Monday, July 31, 2017

Beach Week 2017: Jaws 2 (1978)

I once wrote regarding Jaws II (1978) that your enjoyment and appreciation for this sequel may depend, finally, upon which end of the pool you’re swimming in.

If you’re in the deep end of the pool, having just finished a viewing of Spielberg’s superb Jaws (1975), you may find the 1978 Jeannot Szwarc sequel a serviceable horror film, perhaps only lacking a bit in terms of inspiration and execution. It’s a step down from greatness, for certain.

But if you’re swimming in the shallow end of the pool, having recently watched Jaws III (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987), this first sequel may rightly be considered an unqualified home-run.

Unlike either of those later sequels, Jaws II features some strong horror set-pieces, and re-connects the viewer powerfully with Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody, and his family.

Importantly, this sequel also seems to occur in a reality viewers can identify with, and not in some fantasy land in which sharks growl like lions or jump headlong onto the pointed masts of passing ships.

But while Jaws was a remarkable human story -- made doubly so by the unforgettable friendship of Brody, Hooper, and Quint -- and a great adventure set on the sea to boot, Jaws II adheres to a less awe-inspiring template. 

Essentially, the film is precisely what critic Roger Ebert called the slasher film sub-genre: a “dead teenager” movie.

Only this dead teenager movie happens to feature a great white shark in the role of Jason or Michael, and is set at sea instead of in suburbia or at a summer camp. 

The crazy thing is that on these terms, Jaws II is actually a pretty good slasher movie.   It’s just -- again -- a come down from the brilliance of Spielberg’s picture.

“I think we’ve got another shark problem.”

In the waters near Amity a great white shark prowls again. 

The first victims are two vacationers that are attacked near the underwater wreckage of the Orca.  The next victims are a water skier and her mother, but their death is ruled accidental.

Amity’s sheriff, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), however, becomes obsessed with the notion of a great white threatening the peaceful town, much as one did a few years earlier.

But the town officials all think he is simply Chicken Little, insisting that the sky is falling.  When Brody causes a panic on a public beach in front of potential real estate investors, the town officials take his badge away, declaring him a menace.

Soon, however, Brody learns there is even more at stake than his job. His sons Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) join a group of teens on a boat race to Lighthouse Island. 

They change course for Cable Junction, however, unaware that a great white is shadowing the convoy’s every move…

“I don’t intend to go through that Hell again.”

To examine Jaws II as a “dead teenager” or slasher film, let’s take just a moment and unpack the slasher paradigm a bit, as I defined it in my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

All good slasher movies begin with an organizing principle, and then a set of related elements in orbit around that organizing principle. 

The organizing principle is a “hook,” the key aspect to connect every element of the film together, and in Jaws II, our organizing principle is not unexpectedly summertime in Amity, a beach town. 

This umbrella provides us our primary settings (the beach and the ocean).  It also gives us a sturdy victim pool, in this case not the unsuspecting swimmers of Jaws, but rather a gaggle of teenagers sailing at sea in their rag-tag boats.  This flotilla comes under attack by the menace, a great white prowling the waters nearby.  We also get, under this same umbrella, water-skiers and other summertime revelers.

In addition to the victim pool, another common element of slasher films comes into play in Jaws II. In particular the “crime in the past” plays a kind of oblique role in the action of the film. Chief Brody wonders if this shark has arrived in Amity because it is the mate of the one he destroyed in Jaws.  Perhaps it has come looking for its opposite number? 

If that is indeed the case, then the shark picks the right victims by going after Brody’s family.  The crime in the past is the death of the shark from Jaws, and Martin -- the only survivor of that “murder” is the overall target of the apparent rage spawned by that crime.

You see, this time it was actually “personal” as well…

If we break down the dramatis personae of Jaws II, we see that it consists of “types” also dramatized often in slasher films. For example, the killer in slasher films is almost universally defined as “the other” by appearance and nature. That appearance generally includes a mask, but may also include a blue collar uniform (garage overalls) of some type. 

In broad terms, the shark in Jaws II is certainly easily defined as an “other” since it is a fish. Also like a slasher it depicted with near-supernatural powers.  It always knows the right place to be to seek the weakest or most vulnerable victim.

Jaws II also gives us the common slasher movie archetype of the Cassandra Figure, named after a figure in Greek myth that could see the future but was never believed about her visions.  In many slasher films, we meet a character whose warning are dismissed, even though he or she speaks the truth, and knows that danger is imminent. 

In Halloween that figure is Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence).  In Friday the 13th (1980), the Cassandra figure is Crazy Ralph.

Oddly enough, Jaws II’s Cassandra Figure is heroic Chief Brody himself, who loses his badge over the (correct) assertion that another great white shark has arrived in the waters of Amity.

Jaws II distinguishes itself from the typical slasher film largely in its heroic depiction of the teenagers who encounter the shark. One teen jumps into the shark’s path and saves Sean Brody.  Others pray aloud, seeking fellowship and grace in prayer. Sure, some of the kids act as the stereotypical “bitches, practical jokers and jocks” that I note in my book, but overall these teens aren’t so dislikable that you root for them to be killed. Sure they want to score and have fun, but they aren’t rotten or indulged to the point that we despise them.

In terms of film grammar, Jaws II -- much like its predecessor -- frequently employs the P.O.V. subjective shot, as it bears down on victims.  In other words, our eyes are the killer’s/shark’s eyes, and indeed this is a crucial aspect of the slasher format, though for different reasons.

The P.O.V. in the Jaws films relieves the director of having to deploy a malfunctioning robot shark for several compositions, whereas the P.O.V. in slasher films is deployed so audiences will be surprised by the killer’s identity when it is revealed in the last act.

By breaking down Jaws II into the slasher paradigm, we can note, at the very least, that the film seems far more formulaic (and thus predictable) than its predecessor did. 

For example, there is no moment in the film with the raw, human power of the Indianapolis scene aboard the Orca, and no death here that carries the same weight as Quint’s, or even Hooper’s (apparent) demise in the shark cage.   

In some sense, the sheer number of teens in the victim pool here also renders Jaws II less scary. We never get to know the teen characters all that well, and so it matters not very much when a few of them die.  They aren’t differentiated to such a degree that we are knocked back on our heels and left in shock when we lose them.

That said, Penelope Gilliatt writing in The New Yorker pinpointed the sequel’s great virtue.  She wrote. “It lies in the performance of Roy Scheider as the kicked-out police chief, an underdog with a nose for danger and with real tenacity.”  She further notes that Scheider is a born actor and “seems always to be contemplating the temper of things.”

Scheider is Jaws II’s most valuable player because he invests the material with real humanity and real passion, even when the screenplay isn’t entirely up to snuff.  In 1978, we might have termed his emotional state “shell-shocked” but we can see today that Chief Brody suffers from PTSD.  He’s never gotten over that encounter with the great white in Jaws, and so Jaws II very much concerns him confronting his own state of fear, his own demons.

Finally, Jaws II is a bit less effective than its predecessor because of the carnage candy factor (see: Scream 2 [1997]). In this case, that means not only are there more victims to kill (and therefore less identification with each individual), but also much more elaborate death scenes, including ones that strain believability.  The deal killer in Jaws II is the moment that the shark brings down a helicopter. 

I can readily imagine and believe that Brody and company fight a supernaturally-powered giant shark once, in Jaws.  But the next shark he encounters is also so powerful and vicious that it can down a helicopter, without being killed itself?

This, my friends, is Jason Voorhees territory, and that brings us back to the movie’s structure. It’s a (wet) slasher film.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.  Jaws II is an entertaining horror movie, but it does not endure as a classic like its predecessor does.

That said, I will happily watch this sequel over and over again if the alternative is Jaws III or Jaws: The Revenge.

Finally, there's one scene I'd like to mention here that continues the amusing cinematic sea animal war begun by Orca (1977). There, you will recall, the killer whale saved Charlotte Rampling from a shark, dispatching the great white with relative ease.   In Jaws II, there is a rebuttal to that moment.  Here, we get a scene where the corpse of a killer whale is seen on the beach...ripped apart by a great white.   

Too bad there was never an Orca II to continue this pissing contest between Jaws knock-offs.

Beach Week 2017: Jaws 2 Movie Trailer

Beach Week 2017: Jaws (1975)

A modern film classic, Jaws (1975) derives much of its terror from a directorial approach that might be termed "information overload." 

Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- director Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap and the viewer's imagination with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about this real-life "monster" washes over us. 

In short, it's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of the audience's learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability; from a shark's impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

This information overload about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. 

The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. 

Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and believed to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in the books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. 

Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk after delivering the Hiroshima bomb, and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."

This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared, and it feels frightened almost reflexively. 

Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one that fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. And a smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. 

It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. 

This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow-back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say that this idea is over-reach, a far-fetched notion, if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. 

It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws.

It Was Only Local Jurisdiction

President Nixon resigned from the White House on August 9, 1974...scarcely a year before the release of Jaws.

He did so because he faced Impeachment and removal from office in the Watergate scandal, a benign-sounding umbrella for a plethora of crimes that included breaking-and-entering, political espionage, illegal wire-tapping, and money laundering.

It was clear to the American people, who had watched the Watergate hearings and investigations on television for years, that Nixon and his lackeys had broken the law, to the detriment of the public covenant. It was a breach of the sacred trust, and a collapse of one pillar of American nationalism: faith in government.

In the small town of Amity in Jaws, the Watergate scandal is played out in microcosm. 

Chief Brody conspires with the town medical examiner, at the behest of Larry Vaughn, the mayor, to "hide" the truth about the shark attack that claimed the life of young Chrissie. 

Another child dies because of this lie. 

We are thus treated to scenes of Brody and the town officials hounded by the press (represented by Peter Benchley...), much as Nixon felt hounded by Woodward and Bernstein and the rest. 

We thus see a scene set at a town council meeting which plays like a congressional Watergate hearing writ small, with a row of politicians ensconced for a long time before an angry crowd. The man in charge bangs the gavel helplessly.

These were images that had immediate and powerful resonance at the time of Jaws. If you combine the "keep the beaches open" conspiracy with the Indianapolis story (a story, essentially, of an impotent, abandoned military) what you get in Jaws is a story about America's 1970s "crisis of confidence," to adopt a phrase from ex-president Jimmy Carter.

Following Watergate, following Vietnam, there was no faith in elected leaders, and Jaws mirrors that reality with an unforgiving depiction of craven politicians and bureaucrats. 

The cure is also provided, however: the heroism of the individual; the old legend of the cowboy who rides into town and seeks justice.

Brody is clearly that figure here: an outsider in the corrupt town of Amity (he's from the NYPD); and the man who rides out onto the sea to face Amity's enemy head on, despite his own fear of the sea and "drowning." 

Yes Brody was involved in the cover-up, but Americans don't like their heroes too neat. Brody must have a little blood on his hands so that his story of heroism is also one of redemption.

Why is Jaws so enduring and appealing? 

Simple answer: it's positively archetypal in its presentation of both the monster -- a sea-going dragon ascribed supernatural power -- and it's hero: an every-man who challenges city hall and saves the townsfolk. 

This hero is ably supported by energetic youth and up-to-date science (Hooper), and also wisdom and experience in the form of the veteran Quint. 

You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
You can't truly engage in an adequate discussion of Jaws without some mention of film technique. The film's first scene exemplifies Spielberg's intelligent, visual approach to the thrilling material.

This introduction to the world of Jaws -- which features a teenager going out for a swim in the ocean and getting the surprise of her life -- proves pitch perfect both in orchestration and effect. Hyperbole aside, can you immediately think of a better (or more famous) horror movie prologue than the one featured here?

The film begins under the sea as Spielberg's camera adopts the P.O.V. of the shark itself. We cling to the bottom of the ocean, just skirting it as we move inland. 

Then, we cut to the beach, and a long, lackadaisical establishing pan across a typical teenage party. Young people are smoking weed, drinking, canoodling...doing what young people do on summer nights, and Spielberg's choice of shot captures that vibe.

When one of the group -- the blond-haired seventies goddess named Chrissie -- gets up to leave the bunch, Spielberg cuts abruptly to a high angle (from a few feet away); a view that we understand signifies doom and danger, and which serves to distance us just a little from the individuals on-screen.

With a horny (but drunk...) companion in tow, Chrissie rapidly disrobes for a night-time dip in the sea, and Spielberg cuts to an angle far below her, from the bottom of the ocean looking up. We see Chrissie's beautiful nude form cutting the surface above, and the first thing you might think of is another monster movie, Jack Arnold's Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). 

Remember how the creature there spied lovely Julie Adams in the water...even stopping to dance with her (without her knowledge) in the murky lagoon?

Well, that was an image, perhaps, out of a more romantic age. 

In this case, the swimmer is nude, not garbed, and contact with the monster is quick and fatal, not the beginning of any sort of "relationship." 

In a horrifying close-shot, we see Chrissie break the surface, as something unseen but immensely powerful tugs at her from below. Once. Then again. After an instant, you realize the shark is actually eating her...ripping through her legs and torso. She begs God for help, but as you might expect in the secular 1970s there is no help for her.

The extremely unnerving aspect of Spielberg's execution is that recognition of the shark's attack dawns on the audience as the same time it dawns on Chrissie. She doesn't even realize a leg is gone at first. It's horrifying, but -- in the best tradition of the genre -- this scene is also oddly beautiful. 

The gorgeous sea; the lovely human form. The night-time lighting.

Everything about this moment should be romantic and wonderful, but isn't. 

Again, you can detect how Spielberg is taking the malaise days mood of the nation to generate his aura of terror; his overturning of the traditional order. Just as our belief in ourselves as a "good" and powerful nation was overturned by Vietnam and Watergate.

The more puritanical or conservative among us will also recognize this inaugural scene of Jaws as being an early corollary of the "vice precedes slice and dice" dynamic of many a slasher or Friday the 13th film. A young couple, eager to have pre-marital sex (after smoking weed, no less...) faces a surprise "monster" in a foreign realm. 

That happens here not in the woods of Crystal Lake, but in a sea of secrets and monsters. It's also no coincidence, I believe, that the first victim in the film is a gorgeous, athletic blond with a perfect figure. Chrissie is the American Ideal of Beauty...torn asunder and devoured before the movie proper has even begun.

If that image doesn't unsettle you, nothing will.

I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland; 2002), that, ultimately the characteristics that make a film great go far beyond any rudimentary combination of acting, photography, editing and music. It's a magic equation that some films get right and some don't. Jaws is a classic, I believe, because it educates the viewer about the central diabolical threat and then surprises the viewer by going a step further and hinting that the great white shark is no mere animal, but actually an ancient, malevolent force. 

The film also brilliantly reflects the issues of the age in which it was created. And finally, Jaws updates the archetypes of good and evil that generations of Americans have grown up recounting, even though it does so with a distinctly disco decade twist. The Hooper-Brody-Quint troika is iconic too, and I love the male-bonding aspects of the film, with "modern" men like Brody and Hooper learning, eventually, to fall in love, after a fashion, with the impolitic Quint...warts and all.

Finally, you should never underestimate that Jaws depends on imagination and mystery. 

It is set on the sea, a murky realm of the unknown where the shark boasts the home field advantage. Meanwhile, man is awkward and endangered there. We can't see the shark...but he can see us. With those black, devil eyes. 

When you suddenly realize that the only thing standing between Brody and those black eyes is a thin layer of wood (the Orca); when you think about all the information we've been given about great whites and their deadly qualities, you'll agree reflexively -- instinctively -- with the good chief's prognosis.

We're gonna need a bigger boat.

Beach Week 2017: Jaws (1975) Movie Trailer

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Wild Boy" (September 25, 1976)

This week on Filmation's post-apocalyptic Saturday morning TV series Ark II,  Captain Jonah (Terry Lester) and his crew conduct a geophysical survey in Sector 14, Area 31.  The mission is to discover “rare minerals.”  But before long, a primitive-appearing young human, Isaiah (Mitch Vogel), interferes with their work, and Jonah is nearly trapped in a dark cave.

Local villagers warn the Ark II team that Isaiah is dangerous and that they plan to “put him in a cage and take him out to the great desert.”  Rather than allowing this exile to happen, the crew attempts to befriend the wild boy.  Isaiah is welcomed aboard the Ark  II vehicle and taught how to operate the craft's systems.  However, when Isaiah spots the recently mined crystals, he grows violent and angry, and runs away.

Soon, Isaiah's reasons are all too clear.  The crystals release a dangerous gas that sucks up oxygen, making the Ark II crew suffer from lassitude and fatigue.   While Jonah and Ruth go off to find Isaiah, Samuel loses control of the Ark II, and Jonah must re-board it while the great vehicle is in motion.

Isaiah reveals that his parents died in the cave where the minerals were recovered, and now he fears both it and the crystal.  Understanding this, the villagers make peace with Isaiah and welcome him into the family.  Jonah, meanwhile, arranges for the cave with the dangerous minerals to be permanently sealed.

The twin lessons on Ark II this week are “trust and affection can accomplish more than fear,” and, no less important, even evolved, peaceful folks like Jonah and Ruth can “still learn from those who haven’t had,” the same level of education.

In less didactic terms, “The Wild Boy” is a cool episode of this 1970's Saturday morning TV series for a few reasons.  

The first is that this story provides for the closest thing to a car chase we  get on the program's roster.  Samuel loses control of the Ark II, and Jonah and Ruth must catch up in the Roamer and board the craft in motion.  This sequence is well-shot, and amps up the action quotient of the episode and the series considerably.

Secondly, and I know this probably seems minor, but this episode features a great aft-to-fore pan of the interior Ark II set.  It’s one thing to see the set in close-ups, or in establishing shots.  It’s quite another to track the whole set, and see the breadth and scope of it.  It’s really an impressive design, and so far as I can discern, this is a new shot.

Next Week: Robby guest stars in “The Robot.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Courage Come Home" (October 3, 1970)

In “Courage Come Home,” Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) fires Funky Rat and all her other minions after an incident with a runaway vacuum cleaner. While these incompetent minions picket the juke box, Courage (John Philpott) unexpectedly falls from the sky in a storm, and is separated from the rest of the Bugaloos.

Benita finds Courage, and learns that he has amnesia. She tells him that he is her cousin -- and house keeper -- Melvyn Bizarre.  The Bugaloos attempt to rescue Courage, but he now believes he is really Benita’s cousin.  Instead of going home to the Tranquility Forest with them, he holds the Bugaloos captive.

In the ensuing scuffle, Courage falls, and gets a second bump on the head, which cures his amnesia.

Benita is also injured, and she develops amnesia. This condition allows her rejected minions to return and pretend that she is their housekeeper.

This week’s installment of The Bugaloos (1970-1971) opens with the song of the week. Some of the lyrics include: “Fly away with us in space and far beyond.” It is sung by the group, in mid-air, before Courage succumbs to amnesia.

Here’s the number:

Other than a memorable song, this episode contends in a very familiar TV cliché: amnesia. In particular, one bump on the head causes amnesia, and a second bump cures said amnesia. Courage gets amnesia this week, and thinks he is related to Benita Bizarre even though, as he rightly notes, she doesn’t have wings like he does.

This episode feels a lot like one of the series’ key inspirations, The Monkees (1966-1968), especially during the sequence in which Joy dresses as a French maid, I.Q. becomes a butler, and Harmony (Wayne Laryea) becomes a chef. The costumes, and the mad-cap nature of the action all recall The Monkees, though in an enjoyable, fantasy-based manner.

Lidsville (1971-1972) later did a story similar to “Courage Come Home” in which Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly) got amnesia, and his minions convinced him that he was their servant, not vice versa.

Next week: “The Love Bugaloos.”

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Films of 2017: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Spoiler Warning: Details of this film are extensively described below).

It is a welcome surprise to report that the new Planet of the Apes franchise has gone three-for-three in terms of quality.

This saga -- consisting of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War on the Planet of the Apes (2017) -- has proven to be a dramatic high-point of modern, reboot cinema.

In short, all three of these science fiction films are better, merely as stand-alones, than we have any right to expect, given Hollywood norms. 

But the most delightful thing about the trilogy, as proven firmly by War, is that the series also coheres beautifully as overall tale, or large-scale narrative.

War on the Planet of the Apes not only dramatizes a satisfying and emotional story about Caesar, with resonant, and powerful characters all around, it also weaves the whole saga together in a successful, artistic manner.

And then, finally -- with laser-like focus -- it aims that saga straight on course for the 1968 Planet of the Apes film, which is set in a future 2000 years hence.

But here’s the thing of import:

I did not hope or expect for War on the Planet of the Apes to fit so ably into or establish the continuity of the original Apes franchise.

I did not even know, at this point, that I wanted such a thing. 

I suppose that I am jaded or cynical enough about Hollywood, at this point, to have given up on that particular dream of an Apes continuation.

Yet War on the Planet of the Apes succeeds in forging that link, and it does so in ways that appear unforced, effortless, and smooth.

So War on the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable standalone adventure, a brilliant apex for the reboot trilogy, and, finally, the “perfect” bridge between the 1960’s and 1970’s Apes chronology, and this 21st century one.

To complete and contextualize the Gospel of Caesar -- which is really what the three films amount to -- War on the Planet of the Apes relies on antecedents such as the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, and the film, Apocalypse Now (1979). 

But what truly makes this 2017 film remarkable, I believe, is not the “origin story” of the Caesar’s apes arriving at their home (a Garden of Eden beyond the Forbidden Zone-like desert), but rather the film’s sad, haunting commentary about the way that man loses his supremacy of the planet.

We live in an age of so much shouting, don’t we?

So much blind, stupid rage, and hateful yelling. It is an age not merely of hatred, then but loud, noisy hatred. 

In War on the Planet of the Apes -- as though punished by God for his wicked, savage tongue -- mankind irrevocably, permanently goes silent.

This is apt punishment, given the nature of the film’s humans, particularly the villain played by Woody Harrelson.

I found this "fate" to be a terrifying but appropriate justice for man; for so foolish and self-destructive species.

With this film, the war is over, and man goes into that good night without even a whimper of protest. 

We did it, finally, to ourselves.

War on the Planet of the Apes is the best franchise film of the summer of 2017, and one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year. It is the origin story of a people (the future apes of the Schaffner ’68 film) and simultaneously a poignant elegy for the human race.

“There are times when it is necessary to abandon humanity to save humanity.”

Following Koba’s attack on humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes find themselves plunged into a vicious war with human soldiers.  

These heavily armed soldiers are led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his rogue "Alpha/Omega" outfit, and they work with enslaved apes they derisively call “donkeys.”

The war hits Caesar too close to home when the Colonel launches a decapitation strike, but succeeds only in killing his eldest son, and wife.  

Enraged, Caesar determines to go on the war path.  He sends the majority of the apes on a pilgrimage to a new, hopefully safe land, far away, and takes Maurice (Karin Konovol) and a few others to hunt down the Colonel at a northern border.

En route, Caesar, Maurice and the others befriend a mute girl that Maurice names Nova (Amiah Miller), and then, a solitary chimp, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who possesses knowledge of the Colonel, and his brutal work camp.

Soon, Caesar learns that his people have been captured on their pilgrimage, and made slaves at the camp. 

He must attempt to free them, and his only son, Cornelius.  

The Colonel takes special delight in humiliating Caesar, but also tells him of a strange side-effect of the Simian Flu (which all humans carry). Man is becoming mute, and may even be losing his capacity to reason.

Caesar must now set his people free, find his apes a new home, far from warring humanity, and also reconcile his feelings of rage and hatred with his more fair-minded, judicious nature.

“Make sure my son knows who his father was.”

From 2011 to 2017, movie-goers have witnessed the Gospel of Caesar, but War for the Planet of the Apes in particular utilizes religious (scriptural) symbolism to help us understand the religious nature of the story. 

Consider that the film depicts Caesar’s crucifixion, at the hands of the Colonel and his men. The tale even provides a Judas in the form of Winter: an albino gorilla who betrays Caesar and his people to the humans.

The crucifixion in the work camp is only the most apparent religious symbol. Consider, as well, the matter of Caesar’s fatal wound at the end of the picture. He is shot in the side with an arrow. That arrow comes from one of the Colonel’s soldiers. The position of the wound, and the nature of the weapon knowingly mirrors Jesus’s wound from the lance of Longinus. Longinus was a Roman centurion, who stabbed Christ. Again, the parallels between Christ and Caesar are telling: a fatal wound in the same place, both given by an enemy soldier.

Maurice, of course, is the franchise's version of Paul. He is Caesar’s greatest apostle, and it is clear from the film’s final scenes that he will grow into an early teacher o Caesar’s “lessons” to ape culture. This was also Paul’s role. Specifically, Maurice promises to teach Caesar’s surviving son, Cornelius, about his life, and his nature. We can extrapolate that other apes will also be taught about the sacrifices and morality of Caesar. We now know his humble origins (as the child of an ape, but not, actually, only an ape), his life of toils and pain, and ultimately, with this film, his fate.

If readers prefer to be reminded of Old Testament comparisons, Caesar, in this film, acts as a Moses-type figure. He leads his “tribe” to the Promised Land away from human subjugation and war. Caesar doesn’t part the Red Sea, but he does survive nature’s dangers. His people begin their quest, importantly, by surviving an avalanche which buries, for eternity, the surviving human military, and their weapons. The Colonel’s corrupt kingdom is Egypt in this metaphor, and Caesar and his people are the Israelites, seeking a home. Instead of parting the red sea, Caesar and his apes go above the treacherous avalanche by climbing trees. This image is also a beautiful call-back to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and young Caesar's exercise regimen in Muir Woods

None of this symbolism is over-bearing or heavy-handed. One can absolutely enjoy the film without making comparisons to Christianity. However, the specific nature of Caesar’s quest, and his death, suggest -- importantly--  that in the future history of the planet Earth, his people will revere him as something akin to a God among apes.

At least that’s a possibility, and we have the “sign posts” (the imagery) to cue us in about Caesar's extraordinary -- or even “divine” --` nature.

Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is clearly also an influential text in this work of art too. In the film, we see graffiti that reads “Ape-pocalypse Now,” and Harrelson’s Colonel shares a rank with Marlon Brando’s character, Kurtz. 

Both men/characters have also gone “rogue” from the chain of command, and are worshiped by their people as demi-gods. They are cult-leaders as much as military officers.  

Going back to Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (the source for the Coppola film’s character), he was a man who is remembered for having said “exterminate the brutes.” He was referring to intelligent human beings in the Free Congo. Harrelson’s Colonel in this film similarly launches a pogrom of extermination against Caesar’s apes, aware that their survival will doom the human race. 

If the character of the Colonel boasts any antecedent, in particular, in the classic film franchise, it is likely Otto Hasslein, from Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Both men believe that fate or destiny can be averted by taking violent, murderous action in the present.  They both commit fully, and mercilessly to this course.

So how does this sage connect, specifically, to the old franchise?  

You may recall a throwaway image or two in Rise of the Planet of the Apes discussing the launch and fate -- lost in space! -- of Taylor’s spaceship, the Icarus. 

In this continuity, the flight occurs in 2011, not the early 1970’s but the name of the ship is the same, as is the fact that the ship seems, to denizens of Earth, to disappear. It is, as we realize, really traveling into the future, on a course that will day return it home.

So that spaceship is out there, destined to return to Earth in the 3900’s.  

In War for the Planet of the Apes, some of the other pieces that set-up the 1968 film are locked into the puzzle. 

Caesar’s people leave the West Coast, travel through a desert (the future Forbidden Zone, presumably), and find a beautiful green glade, on the banks of a thriving river. This is the location, we can infer, in New York (or at least on the East Coast) of Ape City in Planet of the Apes (1968). So this film's final moments get Caesar’s people to the right coast (and in proximity of the Statue of Liberty!), to set up Taylor's experience there.

Finally, Maurice takes on his role as an apostle, as a speaker of Ape History, and, perhaps, becomes the future Lawgiver. 

Consider that Maurice is, like the Lawgiver, an orangutan, and that he has been tasked with the job of teaching the Gospel of Caesar.  It is very likely that one day, he will take on the title of the most revered ape, The Lawgiver.

What proves so interesting about this development is that, in the Ape Future of the original film, Caesar’s name is never spoken. The legend of the Lawgiver (and his written word: the Sacred Scrolls) thus comes to supersede Caesar as the messiah/divinity figure of ape culture.  

So if you wonder what the next ape trilogy might concern, I have an idea the role of Maurice, and his fall from grace or innocence. 

At some point he must stop trying to make peace with humans, and start to write of humanity as a “the beast, man.”  It is also entirely possible that in the generations between Maurice and the 3900’s, his gentle philosophies and beliefs will be perverted or misinterpreted by ambitious, man-hating apes.

What might happen between the events of War and the 1968 film? 

I suppose the final piece may be a nuclear war. A group of humans, offshoots of the Colonel’s Alpha and Omega group (a callback to Beneath the Planet of the Apes [1970]), perhaps, will detonate a bomb near Ape City, or perhaps, on a global scale, decimating whole swaths of the planet. The destruction of the environment, a useless, bitter gesture, given man’s fall could be the very thing that turns Maurice from an advocate for peace into a hater of mankind.

And, of course, most importantly, War for the Planet of the Apes sets in motion that final fall of mankind. 

Man will go down into history as a foolish, self-destructive being, who can’t even argue his own case for supremacy, because he has lost his capacity to speak. As the movie dramatizes, the Simian Flu mutates so as to rob humanity of his ability to speak. It is not entirely clear, but the Colonel also believes the virus robs humanity of his ability to reason; to think logically.  If this is the case, then the Sacred Scrolls of the first film are, in a sense, truer than we ever realized.  Man of the future world is a dumb brute, unable to reason, or think. He is a blind consumer of resources, an animal.

As I wrote in my introduction, to see man lose his voice in this film is haunting, and breathtaking. Not just because the loss connects to the details of the 1968 film, but because of the world we live in now, in 2017. 

Cable TV is a bastion of bitter taunts, hate speech, and gotcha politics. Look at how we’ve chosen to use Twitter and other social media: as opportunities to troll others, to hate others, to spread lies, to forward , even, conspiracy theories and racist memes.

What War for the Planet of the Apes implies, in some sense, is God’s disappointment, and punishment of man for using his intellect in this manner. 

Not only will mankind die, but he will be robbed even, of the power to speak, to argue, to debate. He has squandered that great gift of voice, and now his fall will not even be accompanied by screams, or crying. 

He will go silently into that good night, unthinking, un-speaking, unable to mourn aloud his fall from favor.

I confess that this aspect of the film was incredibly impact-ful to me. I vacillate between dreaming of a Star Trek-kian future utopia, and fearing a Planet of the Apes-style apocalypse. Our fall from grace in this film seems especially appropriate, given how we have chosen to use our “voices” in the public square, and on the net.

It is a timely and artistic choice for the makers of this saga to make man mute, at this juncture, at this time in our culture. It plays as more powerful today, than it did in earlier generations. Today, everyone has the power to contribute their voice to the community. But what we have seen is not a community lifting its voice to help others. Instead, we have seen a rebirth and broadcast of hate, racism, sexism, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. We have seen the rise of extreme narcissism, the dawn of widespread propaganda, and a war to obfuscate facts, and to hold onto the tenets of science.  

When people discuss -- seriously -- in 2017, a new flat Earth theory, the fall of man, the de-evolution of man, seems only years away. Perhaps we reached our pinnacle as a species when we landed on the Moon. Perhaps our fall from grace has already begun.

War for the Planet of the Apes thus captures beautifully, if tragically, the real terror and fear of our times; the idea that we can't stop sniping at each other long enough to take care of the species, let alone the planet.

Lastly, I would be hard-pressed to name a better film trilogy of the 21sts century than this one. 

I know The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sagas have their champions, and for good reason, but the amazing gift of this new Planet of the Apes saga is that it does so much so smoothly, and with so much discipline. None of these films feel over long, or retreads of old material. They all work, in tandem, as original stories, and as pieces of a grand, overarching saga. 

And now, as this trilogy ends, we can see a grand plan to connect to the original franchise (or some version of the original franchise). The ambition was there all along, but the filmmakers demonstrated patience, and laid their bread crumbs, without drawing over attention to them.

I have to write, too often, about the creative failings of remakes and reboots (see: Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes). It is therefore a pleasure and a privilege to behold the wonders and victories of this reboot series. The “new” Planet of the Apes series pays homage to what came before, honors the spirit of social commentary those old films championed, and it breaks new ground at the same time.

Like the best science fiction films, War of the Planet of the Apes makes us see ourselves more fully, more completely.  The scary thing about the film is that as much as it frightened me, I also thirsted for the humans to fall, to be, finally, silent. For the hatred to end.  This feeling made me think of Armando's (Ricardo Montalban) words in Escape:  "If it is man's destiny one day to be dominated, then oh, please God, let him be dominated by such as you."

It's a special genre motion picture, indeed, that has the audience rooting against its own kind.

Finally, I hope that Andy Serkis, and the film itself are remembered at Oscar time next year. Serkis’s work as Caesar is extraordinary.  Roddy McDowall created Caesar more than forty years ago, but Serkis has honored that work and carried it several steps forward. He has made the character his own in a remarkable, and dare I say -- human --fashion.

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