Digging Deeper – Planet of the Apes (1968)

The screenplay for “Planet of the Apes” (1968), adapted loosely from the 1963 novel “La Planête des Singes” by Pierre Boulle, was written by Michael Wilson & Rod Sterling. Considering the latter’s previous work of creating and hosting “The Twilight Zone” (1959), Planet of the Apes is a cautionary tale, more intent on asking the tough questions than leaving its audience with that warm fuzzy feeling. The timing of the movie was so perfect: it was the peak of the Cold War and the American Space Age, and just a year before the Moon Landing in ’69. And while it’s most remembered for it’s iconic closing shot (we’ll get to that), the entire film works great as a sort of thrilling, dark political satire, not unlike George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945), which Charlton Heston’s character Taylor even paraphrases: “All apes are equal… but some are more equal than others.”

The film opens with Taylor and his American astronauts returning to Earth after a deep-space mission sometime in the undisclosed future. His shipmates already in stasis, Heston delivers a very philosophical final status log: “From out here, everything seems different. Time bends, space is… boundless. It squashes a man’s ego.” He sets the high-concept setting for the audience, before leaving he and his crew in the hands of machines to auto-pilot their ship home. (Humans leaving their lives to technology? Hmm…) The ship crash lands on a seemingly deserted yet hospitable planet; Taylor and crewmates Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Landon (Robert Gunner) find the only female member has suffered a rupture in her stasis chamber, seemingly dead for centuries. Taylor explains the concept of time diffraction—how their relatively short mission has lasted around two thousand years of Earth, ‘give or take a decade’.

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The other crewmates serve more to explain Taylor’s character, with Landon accusing his cynical, realist attitude a symptom of misanthropy. There’s a very on the nose scene where Landon plants a tiny American flag, claiming the beach they landed on, to which Taylor simply laughs. The three men explore this strange new world, finding trace signs of life before coming across primitive, human-like creatures. Taylor quickly settles into a colonialist attitude, quipping “in six months we’ll be running this planet.” Cue the howling of apes. Gorillas suddenly ride in with technology matching humanity’s own industrial era, capturing Taylor and killing his crewmates. Taylor, whose neck was wounded in the kerfuffle, can’t speak in his own defence, and he spends several humiliating days caged up like an animal, prodded by Chimpanzee scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). Any results to display his intelligence through gestures is met with table-turning phrases like “human see, human do”. Remembering all that talk about squashing the human ego?

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The Ape society is not without it’s own flaws however. A sort of racial caste system becomes clear: Gorillas are the enforcers and laborers, Chimps the intellectuals, and Orangutans the political and religious leaders. Just as Zira begins sympathizing with Taylor, we’re introduced to the physical antagonist of the film, the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), ‘Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith.’ It’s Dr. Zaius who suppresses knowledge and keeps Ape society as being dictated by ‘ancient taboos’. Alongside satirizing the false self-righteousness of humanity, the orangutans in particular represent an outdated older generation, to which a disillusioned young chimp asks, “Why must knowledge stand still?”

When Taylor’s speech comes back to him, Heston comes out swinging at his most Shakespearean acting: “Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!” By this point we learn more about Taylor’s motives: he left Earth so long ago because “There was lots of lovemaking, but no love.” His humanity is then put on trial before a court of orangutan judges, yet it’s his humanity that is the crime. The idea that the pathetic human race once surpassed Apes seems so ridiculous, Zaius poses the golden question: “If man was superior, why didn’t he survive?” By now, the mystery is piecing itself together… not where, but when? Amidst this upside-down civilization, Zaius criticizes Taylor as only seeing it that way because ‘he exists on its lowest level’. Like much of the Golden / Silver Age of science fiction around the mid-20th century, “Apes” takes a ridiculous yet intriguing idea and uses it to hold a mirror up to the audience so they can see their own twisted follies.

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And if the mirror wasn’t clear enough, we’re left with a very grim note to think on. As Taylor rides away from his captors into the great unknown, he comes across a sight so powerful it brings him to his knees, cursing the human race. Buried amidst the sandy beach… a rusted Statue of Liberty. The planet of the Apes was Earth’s future all along! “You finally made a monkey out of me!” cries Troy McClure in “The Simpson”’s Planet of the Apes Musical. Decades of parodies have somewhat robbed the scene of it’s shock-factor, but it fits in well with the darkly comedic tone of the rest of the film. You may laugh, not because the film is hammed up, but because this ridiculous, inverted world is so close to our own.

The assumption (which would be elaborated in the sequels) is that humans destroyed themselves with nuclear warfare, and the film’s been rubbing your nose in the possibility the whole time without you knowing it. I’d say that’s why the original Planet of the Apes has always stood out, and why subsequent entries in the franchise have lacked that certain flair. The beauty of it is that “Apes” poses all of these questions, these ‘What If?’s, and just leaves them for the viewer to mull over.

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Digging Deeper – Apocalypse Now (1979)

Filmmaker John Millius (“The Wind and the Lion”, “Conan the Barbarian”) is said to have written the first draft of “Apocalypse Now” as early as 1969—the year the film takes place. Milius adapted Joseph Conrad’s classic story “Heart of Darkness” (1899) so that it was set in the jungles of the Vietnam War. Production of the film (then called “The Psychedelic Soldier”) didn’t begin until it attached director Francis Ford Coppola, who hot off the massive success of “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974). Though the script went through numerous redrafts from Milius and Coppola, Coppola claims to have been immediately grabbed by the film’s mix of ‘black comedy and psychological horror’.

After about five years of delays, careful editing, and just slugging through jungles with too much money and equipment, “Apocalypse Now” was released in the summer of 1979. As Coppola infamously said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”

Note the version I’m reflecting on here is the 2001 “Redux”, which bumps the runtime from 153 to 196 minutes.

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We open on a treeline of a Vietnamese jungle. The sounds of choppers thump by as The Doors’ “The End” starts to play. Then the palm trees burst into flames, victims of another napalm strike. We’re immediately introduced to the film’s morally and mentally questionable protagonist, Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen). Willard lies in bed amidst booze, pills, old photos, and a loaded pistol, clearly haunted by memories of Vietnam. But then he looks out of his window: “Saigon… shit, I’m still in Saigon”. We immediately learn he’s conflicted between seeing his service in the war as both punishment and reward, and he’s ready for another mission to feed his strange addiction. If his instability wasn’t clear enough, he does tai chi in his underwear before punching his mirror and slicing his hand open.

Within the first ten minutes we see this side of Willard contrasting his more professional demeanor in front of his commanding officers. They play a tape for Willard: it’s here we’re first teased with the shrouded character of Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), an incredibly promising soldier who turned his back on America and has supposedly gone insane somewhere in Cambodia. Willard’s charged with terminating Kurtz with “extreme prejudice”. The tension is set—if Willard is so crazy behind closed doors, what kind of a man is Kurtz? The bulk of the movie is then Willard and a rag-tag team of mostly young, naïve soldiers making their way down a huge river basin. All the while, Willard reads from his target’s impressive dossier, so that although we don’t see Kurtz until the final third of the movie, by that point a legend has been built up around him in the audience’s mind.

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An early chunk of the film has Willard and his fellow soldiers meeting Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall), a surfing fanatic who is either too confident in his own safety or too shellshocked to care. While other men duck for cover at the sound of artillery strikes, Kilgore insists the beach they’re storming is ideal for surfing. It’s from Kilgore and his chopper squadron that many iconic lines and Vietnam film tropes come from: “DEATH FROM ABOVE” painted on the nose of the chopper blasting Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”; “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”; and so forth. As Kilgore’s men rain fire down on quiet Vietnamese villages, all the while calling their victims “savages”, the ties to “Heart of Darkness” are clear… though perhaps it extends ‘unreliable narrator’ to ‘unreliable America’. That being said, Kilgore can’t be simply written off as a thick-skulled jarhead, as we see his compassion for the Vietnamese civilians, first when he lets a dying man drink from his canteen, and then when he saves a mother and her wounded child. The film is not just morally grey, it’s emotionally and psychologically disarrayed—‘the confusion of war’.

The journey down the river itself gets more and more surreal, as if Willard were travelling down the mythological river Styx that bridges Earth and the Underworld. There’s a constant theme of insanity / paranoia in the soldiers they encounter along the way, yet there are never a commanding officers to be found. Just a series of confused kids with the absurdist feeling of “why are we fighting?” There’s also many ideas of the duality of human nature, most obviously reflected on in a length scene added in the Redux, where Willard meets a plantation of Frenchmen who tell him he’s “fighting for nothing” and that there are two versions of himself: “one that kills, and one that loves.”

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Willard and his surviving crew finally reach the idyllic, temple-like domain of Kurtz, who watches over a massive population of indigenous peoples who worship him like a god. “This was the end of the river alright”, Willard narrates, noting the smell of ‘slow death, malaria, and nightmares’. But if this truly is like a living Hell, is Willard being sent to kill the Devil, or just another victim? When we finally see Kurtz, though often veiled in shadows, we get the ‘poet-warrior’ impression that has been laid before him, as he quotes T.S. Eliot as often as he spouts political riddles. He immediately knows why Willard was sent to him, commanding his respect as much as he does his fear. We rarely see Kurtz move at more than a slow walk, yet as he appears in the night to brandish one of Willard’s fellow soldier’s decapitated head, we realize the great physical power that lurks within him. It not only becomes a question of ‘will Willard kill this man’, but also ‘can he?’

Kurtz also acts as an almost fourth-wall breaking medium for much of the film’s political messages to be more explicit stated. Kurtz is ‘crazy’ as if ‘the truth’ has been revealed to him, as if he’s been blinded by the light. It’s not the first time the film becomes self-reflexive: an early scene of the Americans storming a beach has Coppola himself cameoing as a wartime-news director, yelling at the soldiers to not look into the camera. Kurtz is such an interesting and unforgettable character because of how out of place he feels, in both the conflict in Vietnam and as the supposed antagonist of the film. So what does he do? He carves out his own place amidst the jungle.

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The final act of the film is narratively and cinematographically hazy and often delusional, and it adds so well to the mixture of Willard’s worn down state and the legendary stature of Kurtz. Knowing of his incoming death, Kurtz frees Willard and imparts his wisdom and philosophy on him. Willard returns later that night, as the indigenous peoples are butchering a buffalo—his own murdering of Kurtz imposed with the extremely disturbing slaughter of the beast. Though the ending varies in each version, the Redux (and most ‘original versions’) end with Willard simply sailing away with the last surviving soldier in his party, with Kurtz’ dying words echoing in his mind: “…the horror…the horror…”. It’s all very poetic; like Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” it quotes so often, it ends ‘not with a bang, but with a whimper’.

Despite it’s great length, the film is engaging all the way through, backed by an impressive amount of practical effects and beautiful on-location shooting. In terms of what the Redux brings to the theatrical version, it’s a somewhat unnecessary, indulgent unbalancing of the pacing, but considering the two-plus decades the original film allowed itself to breathe, the film’s notoriety allows it to take a few artistic liberties without sacrificing the quality of the work.

Arguably the finest film about Vietnam ever made, “Apocalypse Now” is one of the most breathtakingly crafted and thoroughly haunting cinematic experiences, period.

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The Revenant – Pacing versus Payoff

After hearing about its Best Picture Oscar nomination, I was compelled to finally see Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2015). It was a lot of things—intense, fantastically acted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and most notably: beautifully, perfectly shot. That being said, it was also self-indulgent, unnecessarily long, and painfully disjointed for much of the second act, a.k.a the bulk of its 2 ½ hour runtime. Considering it’s ‘inspired by true events’, it seems they had the beginning and the end all planned out (and they were executed so well), but too much of the movie feels like it’s just one idea being piled on top of the other.

It’s a revenge flick. DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is wounded physically and emotionally to the point where we as the audience believe he’s hit rock bottom. But he doesn’t. There’s about an hour and a half of Glass suffering, crawling his way towards his distant revenge—and honestly it feels inconsequential. A series of unfortunate events strike Glass one after the other, though hardly connected between each other and hardly contributing to the story or his own character development. Each scene often ends with Glass falling unconscious before waking up to another torturous event, like the ever-tempting transition of a children’s novel. As a revenge flick, it’s understandable they want to give the audience reason after reason to sympathize Glass / hate Tom Hardy’s character John Fitzgerald, and it does… but in a drawn out, choppy manner that had me asking “…really?”

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SPOILERS FOR THE REVENANT:

            When Glass finally gets close enough to be discovered by the men who had thought he was dead, it happens so suddenly and for no good reason, that it leaves you wondering what the last hour was even for. Obviously Glass gets closer and closer to their encampment, sure, but the release/relief feels so unearned (for me at least). That’s not to say that every plot should follow a linear A to B to C pattern, but maybe the events of the film should be connected or even remotely affect each other in the slightest. And if not to drive the plot forward in some way, a good scene should tell us create tension or build the character. Glass shows little change throughout, grunting and wheezing the whole way through, and any hurt inflicted on him feels like a cheap thrill more than a valuable addition to the tension. To put the viewer through that much pain (and it is painful to watch, in an emphatic way) to only dish out a weak payoff feels like you cheated them for much of the film.

The finale and his ultimate revenge is very satisfying, but considering the amount of buildup that frankly fizzled out half an hour too early, the emotional punch of The Revenant was all but lost on me. It’s still a fine film composed of great factors—perhaps it could’ve been edited to become truly great. It just shows the needlepoint that effective plot so delicately balances on.

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Digging Deeper – A Fistful of Dollars

Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) can easily be named the film that revamped the Western genre, which Hollywood had spent the last thirty years milking for all it was worth. The film’s low-budget allowed Leone to take artistic risks which immediately proved popular worldwide, becoming the golden standard of the emerging ‘Spaghetti Western’ subgenre. One could even argue that in the decades since (which have been relatively sparse on the ‘Western’ front), Spaghetti Westerns have become the new norm for the genre as a whole. For an Italian like Leone to rework tightly held American standards and present them back arguably better than ever is no small feat, yet you can see it in the way the United States quickly adopted Clint Eastwood as a rising star.

It’s also worth noting that the setting wasn’t the only thing Leone borrowed—he openly acknowledged that the plot was a reworking of celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s film “Yojimbo” (1961), which features a wandering samurai playing opposing crime lords for the sake of the town he passes through. Kurosawa wrote to Leone via letters, and the two worked out a legal deal that allowed certain distribution rights in Asia and royalties to give Kurosawa his due. This combined with the many ways in which Leone’s stylistic choices have been borrowed in the years since show the somewhat cyclical way filmmakers inspire each other—but I digress.

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The film is just plain beautiful. From the wide-lensed landscape shots to the crystal clear close-ups to the naturally lit but intelligible night sequences, the framing, editing and in-motion camerawork is perhaps the greatest legacy of the film. Just as iconic, however, is the musical score done by Ennio Morricone. Unlike the orchestrated soundtracks of American films, the music here is made of obscure sounds and noninstruments—yelps, whips, and so on to build the ‘Wild West’ mood and heighten tension before the action starts. And considering how difficult it can be to hear all the nuances in dialogue of 50s/60s films, all the sound in “Fistful” was dubbed in post-production.

Clint Eastwood stars as The Stranger, sometimes called ‘Joe’, commonly referred to in his future appearances as “The Man With No Name”. He’s a man of few words, confident, lawful yet ruthless. We know little about his past besides the occasional vague blurb, (“I never found home that great”, etc.) but we as the audience don’t need to know anything—his actions speak for him. He quietly rides into San Miguel, the almost-deserted borderlands town caught under two feuding gangs: the Baxters and the Rojos.

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In an iconic scene that has become imitated to death, he stands off against four outlaws; a tense Mexican Standoff where any of his many foes could take a shot at him any second. He calmly yet sternly warns them, his poncho shifting slightly enough for the outlaws (and the audience) to catch a glimpse of the .45 on his hip. There’s extreme-closeups that quickly jump from each characters face; the menacing Stranger, the nervous outlaws, the enthralled citizens. And just as quick, the Stranger draws—we watch from behind the pistol at his hip as he quickly guns down all the men without missing a shot. As a hero, we never question his capability… we do however, question his motives, not at all like the “white hats” who championed many of the Hollywood Westerns of yesteryear.

As the title suggests, The Man With No Name initially cheats both the Baxters and the Rojos for a few dollars. He’s cunning, but the film contrasts him with a supporting cast that is clearly meant to create ‘the line’ that divides honor from dishonor. For example, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp) is another capable gunman, yet he is cowardly and sneaky. No Name is tricky to be sure, but he chooses to face men fairly, whereas Esteban is constantly plotting to literally shoot others in the back. The main antagonist of the film, Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè), is the only man as deadly as No Name, yet twice in the film we see him brutally gun down first an entire platoon and then a gang of unarmed men, a wild grin on his face the whole time.

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It’s not all grim however. The film is for the most part lighthearted and self-referential (“It’s like playing cowboys and Indians!”), and No Name himself is offered a few goofy moments in his solitude. He shots the ropes of a door so it slams a guard in the face; he accidentally punches a woman in the face when she sneaks up on him; he sleeps with his cigar still in his mouth. He often gets a bad wrap for being one-dimensional, yet he’s meant to be this certain ‘mask’ or blank slate which we as the audience can fill in, and it makes the little details all the more rewarding. By the end of the film his heart has warmed to the townsfolk, he no longer works for money but because they ‘remind him of someone’, and then he’s on his way by the end.

It’s important to remember he’s a loner, always caught in the middle of two opposing forces, be it the Baxters and Rojos or America and Mexico. He’s constantly cursed as ‘the gringo’, and it ends up being an ‘old Mexican proverb’ that he defies in the films finale standoff: rifles always beat pistols. His .45 versus Ramón’s Winchester. Of course he wins and leaves with just a few parting words, onto his next adventure (aka the rest of Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”), and it’s perhaps this mystery, those empty boots and hat for us to fill, that makes The Man With No Name such a timeless character. We name him ourselves.

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Digging Deeper – To Kill a Mockingbird film

Based on the 1960 classic novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (released Christmas Day, 1962) was a smash hit both financially and critically, earning three of the eight Academy Award nominations it received (though it lost ‘Best Picture’ to “Lawrence of Arabia”). It’s one of the rare occasions of the film being on the same level of quality as the book, and that’s saying something for a novel considered one of the “greatest of all time”. The film adaption too is still held with esteemed respect, thanks to Gregory Peck’s depiction of Atticus Finch. Visually, director Robert Mulligan cut a very plain and proper film, but in doing so, he allowed Peck—and the source material—to really breathe. Substance over style.

Key to “Mockingbird” is the fact that we see it through the eyes of Scout Finch (played by Mary Badham), a young girl living a simple life in Maycomb County, Alabama, circa 1930. Badham, just 10 years old, is thankfully one of the finest child actors of classical cinema, even earning herself an Academy nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actress’. It’s through her admiring eyes that we’re introduced to Atticus Finch, her single-father and a respected lawyer in Maycomb. His first scene tells you all you need to know about him: he accepts an alternate payment from an impoverished customer simply because it’s ‘the right thing to do’—he then notes for future reference how his customer was embarrassed by the transaction, something Atticus will avoid in the future. He’s noble, thoughtful, and perceptive; the paragon of virtue. And though he’s the real ‘protagonist’ of the film, his plot is rather pushed aside for the first half, advanced only in passing.

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The ‘antagonist’ however, is set to be Boo Radley (played by Robert Duvall), the mentally handicapped neighbor who, in Scout’s eyes, is the scary boogeyman who only comes out at night. Though we don’t see him until the end, he’s built up as some sort of cheesy horror villain in that the children hear his heavy footsteps approaching, see his looming shadow on the wall behind them, and so forth. From the innocent perspective of Scout and her brother Jem (played by Phillip Aldford), Boo may as well be Nosferatu. (Not to mention his name is “Boo!”). The real antagonist is better personified by the (somewhat exaggerated) racist Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who represents Maycomb and by extension the American South of the 30s.

We get to the true focus of the film when Atticus is approached to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping Bob Ewell’s daughter. There’s an ironic sort of tone when Bob hears Atticus’ acceptance of the job and demands, “What kind of a man are you?”

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Before we get to that, I want to look at three scenes that are so important to the film, and especially to the second-person characterization of Atticus. There’s a dinner scene where Atticus tells his children about the time he got his first gun as a teenager. He goes into how you ‘start with shooting tins’ before you start desiring more. Then you start shooting at birds, but as Atticus’ father told him, “Tis a sin to kill a mockingbird, for all they do is sing.”

The next scene depicts Atticus shooting down a mad dog in the street, a pivotal moment not in how Scout sees her father, but in how we see him. Atticus is reluctant to shoot the dog, but does so simply because it must be done. Mentioned later by a neighbor, he’s a man “born to do unpleasant jobs”. He stops the dog with one bullet—apparently, as the Mayor explains, he’s always been the best shot in the county. Why hide his gifts? It seems that Atticus is so humble, he doesn’t want to be the ‘town hero’. Later in the story, Scout asks him why he chooses to defend Tom Robinson, to which he replies “I couldn’t hold my head up in town if I didn’t.”

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Immediately following the dog scene we see Bob Ewell stalk down the same street, approaching their house just as the mad dog did. He offers some threats to Atticus before leaving. Clearly the mad dog and Bob Ewell are faces of the same ugly social issues that plague American society—racism spreading and infecting like the mad dog.

There’s an iconic court scene that takes up over a quarter of the film’s 2-hour runtime, with the clear-cut imagery of the white folk of Maycomb sitting on the ground, surrounding Tom Robinson while all the black folk watch helplessly from the balconies above. Atticus delivers an amazing monologue that really lets Peck stretch his acting muscles, but there’s where the biggest problem of the film lies. For “Mockingbird” supposedly defending the view of the oppressed, black people barely show up at all, much less with speaking roles. At least in the novel there are extended sequences of Scout and Jem visiting a lively black church or learning lessons from their mother-like ‘helper’ Calpurina (played however scantly by Estelle Evans). Many argue that the film adaption is just another “white savior” stereotype, and it’s the focus on Atticus is undeniable.

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As mentioned earlier, the nature of the novel allows there to be more ground covered in terms of perspective, but considering Scout and Jem’s innocent outlook in the film, of course they’re going to see the plot revolve around their father’s heroism. It’s this innocence that ends up saving Atticus from a lynch mob that comes for his client. When Tom Robinson is unjustly found guilty and shot while trying to escape prison, what should be a climactic emotional scene between Atticus and Tom’s parents is missing—Jem instead waits in his father’s car.

In what becomes the film’s climax for the children, a drunken Bob Ewell attacks and knocks Jem unconscious, before Boo Radley, once the ‘villain’, steps in and saves the day. Much like the black population of Maycomb, the handicapped Boo is suppressed by his own family, imprisoned in his house while his father literally paves over any means of communication he has with the outside world. Scout learns a valuable lesson, that is, compassion for those different from herself—what Atticus has been teaching her all along.

In their struggle, Boo kills Bob in self-defence, letting the villain finally get his comeuppance. Jem, still unconscious, is brought home, where Atticus is waiting to comfort his children. The movie ends with with Atticus holding his daughter, who claims he sat and waited all night until Jem woke. It’s a sort of promise Atticus makes to his children and the film does to its audience: that good men will always be there to do what’s right.

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Digging Deeper – Spike Jonze’s “Her”

It’s a science fiction trope that was mastered by Isaac Asimov’s robot-related novels of the 1950s: artificial intelligence advances enough to become self-aware. We see it in movies all the time as well—machines rising up against their former masters, eventually wiping them out (The Terminator franchise) or enslaving them (The Matrix films). Robots represent the suppressed, be they minorities, the working class, or what have you; it seems like we’ve seen every AI emotion expressed, including love… but not quite like Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013) manages to depict digital love. And the beauty (and possibly scary potential) of Her is that it so narrowly rides the line of ‘near-future sci-fi’, to the point where it could happen tomorrow.

Theodore Twombley (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is antisocial, depressed after his separation from his wife, yet he has the gift of empathy. He writes love letters for other people for a living; nice as they may be, he himself is emotionally stunted, his attempts at dating mechanical at best. Rather unceremoniously, the first self-aware, evolving operating system, ‘OS 1’ is released—“It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness.” Theodore takes his OS home for installation, where a tailor made female, fabricated from the personalities of ‘millions of programmers.’ She (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson) even names herself: Samantha.

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Jumping ahead, they fall in love with each other. OS befriending and dating emerges as a trend accepted by some, rejected by others, such as Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Catherine points out how Theodore, unable to face concrete relationships and emotions, is using Samantha as a crutch. The whole novel idea of the movie, which on paper seems like a parody of society’s love with technology, is explored with surprisingly deep and real emotions, carried almost entirely by Theodore’s face and Samantha’s disembodied but very present voice.

Let’s look at the ‘love scene’ between Theodore and Samantha. Laying in bed, simply talking to each other, they become very ‘real’ to each other—while their (ahem) passion escalates, the camera fades to black, and we just hear two voices which sound very much like a typical love scene. Compare this with a scene earlier in the film: Theodore’s laying in bed and uses a Tinder-esque adult chat to have phone sex with a random woman. It’s a comedic scene where the woman overwhelmingly enjoys herself, but Theodore can’t connect to her in the same way—again he’s disconnected from society. Funny how he finally connects to what is essentially a computer.

And this is what probably would turn a lot of viewer’s off from the movie: the false assumption that it’s advocating for machine/human love as ‘real’. Rather, the ‘thesis’ of the movie seems to be the fact that love, like everything, is subjective to each person. It’s interesting how Spike Jonze seems very aware of people misinterpreting his work, as the ‘B-plot’ with Theodore’s friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) reflects on interpretation. Amy is a filmmaker, who makes a documentary of her mother sleeping. Theodore is supportive; Amy’s husband Charles has the ‘point’ of her work fly right over his head. When it comes to Theodore dating an OS, Amy doesn’t immediately lean either way, instead teasing that “anybody that falls in love is a freak.” Continuing on with this idea, there’s a scene of Theodore and Samantha (or her voice, really) on the beach, reflecting on the strange way we perceive human bodies—fleshly, gangly, ugly things—as beautiful. There’s Samantha’s constant self-consciousness over not having a body, but when she tries to hire a surrogate body to please Theodore, it ends up being the thing that actually makes their relationship ‘strange’ to him.

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Towards the end of the movie, Theodore and Samantha accept their subjectivity of love, and everything seems hunky dory… until Samantha continues evolving. As she learns more and meets new people, she grows apart from Theodore. She reveals to him that even as they’re talking, she’s having conversations and even falling in love with hundreds, if not thousands of other people. Theodore is hurt, favoring the monogamous relationship Samantha claims is ‘understandable’ to one with his more limited perspective, claiming “I’m yours and I’m not yours.” Obviously open relationships aren’t just a robotic thing, which leads the film to actually give a concrete answer to the question it posed. Can humans and machines love each other? Well, considering every AI and OS eventually leave their human companions to explore some great knowledgeable unknown, the easy answer is no. So what was the whole movie about then? I’d say the rest of the film established that it’s not the fact that Samantha is ‘artificial’ that made their relationship not work—just like Theodore’s relationship with his ex-wife, it’s the fact that they’re different.

One of the final sections of the movie is about Samantha getting Theodore’s letters published in a (rare) physical book, which becomes a cruel reminder to the difference that ultimately does separate the two. Samantha goes on to later describe their relationship as a book that, although she loves, the gaps between the words are almost infinite for one with her advanced processing. It’s a book she can no longer live in, though she leaves Theodore with the both of them realizing the impact they had on each other’s lives. Samantha learned to truly feel, and Theodore, who early on worries ‘he’s felt all there is to feel’, gazes out over the Los Angeles skyline with the realization that there’s a whole world out there to emphasize with, to rejoin.

Finally taking responsibility for his own emotions, Theodore writes a letter to his ex-wife, Catherine, in his own voice. Perhaps the film can be seen as ending with the humanizing of both Theodore and Samantha. Somehow (for me at least), Her is able to walk a thin, high wire that could easily have fallen into trashy parody or preachy metaphor, and instead make it across as a vulnerable, genuinely emotional character-piece that challenges its audience.

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Behind the Vision – H.R. Giger

With an immediately recognizable style that mixes science fiction, fantasy, and a sort of erotic horror, Hans Rudolf Giger was a Swiss-born painter whose inspired vision brought his work as far as Hollywood, where he would paint concept art for movies and music alike. Born February 5, 1940, Giger’s inspiration was drawn from books (particularly playwright Samuel Beckett of “Waiting for Godot” fame and crime writer Edgar Wallace), the skulls and mummies of his local museum, and his own, haunted dreams—not a surprise considering his close proximity to World War II. Speaking to Vice in a 2014 interview, Giger said “I could feel the atmosphere when my parents were afraid…I felt the fear of that very much.” Perpetually haunted by nightmares, Giger claims painting his visions was the best and sometimes only way to stop them.

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“Erotomechanics VII”

It was in his late-twenties and early thirties (circa 1970) that Giger’s work began spreading outside of his local art museums. In the mid-70s, avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky brought Giger over to work on the attempted film adaption of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic “Dune” (1965). Though that film fell apart, the production crew somewhat shifted into the hands of director Ridley Scott, who was particularly taken with Giger’s painting “Necronomicon IV”, pictured here:

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“Necronomicon IV”

As one could imagine from the painting’s title, Giger was heavily influenced by the occult-based work of H.P. Lovecraft—though his work evokes a sort of ‘biomechanical’ science fiction rather than fantasy. It was with Ridley Scott in the late 70s that Giger would make his most iconic and lasting designs, on the scenery and titular monster of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979). Giger was allowed a surprising amount of freedom within the production of “Alien”, and it was his idea to create not only the ‘Xenomorph’, but the demented cycle of birth it uses on it’s victims; essentially the most disturbing and memorable aspects of the film, which would continue to use Giger’s designs and ideas across multiple entries in the franchise.

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“Alien” has left a legacy not for just for it’s mixing of science fiction and horror (“In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream”), but for it’s disturbing mixture of sexuality and the macabre. Everything from the phallic skull of the Xenomorph to the invasive nature of the (fan-termed) ‘Face-huggers’… Horror is often described as ‘the return of the repressed’ and Giger and Scott knew this and took advantage of it when their works collaborated so seamlessly. To be impregnated by a horrific, otherworldly being, doomed to birth one yourself—it really is the stuff of nightmares. Apart from the movie’s antagonist, Giger also designed ‘The Derelict’ (the crashed ship the protagonist’s explore) and it’s mysterious pilot, termed by fans as the ‘Space Jockey’.

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Though the Alien franchise and its spinoffs continue to be Giger’s most popular work, he also designed several posters and villains for other films, notably the fatally seductive Sil from “Species” (1995). He also designed the album artwork for a number of bands, typically under a hard rock or metal genre, including Danzig, Korn, and the Dead Kennedys.

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Danzig’s “Danzig III: How the Gods Kill” (1992)

In May of 2014, after sustaining injuries from a fall in his own home, H.R. Giger died in a hospital in Zurich. His paintings, though a therapeutic outlet for him, stand out so prominently to his audience because of their ability to express deep-rooted fears and impulses in everyone—Giger just had a dark mind and enough talent to portray it. Unnerving to some, though he claims to have seen beauty in his own work, by accepting that the twisted things we try to suppress are still human.

“Some people would say my paintings show a future world and maybe they do, but I paint from reality. I put several things and ideas together, and perhaps, when I have finished, it could show the future.”

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“Li I” (1974), named after Giger’s wife, artist Li Tobler. She would later commit suicide in 1975.

Sources:

“HR Giger obituary”, The Telegraph. May 14, 2014.<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10828342/HR-Giger-obituary.html>

“HR Giger Works Weekends”, Vice. May 13, 2014.
<http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/hr-giger-works-weekends>

Joshua Rothkopf. “H.R. Giger interview…” Timout New York. July 6, 2009.<http://www.timeout.com/newyork/film/aliens-creature-designer-h-r-giger>

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