Sunday, March 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Warren Beatty!

Today is Warren Beatty's 71st birthday.

I've been a Warren Beatty fan about as long as I've been a movie fan. I was even one of the rare people who went to see Ishtar in the theater, and I still thing that's an underrated movie. In fact, it was one of the highlights of the Doctors K's wedding reception when our pal Mike sang "Wardrobe of Love" from that movie.

I also remember going to see the Oscars on the big screen at the Fargo Theatre the year Bugsy was up for a bunch of awards. Mike and I had gone to see the movie several times while it was playing at the buck theater, and we could pretty much quote huge sections of it verbatim. During the Oscar ceremony, we obnoxiously stood up and clapped every time Beatty appeared on the screen.

Seriously, though, Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe and Mrs. Miller are two of my all-time favorite movies. Beatty--who is called "Pro" by friends like Jack Nicholson--has been bold but selective in his career choices, which have often had a huge impact on American filmmaking. I should probably do a longer post on Warren Beatty some time, perhaps even running a Warren Week.

Here's the trailer for The Parallax View, one of the great, bleak, paranoid political thrillers to come out of the Watergate era.

I need to devote a whole post to this film, especially the great subliminal montage sequence.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Things I Love about David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague, Part 1

I'm currently reading David Hajdu's cultural history of comic books, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, and as I'm reading it, I'll be posting facts and details from it that I find particularly awesome.

Number 1: Will Eisner talking smack about Bob Kane:

"Bob was a very vapid kind of guy, and his talent was quite limited," Eisner said. "The big thing he was working on at the time was a thing called Peter Pupp, which was an imitation of Disney. That was the limit of his capacity. But he was very aggressive, and he had an immensely leathery skin, so that no matter how much humiliation he suffered, it didn't even register with him."

From Batman/Spirit by Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Apes Week Addendum

As a comic fan, I have access to a nearly endless supply of monkey stories to suit my desires. That also means, when you're talking about the best monkey comics of all time, you're also talking about books that are in the running for best comics of all time.

Any conversation about great monkey comics must include at least a reference to Art Adams's Monkeyman and O'Brien, which is easily one of the top monkey comics of all time. Leaving it out of such a conversation would be like talking about great cover songs and leaving out Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" or Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."

With that being said, I want to champion a great monkey comic that may not always get included in such conversations: Primate by "Manly Man" Beau Smith, Kevin Bernhardt, and Mitch Byrd, published by Image in 2001.

(Signed by the man himself!)

What I like about Primate is that it breaks the mold of your typical monkey comic. Most, like Monkeyman and O'Brien, Sky Ape, and Marvel's "Gorilla Man" involve apes with human intelligence. Primate, however, is about Bobo, who is a real gorilla who learns sign language from an anthropologist and then seeks revenge on the hunters who killed his family.

That's the high concept in a nutshell. And then there's this:

Bobo's weapons of choice are two giant swords with spiked handles.

And he uses them in such a way that exceeds expectations:

Bobo's favorite move, it seems, is decapitation, which he does at least 4 times in the course of the first issue.

But the best panel in the comic, which may qualify this as the best panel in comic history, is this:

We've already seen three decapitations in this comic, so to give this last one a little bit of a push over the cliff, we get the rolling head enunciating "ouch." There is really nothing better than that.

Except this: Bobo then signs a message that insults the dead guy's manhood.

What sort of anthropologist would teach a gorilla to sign that phrase? An awesome anthropologist.

What Beau Smith et al get about good monkey comics is that they should be about one thing: unrestrained primal violence. This comic is, indeed, awesome. I rest my case.

Update: Snell over at Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep includes some cool ads for abridged 16mm versions of the Apes films, plus a clip of the best Planet of the Apes parody ever. Thanks, Snell!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Apes Week Day 6: I miss you ape, I miss your toffee cape

From 1975 to 1976, following the cancellation of the short-lived Planet of the Apes tv series, came the Saturday morning cartoon Return to the Planet of the Apes, which, other than some comic series and novelizations, marks the end of Apes-mania.

Like most of the other entries in the franchise, this series follows time-traveling astronauts, in this case, astronauts Bill Hudson, Jeff Carter, and Judy Franklin. Unlike the other entries, however, this one makes a better attempt at a diverse cast, with one white male, one black male, and one white female astronaut. The closest the tv series got to diversity was casting blond and brunette leads.

The cartoon tries, moreso than the tv series, to insert itself into Planet of the Apes continuity, though with mixed results. The astronauts land in 3979, an event which technically occurs after the destruction of the earth in 3955. In their first contact with humans, they meet Nova, who is wearing Brent's dogtags. We find out later that these dogtags belong not to John Brent, the astronaut from Beneath, but "Ron Brent," a completely different astronaut who left earth more than 100 years after Bill, Jeff, and Judy. This may be an attempt to fix a potential continuity error from the beginning of the series.

Cornelius and Zira also appear, though it seems that they have never seen a talking human before meeting Bill, whom Zira names "Blue Eyes" (apparently, she has a thing for eyes). The human's nemesis is General Urko (from the tv series), voiced by veteran cartoon actor Henry Corden, whose voice is a little too familiar for this role. While I was watching this show, in fact, the Other Dr. K came into the room and asked, "Why does Fred Flintstone hate humans so much?"

Despite the flaws in the Filmation-style animation used by DePatie-Freleng, where most images are static, many shots are recycled in a single episode, and each episode has about 5 minutes of total animation, the series holds up well. Some credit goes to artist Doug Wildey, co-creator of Johnny Quest, for making some of the static images detailed and attractive. Much of the credit, however, goes to the writers (especially Larry Siegel, whose episodes seem much better than others), who often work well within the limits of the cheap animation to create fun stories that adhere to an internal continuity within the series. In fact, the series seems to be building toward a specific conclusion: humans finding a place in the world in which they can leave separately from apes, in peace. Each episode brings the humans a step closer to achieving this goal.

The writers also take some freedoms with the animation that couldn't be done within the technological limits of the films or tv series. For example, threats often come from monsters, like a huge shrieking dragon or an undersea creature. Also, the ape society in the cartoon is much more advanced than in the movies (though not compared to the novel). In the cartoon, apes drive vehicles, watch television, and go to the movies.

This allows for some nice ironic moments along the lines of "human see, human do" from the first movie. In the cartoon, a hayseed ape driving a pickup listens to a new hit country song, "You Drive Me Humanoid." Also, ape soldiers talk about the recent film release, "The Apefather," and Cornelius and Zira own a first edition of hte complete works of William Apespeare. These are silly puns, but they work well in this cartoon.

This series also has some clever moments. For several episodes, Judy is worshipped by the Underdwellers, who think of her as their predesitined savior, "Oosa." It turns out the Underdwellers are in possession of a statue commemorating Judy's apparent sacrifice to the space program, under which is inscribed "USA."

In a lot of ways, I prefer the cartoon to the tv series. The cartoon has its own continuity that develops throughout the thirteen episodes, whereas the tv series seems to just return to the status quo at the end of each episode, with Burke, Virdon, and Galen on the run from Urko and in search of a computer that might help the astronauts get back to their own time.

While Apes-mania ran for roughly seven years, much of its pop culture saturation came about in the last two years, with the release of the toys, games, lunchboxes, comic books, tv series, and cartoon. (The Mego Museum has a nice page detailing the history of the Mego Apes toys in particular.) Perhaps because those two years were roughly 1/3 of my life at the time, they seemed much more significant.

But the arc of the franchise's popularity--from successful movie to sequels to cultural saturation and decline--provides an interesting lesson from contemporary pop culture. The franchise had an enormous output in a short period of time. While other sci-fi franchises, most notably Star Wars and Star Trek, have had longer, more sustained outputs, one has to wonder if the Apes franchise doesn't present a better model. At the very least, this phenomenon rode the zeitgeist wave to its very end and then, with a few exceptions, abruptly stopped.

However, it is curious that a sustained Apes revival hasn't happened in the way that other franchises have experienced. Perhaps the one major attempt--Tim Burton's 2001 film--was so dismal and disappointing that the series will need several decades to recover. It's a shame, too, because we are living in a time, much like the world of the late 60s, where the allegorical power of Planet of the Apes could again be tapped.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Apes Week Day 5: Who knows the future, Lawgiver?

In his description of the Planet of the Apes timeline on the Hasslein Curve website, Rich Handley detailed two schools of interpretation when it comes to the entire franchise, which he referred to as the "circular vs. changing" debate. These two interpretations hinge upon how one reads the impact of Zira and Cornelius's time travel and the subsequent birth of their child, Milo/Caesar, in Escape from the Planet of the Apes .

To summarize: the circular argument contends that the 5 films present a perfectly sealed time loop, in which the events of the final movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, set up the conditions for the events of Planet of the Apes, though more than 1950 years separate the periods of the two movies (not counting the framing sequence in Battle that takes place during 2670).

The changing argument claims that Zira and Cornelius's time travel, and the introduction of Caesar as the apes' revolutionary leader, changes the ape history in some way that puts in doubt the events of Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The changing argument can also be seen as a linear interpretation, as opposed to the circular argument.

As pop culture debates go, this one is much more interesting and intellectually complex than the debates of quality and taste that often dominate pop culture: Thing vs. Hulk, Superman vs. Batman, Marvel vs. DC, Paul vs. John (the answer: George), Beatles vs. Rolling Stones (the answer: the Kinks), Oasis vs. Blur, Connery vs. Moore vs. Lazenby vs. Dalton vs. Brosnan vs. Craig. And, of course, Star Wars vs. Star Trek (the answer: Planet of the Apes, obviously). With the Apes debate, considerable evidence can be brought to support either side, and both can help to explain some of the oddities or inconsistencies in the franchise as a whole, not just the movies.

For example, Battle ends with the revelation of the Alpha-Omega bomb in the ruins of Los Angeles, leading viewers to the conclusion that the mutant humans under the leadership of Governor Mendez are the ancestors of the Underdwellers in Beneath. That revelation seems to "foreshadow" the destruction of the earth, yet we get no explanation of how the bomb and the Underdwellers got to New York City from LA. But a lot can happen in 1950 years. The circular interpretation works best if one wants the destruction of the earth to be the ultimate outcome of the films' events (and who doesn't want that?).

In the changing argument, the vision of harmony between apes and humans as depicted in Battle's framing sequence set in 2670 results directly from Caesar's role as Lawgiver, and his influence on ape history removes the conditions for the dystopian future of Planet of the Apes. This argument is useful in dealing with the discrepancies between the historical narrative that Cornelius explains in Escape and the events of Battle. Cornelius explains that it was an ape named "Aldo" who first spoke the word "No!" and led the ape rebellion, while Aldo (played by Sheriff Lobo himself, Claude Akins) is the militaristic antagonist that Caesar kills at the end of Battle. Because Caesar's compassionate treatment of humans wins out in the end, humans never get reduced to the level we see them in the first movie.

The circular argument helps to explain what I find to be one of the more glaring problems in the franchise: the fact that humans can speak and form communities in the tv series. The tv series takes place in 3085 (that is, according to the chronometer on the spaceship--astronauts Burke and Virdon acknowledge that the clock may have broken at some point in the journey), roughly 900 years before the arrival of Taylor (there are some problems with the date of Taylor's arrival: in Planet of the Apes, Taylor's equipment states that the year is 3978; however, in Beneath, Brent states that the year is 3955. Most sources I've looked at choose 3955 as the preferred date.). Between Battle and the tv series, then, human/ape relations have significantly deteriorated, and in the 900 years up to the first movie, humans have continued to devolve as they lose the ability to speak and form societies.

However, the tv series is such a mess of continuity that it's really difficult to try to fit it neatly into the overall narrative. In the first scene of the first episode, a dog chases a human up a tree. However, anyone who has paid any attention to the movies knows that the extinction of dogs and cats is what causes the domestication of simians, leading to their use as servants and ultimate sentience. And in that same episode, the astronauts find a picture book containing a photo of New York City in the 26th century, yet the city had been destroyed in a nuclear war according to the films. Also, the astronauts Virdon and Burke come from the year 1980, yet they seem to have no knowledge of Zira and Cornelius, who are huge media celebrities in 1971 of Escape. The creators of the series clearly had no desire to make it blend consistently with the movies.

The changing argument, however, can also be used to explain away a lot of the inconsistencies between the first two movies and later entries in the franchise. If some continuity problem comes up, one can just credit it to a time travel paradox and move on.

Another element that causes some problems for me with these films occurs in the gap between Escape and Conquest. About 20 years pass between the end of Escape and the beginning of Conquest, which takes place in 1991. During that time, we are meant to believe that a plague hits which wipes out all cats and dogs, all simians are domesticated, and then those simians evolve to the point where they're trained to do a lot of jobs that humans do. That always seemed a bit rushed to me, and it would have been better if those events were allowed to occur over hundreds of years. But then, the changing argument could be used to say that the presence of Zira, Cornelius, and Caesar in the current era accellerates the evolutionary process.

Personally, I'm ambivalent about either interpretation, but I like the way that the debate can inform unique viewing experiences. For example, I can choose to watch the films from the perspective of the circular argument during one viewing, and then watch from the changing perspective, and each experience will be subtly different. Or I can try to play the mental game of working the tv series or the cartoon into a consistent continuity, using one or both of the interpretations. Some may complain of headaches from the paradoxes of such time travel stories, however.

The art for this entry is all original work provided specially for Apes Week by Pierre Villeneuve, artist extraordinaire and co-creator of the Flashback Universe with Jim Shelley. Check out Pierre's gallary here. Thanks to Pierre for the great art, and to Jim for arranging it and sending me the files.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Apes Week Day 4: The only thing that counts in the end is power

Despite the highlights I discussed in previous posts, Beneath the Planet of the Apes has some serious weaknesses, and they all come from a failure of talent to meet the script's ambitions. One of the strengths of Planet of the Apes is that the creators clearly know their limitations and strengths: the ape make-up works best in moderation, special effects are kept to a minimum, and the outstanding sets are used to maximum advantage. Take, for example, the spaceship crash: the crash is shot subjectively, so that it appears that the audience is in the ship itself, and this is an effective technique that saves the cost and potential embarrassment of filming a difficult effects shot for the crash.

Unlike Planet's Franklin Schaffner, Beneath's Ted Post seems to lack the creativity to solve some of the script's more difficult visual problems, which exceed the technology available in 1970. Early in the film, the crowd scenes at General Ursus's rally demonstrate some bad creative choices. The apes who are not main characters look fake, with clearly low quality ape masks instead of the elabotate ape make-up. Planet, significantly, contains no crowd scenes like this.

This scene would be much more effective with fewer long and medium shots, especially fewer crowd reaction shots, and more closeups of those apes with the good make-up. We only need to hear the crowd cheering--we don't need to see it.

But I have to say, James Gregory sells the hell out of his performance as Ursus. As a kid, one of my favorite shows was Barney Miller, and I always enjoyed Gregory's cynical, sarcastic depiction of Inspector Luger. And, of course, his performance as the McCarthyesque senator in The Manchurian Candidate is not far from Ursus.

Other effects, like the Underdwellers' illusions and the matte paintings used to show the underground destruction of New York City, try to accomplish too much with too little, while the Statue of Liberty shot at the end of Planet, using a combination of miniatures and a matte painting, is just perfect in its simplicity. Even James Franciscus seems like a cheaper, smaller version of Heston, though I have to say he really sells the Underdwellers' psychic attacks in a way that can best be described as Shatneresque.

One place where they do get it right, though, is in the Underdwellers' make-up. When they pull their masks off to reveal their true faces, the effect is horrifying, largely because the make-up doesn't go too far over the top. Their hideous, but still recognizably human.

Paul Dehn, who wrote the screenplays for Beneath, Escape, and Conquest--and is given story credit on Battle--clearly learned from the excesses of Beneath and scaled things back for the next two movies. He also seems to have learned that one of the strengths of the first movie was its humor, and Escape takes on a satirical tone that's also in keeping with the Pierre Boulle novel.

Perhaps the humor goes a bit too far in this movie, as there is little action, but that humor is balanced out by a very dark ending. Escape's greatest strength, though, is the ideological shift it brings to the series. As commentor jon k noted in an earlier post:
One thing I find interesting about the movie series is how it starts off with the apes being the antagonists/bad guys (for the most part, Cornelius and Zira aside), but by the third one and beyond, they're the protagonists, and we're rooting for them! I particularly remember as a child watching "Conquest" on TV with my younger brothers and sisters, and we were cheering the apes to victory in their revolution!
The series takes us from prohuman to antihuman, and from anti-ape to pro-ape in a way that's quite remarkable and subversive, and Escape from the Planet of the Apes provides the hinge point on which that shift occurs.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes continues the economical approach that Dehn establishes in the script for Escape, even though Conquest requires many crowded, ape-filled scenes, especially once the revolution starts. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson, who had made the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone, makes the smart choice to film the revolution scenes at night in order to de-emphasize the ape-crowds' sizes, and he takes full advantage of a single Los Angeles location that looks sufficiently like a city of the future circa 1972.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is probably my second favorite of the series, following the original. I like how the implications of the ape-servant economy play out--there are benefits, like tipping waiters with raisins, but there is also a downside, including high unemployment for non-ape labor. The government, however, seems to be wholly focused on managing this ape-servant economy, which seems to make it a pretty inefficient system. And Roddy McDowell's performance, while good in two earlier movies, becomes outstanding as Caesar in this film. I feel strongly that McDowell was robbed by not being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this film. In fact, his performances throughout the entire franchise contribute significantly to its success.

I'll have more on Conquest in a later post. I also want to point out that the site I recently linked to--Rich Handley's Hasslein Curve: A Planet of the Apes Timeline--has undergone a change. The timeline is no longer on the site, and Rich has posted an announcement for a book version forthcoming this summer from Timeline Books. I found the web version of the timeline to be an informative, thoroughly researched, and very interesting resource, so I will definitely be getting that book when it comes out.

And here's a funny review from I Against Comics of the Power Records comic adaptation of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, including some interesting speculation on who the artist might be. I always thought it was either Nestor Redondo or Alfredo Alcala, though I'm less inclined to believe it's Alcala after comparing this to his Marvel adaptation of the same movie.

Apes Week Day 3: There is just one reality left

First, I'd like to thank everyone who's been reading this week for the great response that Apes Week has had. I think it's highly likely that this might go longer than a week, as more material keeps working its way through my transom.

Here, for example, is a recent Planet of the Apes reference that appeared in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Fantastic Four 555.

Reed Richard's college girlfriend, Alyssa (and, by extension, Millar), got the movie reference wrong. If more idiots have children than smart people do, you don't get Planet of the Apes, you get Idiocracy, which is where Millar swiped that idea from.

So says the childless academic.

Speaking of children: today, I was having a conversation with a colleague who was planning a monkey-themed birthday party for her four-year-old daughter, but the plans were going horribly wrong. I just happened to have my Planet of the Apes boxed set with me in my office, as I was using it for "research."

I pulled the box out and said, "Here--you can just show these for the party. They're all G-rated family movies."

"Really?" she responded.

"Yeah, but the first one ends with the hero discovering that the human race has been virtually wiped out by a nuclear war; the second one ends with the complete destruction of earth; the third one ends with the monkey heroes getting shot to death while a monkey baby gets shot like five or six times; the fourth one, which is actually rated PG, ends with a violent monkey revolution where they take over Los Angeles....So, now that I think about it, these aren't really family movies. Maybe the G-rating stood for 'gorillas.'"

But now I really want a monkey-themed birthday party for myself--and by that I mean more than just poop throwing, because that happens at every one of my birthday parties.

Gauging from the responses I've received to the discussion of the ending to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, this film was clearly a traumatic experience for anyone who watched it as a child. As commenter Nik wrote, "It's got to be the bleakest ending for a 'G' rated film ever, and it's amazing they got away with it."

I couldn't agree more. Once the Alpha/Omega bomb goes off, the screen goes blank, and a voice-over narrator comes in to say,
In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.
Then, to make the situation even bleaker, the credits roll completely silent, without any music. It's a wonder most moviegoers didn't leave the theater and step in front of the nearest bus.

But before the detonation, the movie's finale is pretty action-packed, with Brent getting shot in the head and riddled with bullets after killing General Ursus. Taylor gets shot, too, and while dying, he pleads with Dr. Zaius for help. Zaius responds, "Man is evil, capable of nothing but destruction." Taylor then lurches forward, grunting, "You bloody bastard," and then dies with his hand outstretched.

Watching this scene carefully, I think the movie leaves some ambiguity open as to what exactly happens next. Does Taylor lurch forward with his hand outstretched at Zaius, only to die while his hand accidentally falls on the detonator? Or does he intentionally push the detonator with his last bit of strength?

And who was the design genius that built the control panel for the Alpha-Omega device in the first place? All it takes to set the bomb off is to push down on a large, red, cylindrical crystal. It's a wonder that one of the altar boys in the Church of the Holy Bomb didn't accidentally push it down while cleaning.

Anyway, my pessimistic view, as expressed in yesterday's post, leads me to believe that Taylor does this intentionally, but there is enough ambiguity for me to see the possibility of other interpretations.

And, while doing research for Apes Week, I was struck by the different ways this scene was represented in the comic adaptations of the film.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was adapted in comics form at least three times: once by Gold Key in 1970 (coinciding with the release of the film), once by Marvel in the black and white Planet of the Apes magazine and then in the Adventures on the Planet of the Apes series from 1976 (a year or so after Apes-mania had peaked), and a third time by Power Records.

The Power Records version of the ending, which can be found here, is completely fucked. One of the Underdwellers sets off the bomb instead of Taylor. And Nova is still alive when it goes off. It also ends with an appeal to the reader to avoid this particular future, instead of the bleak comment about the death of an insignificant planet.

(A scan of the Gold Key comic can be found at Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive . All of my images from that issue come from that site. Click on the images to enlargen them.)

Here's the final page of the Gold Key comic, written and drawn by Alberto Giolitti, according to this site:

This is a pretty liberal interpretation of the scene, with Taylor clearly falling on the detonator by accident after getting shot. This is also some crappy storytelling on the artist's part, as Taylor lands facing the direction opposite of the way he is facing when he's shot. But I do like the touch in the final panel, with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground looking out on the explosion.

The Marvel Beneath adaptation was written by Doug Moench and drawn by Alfredo Alcala. The final scene runs over several pages and takes considerable liberties with the film's ending.

Prior to this page, Ursus wounds Brent and then the two proceed to wrestle, with Ursus taking a bite out of Brent's arm. Zaius picks up a stray gun and aims it at Brent, but Taylor then steps to the detonator and threatens to set it off if they don't let Brent go.

Ursus then picks up Zaius's gun and shoots Taylor four times.

It's pretty clear how Doug Moench and Alfredo Alcala interpreted the film's ending: they leave little doubt that Taylor presses the button intentionally. Alcala also does a reasonable redesign of the control panel, but would it have killed somebody to spring for some labels on the buttons? (He also redesigned the bomb to make it far less phallic than the one in the movie.)

I also like this little touch that Moench gives at the end: the final words spoken before Earth's destruction are an expression of what a badass Taylor is.

By the way, Leonard Rosenman, who provided the score for Beneath, died just a couple of weeks ago at the age of 83. Here's his fantastic, bizarre, and beautiful "Mass for the Holy Bomb" in my favorite scene from the movie, other than the ending. (This scene also gives you a good shot of the detonator and the bomb, in case you need to refresh your memories.)

Rosenman also did the scores for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Rebel Without a Cause, Fantastic Voyage, Star Trek IV , and Robocop 2. He won Oscars for Barry Lyndon and Bound for Glory.

True Fact: According to the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, producers originally wanted to cast Burt Reynolds as Brent and Orson Welles as General Ursus. Had that happened, Beneath the Planet of the Apes would be the greatest movie of all time.

Instead, they cast James Franciscus (wasn't he "The Finder of Lost Loves"?*) as what Linda Harrison described as a smaller version of Charlton Heston and the great, underrated character actor James Gregory as Ursus.

*Before people start commenting, I know that Anthony Franciosa was "The Finder of Lost Loves." This is a reference to a joke from Mystery Science Theater 3000 where Mike and the robots keep confusing James Franciscus, Anthony Franciosa, and Tony Lo Bianco.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Help Out Dr. K: Graphic Novel Class Syllabus

I'm interrupting Apes Week to ask my readers for some help putting together a syllabus for a summer class I'm teaching on graphic narratives. The class goes for five weeks (2 hours per day, 4 days a week), and I plan to include 10 books on the reading list. So far, I have the following 7 picked:

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner
Nightly News by Jonathan Hickman
Persepolis by Marjane Sartrapi
Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

So, I'm looking for 3 more books to include in the class. Here are my criteria for the books already on the syllabus:

V for Vendetta and Jimmy Corrigan are on this list because I've used them in past classes, and they work well. American Born Chinese is there because of current research that I'm doing, and that book fits with Persepolis in a unit on autobiographical comics. I don't feel like I need to add any more of those to the list, but I'm thinking of using Fun Home.

Nightly News is there because I want to end the class with a new work that pushes the rules of page design and narrative form, and I also think this work fits well with a sub-theme of revolution that will tie it in with V for Vendetta. In most of my literature classes, I try to teach at least one first novel so that students can start following the writer's career from the beginning and possibly make a life-long commitment to follow that writer's work. That's another reason why Nightly News is on the list.

The first assignment for the class is going to involve reading Understanding Comics and applying some of McCloud's narrative concepts to another work. One of those works is going to be the Spirit collection, but I'd also like to include something else that's more conventional, and perhaps superhero-y. I'm toying with the idea of using The House of Mystery Showcase Vol. 1, because it will give students a greater variety of short stories to choose from for this short assignment. I would welcome other suggestions, especially collections that don't need to be read in their entirety.

I also want to use something by Gilbert Hernandez, but I'm debating between Heartbreak Soup and Human Diastrophism. I'm certain I will use one of them, but I am on the fence as to which.

I'm also considering Matt Kindt's SuperSpy, to pair with Nightly News to talk about formal experiments, but I worry that the book's narrative experimentation might require too much time to unpack in this short class.

For a wide variety of reasons, I do not want to use Watchmen, From Hell, Maus, and A Contract with God. The first two would take up too much time for this course; Maus is too expensive for the class (I want to keep the cost down, and volume one is unavailable as a separate book; and other than its historical importance, I don't find Contract to be anything more than a mediocre short story collection. All of these will be referenced in the class, however.

I also plan to reference a lot of stuff that I won't be teaching in its entirety, like Jar of Fools and Black Hole. For similar reasons, I don't want to be teaching parts of longer, multivolume narratives, like Y: The Last Man, Fables, Planetary, Transmetropolitan, etc.

I'm also less interested in discussions of canonicity and "essential" works than I am of finding works that are relevent to each other and making connections between works that I can pair up "in conversation."

So, to summarize:
--I need three more books for the class.
--One should be a superhero book or another popular genre, like horror.
--One should be by Gilbert Hernandez.
--One is totally up for grabs, but I'm less inclined to pick something autobiographical, since that is already well-covered. It should also stand on its own as an independent narrative.
--The choices should be less than $20, and preferably around $10-15 in order to keep the cost down for this class.

All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Apes Week 2: In Defense of World Destruction

I have to confess to a considerable fondness for the first Planet of the Apes sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Though the film does have its flaws, and the drop in quality between the original and the sequel is precipitous, all of its problems can be forgiven due to one particular fact:

The ending is awesome.

Now, it may be a flaw in my character that makes me think most movies would be vastly improved if they ended with the destruction of the world. Especially I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, because everyone in that movie needs to die. And, of course, we shouldn't forget the unproduced script for Cannonball Run III: The Apocalypse, which, if it had been made, would have been the best of the trilogy.

But the ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes is particularly awesome because, I would argue, it is entirely consistent with the misanthropic and nihilistic vision of the first two films, as expressed through the hero, Taylor.

(Fun Fact: Charlton Heston used this picture as his campaign poster when he ran for president of the NRA.)

Interpretations of Planet of the Apes, and evaluations of Beneath, often hinge on viewers' impressions of Taylor as a heroic figure. Specifically, in regards to his development through the first film: is he a misanthrope who is ultimately redeemed by his heroic defiance of the apes to become the savior of humanity, or is his misanthropy only reinforced throughout the film, driving him to become the final arbiter of humantity's fate?

At the start of Planet of the Apes, Taylor is a jerk. During the journey across the desert, he constantly needles Landon about his idealism. Taylor, on the other hand, is a cynic, yet his motivation for taking on this mission is tinged with optimism:
I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.

This is the very definition of irony, as the rest of the movie will quash that optimism by proving not only that the apes are not better than humans, but also that humanity is even more murderous and destructive than he suspected. That is a dismal, depressing message.

One plan for the film was to have Taylor impregnate Nova, as his counterpart, Ulysse Mérou, does in Pierre Boulle's original novel. This would make the child a kind of messiah, and it would also have provided a nice parallel to the later movies, where Caesar, the child of Cornelius and Zira, becomes the founder of the more advanced ape race. Despite that symmetry, I think this would have been a bad idea, or at least not as good an idea as the one that was arrived at.

The Taylor/Nova relationship, however, is interesting, as it reinforces Taylor's misanthropy.

Taylor immediately picks out Nova from the first group of humans that the astronauts meet, and the two are captured together. Their mating is first consummated when Zira sets up a dicey blood transfusion between Nova and Taylor that luckily saves Taylor's life. Later, Zira believes that Nova even senses this blood connection, and Zira then pimps Nova out to Taylor by putting her in his cage.

At one point in the movie, Taylor delivers this dramatic monologue to Nova:
Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of love-making but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we'd made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there.

What is it, exactly, about Nova that he needs? What Nova provides for Taylor is the ideal relationship that he could not find on his Earth: a mute, passive woman who responds primally to instinctual needs for food and sex. And he also gets to name her.

Nova is, in fact, a step above the relationship that may have been Taylor's true motivation for taking on this mission: to create a new human race with Stewart, the female astronaut who dies during the space journey. The movie doesn't spend much time with Stewart, but I find this element of the plot to be the film at it's most subversive. Taylor makes the comment that Stewart was going to be the "new Eve," and it sounds like her purpose on the mission was to procreate with the male astronauts, which leads one to wonder why NASA felt the need to supply three Adams. They really made the wrong component redundant. Perhaps the "something better" that Taylor was seeking involved creating a new human race from scratch.

Taylor does spend much of the movie trying to defend humanity to the apes, but the film's classic climax causes Taylor to concede that the apes were right and that humans are undeniably destructive.
Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

"We finally really did it" conveys a sense of inevitability about the destruction wrought by humans, and "God damn you all to hell!" becomes a vow that Taylor will fulfill at the end of the next movie. It's not difficult, then, to see the destruction of the world as a logical conclusion.

Taylor is a film hero who is complex in ways that few others are. He's an asshole, and what character development he experiences over the course of the movie really doesn't cause him to lose that quality. There really is no redemption for him in either film.

As much as I might disagree with Charlton Heston's politics, there's no denying that he's great in this movie, and he hit the sci-fi trifecta with Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man, all within a few years of each other. And according to the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, it was Heston who suggested that Taylor destroy the world at the end of Beneath. He claims that he did it so that he wouldn't have to appear in another sequel, and critics of Beneath have picked up on that claim to argue why the ending was a bad idea. Even if that was Heston's motivation, however, I would still argue that this was a good choice, and we can see that, with the three sequels that followed Beneath, the destruction of the world did not stop the franchise.

I'll have more on Beneath the Planet of the Apes coming up, as I do want to address that film's significant flaws. But to set that up, here's the original trailer:

Link of the Day: I want to point reader's to Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive, a great resource for Apes research. The site includes scans of the hard-to-find Marvel UK Apes comics, plus (my personal favorite) mp3s of the Power Records adaptations. I can easily get lost in this site for hours.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Apes Week Day 1: Dr. K's Personal Relationship with Apes

My facination with the Planet of the Apes movies began in 1974, when my parents took 5-year-old Dr. K to see all five movies at the theater on Elmora Ave. in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And by "took to see," I mean, "used as a babysitter." But my parents' neglect proved to be a benefit in the long run, as this event began my early training for watching maraton movie screenings, and it also cemented my love for this franchise.

Of course, now that I think about it, it probably had a greater impact on me than I realized. After all, in the final two films, Caesar, orphaned by his murdered parents, grows up to become the violent revolutionary leader of the apes who then chooses a path of responsibility and equality with the humans. A 5-year-old boy, left alone by his parents at a movie theater, must have felt some affinity there. Feel free to draw other psychological conclusions as well.

The "Go Ape" marathon was a part of the publicity push for the short-lived television series beginning (and ending) that year. I remember getting to watch that series only sporadically because it ran on CBS opposite "Sanford and Son" and "Chico and the Man," two series that were favorites in the K household.

The Apes phenomenon lasted from 1968 until 1975, with the release of the Saturday morning cartoon. I'd have to say that 1974 was the peak year for the Apes phenomenon, despite the fact that the last movie was made in 1972. The films gained new popularity on television, and a ton of Apes merchandise was released that year. It may seem hard to believe, looking back on the films today, but the Planet of the Apes movies were billed as family films, and all but Conquest had a G rating. So, being a 5 year old at this time, I craved the various Apes toys, especially the dolls put out by Mego (and they were "dolls," not "action figures." No male psyche should be so fragile as to require a euphemism for the fact that he played with dolls as a child.).

As with most Mego dolls, however, I had to be content with occasionally playing with those of friends and cousins, many of whom not only had the dolls themselves, but also the treehouse and fortress playsets. My younger brother, though, did have the Galen doll from the tv show, but because our toys were generally community property (another innovative parenting technique), I frequently had Galen teaming up with Mego Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock instead of astronauts Alan Virdon and Pete Burke. (I also had Galen teaming up with my cousins' Cher doll, but that is an entirely different story.) And thus began and ended any interest I had in creating fan fiction.

Here's a collection of all the tv commercials for the Mego Planet of the Apes line. I remember these commercials well.

A couple of comments:
--The second commercial refers to Galen as "the grandson of Cornelius." Was this ever established in the series? I know the series had a lot of continuity glitches, but this one just doesn't make sense.
--That third commercial is brilliant, covering the entire first movie in 30 seconds.
--Other than the third one, every commercial featuring an actual plot ends with an ape victory and human defeat.
--I need to find a way to incorporate "I smell an astronaut!" into my daily conversations.
--The "Action Catapult" with remote controlled horse has to be the single greatest toy ever created. Those were the days when toys were guaranteed to put your eye out.(I must, however, geekily point out that the final ad refers to the human as "Virdon" when it is clearly the Burke doll being used.)

Unlike a lot of the pop culture products from my youth, including most of the comics I read back then, where my nostalgia does not line up with the quality of the product, my appreciation for Planet of the Apes has only grown. Much of this has to do with the fact that the movies develop an extraordinary level of pessimism and misanthropy over the course of the cycle--an attitude I appreciate more as an adult than I did as a child. I'll have more on that as the week progresses.

Today's Link: I'm also going to try to link to some great Apes- related sites. The first is Rich Handley's excellent site, The Hasslein Curve--A Timeline of the Planet of the Apes. This site is exhaustive in its detail, organizing every Apes story (including all the comic book series) into a historical timeline. This is the kind of thing that the internet was made for.

Coming up next: It's the end of the world as we know it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Apes Week Is Coming--Are You Prepared?

If you're like me, then you're frequently frightened and disturbed by the constant news reports that show apes to be either catching up or even surpassing humans on the evolutionary scale. Because, again if you're like me, then you know exactly what this portends:

We all know that once we start teaching apes math and language, the next thing we will teach them is performing menial tasks, like housecleaning, running errands, and bartending. From there, it's only a couple steps away from them taking over and putting us into cages.

Seriously, Nova just did an episode on all the recent studies about ape behavior. You can watch the whole thing in the link. It scares the shit out of me.

By the way, that's the PBS series Nova, not to be confused with this Nova, who is also relevant to our discussion:

According to one of the studies that the Nova episode discusses, "By age four most human children are accomplished mind readers, and new studies show that chimps share at least some of this talent."

Holy Fuck! It's worse than I thought! We may be moving out of Planet of the Apes territory and moving closer to this guy:

Or even worse, this guy teaming up with psychic four-year-olds!

It's like Children of the Damned meets Planet of the Apes! (Now that I think about it, "Children of the Damned meets Planet of the Apes" may be the single greatest high-concept pitch of all time.)

So, to prepare for the day when we inevitably succumb to the will of our ape masters, I've flipped the entire 5 film cycle of the original movies, plus the mid-1970s cartoon series Return to the Planet of the Apes, and the 11-issue Marvel Comics series adapting the first two films. In addition, I'm about to complete the tv series as well.

I consider these movies, tv shows, and comics not to be merely science fiction, but instead Discovery Channel-style documentaries about the world that is to come.

And starting Monday, I'm going to devote an entire week to the greatest science fiction franchise in movie history! (Yes, I said it. Suck on that, Lucas.)

Apes Week: It's going to make Shark Week look like this:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

RIP Dave Stevens

Sad news today that Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer, passed away at the age of 52.

In addition to that creation, he was probably best known for pretty much single-handedly reviving interest in 1950s pin-up sensation Bettie Page through the character Betty in The Rocketeer. And I will always be personally grateful to Dave Stevens for doing that. However, I also liked the fact that he also used 40s horror film actor Rondo Hatton as a model for his bad guy.

Though the total page count for The Rocketeer is pretty low, it's a beautiful, inspiring work. Not only did it revive interest in Bettie Page, but Stevens also cleverly used such characters as Doc Savage and The Shadow without actually naming them--a technique that others would pick up on in later years in homage to these pulp heroes.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Countdown: One on One

Clearly, the Monitor and Darkseid ...

are fans of this:

You've got to understand, baby, time out is what I'm here for.

Thanks to Chris for the H2O image.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I Was Made for Loving Brew

A couple of weeks ago, my pal Jeff came down from Minneapolis to SC for a visit, and I decided that one of the places we had to go was the KISS Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach.

While the place was cool, I did not feel like it truly took advantage of the band's brand as well as it could have. Among the coffee drinks, for example, you can order a "Rockaccino," but where is the "Double Shot It Out Loud" or "You Put the X in Expresso"? How about a latte with "Lick It Up Whipped Topping"?

We asked if the original band members came around often. We were told that Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley came for the grand opening and the one year anniversary, and that Ace was just finishing up some dishes in the back if I wanted to talk to him.

"C'mon, Dr. K, you've got to choose!"

Here's one place that they got it right:

I do have to say that the unisex bathroom at the coffeehouse, complete with blacklight, was impressive.
And in honor of the band, I dropped a "Deuce" in there.

Nothing goes with a large rockaccino like a giant picture of Gene Simmons with blood dripping out of his mouth.

I'm sure if you really wanted to return them, Gene would take them back personally.

But I have to say, after drinking a large, strong, hotter than hell cup of coffee, I was ready to rock and roll all nite!