing curios like The Seventh Continent. Certainly, Haneke has strained against the limits of his audience before, as evidenced by his American remake of Funny Games, the fourth-wall tapping essay on cinematic violence that originally helped make his reputation on the international scene. The White Ribbon may simply represent Haneke’s latest strategy for sneaking in front of a larger audience, all the better to display his contempt for their lack of taste and intelligence (excusing, of course, their willingness to see his films).

Consider me skeptical. Haneke has never been the sort of filmmaker you bring home to mother. This is a man whose most famous thesis statement is the remark, “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.” At first blush, this might sound like the talk of an uncompromising provocateur, but you could just as easily reply that anything where both parties are willing can’t really be called rape (there are all sorts of funny games played between consenting adults).

More importantly, how can any plausible theory of liberation be built around domination and power? The contradiction in The White Ribbon is that it allows us complete freedom to draw whatever conclusions we want—that Haneke will allow.

Set just before the First World War, the film explores the effect a series of unexplained violent acts have on a small German village. A hidden wire trips a horse, breaking the arm of its rider. A bird is pierced with a pair of scissors. A mentally challenged boy is blinded. Much has been made of the film’s conspicuous lack of resolution—something of a Haneke trademark by this point. In interviews, the director demurs when asked to clarify his intentions by arguing that his explanations would only interfere with the interpretations of the audience. This would make much more sense if the film’s ambiguity were actually ambiguous. We know, on some level, that the children of the village are responsible for these acts, even if the specifics are never established. The conclusions are clear from the start, the unresolved questions strictly rhetorical.

A more traditional resolution would involve the separation of the guilty from the innocent. Haneke sidesteps this simply by making everyone in the town guilty in an abstract, we’re-all-monsters sort of way—except, of course, for the victims and the narrator, none of who display anything less than untrammeled innocence. On the other hand, most of the key authority figures in the town are treated as downright villainous, from the incestuous doctor (also engaged in a self-flagellating Bergmanesque affair with the town midwife) to the fanatical priest who has constructed a neat little hell of guilt and shame for his children. It’s a rather specious ambiguity that can contain so many clean divisions between good and evil.

Only rarely does Haneke find interesting notes to sound in this otherwise monotonous film. The scene where the priest lectures his adolescent son on the dangers of masturbation is genuinely funny, with the solemnity of the characters contrasted with the earnest absurdities being spoken (pustules?). But Haneke ends the scene with a glib cut to the doctor and midwife in mid-coitus—another, more advanced form of sexual shame and self-abuse to be found in the village. There is a similarly snide transition at another point when the film cuts from a sweet, fumbling song played by the teacher to—what else?—a pigpen. All humour and lightness brought down with a burst of brute grunts.

To judge by this film, sexual repression and violent conformity lie at the root of any oppressive fanatical order—well, no shit. Haneke’s analytical distance is supposed to allow us to see reality more clearly, but there are dangers to his method. Pull back too far and the observations become too general, too superficial, and too inconsequential. You cease to comment on life. Unwilling to be swayed by bourgeois concepts like emotion, Haneke follows his rigid thesis from start to finish without learning anything new about his subjects. They run his maze, but what does that prove, other than that Haneke knows how to construct a maze?

In the final shot, we watch the entire town filter into a church at the break of the First World War. Our guide, the teacher, is gone by this point—sent off to war, he tells us in his narration, speaking in a wizened voice that assures us he survived the ordeal. The crowd is surely meant to form a mirror image of the theatre audience watching at that very moment. As we look into that reflection, we are meant to feel dread and contempt at the wicked, wicked masses that have built such a cruel society. But that old superiority comes flooding back in. We see ourselves as the teacher, someone innocent and aloof, not part of the crowd, but somewhere far away, safe and distant.