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.