The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

Tim Burton revived the series in 2001, with a frankly throwaway film, which restored a version of the original novel’s ending, and just confused the hell out of everyone — adding to my impression that he’s hardly made three decent films since Edward Scissorhands and that Helena Bonham Carter is sufficient reason to skip a movie. It made money, but Fox went a reboot route in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where motion capture and CGI evidently improved on Burton’s make it, but I found the shakeycam somewhat nausea inducing. I skipped out on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and I don’t even know who Dawn was. Now we presumably conclude a trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

A simian flu seems to have rendered apes intelligent and killed millions of humans or struck them dumb. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is hiding out with other intelligent apes in the woods of the northwest US, trying to build a life, but the military are seeking them out and raid their enclave. The apes are planning a move to the promised land, but there is another raid and Caesar’s wife and eldest son are killed. Caesar sends the apes off, whilst he, with a small party, seeks revenge on Colonel McCullough, the killer.

Oddly, given what is to come, the film begins from the human perspective, following the raid, and we seem to be in Vietnam War movie territory, with the apes as Vietcong or giant Ewoks. McCullough will emerge as a crazed military figure, rather than a sensible defender of humanity, a Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — although technically that is Cambodia rather than Vietnam. We cannot help but be moved by the death of the apes and the mercy Caesar shows.

But with a shift of viewpoint to the apes, we are in revenge western mode. A small party track the colonel across the mountains, picking up a mute human girl and a talking chimpanzee along the way. The posse evade capture initially, but on discovering that the rest of the apes have been captured and turned into slaves, Caesar has no choice but to enter the military base. The second half of the film is the attempt to rescue the apes before the cavalry arrive and the way Caesar’s revenge pans out.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, the film’s allegory — if indeed it is one — is less than clear. Several Black human characters act as an alibi against such a reading, but the treatment of the apes recalls the treatment of slaves in pre-civil war days. A recent reading of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad inevitably set me down that road, too. At the same time, the appearance of an equivalent to the syphilis-infected blankets recalls the white treatment of the Native American, and the apes seem to have a manifest destiny in their land by the lake. The mute girl, meanwhile, seems to be saying #notallhumans.

Several of the ape characters who have turned traitor are able to redeem themselves and Caesar learns that revenge will not bring closure. Or the dead back to life. We are, again, in western territory, with the itinerant outsider leader being able to save the community but not return to it. John Ford’s movies are clearly part of the palette, but he increasingly brought a mythic ambiguity to his films and John Wayne’s heroics are frequently undercut.

Almost inevitably we turn to Moses, who led his people out of bondage and to the edge of the promised land. But Moses died before he got there, of course. And the suspicion that all but two of the apes we have seen are male may make us question how long this community will survive.

The special effects are faultless — Andy Serkis is Caesar, even more than he was Gollum. The fur looks real and solid, and they are definitely in this landscape rather than seeming superimposed. The other apes convince equally. McCullough, Woody Harrelson who has spent a lifetime not being that guy from Cheers, tends to the gurn and his evil nature is meant to be rendered more complex by a long speech explaining his motivations, which brings the film to an shuddering halt and should have been closer to the end rather than a preview to three or four set piece sequences (like most blockbusters, this is a good half hour too long). I can’t help but feel that he is falling into the trap that so many Bond villains fall into — explaining their scheme rather than killing their antagonist.

But obviously spending so much money on a movie leads to a sense of incoherence, even if it better than any other blockbuster I’ve seen since Rogue One. But that is damning with faint praise.

Peter Parker’s Day Off

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)

I can remember standing in a queue for the Spider-Man reboot, worried that it would be rebooted again before I got to see it. And here we are, a new Spider-Man, now part of the Marvel Comics Universe, after what I assume is a cameo in a Captain America movie.

The positive is that they’ve decided they can dispense with yet another origin myth depiction — so many superhero movies are broken back as the first hour is them getting superpowers and then the second hour is them getting their first mission. He gets to tell his best friend Ned about the radioactive spider and here we have him as a fifteen year old, desperate to join the Avengers (the silly American rather than the British version) rather than being a friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man (and dammit that hyphen is beginning to annoy me), in the meantime dealing with the traumas of high school.

So we are in Buffy territory, although in someways John Hughes movies such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are stronger incipits — a clip from the latter even being used in a throwaway line. Parker is part of the school quiz team, headed for a national final at Washington DC, but is looked down on by the other geeks. He attempts coolness by admitting to knowing Spider-Man, but has the Clark Kent/Superman issue of not being able to be in the same room at the same time.

The casting of his classmates is typical of how the film tries to be, but can’t quite be, radical. He seems to be about the only white male pupil — his friend Ned is Filipino-American, the object of his desire is Liz and so on. In too many examples of big city American popular culture, it is as if a cataclysm has wiped out anyone who isn’t white. At the same time, aside from Ned and Liz, the substantial characters — the hero, the villain and all but one of his sidekicks and all the visible Avengers are white. Background colour is fine, but let’s not get too radical. There is a nice line from Liz not wanting to visit the various key Washington building because they are built on the back of slavery, but that is the only explicit nod to ethicity.

Meanwhile, chief villain, Toombs or Vulture, is making his money turning alien technology into weapons. He gets a couple of speeches about the plight of the working man, and how Tony Stark is a weapons dealer too (to middle easterners if I recall). This is a dark side to the hero that I don’t think the films ever quite deal with, which do make them marginally more interesting. Casting Michael Keaton allows a richness to a villain — and we have the baggage of the first two Batman movies and of course Birdman to resonate with the role. Given his techno assistant, he forms a criminal counterpart to Parker and his guy in the chair, Ned. There is a penultimate reel twist I didn’t see coming, that brings us back into teen movie territory.

We have some decent set pieces — a bank robbery, a crisis in the Washington Monument and an attack on the Staten Island Ferry, the Spirit of America — but it still feels a little baggy. The CGI is variable. Admittedly there is fun to be had with Parker learning on the job, and dealing with his impatience. There are some interesting throwaway lines, such as protest being patriotic. And there is a post credits scene that plays with the pointlessness of staying to the end of the credits.

I’m not convinced that the world needs another Spider-Man movie, but I guess boys are these days running out of supposedly non-violent hero role models.

What Pride Comes Before

Plot details will be discussed and possibly mocked.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls”

So, let’s see: what do we know about Bill? I don’t think there’s any mention of her father and we know her mother is dead — the Doctor got her some photos as part of her recruitment. The memories of her mother were part of defeating the monks, as preserving her self identity.

What will survive of us is lurve, it turns out.
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To Boldly Go…

There is a moment in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991) when the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon toasts “The undiscovered country—the future.” Captain kirk later repeats the chancellor’s words, firstly to Gorkon’s daughter—“Your father called the future the undiscovered country”—and then in the film’s closing voiceover:

    This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man—where no one—has gone before.

While Spock notes that Gorkon has quoted Hamlet he does not note that he has misinterpreted the line.

I’d never really thought of writing about the Star Trek franchise — there’s too much it to get on top of, but I did write about the first film in Solar Flares.

But Simon Bacon invited me to write for his collection, To Boldly Go: Essays on Gender and Identity in the Star Trek Universe, co-edited with Nadine Farghaly, and the ghears began grinding.

I remember shouting at the screen for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that the Hamlet was being mangled, and that the undiscovered country was death rather than the future.

When I read Emmanuel Levinas, during the PhD, I’d read and stored his ideas on patriarchy, filiality, the future and death, and this returned to mind. I’d also been reading Robin Wood and Andrew Britton on 1980s sf movies — for two other projects — and this joined the dots.

How does the avidly liberal and feminist Star Trek represented fatherhood in the future — and how does that relate to death?

Three Views of Karl Johans Gate

A couple of years ago I had about half an hour in the Rasmus Meyer Collection (aka KODE Three) to look at the Munchs. I knew The Scream, of course, which if memory serves is the painting destroyed in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (unless it was Melancholia) and of which I had an inflatable version. The collection — assembled by one of Munch’s first collectors — has a lithograph version, and it was great to see that. There were three other rooms, exclusively Munch.

I nearly didn’t go into the fourth room, because my art sense had said it was French Impressionism, and I was all about the Munch. But perhaps I had a little spare time, or I’d circumnavigated the rest of the floor (in proper chronological order) because I did get into that room and realised it was early Munch.

He’d been born in the Ådalsbruk in Løten, in 1863 and became a painter against the wishes of his father. After dropping out of technical college where he was studying engineering, he enrolled in 1881 at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania (Oslo), where his teachers included the naturalistic Christian Krohg. Munch was trained in a naturalistic style, but he also explored Impressionism.

This looking to France was a break from the Dahl tradition of German romanticism, and Munch was to exhibit in 1889 at the Exposition Universell. He also got to see work by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, discovering the use of colour to be emotional rather than realist.

This explains the style of what felt a very un-Munch-like painting, Spring Day on Karl Johan (1890), which looks pontillist in style.
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Karl Johans Gate is a street in Oslo, named for King Charles III John (1763-1844), linking the Royal Palace to Oslo Station. My best guess is the painting is opposite the Grand Hotel, looking down to the palace, just before the Rosenkrantz’ Gate junction. The figures belong in a Seurat painting, with umbrellas and straw hats, with various figures perambulating towards the trees in the open space. Figures are about to walk into the frame, suggesting a kineticism. The shadows are quite long, note, with the sun to the south west. Note how blotchy the street is, with sandy colours picked out. In the top half of the canvas, with the grass and the buildings, there are far more people, a mass of pedestrians. It is a busy scene, perhaps vital, and you can make out the parasols and hats.

I knew the name Karl Johan, though and returned to the previous (actually next) room, which contains the Frieze of Life paintings. There, as I thought, alongside Melancholy and Jealousy, was Evening on Karl Johan (1892).

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This is more clearly Munchian. The figures are not quite as stylised as his screamer, but there is a cartoon, skull beneath the skin, look to them. The men have top hats and the women straw trilbies, with black ribbons. But, to be honest, there’s a lack of differentiation between the faces. Whereas in the earlier painting, the clothing is in a variety of colours, now everyone is in black. The perspective is reversed — we are looking in the opposite direction, closer to the palace, and on the opposite side of the road. We are in the midst of the shoppers or flaneurs — these could almost be the undead that Eliot speaks of thirty years later in The Waste Land. The vanishing point is lower — more or less the centre of the canvas.

Jay A. Clarke writes: “this new technique, along with the intense colors and inventive subject, mark a decisive turn away from his impressionist experiments and toward a world — and a modern mythology — all his own.” (56) Munch goes from Impressionist to Expressionist. He has become Munch. (Clarke also suggests that Munch had seen the work of James Ensor in Brussels the previous year, and that makes sense.

I hadn’t realised then that there was a third painting in Bergen — not just in another room, but in another building, KODE Four, as part of the International Modernism wing. This is Summer on Karl Johan Street, Oslo (1933).

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That forty year gap is misleading — the painting is in a style (Fauvism, maybe?) that Munch had been using since 1908. It’s a much more spare painting, with much of the canvas blank paint. It is harder to pin down the geography — is it the grass area? — and we don’t have the perspective of the earlier pictures. The street is pink and orange, with much canvas visible , almost painted around the figures, which are painted in, quickly I suspect, largely as outlines. There are much fewer figures, and some of them merge into each other, as depth becomes a plane. I think we only have women here, but a milliner would need consulting. Figures further away are little more iCal brush strokes. The trees are authentic green, if childlike, whereas the buildings (maybe the palace?) are pink and purple.

I’m not sure what to make of this picture — it is less nightmarish than Evening on Karl Johan, but there’s a sense of the uncanny about it, because you have to decode it more. The colours are more cheerful, but there’s an air of mystery here.

Reference

Clarke, Jay A. (2009) Becoming Edvard Munch: influence, anxiety, and myth, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Trolling the Uncanny

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I seem to be constructing a history of Norwegian painting, in part because I’ve failed to find a decent book. In part this is so I can understand Edvard Munch and Nikolai Astrup’s better. There’s a list of names in Øystein Loge’s Nikolai Astrup: Betrothed to Nature I need to follow up, but it might be interesting to see what I can construct myself.

I’m also intrigued, because it seems to end up in versions of the uncanny — although Munch and Astrup take in in different directions, one expressionist, the other impressionist, although that isn’t a binary split and isn’t fair to Astrup.

It begins with J.C. Dahl, born in Bergen but who finds his voice first in Copenhagen and then in Dresden, where he meets Casper David Friedrich, and absorbs the romantic into landscape. This is a key impulse, emphasising the sublime nature of the mountainous landscape as respresenting national identity. He teaches, among others, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who I need to write about.

Their successors are Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, the former a genre painter (e.g. the youngest son leaves home, the wedding party, the card players) and the latter better known for landscapes. Tidemand studied in Copenhagen and then moved to work in Düsseldorf; Gude went to Düsseldorf and then to Karlsruhe and Berlin. Whilst both visit Norway, they are painting partly from the outside.

Astrup was born in 1880 in Kalvåg, to a Lutheran priest, grows up sickly in Jølster and starts priest training in Trondheim, but wants to be a painter. Against his father’s wishes, he studies art in Oslo, and gains a scholarship that allows travel Lübeck, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin and Munich — absorbing the Germanic influence — and then to Paris — where sees both French art such as Henri Rousseau, Maurice Denis and Paul Gaughan and Japanese woodblock prints. Here he learns about Impressionism (which I will look more at) and a technique of printing (which I will also dig deeper into). Later travels include going to London to see John Constable, especially liking Parham Mill at Gillingham.

But mostly he lives and works in Jølster, drawing on memories and his childhood, giving his impression of them. There is something uncanny about the paintings, although not in an horrific way. There is a sense of symbolism, perhaps a harkening back to the sort of faintly heathen practices that his father disapproved of. This can be seen most obviously in his paintings of Midsummer celebrations, the St Hansbål marking both St John the Baptist’s saint’s day and pre-Christian rituals.

IMG_2024Astrup paints this from a distance, apparently unwilling or unable to join in, showing dragons in the flames or depicting troll-like shadows.

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Trolls are perhaps best seen in drawings and prints by Theodore Kittelson, much of whose work has a fairy tale quality. But Astrup hides them, either in the shadows, or in grain poles. These grain poles can also be seen in various paintings of Dahl, so was something that was part of Norwegian agriculture for a century or more.
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Astrup may have seen some of Claude Monet’s haystack paintings, but these are taller. Another composition, in two sizes, exists as painting and woodcut and is known as Haystacks. The important thing is you can see faces in them — they seem to be scarecrow-like, or skinny trolls. This is not a moment of horror, but of enchantment, looking back to primative beliefs, and of course the uncanny is the recurrence of a forgotten memory or a superseded primitive belief. In Munch, the symbolism is much more of a trauma, an urban bourgeois nightmare, jealosynor grief or melancholy; here it seems positive and looking back to an agrarian, seemingly utopian state. It is a spirit of the Norwegian landscape, which he also plays with in landscapes and trees.

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