Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Welcome to the Monkey House

Diane Arbus:  "A Woman with her Baby Monkey, New Jersey 1971"

Andy Serkis as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Movies do things to you, even movies that you think you are too good for.  Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a late summer blockbuster that seemed like a waste of time, one of those "franchise" movies trying to squeeze whatever juice it can from a mostly dried up concept:  monkeys ruling the earth.

So I saw it on TV the other day and I was floored.  Emotionally crippled for a little while. 

The movie has the grace and pace and eeriness of an early Cronenberg masterpiece like Dead Ringers smashed together with the popcorn glee of the very first Planet of the Apes.  Rise tells the story of Caesar, a chimpanzee born in a medical lab whose mother, Bright Eyes, is being injected with an experimental drug that supposed to eradicate Alzheimer's.  At the very beginning of the picture, Bright Eyes goes berserk because she does not want her secret child discovered.  Once he is discovered, however, James Franco's goofy. sweet, intense scientist adopts him, and they become linked parentally, spiritually, and morally.  It's the Moses story spliced with Spartacus

What allows Rise to escape its conventions is Andy Serkis.  Through the "magic" of motion-capture technology, Serkis portrays Caesar without wearing a monkey mask.  He is transformed digitally into his chimpanzee-ness, but that transformation somehow increases the emotional power of what he accomplishes as an actor.

It's all in the eyes.

Rise reminds me of how intimate, creepy, perfect, and simple movie-acting should and can be.  Serkis's eyes carry the movie through its many plot machinations, as if behind all those glossy computer-generated cosmetics are beams of light so strong you are allowed to forget the fakery and enter a place where chimpanzees actually do feel, talk and organize themselves into a kick-ass army about to take over Planet Earth. 

But the quintessential moment of the movie, for me, comes in a scene early on, when Caesar is taken for a walk in the park and he sees a dog on a leash, and then realizes he himself is on a leash too.  The expression in his eyes is one of disappointment, terror, fear, and hurt:  all this time he was actually thinking he was the equal of his human counterparts.  Now he knows he is not, and that knowledge is our doorway into his pain, and the movie's triumph.

I remembered a photograph taken by Diane Arbus while watching Rise.   It's titled  "A Woman with her Baby Monkey, New Jersey 1971," and I saw it in September at a retrospective of her work at the Tate Modern in London.  A skinny, ghostly and kind of ghastly-looking lady holds a baby monkey in her lap.  Both sets of eyes look right into Arbus's camera, as if to challenge us out of mockery.  And then as you look deeper you see there can be no mockery because this is life:  this is kindness, weirdness and bravery.  The baby monkey is being protected by this possibly insane lady, and yet the baby monkey seems also to be protecting the lady from something all of us fear:  being alone, being disconnected from the world, shattered and lost.  That baby monkey on the lady's lap is her connection to us somehow.

When Caesar recognizes he is just a goddamn dog on a leash I felt that same sense of displacement, and the movie guides us into an understanding of how horrifying and eventually empowering choosing not to be a dog on a leash can be.