“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

Queer Classics: “Looking: The Movie” (2016)

A little over a year ago, I wrote a very heartfelt piece about the end of HBO’s Looking (you can check out here, if you want). At the time, my heart was still bruised by HBO’s (in my view) disingenuous and insulting cancelation of one of the very few gay-centered dramas on television, and the piece reflects this. I was also skeptical and worried about how the announced TV movie finale would turn out.

I needn’t have worried. Looking has, I am happy to say, been brought to a fully satisfying conclusion.

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.

The finale takes place a year after the events of the second season finale. Patrick, having moved to Denver to escape from the ruin of his relationship with Kevin, has returned for the wedding of Agustín and Eddie. Dom’s chicken window is now a flourishing business, and while he has repaired his relationship with Doris, he has seemingly sworn off attempting to find a partner with whom he can share his success. Doris, meanwhile, has seemingly found completeness with Malik, and the two of them have even begun thinking about the future (complete with children). While he’s home, he has to contend with the consequences of his botched relationships, including the messiness and inconclusive state of his connection with Richie.

When I wrote my elegy for Looking, I said that a big part of what made Looking so resonant for me was that “it managed to show how fucked up, joyful, orgiastic, melancholy, and just plain messy modern gay life can be.” Now, to be fair, there are a few moments in this finale that wrap up those ends a bit too neatly. Kevin’s exit, while tremendously satisfying (I was never Team Kevin) was too briskly accomplished to really make sense from a purely narrative standpoint. Still, the moment does serve as a sort of reckoning for Patrick, forcing him to acknowledge his own complicity in the relationship meltdown that ended last season and, just as importantly, allowing him to see that he does indeed run from his problems rather than facing them.

This sense of running away from the danger of feelings is, to my eye, the unifying narrative thread of the entire episode. Just as Patrick has forever been running away from the intensity of his feelings, so both Agustín and Eddie have their own issues with commitment, and Dom remains unwilling to commit after his ill-fated romance last season. Even Richie, one of the most grounded and mature characters in the show, seems uncertain about his future and what he wants out of life. As he tells Patrick in their final, fateful walk around San Francisco, he wants to start his life over.

I’ll admit, I felt a flutter (and maybe let out a little scream) when i saw that Richie had FINALLY abandoned that snarky shrew Brady and returned to the man with whom he is clearly destined to live. It was, I’m not ashamed to admit, the fulfillment of my own deeply-rooted desires for erotic and romantic fulfillment. Even more, though, it was a testament to the fact that sometimes, even in this crazy, tumultuous world, two people can find a really special, meaningful connection that transcends difference.

There is just…something profound about the ending, in which both Patrick and Riche ultimately acknowledge that yes, love and commitment are scary, but they are also sources of tremendous joy that can form the foundation for a life spent together. Sometimes, it seems that people are afraid to feel and to take a chance on that feeling, thinking that they need to spend time getting themselves together, “focusing on me.” In reality, there is, nor will there ever be, an ideal time to get into a relationship and make that leap into commitment. Patrick has learned that lesson the hard way, and it’s nice to see him be able to share that bit of knowledge with Richie. In the end, they both recognize that their love for another–and it’s nice to hear Patrick admit that he’s been in love with Richie from the beginning–is, for the moment, all that they need. The final scene that they share together doesn’t end with a cliché kiss but instead a more tender moment of casual cuddling, as they enjoy this night with their friends. Somehow, to me, that makes it all the more touching.

Now, there are a few weaker spots that it’s worth mentioning. Much as I intensely dislike Brady–because, let’s féce it, the show has never really allowed him to be anything other than obnoxious–it’s hard not to feel at least a bit of compassion for him. How would any of us respond if we could see, as clearly he seemingly can, the fact that Richie is still hopelessly in love with Patrick and Patrick with him? Of course, we’re not really encouraged to think too much about that, and to some extent that’s okay. After all, life and emotions are messy and intractable, and sometimes, no matter how much you might like it to, life doesn’t fall into neat moral binaries.

If there’s one truly unfortunate thing about this finale, though, it would have to be the resolution of Dom’s storyline. He meets someone new, but it doesn’t really seem to have a great deal of meaning in and of itself; it feels very much an afterthought, as if the writers realized they needed to grant this major character some measure of resolution. Still, I will say that it was nice to see all of our main characters paired off; the future may be messy, but at least it is somewhat stable.

When the episode was over, I was left laughing and crying, a particular mix that only comes upon me at moments of peak emotional experience. On the one hand, I was crying because this moment was just so damned emotional, so intensely fulfilling of all of my displaced desires for these characters. On the other, I was crying because it was all the things that are missing in my own life (at this moment), and for all the bittersweet memories this show always conjures up for me, of my own past loves and the mistakes both I and my former lovers have made. Looking doesn’t shy away from those, and it leaves a room for ambiguity. There will be struggles ahead and that’s okay, because that’s life.

And that ambiguity–poignant, irresolvable, exquisite–remains Looking‘s most brilliant and  accomplishment.

Film Review: “Ghostbusters” (2016) and the Deconstruction of Masculinity

From the moment that it was announced, the reboot of Ghostbusters attracted all of the vile misogyny that has taken root in that nebulous, noxious space we call the internet. Everywhere you looked there were the usual suspects decrying the film because it dared to cast women in the lead roles, because heaven forbid we allow women the opportunity to headline an action comedy. It was, truly, one of the ugliest and most unpleasant internet spectacles I’ve seen.

Well, as I like to say, fuck the haters. Ghostbusters is a surprisingly clever, funny and, dare I say it, nice film, and that is something of a pleasant surprise. I won’t spend too much time rehashing the plot (since, let’s face it, we kind of know already), but let’s just say that it deftly interweaves the action and the comedy, with some genuinely funny and eye-popping moments.

While the plot slips a little too easily into the sort of blockbuster, CGI-fest that has become all too familiar in today’s Hollywood, the performances are what really help the film hold together. I actually think it was a good choice to have Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig tone down their usual over-the-top or excessive performances, as this allows both Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones some room to shine. There is definitely a great deal of chemistry among the four leads, and there is a lot of room for growth if the (hopeful) success of this film leads to further productions in the franchise. One can definitely see how they could build upon these relationships to make some truly great (or, well, great for this genre) films.

What really fascinated me about this new iteration of Ghostbusters, however, was its relationship to masculinity. The primary antagonist is a (unsurprisingly entitled) misfit named Rowan, who embodies all that’s wrong with that particular type of self-important, self-aggrandizing masculinity. What’s more, there’s a particularly potent image at the end involving a non-so-symbolic moment of castration (which I won’t reveal because of spoilers). The film invests a great deal of narrative energy in revealing to us not only how ridiculous masculinity can be, but also how easily it can be punctured and rendered (relatively) harmless.

And then, of course, there is the overt sexualization of Chris Hemsworth. Of course, this was bound to happen, as he has sort of made his career out of being a beefcake, but it also reveals the extent to which he seems to be consciously aware of his star text. As one of my students pointed out recently, it seems Hemsworth has reached a point where he has begun to poke fun at his own male body persona. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, though of course it does come with its own set of problems. But, I will say, there is nothing quite like seeing Chris Hemsworth dancing; who knew that he had such good moves?

Is Ghostbusters a perfect film? No. But it is enormously entertaining and genuinely (if not uproariously) funny. Don’t get me wrong:  there are many moments of genuine humour in this film. It’s just that they aren’t of the gut-busting sort, and for me that’s totally fine. What’s more, it’s a film that seems to have a good heart, and in that sense, it is a very sincere film, and there are, in the final analysis, worse things to see during the summer film season. It has a little bit of something for everyone, and it hits most of the notes quite well.

And, on the political end of things (because really, isn’t everything political in some form or other?), can I just say how great it is to see an entirely female-led film in the summer season? Even if I absolutely hated this film, I would still recommend that others go see it, if only so that studio brass would finally realize that women can actually lead a film. One would think that the success of Bridesmaids would have made that fact plain, but we all know that Hollywood is notoriously slow to adapt to change and include any form of diversity. So, if you care about such things, and if you want to see a pleasantly entertaining film in the bargain, then treat yourself to a night out to the movies and go to see Ghostbusters.

Book Review: “Children of Earth and Sky” (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Every so often you come across an author who manages to blend the strands of fantasy and historical fiction into a seamless whole. There are, unfortunately, very few of those in the fantasy world, though authors like George R.R. Martin has come to fame in being able to do so, but if your appetite for the blending of the two genres has been whetted by A Song of Ice and Fire, you should definitely crack open a book by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kay’s most recent work, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a universe largely like the Early Modern world that we are familiar with, peopled with a number of competing powers and players, including Seressa (a Venice analogue), Osmanlis (the Ottomans), Obravic (the Holy Roman Empire), Senjan (the Senj), and Dubrava (Dubrovnik). A host of characters both major and minor appear, including a young painter, a renegade nun, a young raider, and a prosperous merchant. Their fates intertwine and break apart and, as a result, the foundations of their world begin to shift.

There is just something haunting and lyrical in Gay’s prose that makes each of his books a genuine pleasure to read. He manages to evoke not just the inner psychology of the characters but also the ethos of the period. We can inhabit, if only for the space of the narrative, a world in many ways utterly unlike our own, governed by different laws and lived by different rules. This was probably more true of the original Sarantine books (given that they take place in Late Antiquity), but the same is still true of this novel, with its world of cut-throat politics and a world trembling on the brink of change. (Perhaps that world isn’t so unlike our own, after all…)

Further, Kay imbues his works (at least all the ones that I have read) with a strand of philosophy. He writes fiction that does and says something, that strives to make us think about the world in a different way. This novel, perhaps more than any other that I have read in recent memory, asks us what it means to exist in the flowing stream of time and history. Very few of the characters are major players in the world’s political sphere–though they are often adjacent to it–but their actions have far-reaching consequences that affect everyone in their world. Kay, and his narrator, clearly wants us to think about how it is that we make sense of both our individual

However, this is not to say that the novel doesn’t also give equal attention to the personal and the romantic. Indeed, there are at least three haunting romances that occur during the course of the novel, and Kay handles the affairs of the heart with the same grace and haunting prose as he does the larger set pieces. It’s a rare book that actually brings me to tears, but I definitely shed more than a few as I read the final pages of Children of Earth and Sky.

Of course, for those who have read his duology The Sarantine Mosaic (comprised of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), Children contains a number of fascinating little nuggets. Pero, for example, stumbles upon the remains of the tiny birds that were used by the sorcerer in Sailing to Sarantium as vessels for captured spirits, while the dowager Eudoxia serves as a living reminder of the earth-shattering fall of the splendid city of Sarantium to the invading Osmanlis. Much has changed since Crispin made his fateful voyage, and though the reader remembers him, it would appear that much of what he has created has vanished with time. Time is a river that can wash away even the greatest of art, even a mosaic made by a heartbroken mosaicist looking for redemption in an eastern city.

The only downside to being a fan of Kay’s is that, being such a meticulous craftsman, it takes him a fairly long time to produce a new novel. Fortunately, I’m still working my way through his back catalogue, but once I’m finished with them, I’ll just have to wait patiently until he once again allows us a glimpse into his endlessly fertile imagination.

Film Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016) and the Pleasures of Joy

Every once in a while, you come out of a film feeling happy that you saw it. Not overwhelmed or perplexed or thoughtful. Just…joyful. Some films just have that power.

The Jungle Book is one such film.

I have to admit to some trepidation going into this. I was less than thrilled with the way that Maleficent turned out, and I was really afraid that the same would happen with this beloved classic from my childhood. I was afraid they might botch it with too many incoherently interwoven storylines and that the film would end up a complete mess. Fortunately, however, the opposite was true. It is, in essence, a retelling of the original Disney version of this film, with some elements of the Kipling stories thrown in and, fair warning, a bit of murderous violence on the part of Shere Khan.

For the canny viewer, the film contains a number of Easter eggs. Though she makes a very small appearance in the film itself, Scarlet Johansson’s Kaa does deliver a delightfully sibilant rendering of “Trust in Me,” over the end credits. For those who were perplexed (as I was) that the original King Louie was an orangutan (which are not native to India), the Favreau has cleverly rendered him into a Gigantopithecus, the giant ape that many believe to be the explanation for the Yeti.

The voice talents in this film are, in a word, phenomenal. I didn’t think that one could do any better than Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Phil Harris, and Louis Prima as Bagheera, Shere Khan, Baloo, and King Louie, respectively. However, I have to say that Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, and Christopher Walken do a stellar job. Kingsley adds just the right amount of gravitas and genuine affection to Bagheera, while Bill Murrary is in truly fine, charming form as the buffoonish yet lovable Baloo. On the villainous side of things, Idris Elba snarls and chews his way through the script, but he truly does lend a powerful grace to his portrayal. And truly, no one  but Christopher Walken could lend this much more terrifying vision of King Louie such a unique aura of menace and charm.

Of course, no review would be complete without praising Neel Sethi, the boy who plays Mowgli. At the most basic level, it’s refreshing to see a person of colour and of Indian descent playing this character. However, he is also just a great actor, bringing a certain world-wise charm and playfulness to the role that I really wasn’t expecting. Though I’m a little skeptical about the wisdom of the announced sequel, as long as Sethi is on-board, I’m game for it.

While I normally find 3-D to be a distraction, I actually found that it worked quite well. Part of what lends this film its joy and its unbridled energy is the use of the camera, which often mimics Mowgli’s own excitement. We as spectators are invited to enjoy this kinetic camera, and while the jungle world that we see is completely (or almost completely) computer-generated, this heightens rather than dampens the sense of beauty and wonder if evokes. Further, the claustrophobia of the final fight sequence is truly enhanced by the 3-D camerawork, allowing us to feel, vicariously, those last, breathtaking moments before Mowgli’s final victory. (FYI, if you’re interested in the cinema of sensations, check out Richard Dyer’s article on the subject in Sight and Sound, from 1994).

There is, indeed, something uniquely satisfying about seeing the devilish and sadistic Shere Khan finally get his comeuppance at the hands of the boy who has suffered so much at his hands. It’s important to remember that the tiger was responsible for the death of not only Mowgli’s human father, but his lupine one as well. While Shere Khan does have some measure of justification for his anger and hatred toward humans, he eventually becomes so blinded by his bitterness that it proves his undoing. I’m still a little anxious about the that the film reinforces Mowgli’s inherent superiority as a human, but I need a little more time to mull that over before reaching any firm conclusions.

Now that the bad taste of Maleficent has been thoroughly washed out of my mouth, I have high hopes that Disney’s other remakes-in-the-works will be similarly well-crafted. I have particularly high hopes for their upcoming Beauty and the Beast, which looks quite promising, indeed.

Come on Disney. Keep impressing me. We’ll both be better for it.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “That Was No Lady” (S1, Ep. 14)

Today on The Great Golden Girls Marathon we’ll be talking about the episode in which Dorothy takes up with a married man, a fellow school teacher named Glen O’Brien. While Sophia, unsurprisingly, judges her harshly for doing so, Blanche and Rose remain divided in their advice.

It’s actually rather surprising, and pleasant, to see the vulnerability Dorothy expresses in her tender moments with Glen (before she realizes that he’s cheating on his wife). For her, Glen represents another opportunity to share her life with someone with whom she has a powerful physical and emotional connection, someone with whom she can be completely comfortable in her own body. While Bea Arthur is not always associated with vulnerability, this is one instance in which her skills as an actress are brought to the forefront. The unfortunate realization that Glen has been cheating on his wife all along punctures that pleasantness, revealing Dorothy to be, at first inadvertently, and then willingly, the other woman.

There is a certain irony that Dorothy continues to see Glen even after she discovers that he is cheating on his wife. It almost seems disingenuous that a woman whose husband left her for a younger woman after 38 years of marriage would then herself indulge in an extramarital affair. But then, that is not being entirely fair to Dorothy. The heart wants what it wants, and it sometimes doesn’t care about the the obstacles that our everyday life puts in thew way. It is this fraught and dangerous personal territory that she has to traverse as she tries to figure out how she should contend with this seemingly intractable problem.

Of course, for all of its subversive strains, The Golden Girls remains in many ways a somewhat conservative show, and so the affair ultimately ends, with Dorothy recognizing that she cannot continue putting her own morality in such jeopardy. Even so, there is an acknowledgment that dating and romance can be especially challenging as one gets older and as the old ties that bound us start to loosen up. It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for Glen’s plight; he recognizes that while his marriage has failed, it’s not as easy as he would like it to be to start out afresh. He cannot recognize (though Dorothy does), that life doesn’t always work out as neatly as you might like it to.

Having re-watched The Golden Girls in its entirety, it’s rather striking the extent to which the first season focuses so much on the romantic exploits of Dorothy. Given the fact that so many jokes in subsequent rely on the fact that she is dateless and has no social life, her rather robust and eventful dating life in the first season is all the more extraordinary. Further, as I noted before, it also gives Bea Arthur a chance to show off her acting abilities; she’s just as compelling a romantic leading lady as her co-stars.

Next up, Rose has her own extramarital affair to deal with, when the man she has been sleeping with ends up dying in her bed.

Film Review: “Zootopia” and the Triumph of Good Storytelling

As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been a fan of Disney. Admittedly, I rather fell off the wagon with Tarzan and some of the ill-conceived efforts that followed, but I’ve been largely on board since The Princess and the Frog.

Fortunately, Zootopia has reinforced my belief that we are living in a second Disney Renaissance.

The film follows Judy Hopps, an optimistic and ambitious young rabbit who yearns to move away from her small hometown and take up life as a member of the police force in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia. Once there, her fate becomes entangled with that of a huckster fox named Nick and the two of them, in turn, quickly become embroiled in a massive conspiracy designed to upend the precarious peace between predators and prey.

Disney has always had a knack for choosing voice actors who have a magical chemistry, and that is certainly the case with this film. Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White from Once Upon a Time) brings her own particular brand of bubbly optimism to the character of Judy Hopps, while Jason Bateman lends an ironic (almost but not quite hopelessly bitter) twist to Nick. Their obvious chemistry (whether or not they actually recorded in the studio together), makes their relationship utterly compelling and believable.

Speaking of that relationship…I can’t tell you how relieved I was that they didn’t try to force some sort of romance subplot into a film in which it really did not have a place. Judy and Nick function quite well as friends, and it is actually rather nice that they remain friends at the end of the film. It would seem that Disney has finally figured out that the rigorous focus on hetero courtship that was the go-to narrative for so many years isn’t the only thing that kids and parents will go to see, and hopefully this bodes well for the future and for the kinds of films that the studio will be releasing in the coming years.

The humour in this film is both razor-sharp and surprisingly nuanced. While there are many parts of the film that will certainly appeal to children (the scene with the sloth in the DMV is one of those), I would hazard to say that most of the jokes are designed to appeal to people old enough to remember the first Disney Renaissance. In that sense, the film harks back not just to that earlier era of animated greatness but also to a deeper genealogy, one that includes such other

This being a Disney film of the old style, there is of course a moral at the end of the film:  not to judge by the species but instead by the person, er, animal. While this may appear trite to the more jaded among us, in an era in which Trumpist xenophobia and rampant racism seem to be the order of the day, it’s rather pleasant, even exciting, to see a mainstream film send such a positive message of acceptance and good-spiritedness, a film that shows that we are indeed stronger when we band together than when we constantly tear one another down. Further, it’s also nice to see a film in which the heroine doesn’t need a man to help her succeed but instead does so on her own terms.

In the end, though, it is not the technical dexterity of the film that really wowed me (though it does feature some truly magnificent animation). Instead, it is the power–simple and unalloyed–of a good story well-told. In this age of dazzling, eye-popping special effects magic and threadbare storytelling and endless franchises, it’s rather refreshing to see a film that simply stands on its own a storyZootopia doesn’t rewrite any of the things that we know about how narrative and plot should work, but then again it doesn’t have to. Instead, what it wants to do, and what it succeeds at doing, is showing us how pleasurable story-telling can be when it is done capably.

We can only hope–as I certainly do–that Disney will keep up with this trend and continue to wow us with the stories that made us fall in love with the studio in the first place.