The tragedy of a ridiculous man
Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes: I’d bang that damned dirty ape.
In a previous entry I farted out some pithy comments about the first three Planet of the Apes movies (my cable provider is currently offering the series free in HD), leaving all seven of my devoted readers clamoring for pearls concerning the fourth and fifth. As I’d mentioned, I never saw Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) until now, and found it the only interesting one, if not the most compelling, of the sequels. People who extend the director-as-auteur theory to hired guns like J. Lee Thompson should be ashamed of themselves, especially here. I’m convinced the Apes franchise was masterminded and guided by producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who apparently was inspired by the Watts Riots to illustrate the revolution bridging Escape from the Planet of the Apes’s talking baby chimp to the apes’ global domination. Pungent with racism, Jacobs’s ballsy correlation of simian and Nubian ethics would never survive a single pre-production story conference if it were being made today.
I had seen the fifth and final movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) soon after it opened, when Fox reissued all five for their “Go Ape!” festival. I hated it then, but now, thirty-six years later, I find it weirdly endearing. Claude Akins is the most intimidating ape warrior of the series, and who can resist John Huston slumming for grocery money as The Lawgiver? There’s also Severn Darden (James Coburn’s Russian pal in The President’s Analyst) as a deranged human atomic survivor assisted by France Nuyen, yet.
For the full Ape experience I rented Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001), which I never saw before. I like some of Burton (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Edward Scissorhands), but a lot of it leaves me cold (Sleepy Hollow is the pits; his two Batman movies are a drag). This was pretty bad, but I’ll grant that it was never dull. Two points of interest: Helena Bonham Carter gives the best performance by anyone in any Ape movie; and Burton’s chilling visual homage to 9-11’s Ground Zero is even more frightening when you realize this movie came out two months before 9-11.
My cable provider is also offering (via the Sundance Channel) David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Inland Empire (2006), both for free in HD. I’m no fan of the latter. To me, Lynch can be a visionary without peer (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr.) or a groping thumb twiddler (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway). I’ve little patience for Inland Empire. Eraserhead, on the other hand, is a different story. The last time I saw it was in the 1970s; I did try to watch Columbia’s dreadful VHS edition in the early 80s, but the image was barely visible. I saw Eraserhead a week or two after it opened in Manhattan at either the Cinema Village or the 8th Street Playhouse. Before I went, a friend asked me if I’d ever seen this “really weird thing that looked like it was made in the 1940s.” No one knew of Lynch back then. To see Eraserhead cold like that was a unique experience. (For an excellent summation of the film in that time and place, check out Stuart Samuels’s documentary, Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.) And here we are thirty-two years later and it holds up, well… magnificently. It’s rife with visuals and themes we’d see in later Lynch — the zigzagging floor tiles, the empty theaters, the impromptu musical breaks, the outré violence. One change for me was my take on the baby. I dismissed it as a soulless monster back in the 70s; now I think the kid is oddly engaging, especially when it chuckles over Henry’s sexual dilemma. And everything else attracts the eye like a puss-filled scab or a hideous wound you’d secretly like to fondle.
Lastly, Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looks stunning. And the film — all one-hundred-sixty-five minutes of it — holds the attention, primarily for the eye but not the mind. Give it any thought and the thing crumbles under the weight of its own inconsequentiality. Great makeup, though, and the sets, photography and period recreation are outstanding.