Thursday, February 26, 2009
And I would have had historical fact on the side of my physical aggression. Consider: the first bag, as we now know them, was mass produced in 1943 by Uncle Grampa's Item Holders, Inc. Prior to this, human beings had to carry around everything they wished to take with them in their bare hands, like monkeys. In 1942, the number of items dropped by people walking to and from the grocery store, bank, or neighborhood clothier had skyrocketed. The entire hardware store industry was on the brink of collapse, because potential buyers would look at the vast array of shovels, hammers, plows and various other heavy items, and just say "Fuck it. I'm not carrying that shit home."
Similarily, the war effort was failing, probably because you just can't store or transport ammunition in boxes. It simply doesn't work. Boxes are cube-shaped, so the bullets would be packed like sardines in orderly rows. However, bullets, much like fine wine, need to breathe in order to be effective, and you're just not going to get that with a box. Our soldiers would be over there in Germany, with a Ratzi lined up in their sites, and when he pulled the trigger what would he get? A whistling sound and a puff of smoke in his face! Embarrassing, to say the least. Luckily, our boys were also armed with knives, but an absence of well-aired ammunition still slowed things down considerably.
Then one day, in early 1943, a man named Daniel P. Roosevelt-Lindbergh (no relation to either) was carrying a box of marmalade to his car (which were so rickety and badly made in those days that they would often collapse under the weight of even an empty box, which, in fairness, were made of scrap iron salvaged from sunken U-boats), and he thought, "This is such bullshit. I gotta throw out my back for goddamn marmalade? I don't even like marmalade! Jam has that shit beat all to hell!" So he angrily, but with a sense of purpose, threw the box off of a nearby cliff, took his car off its kick-stand, lit his engine from a book of matches, unfolded the steering wheel, and "drove" home. All the while, holding on to that sense of purpose he'd felt before, because Daniel Roosevelt-Lindbergh had some inventing to do.
What he invented was the "bag". Initially dubbed the "Roosevelt-Lindbergh Cloth-Woven Hold-All", Roosevelt-Lindbergh's prototype was basically just a bunch curtains that he'd nailed together. When he showed it to his wife, he said, "Honeybear, you'll never have to use your hands again, other than to carry this thing I just made." Upon hearing the news, Mrs. Roosevelt-Lindbergh wept openly and without shame.
After weeks of successful field-testing, Roosevelt-Lindbergh realized that he'd actually invented something, so he took his "hold-all" to the headquarters of Uncle Grampa's Item Holders (who previously focused their attention on manufacturing the much-hated box, tweezers, and those claw-dealies you use to move logs in the fireplace. "Log-movers", I guess). Bringing with him a variety of canned goods in order to show Uncle Grampa's marketing team how the hold-all worked, Roosevelt-Lindbergh's presentation was an immense success. The people at Uncle Grampa were so taken with the invention, in fact, that they offered Roosevelt-Lindbergh a one-time payment of a handful of dried peas for the rights to manufacture, produce and sell the hold-all. Upon receiving this offer, Roosevelt-Lindbergh is said to have asked, "Is that pretty good? I mean, is that a lot to get paid for something like this?" To which the head of Uncle Grampa's acquisition team replied, "It's so much that I'm probably going to get fired just for offering it to you." "Then I accept!" cried Roosevelt-Lindbergh, grabbing the dried peas and fleeing the building.
One of the first things the Uncle Grampa marketing team realized was that "Roosevelt-Lindbergh's Cloth-Woven Hold-All" was a shit name, and they promptly went about thinking up a better one. After kicking around a few ideas, on a whim someone took out a dictionary and looked up the word "bag". Reading the definition -- "a flexible container with a single opening" -- they all collectively realized that they had all just literally made history.
Posters went up across the country proclaiming the bag as "A Terrific New World-Wide Sensation!!" and "An Astonishing New Item, Available for Purchase!!" One of the most famous and popular ads went directly to the heart of our nation's involvement in World War II (and helped turn the tide of the conflict towards an Allied victory). It featured a young red-headed boy with freckles carrying a giant bag full of war bonds. Lurking behind the bushes are Tojo and Hitler, their faces etched with fear and anger. The ad copy says: "Would You Like to Help Defeat the Axis Menace? YOU CAN!! Carry a Bag with You!!"
And so we now live in a world where bags are plentiful, and those miserable fucking boxes are all but forgotten. Old women can now carry their perfume and Boggle games and thousands of cigarettes with them easily, without fear that they will lose a single item along their journey. Young children can effortlessly transport their Football Cards and swimming whistles. Even insane homeless people have a place to store their tin foil and imaginary pets. So thank you, Daniel P. Roosevelt-Lindbergh, for the better world you have made for us. And knowing what you accomplished, I bet those dried peas tasted extra sweet.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Sunday, February 22, 2009
So: eating poop. Why do we do it? Who does it benefit? Are we really a stronger nation because of it, as so many people claim? But no...I'm getting ahead of myself.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
I have a distinct memory of buying my wife a present one night back in 2004 (I can't remember the occasion), stopping off at a nearby bar for a quick beer before heading home, and seeing on the overhead TV a news report about a pregnant woman named Bobbie Jo Stinnett who had been murdered, and had her baby cut from her womb, by a walking nightmare named Lisa Montgomery. Other than the kind of nebulous horror that we all feel when we learn about new ways in which human beings torture and destroy each other, I don't remember any of the thoughts that went through my mind, but I do know that at no point did I think, "Boy, I sure hope somebody makes a movie about this some day."
Ah, but that's why I don't get paid to make horror films, because apparently two people thought that very thing, and not only that, but they took the job upon themselves. I do not blame Alexandre Bustillo or Julien Maury (both directed, and Bustillo wrote the script) for making a film based on the Stinnett murder (or any other murder like it -- I don't actually know that the Stinnett killing was their specific inspiration, but obviously it was based on the actual existence of this type of crime). I'm a horror fan, and while my tastes in the genre don't typically run in this direction, the philosophy of approaching horror by examining genuine, Earth-bound abominations like this is a valid one. I can think of few things more grotesque and awful than what happened to Stinnett, and while I suppose the idea that there is any conceivable merit (it should be noted here that the use of the word "merit" in regards to the horror genre is frequently different from its use in any other context, but it still applies) in constructing a work of fiction out of that story is debatable, an argument in favor of the existence of a movie like Inside -- or like Inside in theory, rather than in actual fact -- can be made. Basically, if a work of art can deal almost exclusively with an act of madness and evil, and find the humanity of the victim, if not the evil (though if you can do both, more power to you), then the existence of that work of art is justified and valuable.
Some people, when faced with the opportunity to watch such films don’t hesitate to do so. I believe that some such people consider it a badge of honor to have these particular notches on their belts. “Oh, you haven’t seen that movie?” they like to be able to say. “Is it because you can’t handle watching live dogs fed into a trash compactor? It’s all fake, you know. Anyway, I didn’t have much problem with it, myself. Besides, as a film, it’s quite fascinating to see how the director constructs the mise en scene in such a way as to make the audience complicit in the action. For you see, in the cinema…” and so on until you want to throw your drink in their face.
Then again, some of them are simply curious, or fascinated by the grotesque. I know I am! And that curiosity and fascination, no matter how I try to distance myself from it, is what brought me here today, reasonably fresh from viewings of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside, and, the granddaddy of all such films, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. I chose to watch the films in ascending order of infamy, which, by my calculations, put The Piano Teacher at the front of the line. And so, as I mentioned before, last night at 8:30, after a lovely dinner with my wife (who chose not to take part in this, and to retreat to the TV in our bedroom), I began.
Part One: Mild Discomfort
Or maybe not so mild, really, but I’m trying to build to a kind of crescendo by the end. You understand, I’m sure. But it’s true, the phrase “mild discomfort”, as applied to The Piano Teacher, doesn’t really cut it. Michael Haneke is actually something of a genius when it comes to making films that slide into the brains of the audience and start vigorously scratching. Apart from the weak pose of a film that is his overrated Funny Games, I have been absolutely riveted to the point of frozen existential terror (okay, that’s probably an exaggeration) by Cache’, Code Unknown, The Castle and, most especially, the brilliant The Seventh Continent. And now again here, with The Piano Teacher, whose titular character is played brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert.
The teacher’s name is Erika Kohut, and at the end of every day, which she spends teaching highly talented piano students, and training them for the big leagues, she goes home to her apartment, which she shares with her mother (Annie Girardot), who is quite critical of her daughter, and who seems to have something to do with the reserved and repressed woman Erika seems to be. Except that Erika isn’t really repressed, or maybe she was, and when she eventually fought through the repression, it was like a dam bursting, complete with all the resulting carnage.
The first time we realize something might be up, in a small way, is when she meets a young man named Walter (Benoit Magimel). He is something of a piano prodigy, and Erika clearly likes him (though she will eventually be the sole vote against him when he applies in front of a panel of music teachers for a place in Erika’s master class), or at least finds him fascinating. The bulk of their first conversation together, however, involves Erika talking about the details of the madness of Schubert and Schumann, her two favorite composers.
That action, paired with the hardcore images, made me think that I should probably prepare myself for anything and everything. Now, this film is much more than a series of shocking episodes, stacked one on top of the other, but in fairly short order we are treated to a scene where Erika retreats to her bathroom at home so that she can slice at her, ahm, area, with a razor blade, and another where she goes to a drive-in and walks around until she finds a couple having sex in the back seat of their car. While spying on them, she starts to urinate. The guy half of the couple having sex sees this and, as any of us would, gets very angry and yells at Erika until she runs off. I can understand the guys anger, but really, if you’re going to have sex in public, people are going to want to watch you while they pee. That’s always been part of the deal.
Eventually, Erika begins a…I guess you’d call it a relationship, with Walter, though it’s a relationship that holds a lot of frustration for the young man. By the end of the film, I had far less sympathy for him than I did when Erika first began her incredibly sadistic tease, because it turns out that he’s kind of a scumbag. But we don’t know that at first, and initially I could share his frustration at being strung along by Erika, until the scene where she finally, and meekly, shares with him a list of violently masochistic desires she has – she would like to punched a lot, for one thing – that would, one hopes, give any man pause. Except that it’s at this point that my sympathies more or less completely shifted to Erika, who up to this point had seemed cold and mean and frightening, because she suddenly becomes shy and fearful of rejection, not to mention deeply embarrassed by her own desires, yet hopeful that Walter will understand. Well, he doesn’t. And he’s not kind in letting her know that. This long series of scenes ends with the film’s biggest shock (even though it’s not graphic, it’s still a corker), one which devastates Erika and makes her desperation for Walter so great that she follows him to hockey practice and promises him everything he could want from her. Though he claims he’s disgusted by her, he’s willing to use her neediness to get sex from her, an act of vicious selfishness that leads to this charming bit of dialogue, delivered by Walter: “You should wash your mouth out more, not just when my cock makes you puke.”
Boy, how many times have I had to say that in my life!? Also, spoiler alert.
So, shocked I indeed was by the first film in my triple feature. But I was also – and not to change tones too suddenly, I hope – quite moved by Huppert, who, despite the film’s extreme subject matter, is actually amazingly quiet in her brilliance here. And Haneke shoots it all in his typically cold style, moving his camera to a distance just far enough back to allow us to see all the little details of Erika’s life, the things that sum her up, even though you still can’t really explain her.
Friday, February 20, 2009
[UPDATE: A genuine, no-fooling triple feature is looking like a distinct possibility at the moment, so look for one long post on this madness some time on Saturday.]
Anyone who read this post knows the basic score: this weekend, I'm going to watch The Piano Teacher, Inside and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in that order, and record the experience here for posterity, or as evidence in case anything should happen to me. The only question that remains to be answered (well, other than "What the fuck!?") is "How exactly am I going to go about this?" And the answer is still pretty much "Search me, chief." At one point, I thought I might do that thing that's so popular these days, despite the fact that everyone seems to hate it, called "live-blogging". Here's an example of how that might have looked:
9:30 pm - I put The Piano Teacher into the DVD player. It is dark outside, and the wind is blowing. My cats are looking at me. The fat one wants his treats. Well, you're not getting any, because you pissed in my shoes again. Hey, I think my pizza's ready. I don't really want pizza, but egg salad takes too long to make. I should have just bought some, pre-made.
And etc. Since I've decided not to go this route, I think you'll agree that we've all dodged a bullet. But what options are left? Nothing too interesting, I'll tell you that much. I have to get started on this tonight, though, so here's what'll happen: I'm going to watch all three as fast as I can. A genuine triple feature is a possibility, depending on how long I can stay awake tonight. If I manage that, then on Saturday I'll write up the whole thing as one experience. If that doesn't pan out, which it more than likely won't, then I'll just end up writing three posts, one for each film, all going up between Friday night and Saturday afternoon. If I end up with three posts, I'll try to keep a kind of flow between them all -- for when the piece is eventually and inevitably collected for publication -- and if anyone doesn't happen to check in until the second or third post is up, or even if you all decide to wait until Monday, I'll provide links to the previous installments. Because scrolling down is a pain.
So that's it. Extremely simple and not worth the effort of writing this, really, but I did want anyone who was interested to know that this little project is still "on", as they say. So be on the lookout!
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
He technically has two scenes, but the second one is right near the end, and consists mainly of him walking on screen and asking his son a question. He nails that scene, mind you, and I'm not being sarcastic, but it's the first scene, where he's drunk at about eight in the morning and driving his son to school, that made me say the first time I saw the film, and again last weekend when I saw the film for a second time, "Well shit. I had no idea."
I didn't know it was Timothy Bottoms. I am not, I admit, that familiar with his body of work. But I knew his name, and watching him in that first scene, seeing how quietly he plays shame and humiliation and guilt as his son (a very good John McFarland) is forced to take control of the situation, I realized that Timothy Bottoms is a freaking damn good actor. He gets all the torment and denial of the character across while also giving one of the most genuine drunk performances I've ever seen. Drunk acting must be one of the toughest things for any actor to do, and I say that as a non-actor who can only assume that's the case because I almost never see an actor playing drunk who doesn't botch it, or at least overdo it to the point where you can see his wheels turning. Bottoms gets it absolutely right. That, and everything else I've mentioned, in just a couple of minutes of screen time.
Check out the film, if you haven't already seen it, because the whole thing is quite good, but at least rent it for Bottoms. He does brilliant work here, and attention should be paid.
Monday, February 16, 2009
It's been more than a few years since I read Higgins's novel, but I still remember parts of it vividly, and how the spare prose and uncommonly on-target dialogue made me think that Higgins had to be describing what the world of low-level, half-assed garbage criminals was really like (and maybe he was, and maybe he wasn't, but Higgins was an attorney general and mob prosecutor before becoming a writer). And the film is just as good. Apparently, as someone who has seen Yates's movie, I'm a member of a pretty elite club. I caught it (with commercials and apparently edited for content, although I don't think there's much content to be edited out) a long time ago on Bravo, back before that channel chose to switch focus from airing old movies and instead run shows about what life is like up there on those fashion runways you're always seeing on TV. Yates got everything right, and the casting of Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle in the leads is so perfect as to be inevitable.
This will be released on May 19. Seek it out. And read the book while you're waiting for the DVD. I mean, what the hell, right?
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Since 2003, John Swartzwelder has been writing novels. The novels look like this:
There have been five of them so far, they are all as bland looking as this, they're published by some company called Kennydale Books, and they can only be bought on-line. My wife got me the first three -- the title pictured above, Double Wonderful, and How I Conquered Your Planet -- for Valentine's Day (I got her a bunch of grapes), and because the length of these novels appear to top out at around 150 pages, I decided to go right ahead and read the first one.
The first one is The Time Machine Did It, and it tells the story of Frank Burly (real name Edward R. Torgeson, Jr.), a private detective who is, by his own admission, terrible at his job, and prefers to not work that hard at it:
The kind of case I like is where I've just deposited my retainer in the bank and I turn around and there's the missing person I've been hired to find and I say something like 'hey your horseshit wife is looking for you' and he says something like 'No kidding! Thanks for the tip. I'll call her up right now'. And the case is solved. That's the kind of case I like.
The Time Machine Did It is not about one of those cases, however. No, in this instance, Burly's client is Thomas Dewey Mandible III, an apparently homeless man who claims to have been the richest man in town just the night before, but now his entire fortune, including his house, back accounts and stocks have been stolen ("Sounds like a very serious robbery you had there," says Frank). The only thing Mandible wishes to hire Frank to retrieve, though, is a small statue of "Justice Holding the Scales", which he says is a family heirloom. Not sure how this homeless man is going to pay his fee, Frank nevertheless agrees, and the plot is off and running.
But for Swartzwelder, the plot only exists to be made fun of -- in fact, everything in the novel exists only to be made fun of -- so spending any more time on summarizing it would be time wasted. Suffice it to say, the first half of the novel involves Frank using more-or-less traditional methods of detection. For instance, at one point he consults a man who fences stolen goods with whom he has had contact in the past:
The first person I went to see was a fence I knew named Frank. Frank the Fence, we used to call him. Then we'd laugh a little, because there were two 'F's in there.
And so on. Eventually, Burly discovers that the town's criminal element has gotten hold of a time machine, which is shaped like a briefcase and was invented by a local scientist, and used that technology to ruin the Mandible name and fortune before it was even really made, and the reasons for all of this are discovered in the book's second half, which deals with Frank's largely accidental adventures along the space/time continuum His first temporal jaunt takes him to 1941 (he doesn't know it, but that's when all the important parts of the plot actually happened). When he realizes that he has traveled over 60 years backwards through time, he has a very hard time believing it, and goes about seeking proof. First, he buys a calendar off a "calendar boy", whose wares further indicate that he is in 1941. But that's not enough for him:
I walked up to some people who were filming a movie on the street and asked Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart what year it was and they both confirmed the date I had been told before. When I was leaving, shaking my head with amazement, I heard the director say: "Wait, maybe we should leave it in. Maybe it's great." But then some other guy say: "Naw, it stinks." And they started re-shooting the scene.
As I said before, the plot of this novel exists to be mocked, and therefore very little of what transpires in the second half of the novel actually serves to move the narrative forward. It's mostly just jokes -- one absurdist, dead-pan and frequently hilarious joke after another. For instance, after traveling to 1941, Frank managed to lose the time machine, and so, shortly after his encounter with Bogart, he decides to find out if anyone can simply build him a new one. He consults a "likely looking mechanic".
"It's shaped like a briefcase," I told him, "but that's only part of the story. It's also got all sorts of wheels and blinking lights and things inside. As illustrated here. Because it's a time machine as well as a briefcase. It's two things in one."
The mechanic gives building the thing a whirl, but the resulting gizmo only manages to knock Burly unconscious for five hours. Furious, he goes back to confront the mechanic.
"...This is a lemon. I'm not paying you for this. Do they have a Better Business Bureau in this time period?"
[The mechanic] hesitated for a moment, moved sideways to the left to block my view of something, then said, no, there wasn't one. Lucky for him.
This is easily one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read. I'm not even sure it counts as an actual novel. It's roughly a novel in length, and everything in it is made up, thereby qualifying it as a work of fiction, but there aren't any genuine characters as you and I understand such things to exist and function in works of art, or a story that follows any kind of logic, or anything. It's actually just a bunch of jokes. Really, really funny jokes. From where I stand, jokes seem to be getting much less funny these days, so the idea that there's a guy like Swartzwelder out there, who wants only to make you laugh, and is able to do so without making endless pop culture references or playing for applause milked from his audience and their political philosophies, is a very rare and welcome thing.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
To get to these three movies, I first have to watch, and return, Ninotchka, Woodenhead, and A Place in the Sun, but once that's done it's going to be a belly-slicing, unpleasant sex-having, poo-eating extravaganza at my pad.
I've never seen any of these movies, but why see them like this? Why lump them all together like that? How about, instead, watching a triple-feature of Salo, Lady and the Tramp and Anchors Aweigh? Or Inside with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow? Why deliberately set out to ruin my life? Subconciously I must know myself to harbor a great evil in my soul.
But my festering spiritual malignancy could possibly -- though I promise nothing -- be your gain, in that I'll more than likely end up writing about the experience. Perhaps I'll even do a genuine triple-feature of these (that was not my original plan, but maybe...) and, I don't know, live blog the son of a bitch. So look for that in the not too distant future, should you be so inclined. If, on the other hand, you don't see a post on this in about a week and a half, you'll probably know why. (Hint: It's because I'll be dead.)
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Why do I do these things? Because watching Dagon or Walk Hard on a Sunday afternoon when I'm starting to completely feel the tension of the coming work-week is an idea that's a lot easier to get behind than watching 8 1/2. That's why. Pretty simple, really. And probably not worth its own blog post.
But on Friday night, I was browsing in my favorite local DVD store (which I won't name, for fear of being labeled a sell-out and losing any street cred), and after checking to see if they had any used Criterion DVDs (they do, sometimes), I alternated between browsing the horror section and the "classics" wall. I was seriously considering picking up a used copy of Sunshine, the Danny Boyle and Alex Garland SF/horror movie, and I actually was in this store specifically to pick up Angel Heart (they were out), but when I checked out the classic DVDs I realized that the money I'd set aside for this outing would have to go elsewhere, because there, in rapid succession, I found My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley (which I haven't seen) and the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, all for prices it would have been ludicrous to turn my back on. Sunshine is a perfectly decent film, but it would not lend the air of genuineness and sincerity to my ever-growing DVD library that those three would. All of which begs the question: What, exactly, does it mean to be proud of one's DVD collection? They're just DVDs, they're just movies, and I had nothing to do with the making of any of them. What do I have to be proud of? I don't know, but I've been proud of making good menu choices at restaurants before, so I don't see why I should be so surprised.
That was Friday night, and I didn't have time to watch any of my new DVDs that night. The next morning, my wife and I headed out of town to see my family. We came back this afternoon, and on the way, at a gas station, my wife picked up Sunshine for me. So everybody wins. And then when we got home earlier today, we watched Friday the 13th on cable. Sometimes, I really don't understand what it is I think I'm doing with my life.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Sunday, February 1, 2009
More than likely, it was the last minute of Franklin J. Schaffner and Rod Serling’s film Planet of the Apes that, when first seen by audiences more than forty years ago, cemented its status as a kind of half-camp, half-serious science fiction classic. It’s by no means a bad film up to that point (although God knows it has its moments) – and in fact, watching it again last night for the first time in several years, I was struck by how well it still works – but it’s that last minute or so, that unmistakably Serling-esque twist that people remember best. The irony of it all being that this twist kinda-sorta confuses the message that Serling seems to have been trying to deliver, and it also simplifies (or I guess I should say further simplifies, because the film was none-too-subtle before then) the original source novel, Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet, from 1963.
First, I don’t imagine that I need to tell anyone who might be reading this what Serling’s twist was. In case I do, then, it was the Earth. The Planet of the Apes was actually the Earth the whole time, and we blew it up, damn us all to hell, because right there is the Statue of Liberty, all burned and beaten, and how else do you think it got there? It wasn’t transported there, you know. Glibness aside, though, it’s still a supremely effective shock moment, and I envy anybody who might not have either seen the film, or had it spoiled for them already by jerks like me. Such people can’t be too great in number, obviously, but whatever, I envy both of them. And getting to that ending isn’t exactly a chore either. It had been so long since I’d last watched the film that I didn’t realize the opening section -- which deals with Charlton Heston, Jeff Burton and Robert Gunner, as three American astronauts who believe their ship has just crash-landed on a planet located somewhere in the Orion constellation, trying to find sustenance and intelligent life – was so long. Not a single gun-toting ape for a good half hour, and no mute natives, either. Schaffner never gets much credit as a director, but it’s rather amazing to me how gripping that first half hour is, especially given how each plot point of Planet of the Apes has been spoofed or referenced or copied almost without pause over the last four decades. Schaffner and (let’s face it) composer Jerry Goldsmith do a wonderful job of establishing an otherworldly atmosphere, and getting us to care about three guys we know nothing about, other than that one of them, Heston’s George Taylor, is kind of an asshole.
Also interesting is how closely this section – and really the whole first half of the film – matches up to Boulle’s novel. Boulle actually begins with a prologue, set in the very far future, involving a man and wife named Jinn and Phyllis (Phyllis??) vacationing in space, literally sailing among the stars in a small ship with a solar-powered sail. They notice a bottle floating through the void, which they retrieve, and which they discover contains a “message” (considering that this message turns out to be pretty much the remaining 120 pages of the novel, that must of have been one big-ass bottle. But it’s the future, so I guess that makes sense). The message was written by a journalist named Ulysse Merou, who was part of a three man mission into space to explore a planet – any planet, really – surrounding the star Betelgeuse (and where is Betelgeuse? In the Orion constellation!). Merou’s colleagues are the brilliant and world famous scientist Professor Antelle; Levain, a physicist; and Hector, who is a chimpanzee. Because why not bring a chimp with you, I guess.
And it’s right here that I’ll just come out and tell you: in Boulle’s novel, the planet of the apes – sorry, the monkey planet – isn’t Earth. It’s Soror, the planet they were intentionally trying to reach (it’s called Soror because that’s what Merou and his colleagues name it almost as soon as they set foot on the planet). Still, for a while, the novel and the film follow each other pretty much step-for-step. In both, the three astronauts soon find a natural pool of water, which leads them all to immediately strip down and go frolicking. Said frolicking attracts a beautiful and mute native woman (nude in the book, sadly not in the film), who physically appears to be quite human, and who our main character almost instantly decides to name “Nova”. However, in the book, there’s that chimp named Hector to deal with, and in the book, upon seeing this animal, Nova immediately strangles him – I actually am not even sure it’s physically possible for a slenderly built young woman to strangle a chimpanzee, but Nova pulls it off. Merou is horrified, but you and I know why she did that, don’t we?
So where do the book and the film begin to significantly diverge? Well, Levain, like Burton in the film, is killed when the apes begin massacring the humans, and Antelle’s fate, like Landon’s, is unknown for a while. Merou is not shot in the neck and rendered speechless, as Taylor is in the film. No, his inability to communicate with his ape captors is due to the fact that he speaks French, and the intelligent apes speak what Boulle simply calls “simian”. But from the beginning of his imprisonment, for lack of a better word, Merou speaks to his captors. This merely confuses his gorilla guards, but fascinates Zira, the chimp scientist whose job it is to study Merou and his fellow test subjects. She doesn’t know what he’s saying, but she knows that he is speaking, unlike any human she has ever met. As in the film, Zaius, Zira’s orangutan boss, thinks Merou is simply a gifted mimic, and that his language is mere gibberish. Zira knows better, and, with her fiancée Cornelius, sets out to prove it.
So, this is just like the film, right? Up until this point, that’s essentially true. Except in Boulle’s story, this planet is not Earth. We already know that. So the big question, for someone reading this novel after having practically memorized the film, as so many of us have, is where is all this going? And, more importantly, why is it going there? At one point in the novel, Zira explains to Merou how each species of ape on Soror functions, what their talents are, and so forth, and there are shades – some brighter than others – of all of this in the film: the gorillas are pretty stupid, but have a gift for brutishness and low cunning; the orangutans write all the books – history, science, culture – but have built nothing from, or questioned the wisdom of, any of the books written by any of the generations of orangutans who preceded them; they merely put into their own words the received wisdom of their ancestors, all of which frustrates the chimpanzees who, according to Zira, are the real thinkers on the planet. All the important medical, scientific and historical discoveries that have been made on Soror have been made by chimps, although in order to achieve real advancements for their culture through these discoveries they have to deal with the bureaucracy of the gorillas and the traditionalist pride of the orangutans, which is often a combination that is impossible to overcome.
All of that’s in the film, too, but in the book there is no Forbidden Zone, and no hidden secret regarding the fate of humankind being kept by Zaius for the protection of his own race. There’s no Statue of Liberty buried in the sand somewhere to show us the folly of war.
In the film, Zaius and the orangutans are a mixture of the Tennessee School Board during the Scopes trial, and Pope Urban VIII to Zira’s Galileo. Which muddies the film’s message a bit, doesn’t it? The orangutans' active barring of scientific progress is derided in moments like the infamous “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” shot, and the filmmakers appear to be pleading for a wide embracing of scientific discovery, no matter how those discoveries may change our lives or beliefs. But then we find out how mankind has put scientific progress to use (“We blew it up!”). Not only that, but we find out that Zaius isn’t a close-minded idiot after all. He’s not Pope Urban VIII, or a backwards town that wants to suppress the theory of evolution. He knows everything! It was all there on those scrolls! He only wants to keep the citizens of…ah, Earth, I guess…ignorant because he knows where scientific progress will lead them (they’ll blow it up). So is this a confused message, or a complex one delivered through a narrative that is littered with red herrings? I’m going with the former, because I doubt Serling wanted to appear to advocate for the suppression of any kind of knowledge.
What are Zaius’s motives in the novel? He doesn’t have any, really. Once Zira and Merou prove him wrong – via a long speech, delivered by Merou, in the simian language he has subsequently learned, to an astonished crowd of ape scientists – Zaius gets demoted by his superiors, disappears from the novel, and Merou becomes a celebrity and citizen. Zaius doesn’t believe that Merou is anything other than an animal because he actually is stupid and close-minded. And he’s stupid and close-minded because he’s an ape. In Boulle’s novel, Cornelius and Merou discover, through evidence found at an archeological dig, that, in fact, evolution on Soror worked this way: mankind was at one point the dominant species. They discovered that apes were very close to humans, both in biology and intelligence, and, as Merou points out Zira’s human counterparts on Earth are beginning to do, set about training the apes to behave more like humans. Which they do. The apes, we find, learned through mimicry (which, remember, is all Zaius thought Merou was capable of) to the point where they were able to realize they didn’t like being subservient to man, and revolted. As the apes grew more intelligent and powerful, over the centuries (millennia?) the humans grew more animalistic, pushed out of society and into the natural world. So the apes attained dominance, but having based their learning on mimicry, their society has grown stagnant.
Boulle’s themes don’t stop here -- for a 128-page book, Monkey Planet is surprisingly rich. For instance, in the film, Heston’s Taylor goes from being an arrogant misanthrope I didn’t much care for, to a man fighting for his freedom and dignity, to a man who realizes he really did love his planet and his species, now that he realizes that they’re essentially gone. In the novel, Merou’s character follows an almost opposite path. Merou starts out as a kind of likably bland hero. As in the film, he bonds with Nova, at first for spiritual comfort. He’s eventually forced by the ape scientists into a sexual relationship with Nova, but, while he’s humiliated at first, he does grow to enjoy it, and they develop a kind of domestic affection together. But once Merou begins to get through to Zira, he begins to see Nova as the apes do: as an animal. He, Merou, is an intelligent being, like Zira, and it is with her that he begins to identify, not with Nova, who he gradually comes to regard as an annoying pest with whom he does have some residual affection. Still, it becomes easy for him to treat her cruelly, and to think of her in very unflattering terms. One chapter ends with Merou and Zira, who have been away from the cage Merou shares with Nova, strongly connecting both intellectually and emotionally:
My heart overflowed with gratitude. I yielded to the soulfulness of her expression, managing to overlook her physical appearance. I put my hand on her long hair paw. A shiver went down her spine and I discerned in her eyes a gleam of affection. We were both deeply moved and remained silent all the way back. When she returned me to my cage, I roughly rebuffed Nova, who was indulging in some sort of childish demonstration to welcome me back.
Boulle subtly touches on the casual cruelty that mankind shows to animals, both in order to gain knowledge (Soror’s humans serve as guinea pigs in neurological experiments they’re not going to survive) and because we just naturally feel superior to them. This is the main reason, if not the only reason, Soror’s apes originally revolted. (And yes, there’s the same sort of weird attraction between Merou and Zira in the novel as there is between Taylor and Zira in the film, and it goes about as far, and ends almost exactly the same way.)
There’s also a moment when Merou is touring ape culture with Cornelius, who takes him to, among other places, their version of the stock exchange, whose members, Merou can’t help but note, are behaving at their most ape-like, as he, an Earthling, recognizes that idea, which is a point that feeds into Merou’s theorizing about the origin of the apes on Soror. He realizes that mimicry could account for all of it:
Basically, [human] industry consisted of manual laborers, always performing the selfsame tasks, who could easily be replaced by apes; and, at a higher level, of executives whose function was to draft certain reports and pronounce certain words under given circumstances. All this was a question of conditioned reflexes. At the still higher level of administration, it seemed even easier to concede the quality of aping.
And, of Soror’s stock exchange, Merou notes:
It needed all my previous acquaintance with the apes to convince me that these were rational creatures. No one in his right mind who watched this circus could escape the conclusion that he was witnessing the frolics of madmen or animals gone wild. Not a glimmer of intelligence could be seen in their eyes, and they all looked alike. I could not tell one from another. All of them were dressed in the same way and wore the same mask, which was the mask of madness.
Schaffner and Serling may have had trouble putting asses in seats with that sort of thing, but it’s digging a bit deeper than the finger-wagging and bad puns that make up the majority of their film’s satirical element.
Finally, we come to the end of Boulle’s book. Without getting into too much detail, Merou is forced to flee Soror. The apes fear what a race of intelligent humans means for them, so, with the help of Zira and Cornelius, he is able to get himself, Nova and their new-born son (oops) back to his ship and begin a journey back to Earth. In the original trip from Earth to Soror, two years passed for Merou and his colleagues, while, of course, centuries passed on Earth. More centuries have passed by during Merou’s return. Can you guess what he’s greeted with when he, Nova and their child finally touch down? Yes, it’s a planet that has barely advanced beyond the technological achievements of the era of his original departure, and it is dominated by intelligent apes. After all, why not? We on Earth know how close, intellectually, apes are to us, at least potentially, and yet we treat them with the kind of disregard that we would never show to other humans (well…very generally speaking, anyway). So, if it could happen on Soror, it can happen here.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I was inspired by Boulle’s novel to also finally watch Barbet Schroeder’s 1978 documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla, about Dr. Penny Patterson and her attempts to communicate through a shared language with a young gorilla. I found the film to be absolutely fascinating, and I had to wonder if a gorilla who cannot only feel a preference for a red sweater over a yellow sweater, but to express that preference, as Koko does in the film, is doing something beyond simple mimicry (which, following Boulle’s thinking, might actually make things worse for us down the road). I also find it curious that it took an actual ape dealing with trained scientists, and a filmed document of their work and experiences, to make people even briefly consider the question, not of the humanity of apes, but -- as Patterson phrases it with a weird kind of oblique clarity – the personhood of apes. I’m starting to think that Boulle was a genius.