Saturday, August 06, 2011

Ape Like Imitation: Repetition and Difference in the Planet of the Apes

The Hollywood tendency towards repetition, towards reproduction of the same, which reaches its culmination in recent reboots and remakes must, despite itself, confront history. History not in the sense of fashions, dates, and technology, but the historicity that defines a moment, its structure of feeling: history at the level of subtext rather than text. 

There is perhaps no clearer illustration of this than The Planet of the Apes. The first version, the novel by Pierre Boulle, always seemed to me similar to John Stuart Mill’s colonialist use of the image of apes. In On Liberty Mill refers to those who do not choose, who only conform, as requiring no other faculty than the ape like one of imitation. This criticism takes on a colonialist tinge when Mill describes China and India as parts of the world that once had innovation and individuality, developing culture and innovation long before Europe, but have fallen into stagnation through the dominance of custom. “The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of custom is complete.” For Mill custom, ape like imitation, ends innovation. Boulle’s novel presents us with apes, apes who possess modern technology, rifles, jeeps, and aircraft, but cannot create it. Thus suggesting that “man,” or white man, will one day be overwhelmed by cultures which can only imitate and not create. Imitation destroys the original.

The film, written by Rod Serling, removed this subtext of colonial anxiety, replacing it with apocalyptic dread. He replaced the novel’s strange ending, restored in the ill conceived remake by Tim Burton, in which the human astronaut returns to an Earth dominated by apes, to make it set on “Earth all along,” a point driven home by the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. The new subtext is one of a humanity destined to destroy itself, and the rebellion of the youth, “never trust anyone over thirty.” The lone human finds himself supported by young idealistic apes, tired of the authority of the older generation. (The movie also presents a society divided into the military, gorillas; religious and political  authority, orangutans; and scientists, chimpanzees).  The apes still imitated, but what they imitated was our inability to change, to stubbornly hold to our “sacred scrolls” to the point of destruction.

The apocalyptic dread culminates in the second apocalypse of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. After this film, the latter movies in the series, which, thanks to the paradoxes of time travel, are both sequels and prequels, play up the connection with rebellion and counter culture. The first, Escape from the Planet of the Apes begins with the sympathetic chimps from the first film traveling back in time in the missing human spacecraft only to arrive at Earth in 1973. While this was probably an ingenious way to deal with the dwindling budgets of the later sequels, it also sets up a narrative where the apes are the sympathetic figures, isolated outcasts rather than dominant species, inverting the book's inverted world. The US government is afraid of the apes, symbols of the decline of man, and eventually decides to kill them and their unborn son as a preemptive strike against the ape’s eventual dominance. The parents are killed, the infant survives, and humanity reveals itself to be the monster. The film offers everything that we would expect from a paranoid thriller of the seventies: a secretive government that is not above political assassinations and second sniper. 

The opposition to “the man” becomes much more explicit in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Set in the distant nineteen nineties it follows the surviving ape from the future into the prehistory of the first Planet of the Apes. It is a world in which apes have already become slaves rather than pets: they work as butlers, hairdressers, and store clerks. There are no scenes of apes working in factories or farms: it is entirely a service based economy where everyone seems to be able to afford their own monkey butler. This is supposed to be efficient and beneficial for the humans, but the film constantly shows the apes to either incompetent or unruly, overturning buffet trays, shrieking from the flames of a fondue set, and grabbing the wrong book from the shelf. In contrast to this unruliness of the apes, there is the docility of the humans: one scene shows a group of out of work human waiters, displaced by the ape based slave economy, peacefully protesting their condition. The film offers an opposite message than it would appear to invoke: slavery proves to be a difficult form of domination, lashes and chains are less effective than an interiorized sense of privilege and belonging. The apes are difficult to dominate precisely because their domination is so overt, and their ignorance of the tasks assigned to them always risks spilling over into insurrection. The movie brings together the primitive accumulation of original domestication with the indignities of service work, drawing a straight line that suggests that civilization is nothing other than obedience. Nature is the original strategy of refusal.

The analogy to the history of slavery and racial oppression is so heavy handed as to cease to be subtext. This is especially true in the case of Macdonald, the Governor’s African-American assistant. He is presented as someone who must necessarily be sympathetic with the apes, a point which is first uttered by a group of cops, perhaps as proof of their racism; of course they think that the black man must be sympathetic to the apes, but sooner or later everyone makes this equation. The difference between the enslavement of another species, even a highly intelligent one, and the enslavement of humans is barely mentioned in the film, which is either a testament to its concern for animals or evidence of its confused grasp of race. Nevertheless, the constant invocation of racism and the history of slavery paints a rather brutal picture of human history, a picture underscored by cast of ugly, angry, and petty humans. The Ape's revolution doesn't just condem their treatment, but all of human history, a history of exploitation and domination. The distrust and hatred of humans that the original Planet of the Apes presented as prejudice is now reiterated as fact. Dr. Zaius will have been vindicated.

Given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a remake, or reimagining, of Conquest, albiet without the time travel, the question is how will it rewrite the odd anti-racist racism of the original. The focus is now on genetic engineering and the use of apes as research subjects. The tagline states "Evolution becomes Revolution," placing this film in the subgenre of what could be called "Darwinian" horror: films that try to make the extinction of humanity the nightmare. (other examples of the genre include The War of the Worlds, Species and the horrible Godzilla remake, films which present the conflict between man and a superior species). Such films could be understood as products of a biopolitical era when it is easier to imagine the extinction of mankind as a species than the end of capitalism, but the equivalence  that the tagline sets up between "evolution" and "revolution," biology and politics suggests real confusion of nature and culture that is integral to racist thought. In the earlier Ape films the difference of species did not make much of a difference. Yes the apes were harrier, and walked with a slight hunch, but they were mostly hairy humans with different sets of laws and rules. Their evolution was really more of a revolution, an overthrowing of the oppressor. Rise is able to utilize the new digital technologies to give us apes that really move like apes, swinging through trees and over the Golden Gate bridge. In doing so it is able to really capture, in a way the earlier films could not, the feeling of being defeated by a smarter, faster, and stronger species. (The New York Times has suggested that form meets content in this case: the story of genetically altered superior apes is mapped at the level of the form with the digitally created characters of Caesar the ape leader. We are watching the extinction of the actor).

Where does Rise ultimately stand with respect to subtext? Much of the discussion has stressed the role that animal experimentation plays in the film. PETA has even come out in favor of it. This is true, but it overlooks the fact that the movie is no less critical of zoos, circus, shelters, and even the misguided practice of keeping wild animals in homes, domesticated as little children. (The release of this film overlaps with the release of the documentary Project Nim, a film about an attempt to raise an ape as a child. The latter also presents the humans as fundamentally misguided in their attempts to domesticate apes). Caesar's rebellious spirit is cultivated in a seemingly unlikely place, an ape sanctuary, where bureaucracy, indifference, and the banality of daytime soap operas drives him against humanity. (One staff member, who appears to be left over from Conquest,  repeatedly takes out the frustrations of his menial job on the apes). Ultimately the film suggests that the gulf that separates man and animal is unbridgeable: an uncanny gulf separates us from the apes, the more they look like us, think like us, and are like us, the less we can relate to them. We can place neither in our cages nor our homes (itself a kind of cage).

Both Conquest and Rise suggest that the similarity that links ape with man will be exploited, as servants in the first film and as research subjects in the second. They are differentiated by their two different ways of imagining exploitation, generalized servitude or the exploitation of information. The latter seems more realistic, after all, medical testing on apes is a reality, but the former is ultimately more satisfying. Scenes in the original Conquest resemble a kind of simian Fight Club, with the apes acting out everyday acts of refusal and sabotage, suggesting that the first film was trying to connect with the frustrations of waiters and shop clerks stuck at home watching "Ape week." The recent film offers no such identification with the day to day exploitation of the apes, unless you have been subject to medical trials. Despite the focus on science, and the generic "playing God" plot, the real incubator of revolutionary activity is the ape sanctuary, a prison of daily humiliations. It greatest success, however, is how much it  vastly improves on the earlier film's scenes of apes in revolt. Caesar has often been referred to as a Che Guevera of the apes, but Rise really excels at its scenes of tactics, you get to watch as solidarity is developed across the species lines of gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan, and then see these alliances put to the test against humans. The final Golden Gate confrontation is a brilliant instance of tactics: if the cops control the streets, control the sky and the ground beneath them.

Finally, the turn towards comic books, old science fiction movies, and other elements of nerd culture as the basis for every summer blockbuster has created a kind of esoteric/exoteric divide in many films. Lines from old films, visual jokes, and other trivia become a kind of secret text, intended for the discriminating eyes and ears of those in the know, while the movie still delivers the explosions and romantic subplots for the masses. Rise is riddled with such moments, all of the iconic lines from the original are worked into the script ("bright eyes," "It's a mad house. A mad house," "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,"etc.) and if you look or listen closely you can find references to a missing Icarus spacecraft and a model Statue of Liberty. These are a little distracting, and the movie could have done without them. The movie does offer an interesting little scene during the closing credits (worth sticking around for). The scene is not a set up for a sequel, as we have seen in most summer movies, but a tiny bit of narrative closure, answering the question as to how revolt turns into revolution, how one ape saying "No" could lead to a global transformation. Unfortunately, it is more on the side of evolution than revolution, proving in this case that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of specieism.

The myth of Casear, the ape who stood up to man and said "no," has been central to the Apes films since the beginning. At its best Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes that "no," that refusal, necessary and affirmative.


unemployed negativity said...

I have been thinking more and more about this film especially in the context of the riots in London. Not in the sense that I am drawing any parallel between the rioters and apes (or any other animal), although such comparisons are a staple of the racist press and comment boards. What strikes me about this film, and many like it, is that it gets its audience, most of whom are probably law abiding people, to take such pleasure in the destruction of police cars and helicopters, not to mention society itself. There is an aesthetics of revolt that manny people are seduced by, seduced by the identifications with exploitation (after all, the film was a surprising critical and initial commercial success), but often this aesthetic identification does not carry over into political life.

stoddard said...

I like this post very much. Having seen the film only a few days ago, the riots (and discourse around them) were forefront in my mind. I think what you refer to as aesthetic identification in your comment might be further elaborated in the terms laid out in Jameson's "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." In sum, it seems that, despite the construction of identification with the apes (esp. in the great scene on the bridge), the species divide serves undercut or defuse this identification (and its extension into some kind of political identification and action), creating, as Jameson might have it, a "safe" release valve for antagonism---similarly with the sub-plot in the ape sanctuary (which I see as a reworking of the prison film genre). (There is probably something significant here as well in the way that Cesar, who the audience is made to feel closest to, is, in contrast to the creepy one-eyed ape, decidedly against killing the cops.)

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, I love that essay, and your remarks about it raise an interesting point. It suggests that every film must provide just enough identification and distance in order to make such acts of revolt enjoyable. I also think that you are right to suggest that the film is analogous to a a prison film, with all of its rivalries and indignities.

Finally, and on a somewhat unrelated point, I am struck by how Caesar solves the "problem of organization." He recognizes that the apes are weak as individuals but strong as a mass, the great scene with Maurice the Orangutan and the bundle of sticks (despite its shades of fascism), but is confronted with the fact that the apes fall into petty conflict. So what does he do? He elevates their intelligence with the gas which I suppose can be seen as either class consciousness in aerosol form or the necessary intellectual labor for autonomous organization.

unemployed negativity said...

Another interesting take on _Rise of the Planet of the Apes_: