Tuesday, October 08, 2013

An Ape of One's Own (for Phil Nutman)

This is for you, Phil.

Right now, I should be preparing my presentation on opportunities for female cartoonists in children's literature, which I was invited to give at the University of Connecticut next week. But before I can do that, I want - I need - to post an old review-essay of mine, from July 2006. It has nothing to do with comics, although it does talk a bit about animation. But if it weren't for the essay below, I'm not certain that I would be speaking at UConn next week.

Several years ago, I was going through a very rough period, and one of the side effects was that I was no longer writing. Oh, I was trying to write; but nothing would ever gel, not my words, not my thoughts. I received plenty of invitations to write. But my projects were started, sweated over, and abandoned. I had a lot of supportive people in my life, but there were hurdles over which I simply couldn't make it.

Several years before that, I and my then-wife Kate had met Phil Nutman and his then-wife Anya at Necon, and somehow we all hit it off. He was a gregarious British author (Wet Work) and journalist (Fangoria), and he was getting into film; I was a wallflower American academic. But still. Soon every year we were a foursome in the Necon min-golf tournament, and I would spend many late nights with Phil in wide-ranging conversations. He was whip-smart, razor-funny, and hyper-energetic.

In the early summer of 2006, deep into my depression, Phil contacted me about a new online magazine he was starting, Up Against the Wall: The Magazine that Takes No Prisoners. (Phil never did things in half-measures.) He asked me to review something near and dear to both our hearts: The recent 14-disc PLANET OF THE APES ULTIMATE DVD COLLECTION. We had bonded in part over our love of the Apes films, so naturally (for him) he thought of me to write a review for the first issue of his new magazine. I tried to beg off of it; I desperately wanted to write the piece, of course, but I knew that I couldn't do it. I had disappointed too many editors in the past few years, and I wasn't about to do that to Phil, too.

Phil would not let me get away with that.

I don't remember exactly which ploy of Phil's was finally the one to get me to cry "uncle" and swear that I would try, although I do remember more than a couple of emails and phone calls. Undoubtedly there was begging, there was flattery, there were promises about lord knows what now. But Phil made one thing perfectly clear: He believed in me.

This was something that all of Phil's friends knew and could never doubt: Phil believed in them. And here he was, believing in me! Again, other people did, too - I was not alone or abandoned. But Phil's belief was somehow extra-special to me at that time.

He asked for 1500 words. I began typing - hesitantly, at first, but gradually with more gusto. I was used to writing for academia, which demanded a voice which, while not exactly  cold, was nevertheless analytic and impersonal. Even my writing for The Comics Journal, a non-academic publication, had been analytic - I rarely cut loose with my own voice (whatever that was). But Phil wanted me, my passions and not just my brain. He wanted the sense of fun that permeated our conversations to come across through my writing. This was A LOT to ask of me, especially then.

But perhaps that was also the BEST time for him to have asked. He wanted 1500 words; I stopped at nearly three times that number. The writing was hard; it was excruciating; and the result was rough. But it was also fun, by god. It's peppered with jokes (or at least attempts at same) and a bit of foul language. I willed myself to be goofy in print, for once, because Phil expected that.

This review became the only substantial thing I had written in a few years. And Phil loved it, and he wanted to run the whole bloody thing. Anya copy-edited and formatted it with care, and it appeared in the very first issue of Up Against the Wall.

In a fairy tale, this would be the turning point in my life, and I would have started writing again in volume, and better than I ever had before. But as Phil himself knew well, life is no fairy tale. Writing this piece felt great, the sense of accomplishment felt wonderful; but writing was still damned difficult. And it continues to be for me, to this day. I still struggle mightily, but occasionally now there are accomplishments. However, until Phil coaxed the following review out of me, I was pretty well convinced that all of my accomplishments lay behind me. I could never thank him enough for getting me over an ENORMOUS psychological hill.

And now I never will. Phil passed away last night, at the age of 50.

His death was stupid - all deaths are, of course, but his was doubly so, because it should have been preventable. The cliche is to say that Phil was a great guy, but that he was also haunted by demons. And Phil's demons apparently arrived in bottles. That's a side of his that I never really experienced - we hadn't seen each other in a few years, and our correspondence had become spotty and... strange. These often weren't the words of the Phil I recalled so fondly. The Phil I recall is the one who cast me in a 24-hour guerrilla film, who took me shopping before cooking dinner and enthused over fresh vegetables, who got me to unlock my word-hoard when no one and nothing else could. That's the Philip Nutman I mourn tonight.

[UATW folded a couple of years after it began, and the website has long since disappeared. I rescued this essay from Archive.org, cleaning up the dead links. I started to make a few revisions, but then decided to stop. Warts and all for you, Phil.]

An Ape of One’s Own

Review By Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
originally published in Up Against the Wall no. 1, July/August 2006.

I was a child of the Apes.

Growing up in the late 60s / early 70s, I was just the right age to utterly buy into the hype when the PLANET OF THE APES media saturation campaigns were in full swing. I clearly remember my brother and I sitting too close to the TV every Friday night for a month at a time, all the better to absorb Channel 18's twice-yearly (at least) POTA marathons. I was enthralled by the time-travel paradoxes, the evolutionary questions, the philosophical –

Who’m I kidding? I was eight years old. I was in it for the freaking apes, man.
I could not get enough. I've lost count of how many times I saw PLANET; I found BENEATH a bit creepy, especially when the mutants "revealed their inmost selves"; ESCAPE contributed greatly to my (well-deserved) mistrust of authority; CONQUEST could claim both a fightin'-mad Roddy McDowell and another star turn by Ricardo "I love chimpanzees best of all other apes" Montalban; and BATTLE… Well, even when you’re nine years old, you can usually tell shit from Shinola. I caught most of the live-action TV series in its initial run, but I only ever managed to see a few scattered episodes of the Saturday-morning cartoon series thanks to CCD (“Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,” Catholic church’s “Sunday School on Saturday”). And I had my Mego-manufactured Cornelius action figure (doll) – not Galen, dammit; Cornelius – which, in arranged cage matches, would kick the shit out of both my Mego Batman and my Mego Mr. Spock.

So I was pretty excited to learn about PLANET OF THE APES: THE ULTIMATE DVD COLLECTION. For some unfathomable reason I’d skipped buying the earlier DVD box set, although I did manage to acquire – and enjoy the heck out of – the "35th Anniversary Widescreen Edition" double-disc set of the original PLANET. I’d also skipped on getting the TV series collection, partly because I’m cheap, but mostly because I hadn’t remembered a whole lot about it; and what I did remember wasn't all that great. (Except for watching a French-dubbed episode with my wife in Belgium about a decade ago – which was actually pretty cool; finally, the apes were speaking the language of their creator, Pierre Boulle.)

But the ULTIMATE DVD COLLECTION offers just about every APES-related film and TV appearance all in one fell, easy-to-collect swoop. In one small disc folder (the size of five CD jewel cases in a stack) you get all five original films (including the two-disc incarnation of PLANET); the complete live-action POTA television series (including one never-aired episode); and the heretofore-only-available-by-bootleg Saturday morning cartoon series RETURN TO THE PLANET OF THE APES. Oh yeah, you also get the two-disc version of Tim Burton’s stylized but brain-dead (don’t forget "soul-less"!) 2001 "re-imagining."

Best of all, the brick-o'-discs fits snugly into the back of your very own, nearly life-size bust of Caesar! But more on that anon.

Space and sanity preclude me from discussing every movie and every episode in any real detail, but I do want to offer some scattershot observations:

PLANET OF THE APES (1968): The one. The only. Heston of the Apes*. Only Chuck would be cocky enough to smoke a cigar in an oxygen-rich space capsule. Yes, his over-acting at times nearly out-Shatners Shatner – but you can forgive it, because this character’s trapped in a maaaadhouse! And he's alone. Whether you want to or not, you feel for this man; sure, he's a misanthrope, but a misanthrope on a quest for something better than the society he’s willingly left behind. Finding the Statue of Liberty at movie's end only proves to him how right he really was about that society all along – especially poignant after his heartfelt rant to Zaius that "Man was here first – and he was better than you!" And the only thing more effective than Jerry Goldsmith's staccato score in setting the film's disquieting tone is his decision to use no music at all in that final shot. Taylor's world has collapsed, but the ocean pays it no mind…

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970): General Ursus speaks with a religious zeal echoing that of the current [2006] President of the United States ("It is our holy duty to invade!"). But then, so do the mutant underworlders ("The Bomb is a holy weapon of peace" – "Traumatic illusion is a weapon of peace"). To be honest, watching the movie as an adult was more disturbing than when I was a child; those "mutants" were just wearing make-up, but ideas and ideologies aren’t so easily dismissed as you lie awake at night.
Other fun facts:
  • We get to enjoy not one but two future BARNEY MILLER cast members! (Gregory Sierra as “Verger” and James Gregory’s star-turn as "Ursus").
  • Don Pedro Colley must be ever-so-proud that he will be forever remembered by his character's official name as given in the credits: "Negro.”
  • My wife noticed that the hieroglyphic markings on one ape banner look suspiciously like they read "Jeb" (see "religious zeal," above).

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971): An ingenious way to further the franchise and disguise shrinking budgets: "We'll only use three apes and kill one of them quickly. Think of the money we'll save on make-up!" "But sir, the script calls for Dr. Milo to be killed by a gorilla – doesn't that mean four apes?” "Don't bother me with details – just rent the worst damned gorilla suit you can find!" A pity that the scene where Cornelius learns all the lyrics to "I'm My Own Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandpa" never made it out of the script’s third draft.

The 1973 novel adaptation, by John Jakes
CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972): This one does get dark, indeed – apart from Caesar's candy-coated, re-written and re-voiced speech at film's end. While it sort of allows us to see in Caesar a certain predisposition to nonviolence like his parents displayed, it still feels utterly tacked-on after his more-than-justifiable rage. But how, exactly, does one smallish revolt in one city allow all these primitive apes to gain intelligence and overtake the rest of the world? Wouldn't the US Army easily be able to wipe out this pocket of gorilla – guerilla – insurgents? Oh, there's a fifth movie, you say? That'll explain it all, yeah…

OK, the film deserves a bit more than that, particularly since now we finally get the extended edition of this film – it's about 10 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. It appears that most of the extra material centers around the bomb sub-plot: The under-dwellers consider using the bomb to solve their ape-infestation problem, but cooler heads ultimately prevail. It's a nice nod to continuity with BENEATH to include this material, even if the film elements are a bit rough (especially the sound in some places). But, speaking of continuity: That Statue of Liberty – it's on the east coast, correct? And that's where BENEATH also takes place? So why is the bomb in California in BATTLE?

But even without the added scenes, there are plenty of pickable nits here. Sure, we see the apes in school, even adult apes, but how in the world did every ape gain the power of speech – not to mention at least semi-rational thought – in just a couple of decades? Particularly when so bloody many of these apes can't be bothered to keep their mouths from hanging open, looking for all the world like humans wearing poorly constructed ape masks? And why does Hollywood always feel the need to kill a child in what’s marketed as a "children’s film"?

Sigh. I had marginal hopes that the extended cut would help redeem this turkey. It’s not the worst genre movie I’ve ever seen (paging VAN HELSING, paging LXG, paging HANGAR 18, paging…), but it's a sad coda to the APES franchise.

PLANET OF THE APES – THE TELEVISION SERIES (1974): Coda, shmoda – there’s a whole lot more Live Ape goodness! Well, "goodness" often proves a relative term, here meaning simply “more.” And more and more… Roddy McDowell said that Galen, his character in the TV series, was his favorite ape role. And I can see why. While his Galen is less angry than Caesar and less coolly competent than Cornelius, he has a lot of personality, loyalty, and naivety, tempered with quick-wittedness – along with a bit of whimsy and sarcasm.

But then, who wouldn't be sarcastic when trapped in a TV series even more derivative of THE FUGITIVE than the Bixby/Ferrigno INCREDIBLE HULK? In every episode Galen and his longtime human companions, astronauts Burke and Virdon (James Naughton and Ron [aka “Uncle Jack”] Harper), would wander into a new village, or farm, or semi-destroyed ancient city, get in a jam with the local authorities and/or gorilla General Urko (Mark "Sarek" Lenard), and eventually make their escape.

The humans in the series have more in common with those in BATTLE than they do with those in the original PLANET. They have speech, they wear clothes, they form societies; but clearly, they must drink from separate water fountains than the Apes do. Television conomics of course played a factor here – more humans mean fewer ape masks – but it also opened new character and story possibilities, always vital for a weekly franchise. Unfortunately, those possibilities never really extended much beyond one-note characters and subtle-as-hurricane lessons about tolerance, acceptance and pacifism. (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those.)

The ape appliances understandably appeared less pliable and sophisticated than did their film counterparts, but McDowell developed an amazing facility to inject life into Galen’s seemingly botoxed face, as did Lenard (Urko’s overbite helped inject a bit of character, too). Others fared less well, although Roscoe Lee Brown deserves special recognition for an outstanding performance as the governor of an oceanside fishing operation.

The series contains no extra material, apart from a couple of trailers for theatrical versions. I’d expect there has to be some more TV-related material out there; it couldn't all be included in the BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES documentary and supplementary materials, could it? It gives the series an incomplete feel on the DVDs; but then, the series was pretty incomplete itself, with no attempt in the last episode either to bring it to a conclusion or at least to open the door to further possibilities. Such narrative expansion would have to wait a year, until…

RETURN TO THE PLANET OF THE APES (1975): This animated series could have been great, if only 97 percent had been done differently. The flatter-than-flat voice acting appalls, the scripts meander and circle back on themselves (no mean feat, considering how little dialog they actually contain), and the animation brings new clarity to the term "limited."

But in its way, it makes for more compelling watching than the live-action series. It re-envisions characters, settings and themes from the first two films, including Cornelius and Zira; mute humans (or, as they’re referred to by everyone, ape or astronaut, “humanoid creatures”); Nova (but wearing whose dogtags?); the underworld populated by mutants; and even political intrigue between the orangutans and the gorillas, epitomized here by Dr. Zaius and General Urko. This time three astronauts land and survive: white man Bill Hudson, black man Jeff Carter (voiced by Austin Stoker, who played MacDonald in BATTLE) and white woman Judy Franklin. But in this version, the apes use technology, more in keeping with Boulle’s original novel: the screen is peppered with images of tanks, jeeps, radios, televisions and more. The apes live in large, modern cities with classical architecture, although it's unclear if they built or "inherited" these cities.
The scripts are indeed weak (he writes charitably), but nevertheless it's intriguing to watch the series' deep-structure develop as the episodes progress. Yes, unlike the live-action series, the cartoon's plot progresses as the episodes unfold. A few episodes are self-contained, but the rest need to be watched in order. Relationships change, alliances are forged, and characters leave, rejoin, or are discovered and become permanent additions to the cast. I don't recall "arcs" in cartoons from back then; hell, they weren’t even that common in live-action.

Yet let's be clear: we’re talking about a show aimed at kids – or maybe even below them – so don’t go looking for too much coherence. For example, in episode three, the under-dwelling mutants kidnap Judy, believing she is their prophesied savior, "Usa." Our male heroes attempt a rescue, but at episode’s end, Judy decides, somewhat illogically, to stay with the mutants. (Perhaps she’s afraid of the destructive beams they can shoot out of their eyes.) Bill and Jeff reluctantly agree, but it’s clear that they believe she’s making a mistake. We’re sure they’ll be back to rescue her, proper-like, in no time. But then for the next few episodes, they never even mention her! After what seems like forever, we do get to see her again, and following a battle between the mutants and the gorilla army, Judy rejoins the humans, who by now have been moved to a mountain-side location safer than their original forest life. Judy's piloting skills eventually come in handy, when the humans commandeer the only working airplane on the planet – a useful tool in many of their following skirmishes with the apes.

An even clearer indication that this is a "kiddie show" is the eventual appearance of both a flying dinosaur (from where?) and a giant, Kong-sized ape, protector of an isolated ape society high in the snowy mountains. Both are patently ridiculous, of course. But even these creatures make a subsequent reappearance in the final episode, in which Cornelius and Zira make a momentous decision: They will show Dr. Zaius and the council a book they had previously discovered, proof of an earlier human civilization. Until that point they had been too afraid of retribution; this decision marks what should be another significant turning point in the narrative. So naturally, the series then wasn’t picked up for another season.

As for the limited animation: Wow, "limited" doesn’t begin to cover it sometimes. A DePatie-Freleng production, it must have had a budget almost in the negative digits. But, to his credit, associate producer Doug Wildey often uses color and composition as fairly effective substitutes for motion. The results can be striking at times, beginning in the first episode, when all the Forbidden Zone hoo-haa (lightning, earthquakes, fire) pops up. Close-ups of the three astronauts’ faces are frozen in confusion and alarm, which could be downright comical. But Wildey uses stark, unrealistic color choices and the irregular addition of high-contrast shadows to reinforce the danger. It might be the most impressionistic Saturday-morning-kiddie-cartoon effect I've ever seen.

Of course, lest we forget, that episode also features a nearly endless sequence of the astronauts simply walking after the crash (echoing the scene from Planet). I swear, it goes on for three or four minutes, and not one word is spoken. There's no way a kid today would tolerate so much dead air – and I bet more than a few back then didn’t, either.

Then again, that silence does spare us from what surely must be some of the worst line-readings ever.  The directors must, for some ungodly reason, have determined that emotions of any kind were to be avoided at all costs.

Finally, a few random items. Giggle at the ape TV newscasters – with mustaches! Guffaw as you hear the apes actually refer to their home as "the planet of the apes"! And hey, doesn't General Urko sound a helluvalot like Fred Flintstone? Why, yes he does!

Michael + Bubbles?
PLANET OF THE APES (2001): I tried. I really tried. But I can't bring myself to care about this film or anyone in it – except, perhaps, for poor, put-upon Pericles. The movie looks pretty enough, and the actors playing simians generally do a good job of, er, aping realistic behaviors, but to what end? The original films, in their own crude way, used the apes as metaphoric tools for constructing arguments about race and class (even while reinforcing stereotypes: the dark-skinned gorillas were warlike and aggressive, the lighter-skinned chimps and orangutans were more civilized and cultured; of course, gorillas are generally peaceful plant-eaters, while chimps are pretty damned vicious). But this film seems to have nothing more to say than "Look at all the money we spent on rilly kewl make-up and effects and shit!"

At least the second disc documents the making of this monstrosity in painstaking detail. This I could get interested in, if only in a detached, "Wow, they really put a lot of work into this" way. Rick Baker and his crew worked their monkey asses off, and the results mostly looked great. (But Helena Bonham Carter’s Ari still looks too much like the later, paler Michael Jackson.) The dozens of special features here make a nice bookend with BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES, at least for process geeks like me. Even when I was a kid, what I enjoyed as much as the movies themselves were the short promo pieces that were shown as well. I was fascinated by the ape make-ups: the look of the final actors, to be sure, but also all of the delicate work that went into making all those appliances.

More than once, after being inspired by these mini-documentaries, I’d make detailed ape masks for my brother (he got to be an orangutan) and for myself (a chimpanzee, of course). Not having access to foam rubber or plastics of any kind, I had to make do with paper: One flat piece for the nose and the area around the eyes; an upper and a lower muzzle, each "carefully" constructed from cut, folded and taped paper; and, when I was particularly inspired, a piece of paper crayoned black to fit inside the back of the muzzle to hide our real mouths. For the manes of hair I compromised: we just wore knit winter caps which covered the whole head and left only a hole for the face. I'd then (again "carefully") apply these appliances to our faces using Scotch tape. We’d the run around the house like the monkeys we were until the tape eventually gave way, our paper muzzles swinging pitifully from our lame-o human-child faces.

But my Caesar – my beautiful, beautiful Caesar: never will his muzzle droop. The pièce de résistance of the set is, of course, the absolutely insane bust of Caesar which houses the DVDs. Whoever thought of this concept deserves a goddamn medal. "Let’s see. We’ve crammed 30+ hours of Ape-mania into an incredibly small package; how do we draw attention to it? –I’ve got it! An unwieldy, oversized ape head!" "A hairy ape head, sir?" "You betcher sweet ass, son! The hairier the better! More hair than any ape ever had in one of the movies! Bwa-ha-ha-ha…"

Yes, Caesar's got himself a serious case of helmet-head, but it only serves to draw evermore attention to this objet d’art. Unless you keep it locked away like a crazy relative, your houseguests will never fail to find Caesar, to fawn over him, to want to make him their own. Is it his subtly pre-lapsarian smile? Is it his piercing brown eyes, eyes which – like only the highest-quality representations of Christ – seem to follow you wherever you move? Is it the fact that you can operate the zippers on his green canvas uniform?

For whatever reason, this bust of Caesar – or, as my editor prefers, this fucking ape head – trumps any complaints an ape-o-phile might levy against THE ULTIMATE DVD COLLECTION. "Where are the essays about the films?" you might sneer. "Why does the too-thin booklet waste space by listing only credits, when imdb does it so much more efficiently and completely? Where are the film-specific extra features for any film not titled PLANET OF THE APES? Where's the 'bonus' CD-Rom disc that shipped with Burton's film? Where, oh where are the brushes, combs and pomades mighty Caesar’s luxurious mane surely will require for his inevitable hot date with Just Play Barbie Deluxe Styling Head?"

As if in answer, Caesar beckons, his barely off-center, slightly tilted gaze as reassuring as the sunrise over any non-Forbidden Zone landscape. "Yes, mighty Caesar," you reply. "You are my leader. Wherever you take me, I shall follow. And when I reach the end, the horrible, horrible Marky-Mark end, I need only flip back to disc one-of-fourteen to begin my journey anew. And you always shall be at my side. Or on my mantel. Or on my cocktail table. Or next to my home entertainment system."

So say you. So say we all. 

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006. 14 DVD discs; one ape head. $179.98 [originally; purchase used copies here]. Limited to 10,000 units.
* In the original version of this essay, these words linked to a video that re-imagined PLANET OF THE APES as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Fox has apparently issued takedown orders on every copy on the Internet now, except for one version the last 1/3 of the "episode," still available at this link.
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