Saturday, October 28, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Blue Magic"

Flash Gordon's Chapter Ten, "Blue Magic," (by Samuel Peeples), involves Flash's adventure in yet another Mongo kingdom commanded by a gorgeous Queen. Let's see, there was the underwater queen, Undina and then the Fridgian Queen, Fria. Now there's Azura, "witch queen" of Sik, a ruler "linked with the Evil Gods themselves." Like her queenly counterparts, Azura has a hard-on for Flash Gordon, which makes me ask the question: Aren't there any eligible males on Mongo besides this guy?

Anyway, we find out in "Blue Magic" that Flash is the spitting image of Azura's long-departed lover, named "Gor-Don." You see, "Gor-Don" was once the all-powerful ruler of Mongo, a sort of Alexander the Great figure. He ruled the planet wisely with Azura as his mate, but then he left to conquer other worlds and his high priest - Ming the Merciless - seized power on Mongo. Ming once attempted to defeat Azura but she used her magical powers to destroy his million-man army. Now, Ming gives Azura a wide latitude and no longer attempts to conquer her domain.

In this episode, Azura, who commands the "Blue Fire Worms," captures Flash, Thun, Zarkov and Dale while they are still riding the railroad back to Arboria (from Fridgia) to rendezvous with Barin and Vultan. Inconvenient that the rocket rail passes right through her kingdom. But anyway, the captives are ushered into the blue cavern kingdom on a magic carpet (by a wizard.) Then Zarkov, Thun and Dale are entrapped in a giant crystal ball, as Azura imposes the personality of Gor-Don upon Flash with a "memory crystal," thereby making him forget his friends and become her consort. Hubba-hubba.

But Zarkov, realizing that "knowledge is the sharpest weapon of all," manages to outfox the evil wizard minion, and he and the others race to stop Flash as the earther leads Azura's army (on a chariot, no less...) into battle against Barin and Vultan, who have come to his rescue.

Next week: "King Flash!"

Friday, October 27, 2006

Masters of Horror, Season Two: "Family"

Masters of Horror premieres tonight at 10:00 pm, and in honor of its return, I'm blogging another new episode of the series' second season today, in particular John Landis's "Family" (by Brett Hanley). The great thing about anthology programs in general - and MOH in particular - is the versatility the format offers. "The Damned Thing" was straight-up gory horror, yet "Family" is a different breed all together.

In some sense, "Family" arises from the same genre school as that 1980s film The Burbs, or another 80s flick, The Stepfather. Basically, this installment serves as a critique of modern American suburbia, noting that the anonymity of these new communities (and gaggles of McMansions...) only makes it easier for a committed serial killer to do his thing. After all, our life-styles are always on the move these days. We moving from place to place (houses are investments in 2006, not just homes...), and we don't really have time (or the energy...) to put down roots in one place and really know our neighbors any more. Over the years, suburbia has gotten ribbed on The X-Files too (in the sixth season episode, "Arcadia,") but "Family" quickly finds a valuable niche. It's a satirical effort, unlike "The Damned Thing," and John Landis seems to be having a wicked good time with the material.

"Family" opens with idyllic, idealized views of the American suburbs. Lawns are neatly trimmed; flowers bloom under radiant sunshine; families and children work and play in apparent safety. Landis's camera soon roves in-doors, however, into the home of a most peculiar fella named Harold, played by George Wendt. The camera grants what Harold later calls his "grand tour," as the strains of Christian, gospel music play loudly on the soundtrack. A nice touch here: on one chest of drawers rests a portrait of a glowering Dick Cheney. Proof positive, if you ask me, that Harold is a nut...just look at the man he admires. Mr. "Last Throes" Delusional himself (important since Harold is delusional...). Anyway, the tour ends in the basement, where we meet Harold...and he's busy pouring acid on a decaying corpse.

You see, Harold kills people, burns off their flesh, scrubs their bones, and then lovingly re-constructs their skeletons to serve as his ad-hoc family. There's his little skeletal daughter, Sarah, his nagging wife, and his old man. During the course of the episode, we also witness Harold hunt a grandmother for daughter Sarah (who talks to him...) and consider also killing her a big sister.

As Harold lives his twisted family existence behind closed doors, the Fullers - David (Matt Keeslar) and Celia (Meredith Monroe) - move in next door. They quickly befriend Harold, and before long, the corpulent serial killer decides he'd like Celia to be his new wife. When David mysteriously disappears, Harold seizes his chance and invites the gorgeous Celia over for dinner. He wants to introduce her to his folks and Sarah...whom he has tenderly propped up in the TV room...in a pose of greeting.

This is the set-up for "Family," an installment which reminds us that, well, we don't always know our neighbors quite as well as we think we do. The episode moves along at a merry, swift pace until it culminates with a surprise ending and double-cross that balances the scales of cosmic justice. In terms of gore, one of the program's closing shots (in which the camera seems to travel up one character's nostrils...) also looks disturbingly real...

Not as gory as "The Damned Thing," "Family" shares in common with that episode is a dedication and commitment to something Hollywood often doesn't permit in genre films these days: sub-text. The commentary on suburbia subtly suggests that the middle class is going mad behind closed doors (and I'm not just talking about Harold, as you'll see when you watch the episode.) "Family" also benefits from Wendt's portrayal of a madman. This Cheers alum doesn't play the role as a lark and doesn't "camp" the character up either. Instead, he takes the part seriously. He plays a perfectly polite and genial fellow...who also happens to commit murder on a regular basis. It's a great, nuanced performance.

"Family's" ending, which brings just desserts to Harold (to the strains of more Jesus tunes...) is a fitting one, and the episode is a perfect treat for Halloween. If the rest of the season is as strong as the two episodes I've watched so far, it could be Halloween on Showtime all autumn long...

TV Review: Jericho: "9:02."

The missiles are flying this week on CBS's Jericho. Yep, it's retaliation. That's the Federal response, apparently, to this ongoing crisis in the U.S. heartland. Where are the missiles headed? Syria? Iran? China? North Korea? Any nation that Jake terms "one of the usual suspects?"

Well, we still don't know. America's enemy in this war is still a mystery. And I like that facet of the series, since this isn't a drama about international negotiations, but rather about a small town having to start over in a "new world," as one of the characters aptly terms the situation.

Unfortunately, whether the old world or the new world, it seems the human race will always have to deal with bullies and opportunists; folks who exploit tragedy to try to get ahead. That's the theme this week on Jericho as tempers begin to flare in town. An EMP has gone off, you see, and for two weeks there has been no power. Nerves are frayed. Citizens start to break the law. The town is overrun by complaints, yet there's no legal mechanism to try any criminal who's been arrested. the nearest judge is at the county seat...and may be long dead.

And then, while the town folk grow fractious (and farmer Stanley and storekeeper Gracie fight over the last stock of crop pesticide...), in rides Mitch Cafferty, a real troublemaker who sees Jericho's misfortune as his big day. Jake used to run with Mitch back in the day, so he knows what this interloper is capable of and wants to stop him. He's given pause by Dad, the mayor. "If this family starts breaking the law, how can we enforce it?"

Good question, Pops. Of course, I hate to say it - and Robert Hawkins seems to understand this best - but unless Jericho's finest can maintain order and stop the Mitch Caffertys of the world, the town will descend into chaos and anarchy in no time. That's the danger looming.

Since this is a family show, that doesn't happen. After stealing the mayor's horses, there's a conflict and Mitch is brought down by Jake and Eric. Meanwhile, the town pulls together to harvest Stanley's endangered crops, and the story emerges as a parable about cooperation and team work in bad times. Mushy stuff? Perhaps, but you know...I kinda liked it. It's a good message, and isn't spoon fed with a helping of treacle.

One great joke this week on Jericho: Robert teaches his daughter how to use a gun and takes her out for some target shooting. What's the target: (now useless...) music cds! In particular, she blows away Vanilla Ice's "To the Extreme." Ouch.

How I Blog These Days...


Well, I'm learning to type one-handed lately. This picture explains why. Yes. I do look very sleepy, don't I?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Showtime unveils Masters of Horror Season Two

Just in time for Halloween (my favorite holiday...), Showtime launches the sophomore sortie of its critically-acclaimed horror anthology, Masters of Horror. The idea behind this video endeavor is that many of the genre's greatest and most legendary directors (Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Don Coscarelli, etc...) get a full hour - and a hell of a lot of creative freedom - to play trick or treat with TV audiences.

Last year, the series offered some memorable and spiky fare, including Tobe Hooper's amazing "Dance of the Dead," and Joe Dante's pointed political satire, "Homecoming, as well as the occasional misfire like John Landis's campy "Deer Woman." For me, "Dance of the Dead" is the one that still bowls me over: it's a nihilistic, brutal, dark venture that gazes at what could happen to small-town America after WMDs are detonated in our cities. This year, the self-same concept is a CBS series called Jericho...which is much more mainstream and (though I like it a great deal...), not so balls-to-the-wall and dangerous.

Considering how much I admire Tobe Hooper and loved "Dance of the Dead," I thought I'd begin my Halloween celebration this year by reviewing his season two entry for Masters of Horror, "The Damned Thing."

In Tobe Hooper's long and storied career, he has toiled quite a bit on the concept of horror originating from within a family unit, or corrupting a family unit. Consider the father/son "blood is thicker than water" murder team of 1981's The Funhouse, or the insane Sawyer family (the saw IS family...) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and its 1986 sequel. Even Hooper's remake of Invaders from Mars (1986) looks at parents and children in conflict, after a fashion (courtesy of a Martian invasion); as does Poltergeist (1982). So, it's entirely appropriate and keeping with his canon that Hooper would helm "The Damned Thing," an adaptation of a tale by Ambrose Pierce. Because under the horrific surface, the episode discusses the cycle of violence that exists from generation to generation in many American families.

"The Damned Thing" opens in 1981 in a picturesque, rural farmhouse in Red State America. Again - think of Texas Chain Saw - and Hooper knows this territory like Leatherface knows power tools. The Reddles are gathered around the supper table, sharing good family "quality" time, but we know something is awry because Hooper's camera circles the expansive table like a vulture throughout the entire scene, forecasting the terror to come.

It isn't a long wait.


The nice family dinner goes awry as Daddy Reddle snaps. He goes stark, raving bonkers, picks up a shotgun and blows away his wife while she's lighting the candles on his birthday cake. Young Kevin Reddle escapes his Dad's unmotivated killing spree, but then - from a hiding place on the farm land (in a tree...) - sees his suddenly-murderous father ripped to shreds by an unseen force...literally disemboweled before his (and the viewer's...) eyes.

Let me pause to say that the vicious, over-the-top death of Daddy Reddle is the goriest scene I've ever witnessed on television, cable or not. It's inventively staged (rather Raimi-esque in concept, if you ask me...), and I loved it! What happens is this: Reddle is repetitively spun around against his pick-up like he's a human ferris wheel while his guts are progressively ripped out in a torrent of red and brown. Yikes! The special effects folks deserve an Emmy nomination for this moment alone.

Anyway, flash forward to a quarter century later. Now Kevin is Sheriff of rural Cloverdale (and played by Sean Patrick Flanery). He's estranged from his wife and child, and worse, refuses to go back to his therapist to help him deal with the horror and trauma he saw all those years ago in his own family. Still...it threatens him and his family. In one scene, we watch as something malevolent and icky splits the skin on his forehead and peeks out. Yes, as we horror fans know all too well - the repressed always returns to wreak terror if not property confronted. Kevin was victim to an abusive, murderous father in 1981 and because he has not faced his personal demons, he will come to victimize his family too. The sins of the father and all...

Of course, this conceit about family and the cycle of violence spreading from one generation to another is merely the undercurrent of "The Damned Thing." Representing "the force of evil," (and, I think, Kevin's id...) in the flesh is an oil slick monster that destroyed the town of Sturgess in 1959 when a new oil well was opened in the ground. It is not only a corporeal threat (as the finale makes plain with some good CGI...), but an atmospheric one...meaning that it makes the town people in close proximity turn mean and violent. It felt like "poison" inside of her, according to Kevin's wife, Deana.

This is a brilliant template, especially as a playing field for that unpredictable surrealist, Tobe Hooper, and he has a bloody good time staging set pieces. It's not a joke or exaggeration to state that this episode about an evil oil slick is a "gusher" in more ways than one. For instance, there's another extremely gory scene involving a man who bludgeons himself to death with a hammer (thoughtfully using both ends of the tool before expiring...). Additionally, there's a welcome guest appearance by genre fave Ted Raimi, playing a dissolute priest who packs one mean pistol.

If, in the end, somehow all the narrative pieces don't quite fit together, and the climax is a bit too abrupt for my taste, "The Damned Thing" still works as a frightfully good "scare" piece and provides further evidence that Hooper - who, let's face it, is the post-narrative kid anyway - is functioning at the top of his form. Even if most of Hollywood doesn't recognize it. While discipline can sometimes be the friend of horror movies; Hooper understands that by breaking the rules of cinematic decorum and discipline, he can unsettle and chill the most hardened, experienced horror lover. He achieves that feat again in "The Damned Thing."

I've got a screener with two more Masters of Horror season two episodes, and I'll be blogging them both here as All Hallow's Eve looms! Masters of Horror returns to Showtime this Friday night, October 27 at 10:00 pm. Don't miss it!



Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Attack of the Foul-Mouthed Puppets!: Greg the Bunny Returns on DVD!

I'm a late-comer to the whole Greg the Bunny cult and phenomenon, having entirely missed the Fox sitcom from 2002 that co-starred Seth Green and a diminutive rabbit puppet. However, based on this new DVD release, The IFC Original Series: Greg the Bunny: Best of Film Parodies, I was really missing something special.

When you think of the off-kilter Greg the Bunny, think of The Muppet Show, only raunchier...and rude...and R-rated. What I liked about this DVD collection is that the worn-out looking, neurotic puppets exist with us in our world - and they're cranky, spoiled actors. They drink, they fuck, they swear....how awesome is that?

Consequently, Greg, Warren and the bunch do their own thing and live their own dysfunctional lives in these shows, which gives the series the aura and texture of a mockumentary. These puppets don't merely vet tired SNL-style movie parodies. No, they're actors with problems vetting SNL-style movie parodies. That's a critical difference in my book.

In other words, "Dead Puppet Storage," a satire of Pulp Fiction, actually becomes a meditation on troublesome actors who don't want to work (or show up late on the set). In this case, the psychotic Warren the Ape is the misbehaving thespian. Warren is a "method" ape/puppet, you see, and he thinks the idea of Pulp Fiction parody is old, so he makes life difficult for the other actors. To wit, he sees to it that Greg suffocates in his gimp outfit...

"Sleazy Rider," a would-be parody of Easy Rider, emerges instead (with Greg as the Dennis Hopper character...) as a discussion of supporting Bush and the War in Iraq. Warren politely informs Greg that most Hippies aren't Republicans, and then humorously describes a commune they visit as "The Partridge Family meets Ethiopia." The Wumpus (A Grimace knock-off...) plays the Jack Nicholson role from the 1969 film, and - ironically - has the same loopy eyeballs as the real actor. I got a good laugh out of the scene where rednecks attack the three puppets in their sleeping bags by darkest night. Something really absurd and off-the-wall going on in this series.

Some of the other film parodies are old-school satires without the "making of" character stuff and these efforts depend more on things like production design and clever writing to make their points: the 2001: A Space Odyssey parody is one of the funniest of this bunch, though cheapjack in appearance. I also rather liked "Bunny Hall," which is buttressed by good location work and a clever script (though it only lasts seven minutes). Here, Greg - as Woody Allen - romances a lobster named Petunia. And yes, there are scenes of bunny-on-lobster sex. Somewhere, Rick Santorum must be infuriated...

In this DVD set (now available at Amazon and other retailers), you'll also find a Coen Brothers parody (one that races through versions of Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou, but ends in the wood chipper...and a nod towards David Fincher's Seven.). My favorite episode may be "Blah!" which finds Greg befriending Count Blah, a washed-up vampire puppet (a la Ed Wood). This episode opens with a Blair Witch reference (it's Halloween time for the puppets...) and the relationship between Greg and Blah! is kind of touching...in a bizarre way. I particularly enjoyed all of Blah's references to The Count and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. If you ever wanted to know the behind-the-scenes dirt on these seemingly upstanding puppets, this is your chance.

If you've been a GTB fan for years, this DVD collection will be a welcome addition to the canon. If you're one of those folks (like me), who wondered what all the fuss was about, now you know. The flawed, funny characters populating Greg the Bunny will stay embedded in your psyche if you let them. In some weird way, the series reminded me of the original BBC sitcom, The Office because sometimes the humor is painful it hurts. In their foul-mouthed, silly way, these puppets actually say a lot about us humans, don't they?

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Best Science Fiction Movie Ever Made: Planet of the Apes (1968)

My favorite movie of all time - bar none - is Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes, from the turbulent year 1968. I also happen to believe this movie is the finest, most artistic genre work produced in well over one hundred years of the cinema.

Yes, I realize there are other contenders for best "sci fi" film. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great film; no doubt. And the Russian version of Solaris from the 1970s is another masterwork (and an unacknowledged well-spring of ideas for many American films and television programs). And sure, there will be those folks who champion Blade Runner (1982), or The Matrix (1999), or even Star Wars (1977). But the purpose of this post is not to argue for these films; or for that matter to put them down; rather it is to laud Planet of the Apes for what it remains almost forty years after its theatrical release: a remarkable and visually-accomplished text that functions (and excels) on a variety of thematic and narrative levels simultaneously.

Now, mind you, I'm not writing about the 2001 abomination, the re-imagination of Planet of the Apes directed by Tim Burton. No. I'm talking about the first film adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel, Monkey Planet. The one that starred Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall and spawned four sequels, a TV program and an animated series. We're clear on that point, right? Okay, let's move on.

Let's re-cap the film's plot, in case you haven't watched the film recently. A spaceship carrying four human astronauts crashes on a mysterious planet after several months in deep space. The three surviving astronauts, Taylor (Charlton Heston), Dodge and Landon, believe they have traveled 300 light years from Earth, to somewhere in the constellation Orion. They also check their ship's chronometer and learn that Dr. Hasslein's theory of time travel at light speed is correct. Although they left Earth in 1972, their chronometer verifies that it is now November 25, 3978.

The humans brave an arid, seemingly endless desert as they leave the dead lake where their ship crashed, and soon discover that humans also exist on this world. But that they're mute savages...unevolved and unsophisticated.

Then comes the real shocker: the planet is ruled by intelligent, civilized simians...apes! The astronauts lose track of one another in a ferocious hunt of the savage humans (a tense, sustained action set-piece), and Taylor ends up in Ape City as a ward of a chimpanzee scientist, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an expert in human behavior. She and her fiancee Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), a chimp archaeologist, soon learn that Taylor - unlike all the other humans they have encountered - can speak; can reason. They defend this specimen (whom they term "Bright Eyes") from Dr. Zaius (Evans), a self-righteous orangutan administrator who serves as both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. Zaius, as it turns out, has very good reason to despise humans, and to fear Taylor.

Taylor and a savage (but sexy...) consort, Nova (Linda Harrison), flee Ape City with the aid of Zira and Cornelius (who have been accused of heresy for defending the human and advancing the "insidious" theory known as evolution), and head back to the Forbidden Zone to seek the truth of Taylor's heritage. The apes believe he is a missing link between primitive man and civilized ape, but Taylor wants to show them his spaceship to confirm his story of having arrived from another planet. Finally, as the ocean tides endlessly beat against a rocky shore, Taylor comes face to face with mankind's destiny. A strange rusted statue jutting out of rock and sand is mankind's ultimate epitaph...and Taylor's evidence that he has - finally - returned home. In the sand he sees it. The Statue of Liberty. "You finally did it!" He exclaims, pounding the sand at his feet. "You blew it up! You maniacs...God damn you all to Hell!"

There are a number of reasons why I admire Planet of the Apes, and I hope to enumerate them all here, although frankly, it could take days. Many of the reasons for my admiration concern the nature and disposition of the film's protagonist, George Taylor and his "hero's journey." In particular, this astronaut (and the leader of the expedition to the stars), is an avowed cynic. Taylor boasts no faith in man or mankind when he leaves Earth for space. "Tell me," he rhetorically asks in the equivalent of a Captain's log, "does man - that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars - still make war against his brothers? Keep his neighbor's children starving?" (The answer, by the way, to these interrogatives - with my evidence being the Iraq War and the situation in Darfur - is yes, absolutely).

Anyway, after landing in the wasteland of the Forbidden Zone, Landon and Taylor bicker about their predicament. Taylor has poked fun of his companion for displaying an American flag on the shore line of the dead lake. The absurdity of patriotism (and hence jingoism...a reflection of Taylor's earlier comments about man making war on his brothers...) in this place and time is not lost on a bitter Taylor. Angry, Landon asks him what makes him tick then, if not patriotism or nationalism. "You're negative; you despise people," Landon accurately summarizes his skipper's attitude. Taylor doesn't disagree. His reply is: "I just can't help thinking in the universe there has to be something better than man..."

As you can guess from the film's title, Taylor's quest for something in the universe better than man will soon turn into a cosmic joke...

So, these early scenes establish Taylor's character in a clever and artistic way. He's a cynic, a misanthrope. And suddenly, he finds him the only intelligent human on a planet of apes. The man who hates mankind is thus forced into the position of being the defender of the species. Ironic, huh? Taylor knows all of mankind's flaws too well (he calls our culture one in which there is plenty of love-making but precious little love...). He has searched the stars for something better, but now must be man's advocate and champion. What a rich and (ironic) set-up for the film's central debate, and one which fits the production's overriding conceit: that of a world turned upside down; of somebody who boasts one rigid agenda yet is forced by circumstance to countenance another.

I hasten to add, this character arc works even more splendidly because it is the self-same "from my cold, dead hands," Charlton Heston who essays the role of Taylor. Heston is far right-wing ideologue, and yet here he is...starring in a paranoid left-wing dystopic fantasy about what could happen if man does not curb his predilection for war and conquest. Having Heston - a virile and robust figure representing American strength and beauty - beaten, bruised, and literally stripped naked before the superior apes - works fiendishly upon the subconscious of the viewer. This is Ben Hur! This is Moses! And how the mighty has fallen...

Taylor's fascinating journey - from hater of mankind to last defender of the species - would mean little were he not faced with a powerful nemesis. Fortunately, the screenplay for Planet of the Apes (by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling) provides him a terrific opponent in Dr. Zaius (Evans). Zaius, like Taylor, is a man divided by two thoughts. On one hand, he is honor bound and professionally responsible for the advancement of science (and science by nature, is impartial). On the other hand, he serves as Chief Defender of the Faith, which means he must rigorously maintain the apes' belief in their own superiority, transmitted through the auspices of organized religion. "There is no contradiction between faith and science," he asserts to Taylor at one point in the film; but clearly...there is. Although Ape Culture is rife with commentary that asserts the simian as the supreme creature of the land ("The Almighty created the ape in his own image," is one very telling ape proverb), Zaius knows the dark truth: that apes rose because man fell; that the return of intelligent man would inevitably spell the end of the ape dominion.

What I love about Dr. Zaius is this fact: by some point of view - perhaps another "upside down" or "inverted" one, in fact - he is the film's unlikely hero. Yes, he hates man and is ruthless to mankind. He performs lobotomies on man and wants to see the species exterminated. Yet as we learn at the end of the film, he has good, nay valid reasons for his fear and loathing of humanity. After all, It was the humans, not the apes, who turned their cities into deserts (in a nuclear war). The 29th Scroll - part of the ape religion, thus warns: "beware the beast man. For he is the devil's pawn." Zaius understands the meaning behind the flowery prose and tells Taylor. "The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it ages ago." In some sense, by preventing the new ascendancy of man, Zaius is saving the planet Earth for future generations (as he tells young Lucius). Or thinks he is, anyway.

So Planet of the Apes offers two very strong characters in dynamic opposition. It sends each of them on a journey in which their faith is tested by each other, and ultimately their prejudices are reinforced. Zaius believes man is a primitive destroyer of all things, and after dealing with Taylor, believes that more strongly than ever. Taylor leaves Earth believing man is a war-like barbarian who would destroy his brother for his brother's land, and when faced with the Statue of Liberty, realizes that he was absolutely right. Man's hunger for territory, for war, did ultimately destroy him. Made the apes supreme and turned the world "upside down."

But the character dynamics are only a part of the reason why Planet of the Apes is a great film. I believe that any science fiction film deserving of the moniker "great" must - after some fashion - carry audiences to a different and fantastic reality or world. Accordingly, another rewarding aspect of the Schaffner film involves the multi-layered depiction of Ape Culture. The full breadth of this "alien" world is often revealed in a most clever (and often funny...) way. Without ever seeming like either a travelogue or a half-assed parody, the film cleverly reveals the details of this upside-down world. We see an ape funeral (which includes the eulogy: "I never met an ape I didn't like...); we visit ape medicine (in the hospital) and learn about ape affirmative action ("the quota system was abolished..." says a disenfranchised chimp); take a trip to a natural museum (where humans - including astronaut Dodge - are stuffed and posed in little dioramas that mimic their "natural" environment), and even head full bore into the byzantine Ape legal system.

On the latter front, we witness an ape tribunal in which the notion of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, is dramatized in funny visual terms (with the three orangutan panel acting it out). We also see Ape maps, ape markets, ape buildings, ape hunts, and so forth. The scope of this world is absolutely remarkable given production limitations of the time. We even learn that there's an animal (or in this case, human...) rights group, "An Anti-Vivisectionist Society." In other worlds, the "ape culture" is a twisted, inverted reflection of our own.

The apes and their society are depicted in glorious, believable terms thanks to the exquisite make-up of John Chambers and the glorious production design, but this is a film, in the last analysis, about man, not apes nor special effects. The ape society exists as a mirrorof our own; as an indictment of our world. Therefore, the ape proverbs which we laugh at, like "human see, human do," reveal the arrogance that comes with a species' assumed superiority over the world and his other species.

"Why do men have no souls?," asks one ape of Taylor during the tribunal. "What is the proof that a divine spark exists in simian minds?" Remarks like this make viewers laugh with recognition. How can apes believe they are God's chosen ones? And then viewers step back and realize the uncomfortable truth. Ummm...that's what we believe, isn't it, as human beings? That we are superior to animals like cats and dogs (oh, they have no souls, right?) and that we're created in God's image. Suddenly, the film makes us realize that we are as misguided and silly as the self-righteous apes.

"All men look alike to most apes," Zira notes at another point, touching on racism, and so on, thus furthering the social commentary. Basically, the ape society is structured in Planet of the Apes to make us realize the insanity and "upside down" quality of our own religious precepts. As long as we cling to such arrogant and egotistic notions - such irrational notions that the world is ours to do with as we please because we're God's "select" - we are at risk of destroying ourselves.

Zaius has a good motive. He wants to preserve his people. Ye he is also a scripture-quoting racist who believes in the supremacy of his kind, even as he is "guardian of the terrible secret" about man. He is, like man himself, a hypocrite. He offers religious platitudes ("Have you forgotten your scripture?") in the place of science, and attempts to keep the truth hidden from his culture. And that truth is, simply put, that the supremacy of a species - any species - is fragile. Apes did not always rule the world; and man was not always cursed. And the tables could turn again at any time...

Planet of the Apes is also fervently anti-war, which is important since the film was released at the height of the Vietnam "police action." Here, the screenwriters imagine a world wherein man's predilection to "kill his neighbors for his neighbor's land" is taken to its logical conclusion: the destruction of civilization together. The Forbidden Zone is what's left of New York after a deadly nuclear war. The film's final image, of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand - says it all. Mankind has forsaken his spoken ideals of peace and love for wars of conquest. He has destroyed himself and his world over ideology (capitalism vs. communism, we assume...). Consequently, the beliefs we hold now about freedom, liberty and God's will will ultimately prove nothing but ruined artifacts for future archaeologists to puzzle over.

Other reasons why Planet of the Apes is tremendously successful:


* It functions both as a satire and allegory and as an action film. It is possible to enjoy the film simply as a rip-roaring action piece, if you're so inclined. From Taylor's opening hunt in the jungle, to Taylor's attempted escape from Ape City, to the final shoot out in the Forbidden Zone, the film's pace never lets up.

* This film boasts more quotable lines than any movie this side of Spinal Tap. "Take your stinking' paws off me, you damn dirty ape," is one example, but there are others. "It's a mad house, a mad house!" is a personal favorite; one which I find myself using here every day...

* Planet of the Apes is beautifully filmed; which gives it an additional sense of authenticity. Remember, Planet of the Apes was crafted well before the days of CGI. This means that filmmakers actually had to be clever rather than merely rely on digital imagery to make things look cool. The film's opening crash sequence is a prime example. There are no conventional modern special effects to speak of here. Instead, the film adopts dizzying P.O.V. camerawork, as if we're riding the nose of the rocket. The footage has been tweaked to make it more dramatic - sped up and turned upside down at points - to register the speed and angle of the crash. Even without contemporary visuals, however, the sequence is edited brilliantly. The terror of the crash is palpable.

A corollary: the film's location work is nothing short of stunning. So much of this movie's plot is "sold" to us in dramatic long shot, using the odd rock outcroppings of Death Valley and "big sky" of Arizona to represent the otherworldly Forbidden Zone.

* The best "surprise" ending in film history. This should be no shocker, since Rod Serling was a co-author of the screenplay and many of his Twilight Zone episodes featured dramatic, O'Henry-style endings. Here, the discovery of the Statue of Liberty is (on first viewing...) shocking, and on ensuing viewings remains chilling. It perfectly encapsulates the film's theme of a world-overturned. Man's ideals: buried.

On a similar note, the film is rife with other powerful symbols too. The small American flag in the sand of the Forbidden Zone; the strange scarecrows in the desert, like giant "X's" blotting the landscape; the human doll from ages past which lets out the cry of "Maaa-maaa."

Also: the shore line.ocean is a powerful symbol too, in a sense. The waves just keep rolling in from the ocean. Rolling in and washing away everything...for all time. The ocean and the waves are cleansing on one hand, and impartial on the other. No matter what man (or ape) does, the tides just keep coming and ages pass. Civilizations rise and fall unmourned, and the tides take no notice.

* The film's timelessness and continued relevance. Hmm, let's see. In 1968, there was the war in Vietnam. Today we're at war in Iraq, another quagmire. In 1968, America feared a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, today, it is North Korea and Iran. In 1968, Planet of the Apes took well-conceived and pointed shots at the American religious right, dramatizing the ape culture as a theocracy in which science and new ideas were anathema; and only perpetuation of "faith" and legend mattered. Evolution in the film is called "an insidious theory," and Zira and Cornelius are indicted for advancing it...even though they appear to have proof. Hmmm, look around at new movies like Jesus Camp, or at school boards in Kansas; which wanted to outlaw teaching evolution in the public classroom. Why, just last year there was a serious debate in this country(which included President Bush...) about teaching intelligent design ("the ape was created in God's image...") in the classroom. Clearly, all of the ideas in Planet of the Apes are as relevant (if not more so) today than they were forty year agos. The war on science, the killing of brothers to own our brother's land...all this continues (alas...) today. So Apes has translated well to the "next generation." The worries that dominate the film are still our worries, almost half a century later.

In closing, Planet of the Apes is, in some senses, a ruthless and brutal bit of business. It doesn't play games. It reveals to us a new world where man - because of his arrogance and hypocrisy - has been brought low before a new master race. The humor (seen in many ape proverbs...) is chilling. The hero is a misanthrope forced to defend mankind out of necessity, and that makes him unlikeable...but our only shot at survival. The ending is...startling, terrifying, the ultimate statement about mankind's predilection to destroy himself. I can't think of another science fiction film that so effortlessly creates a total world; adheres to a central theme...and which enlightens and terrifies.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Return of the Catnap: Guardian Cat!


Here you will see Ezri, my stalwart warrior princess, protecting my newborn son, Joel. At first, Ezri hissed at Joel, but after a day, she seemed to understand who he is and what he represents, and now she's his steadfast companion and guardian. I had him on the floor (on a blanket) to change his diapers the other day, and he started to cry. Well, as soon as that boy opened his mouth, Ezri was off the sofa and at his side, making certain he was safe and unhurt. Now that's what I call a good cat...