Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ends of the World (Apocalypse Now/Planet of the Apes)

One of the things I wanted to cover during SUMMER SCHOOL (real school is in session but technically we’re still in the last gasps of ante-equinox, baby!) was a gigantic gap in my personal 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die running tally: Apocalypse Now. In my mind that film was easily in the top 10 of movies I had never seen but really, really should. Thus it fell under the “general make-up work” heading for SUMMER SCHOOL, not to mention the fact that the steamy August weather would sync up well with the sweltering jungles of Vietnam (as portrayed by the sweltering jungles of the Philippines).

However, I was very nearly derailed in this effort at a cookout hosted by my buddy Clutch. Another of our friends happened to be in town, the very same guy who worked on Species 2 and whom I consider to be the closest thing to a hardcore cinephile amongst my cohort of friends. He and I were conversing and I confessed to him that I was on a bit of a classic movie kick, tracking down and taking time to watch movies that would no doubt be on his I-can’t-believe-you’ve-never-seen-that list. He asked me for an example and the first one that leapt to mind was Apocalypse Now. To which my friend replied, with a theatrical roll of his eyes, “You do NOT need to see Apocalypse Now! Skip it. It’s not that good. Well, parts of it are, but parts of it really drag. So overrated”

Not exactly inspirational cheerleading, and it kind of stuck in my craw for a while afterwards and led to a lengthy delay on my part in actually loading up the DVD. But I did eventually get around to it, and I’m happy to report that I did not find myself wishing I had listened to my friend.

It’s a rather long movie, of course, not to mention split across two discs (at least the version I got from Netflix was) so I took it in stages, and oddly enough I did so mostly at home as opposed to on the train. At one point I was watching it while my wife was at work, and when she got home and it was still up on the tv screen she (impressively) recognized it right away. She asked me how I was liking it and my first response was to laugh, because Apocalypse Now is not exactly a movie which strives to be likable. It’s calculated to provoke a myriad of emotional responses, but simple pleasure is not one of them. I finally answered that I was appreciating the artistry of it, and my wife understood where I was coming from there.

(One more Random AnecdoteTM: one time in college I got Francis Ford Coppola confused with Frank Capra, which my roommate thought was absolutely hilarious. “It’s A Wonderful Apocalypse Now!” he howled, which even I have to admit is a movie I would pay good money to see. Anyway.)

I’m very taken by the Coppola quote from his Cannes press conference where he claimed, “"My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam." I can’t deny that assertion (even if I was only six months old when the war ended, and I’m evaluating everything in second-hand hindisght), and I think that’s the key to understanding everything that Apocalypse Now does right, or to come at it from the opposite direction, to understanding how everything that might be perceived as a flaw is actually a strength. If the movie seems to drag on interminably, isn’t that also true of the Vietnam War? If it seems ultimately pointless or senseless, isn’t that also true of the Vietnam War? Or any war, really? I’ve questioned in the past the truism that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, and Apocalypse Now only seems to bolster my argument that it absolutely is possible to create one. The film is a disturbing, sometimes surreal nightmare, compelling in its unblinking regard of awfulness, and nothing about it makes war look awesome.

Not even Dennis Hopper!

Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie, but you can perhaps appreciate how the ideas can inadvertently bleed into one another. They really shouldn’t, though, because Coppola is absolutely in command of the artform and Apocalypse Now is a legit masterpiece. The message that war is a special kind of insanity, a vicious manifestation of human cruelty where good and evil become nothing but different degrees of atrocity, is reinforced at every level from the plot and the acting down to the technical, almost invisible details. Two examples:

- The soundtrack. Around the time I was supposed to switch from the Act One disc to Act Two, I browsed around through the special features (because I was holding a sleeping infant in my arms and didn’t want to get up off the couch right at that second) and ended up reading an article about how the soundtrack came together. Right at the end of Act One I had taken notice of certain music cues, and that had intrigued me enough to prompt the extra reading, which enlightened me as to just how much thought and effort went into the scoring of the movie. I paid a lot more attention to it in Act Two and was pretty blown away, both by how exquisitely rendered the soundscape was and by the fact that I hadn’t really been consciously aware of it in Act One. The soundtrack does its work within the film brilliantly and without drawing undue attention to itself.

- Dissolves. The transition from one scene to another rarely merits paying any attention to, right? (Unless you are watching on of the Star Wars movies by Coppola’s friend George Lucas, and playing the associated drinking game by the rules my buddies and I observe, which include drinking every time there’s a patented Lucas Wipe across the screen.) But in Apocalypse Now I couldn’t help but notice the profusion of extremely slow dissolves, which (like everything else in the movie) plays into the composition of a fever dream feeling for the entire narrative. One scene fades away and another rises up, they briefly disorientingly overlap, and the narrative becomes unmoored in time and place; is it a few minutes later? Hours? Days? Are we still on the same river? It’s a simple, subtle technique but it is undeniably the right one.

So, to sum up: not a feel-good movie, nor one I’m eager to re-watch any time soon, and I admit that I do find it odd that a good number of people would say that Apocalypse Now is one of their favorite movies (“favorite” is an inherently difficult word to unpack, I find, but that’s a subject for an entirely separate blog post). But it’s a glorious achievement, an awe-inspiring example of the art of filmmaking, and rightfully enshrined in the canon.

Now moving from the metaphorical destruction of human civilization to the literal, I also recently watched Planet of the Apes for the first time ever. Is that flick also on the 1001 Movies list? It certainly is. Is it also valid SUMMER SCHOOL viewing? I would argue yes again, as a one-time sci-fi blockbuster. Did Planet of the Apes come with positive or negative reviews from my cinephile buddy attached? Not explicitly, although I’ve always known that he’s a huge fan of the series (and of all things monkey-related, really) to the point where for a good long while there he had a webmail account with “Dr. Zaius” somewhere in the handle.

They are both redheads.

You would think I was holding a grudge against my pal, though I swear that’s not the case, but nonetheless here’s my verdict: Planet of the Apes is just not very good. I wanted to like it! But I found it kind of a chore to watch. I suspect it made the Must-See list mostly because of the ending, one of the most iconic pieces of post-apocalyptic (and anti-nuclear war) sci-fi imagery in cinema, not to mention one of the biggest surprise twist endings of all time, so much so that “It was Earth all along!” has become common shorthand for just such a swerve. (And no, I am not going to apologize for failing to forewarn a spoiler about the ending to a 45-year-old movie.) And I have no argument with either of those assessments; the derelict Statue of Liberty on the beach is an amazing composition, and the twist ending is solid (albeit a little hard to judge since the surprise factor no longer exists). But there are certain touchstones of pop culture, like the ending to Planet of the Apes, where simply knowing the gist of them is roughly equivalent to having first-hand knowledge of the entire work. If you grok the setup and payoff of Planet of the Apes, you can pretty safely skip it. You aren’t going to gain a whole lot of nuanced insight for sitting through the entire movie.

Here are my major beefs with Planet of the Apes:

- Gigantic plot holes, of the “things don’t actually work that way” variety. I know it’s only sci-fi allegory, but there comes a point where suspension of disbelief is so strained that everything falls apart. The astronauts’ mission makes very little sense. If its purpose was to expand human knowledge via exploration, it seems pointless to send them so far away at such near-light speeds that their first reports won’t come back to earth for thousands of years, if at all. If its purpose was colonization and re-population, as Taylor alludes to when he says Stewart was supposed to be their “new Eve”, just think for a minute about how three men plus one woman is one of the worst human breeding arrangements imaginable. Either way, they were throwing the astronauts blindly at a planet that might or might not support human life, and might or might not have its own indigenous intelligent life, which might be hostile to Earthlings showing up uninvited. And the astronauts clearly have no plan whatsoever when all this turns out to be the case. Except it all happens to be the case on Earth, after the spaceship makes a U-turn after 1000 Earth-years with no explanation ever offered as to why. The Apes have evolved to sentience in a mere 2000 years, which is not how evolution works unless we’re being extremely generous about “radiation effects” from the long-ago nuclear war. I’ll turn a blind eye to the Apes speaking perfect English (with British accents!) because that’s a common enough sci-fi trope … but man, it’s hard to ignore it when Taylor’s ability to speak, while the surviving human savages are mute (which - wha-huh?) is such a major plot point. I know another reason why Planet of the Apes stands out in the historical record is because, at the time, the prosthetic make-up for the simians was amazing, but it hasn’t aged well. The eyes of the apes are expressive enough, but mouths don’t move with the dialogue, the muzzles look stiff and rubbery, and again the ability to speak as a sign of intelligence is something the movie itself keeps drawing attention to! There’s plenty of other things to quibble with, though. How about plate tectonics and erosion? Again, I can grant that a nuclear exchange would alter the landscape considerably, but given the Statue of Liberty’s proximity, the Forbidden Zone must be somewhere near the east coast of the former U.S., and yet it looks like Utah (because that’s where they shot it) and I can’t figure out how nuclear war plus 2000 of geological activity would form huge valleys like that in New Jersey or Connecticut.

I know, I know, I’m a joyless scold. I think my personal record shows that I can tolerate a certain amount of disregard for scientific accuracy and non-ironclad logic. But way too much is still way too much.

- It’s pretty boring! The nominal action sequences are neither choreographed nor shot very well, and they are both few and far between and repetitive. Taylor and his colleagues wind up caught in the hunt with the mute humans, and the apes capture them. Taylor tries to escape, and gets captured. He tries to escape again, and gets captured again. He finally escapes, and the gorillas show up and shoot at them. Taylor gets them to back off, then they come back and shoot at him some more. In between all that excitement are lots of scenes of apes sitting around talking. I know, budget constraints, allegorical ideas, blah blah blah. It’s just not a very fun movie, especially as noted camp classics go. Its dearth of thrilling set-pieces honestly surprised me. They used to sell Planet of the Apes action figures, but how many kids like playing Mego Mexican Standoff?

- Taylor is a terrible protagonist. There is a certain historical amusement in watching NRA activist Charlton Heston demand that the man-sized chimpanzees give him a damn rifle. (Note: in reality there’s nothing funny about the NRA.) And overall, Heston’s performance and sheer presence as Taylor is certainly magnetic, even during the stretches where he can’t speak. But he’s also a stupid jerk. I kind of sort of get the idea of making Taylor a cynic, to underline the themes of how venal a creature man is, but Taylor goes beyond cynical. His harassment of Landon in particular, and his general tendency at the beginning of the film to constantly harp on how everything they ever knew back on Earth is now dust in the thousand-year-old wind just comes across as bullying. And it undermines the ending, too: why the hell is he so upset that the maniacs blew it all up? He left Earth to find something better out there than man, assuming the human race was headed for self-destruction. And he was right, but for some reason physical proof of this shatters him?

During his tribunal, Taylor offers to prove that he’s not just a trained animal, that he can reason. So Honorious begins asking him questions concerning specific details of their sacred scrolls, and Taylor just kind of sputters that he doesn’t know the answers because he’s a newcomer to their civilization. Honorious claims to have proven his point. Honestly, how hard would it have been for Taylor to point out that Honorious was asking the wrong kinds of questions, that memorizing dogma has nothing to do with the ability to reason? Again, I know, not the story they were trying to tell, but it does not exactly endear Taylor to me that Honorious uses the worst kind of rhetorical garbage arguments and Taylor is unable to defend himself from them. And the sad part is, this is arguably the most compelling aspect of the movie: the critique of organized religion, of the suppression of scientific inquiry and the state-sanctioned conflation of religious belief with carved-in-stone facts that all intelligent beings simply intuit and understand as true. It’s a great area for exploration (and totally relevant today amongst the climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers and creationists!) but Taylor is hardly up to the task of representing open-minded reason.

For all his swaggering truth-telling, Taylor is not terribly enlightened. Yes, it’s a facet of the movie dating back to 1968 and not aging particularly well, but it’s hard to deny that Taylor is a chauvinist pig. From his attitude toward poor, doomed Stewart to his claiming of Nova as his own property, to the fact that when he parts ways with the chimps he informs Zira “I’d like to kiss you goodbye” as if she should be grateful that he would bestow such a favor on her - gah. Partly my distaste is subjective and personal, but partly I bring it up because it’s another example of the movie undermining itself. The Apes’ society is backwards in many negative ways, but at least they have something like gender equality.

In addition to the (admittedly tenuous) end-times connection between Apocalypse Now and post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes, and their underlying condemnation of war (admittedly an easy target), the other common factor here for me is that both movies left me questioning how a good number of people could say either flick is one of their personal favorites. In the case of Apocalypse Now, it’s because the experience is so harrowing and intense, whereas in the case of Planet of the Apes, it’s because aside from a classic ending it’s just thoroughly underwhelming. But, to each his own!


  1. Part of what's so compelling about Planet of the Apes is the arc of Taylor's character. At the beginning, he's the classic overprivileged misanthrope, gone to space to find something better than that festering crap-pile known as the human race. By the end, he's defending humanity to Dr. Zaius. "He was here before you. And he was better than you."

    Then we find out that Taylor was right the first time. And it shatters him. And us. Even knowing the ending, Heston totally sells that scene in the archaeological dig. We want to believe that man is good and decent and worthy of saving. Heston builds up our emotions, fills us with pride. Our Hero rides off into the sunset, having Dropped the Truth on those damn dirty apes. It's great. Then comes the biggest goddamned reversal you're gonna see.

    A nice touch in that last scene is that there's no music over it. All we here is Heston's cries and the sound of the ocean. He's alone. He's the Last Man on Earth, and now he knows it.

    That there's some powerful, stone-cold shit.

    POTA is probably the finest movie in the "humans are bastards, we're all doomed" subgenre. Watching it, we wrestle with the hope that we're better than that with the fear that we aren't. POTA takes that conflict and externalizes it. It externalizes a lot of things we worry about. Nifty.

    That said, the tribunal scene always pissed me off too. Taylor's not a smart man if he can't point out the flaw in that. He could have, too, and it wouldn't have affected the movie, since the apes in charge wouldn't have listened and gagged him anyway.

    I love POTA. I even love the weird, cheesy sequels. I read the original Pierre Boulle novel, which is very, very different and kind of interesting. I even once found the screenplay Rod Serling wrote for a sequel that never got made, Planet of the Men. Loves me some apes.

    Not the Tim Burton version, of course, because that was terrible.

  2. There's also something to making Taylor the ultimate White Male American Alpha Dude. He is the socially highest man of the era of the movie, thus making his humbling all the more huge (and, okay, gratifying). He's the big swingin' dick hero we all know. In the end, he gets the super-hot girl and rides off cloaked in moral superiority, like the movies trained us to expect. Then...

    Also because let's face it, it's guys like Taylor who were the maniacs who blew it all up, and we all know it. Adds some extra nastiness.

  3. To ramble still further on POTA, because I love to, it's also a weirdly masochistic tale, but a conflicted one.

    Stand back, because it's gonna get weird.

    Heston's character, a stand-in for America as it saw itself in all its postwar triumph and glory, is humiliated and dragged through the dirt and treated like an animal. It always struck me as an undercurrent of the movie that, if you view it from the perspective of 1968, he kinda deserves it.

    He's the Great White Leader-Man, which means that his triumphs were built upon the conquest and murder of those he deemed lesser. Now the imperialist is the slave. Again, on a weird, conflicted level, it's cathartic and mesmerizing. In POTA, (white, mainstream) America wrestles with its own history of cruelty and imperialism. Taylor is our best and our worst.

    In POTA, Taylor acts kinda-sorta as an object of karmic payback for white, mainstream America. In 1968, that shit was on people's minds.

    To the movie's credit, it's not a simple condemnation of Taylor, either. He is heroic, intelligent, brave, and eventually, champion of his fellow man. The movie, like its audience, is conflicted about the core issues of the story.

    Then we get that ending, and we see that the movie isn't so conflicted after all.

    What's amazing about that ending is not the shock value, but that it's inevitable and shocking at the same time. Shit, Zaius basically tells us the score before we see the statue, and it still works. It's both a huge reversal and a brilliant single-image summation of the entire movie. Hits like a ton of fucking bricks.

    By contrast, Tim Burton's ending was nonsensical garbage. Man, that one sucked.