War for the Planet of the Apes considered

Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
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Gojira, the original kaiju

At the end of most Godzilla films, the audience is led to believe the giant reptile has finally been killed off. Blown up, defeated by another monster, killed by technology, sunk to the bottom of the ocean or suffered some similar fate. And yet there he*** is, hale and hearty in the next film, rampaging through Japan once again, and facing yet another kaiju (giant monster) – or often several. After 32 films, Godzilla still comes back. And so do I.*

I was thinking about Godzilla this week, today in particular. This is the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. My grandfather was there, and was injured in the blast. Seeing images of the city after the event made me think of images of Hiroshima, and that in turn made me think about Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo. I imagined Godzilla stomping through the low-rise Halifax, a century ago. Funny how the mind works, sometimes.

director Ishirô Honda on the set of 1954's GodzillaIt began in 1954 with Gojira, the original black-and-white Godzilla movie and still one of the (if not the) best. Film number 32, the animated Godzilla Monster Planet, was released in November, 2017, making this the longest-running film franchise in history.

Gojira was an early tokukatsu film – special effects – that features suitmation (also called suitamation) or actors wearing suits, rather than stop motion, claymation, puppets or CGI. It’s not unique to Japan, but certainly mastered there.

Gojira – the creation of Tomoyuki Tanaka with writers Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, director Ishiro Honda, and special-effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya – was originally produced as a metaphor for Japanese fears about an uncertain, post-Hiroshima future and where science might lead us without moral restraint. Honda had been a soldier in the war and seen Hiroshima after the bomb, first hand, in 1946.

The film itself was an allegory about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation: the monster himself represented both the bomb and its effects. It was, like Kurosawa’s later 1955 film, I Live in Fear, about Japan’s national “atomophobia,” although not always directly. Godzilla is more than a film monster; he (it) becomes the symbol of Japan’s fate, raising the philosophical question whether Japan deserves his wrath because of its wartime aggression.

As Tim Martin wrote in The Telegraph, it was, “…a sober allegory of a film with ambitions as large as its thrice-normal budget, designed to shock and horrify an adult audience.” The original film still has some of that power.

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Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Kong and his films

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island is the 19th movie in my collection about apes.* Or at least ape-ish creatures (not including those about cave people or yetis). We watched the recently-released Kong: Skull Island this past weekend, even devouring all of the special features on the second disc.

I give Kong: Skull Island second place in the great ape/Kong pantheon because it’s well done, fun, action-packed, and not nearly as bloated as Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic. Despite some lukewarm or critical reviews, it’s worth watching and collecting if your taste are in any way similar to mine. Films of this ilk are meant to be entertainment, not art. And this one succeeds well in being that. Plus it has some of the best natural scenery in any film I’ve ever seen (Vietnam, in particular).

The main list of my ape films includes the original, 1933 King Kong; still my favourite of the genre, despite some uncomfortably racist bits. And I will admit that the original movie doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always consistent. But it’s fun and was the first big, commercial stop-frame animation film. If you’ve never watched it, you really should. Try to find a copy with the cut scenes restored. And certainly see it before you watch the latest Kong film, so you have the proper context. (For me, it’s also nostalgia: I first saw the film on TV in the 1950s).

A few of the rest of the oldies in my collection are remakes or semi-sequels (not necessarily following in story sequence from the original; sometimes with its own story arc). Some are clumsy mixes of the Tarzan motif and King Kong. Some were “inspired” by (or simply rip-offs of) the original King Kong but not necessarily related in story or mythos. Many rode on its coattails and on the popular (and commercially profitable) fascination with apes and monsters that rose from Kong, Tarzan and all the monster films that were released in the 1930s and later.
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The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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