Friday, July 18, 2014

Venus in Fur and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

            Fear the Fur
                   Review by Ken Burke                 Venus in Fur

Polanski adapts the play adapted from the novel that’s the seminal literary work on masochism, with a powerful 2-person performance about shifting aspects of power.
                                        Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The rebooted series of how intelligent non-human simians become the dominant species continues in an effective episode about aggression and tolerance on both sides.
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Let me begin by noting that I’m writing this aided by a little buzz from a combination of the American League just now winning the 2014 baseball All-Star Game (giving them home-field-advantage when we finally get to the World Series later this autumn), in which my beloved Oakland A’s had 6 players on the team—all of whom got into the game with none of them doing anything spectacular but none making any blatant errors either—along with consuming one of my personal-best-high-octane-margaritas so I’m in an especially good and flexible mood which I think is the proper perspective from which to view and analyze all aspects of the narrative which ultimately results in the current film version of Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski), having made its way to the screen via a roundabout path from both the 1870 novel, Venus in Furs, written by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whom the sexual deviation [or embracement, depending on your preferences] of masochism takes its name) and the David Ives play based on this original work, which opened on Broadway on November 8, 2011.  I don’t want to impose upon your time with what’s supposed to be a current film review by saying too much about these older media sources—as well as the Titian painting of Venus with a Mirror (shown here, c. 1555, now in the U.S. National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), which has inspirational aspects in the foundational novel—but it helps greatly to know more about how this cinematic story originates so bear with me for a moment before we move on properly to what Polanski (working with Ives on the screenplay) offers in his version of this psychologically-searing-tale.  In essence, what we have in the novel (I profusely thank my Mills College colleague, Dr. Mario Cavallari, for being more successful than me in the Internet search process, locating both this full transcript of Sacher-Masoch’s book as well as the entire text of the Ives play) is the story of an unnamed narrator visited in a dream by the goddess Venus who speaks of love as passion, criticizes Northern European men for treating it as a relationship duty; therefore, the more the woman is cruel and distancing, the more the more the man desires her in a sense of reverse conquest.  The narrator then discusses this with his friend, Severin von Kusiemski, who presents excerpts from his diary in which he says he rose above the concept that men must dominate women or be dominated by them.  Severin recounts his boyhood encounters with his aunt who wore furs and beat him, thereby giving him what he called a supersenual awareness of eroticism, as well as a desire for both physical and psychological dominance by a woman along with a fetish for the texture of fur (replaced by Ives and Polanski with a focus on leather, although there are symbolic references to that fur also, especially in a seduction scene in the midst of a lengthy audition).

 This leads to his involvement with Baroness Wanda von Dunajew (a situation related to both Sacher-Masoch’s mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor, and the specific literary pseudonym of his wife, Aurora von Rümelin, both of whom he lived out events of his novel with), where he says he’s so much in love with her that he’s willing to be her actual slave, which—after considerable hesitation—she agrees to (via a signed contract), resulting in not only some bound whippings of Severin but also the further humiliation of her giving her love to a studly young Greek, which finally breaks Severin of his obsession, after a false scene of Wanda admitting her love for him and claiming that she acted in such a harsh manner in order to accede to his wishes for degradation, but this is followed by the worst whipping scene of all, administered by the Greek (described as wearing tall boots and tight clothes, giving a reasonable indication that Wanda’s not the only one fascinated by him, as the Vanda aspiring-actor will argue later in our Polanski film).

In the novel, the conclusion is this, in a final dialogue with the unnamed initial narrator:

"'And the moral of the story?' I said to Severin when I put the manuscript down on the table.

'That I was a donkey,' he exclaimed without turning around, for he seemed to be embarrassed.
'If only I had beaten her!'

'A curious remedy,' I exclaimed, 'which might answer with your peasant-women—'

'Oh, they are used to it,' he replied eagerly, 'but imagine the effect upon one of our delicate, nervous, hysterical ladies—'

'But the moral?'

'That woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.  This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, as is his equal in education and work.  [An interesting statement, given how the play/film character of Vanda Jordan rails against the sexist premises of this book, but her anger may be based on play director Thomas' seeming lack of inclusion of this argument, although we never get the full text of his adaptation so this is only speculation on my part.]

'At present we have only the choice of being hammer or anvil, and I was the kind of donkey who let a woman make a slave of him, do you understand?

'The moral of the tale is this: whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.
'The blows, as you see, have agreed with me; the roseate supersensual mist has dissolved, and no one can ever make me believe again that these 'sacred apes of Benares' or Plato's rooster are the image of God.'"  [See the link above for endnote explanations of these last 2 references.]

Ives adapts this story into an intriguing play in which a writer (or adaptor, as he insists) /director, Thomas Novachek, is in the process of his own transformation of this novel into a 2-actor-work for the stage but is extremely frustrated that he cannot find a suitable young woman for the role of Vanda (Wanda in the book—he also slightly changes Kushiemski’s name to Kushemski, but that could all be based on translations from the original text) until a brusque woman, Vanda Jordan (played in the Broadway debut by Nina Arianda, who won a Tony for the 2011-12 season as Best Actress in a Play; Wes Bentley played Thomas in that staging), bursts into his rehearsals—supposedly finished for the day—and surprises him with a habitation of the character that not only captures what he’d written but challenges him on a deep level as to what he was even writing about.  This narrative is what Polanski adapts almost item-for-item into his film (one change is the setting, from NYC to Paris—because Polanski is still fighting with the U.S. courts over extradition for a now-long-ago-sex-crime with a minor; he’s working only in Europe at present so the dialogue is in French with subtitles, which gives a clear graphic help for us to know when spoken lines are from Thomas’ script because they’re in italics while the dialogues between director and actor are not), with just a few minor plot additions (well … a not so minor one at the very end), so what I wish to explore here are the differing emphases Ives brought to the original story, which was then made even more haunting by Polanski (to some degree, a supposition on my part, having only read the play but not seen it performed—although in a few clips from the Broadway production noted far below the whole attitude is played more for laughs than its counterpart in the film—which does retain humor but only toward the beginning—so I think my evaluation would bear up upon full comparison).  In brief (still an abstract concept for me), what happens in the Ives/Polanski narrative is that Thomas is in the midst of casting his adaptation of the Venus in Furs novel (to be performed in a ramshackle theatre in the film, an old building where the “H” in the exterior “THEATRE” sign is missing while the stage is still cluttered with the remnants of the previous show, a Belgian musical version of John Ford’s movie, Stagecoach [1939]—written into Polanski’s text as an opening absurdity, I’m sure, but one that resonates with the reality of recent Broadway musical transformations of cinema-based-stories such as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark [originally directed by Julie Taymor, with music by U2’s Bono and The Edge] and Rocky the Musical [directed by Alex Timbers, with music by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens], both of which closed or are set to close after only a modest time under the lights of the Great White Way—mid-2011 to early January 2014 for Spider-Man, mid-March 2014 to an announced mid-August 2014 for Rocky).

 However, he's angry that the young women auditioning for the Vanda role seem superficial to him, then he’s surprised when the seemingly-scattered Ms. Jordon arrives late drenched with the day’s rain, isn’t listed on the call sheet, has a skimpy resumé, and apparently isn’t that conversant with the script (showing up in what she assumes is a proper costume: a dog collar, leather bustier, leather mini-skirt; admitting that she’s only skimmed over his text—although that brings up a strange situation right away that her agent even had a full copy of the script to send her, plus she’s also brought other appropriate costumes, an elegant dress for herself, a smoking jacket made in Vienna in 1869 for him when he decides to read with her, taking on the role of Severin).  What follows is an increasingly-disturbing-descent into the complex—and scary—world of Psychological Realism, so well explored in such examples as Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) and the currently-playing Third Person (Paul Haggis; review in our July 9, 2014 posting) combined with a cluster of sociological gender-centric issues that will likely have some audience members applauding and others appalled.  So, let’s see what’s happening in this stark encounter.

While Vanda the actress (with her previous experience at, among other places, the Urinal Theatre) initially seems like a complete waste of possibility to embody Vanda the character, she plays upon first-time-director Thomas’ underlying empathy for struggling members of the thespian world (in retrospect, possibly employing some stereotypical allusions of the downtrodden maiden who needs aid from a more powerfully-placed-male) to respond to her frustration and tears, especially when he sees her in the era-appropriate dress that she manages to slip on even as he’s trying to hustle her out of the building, so they begin the audition-reading with him taking Severin’s part.  Suddenly, she’s in command of the role, even having the lines committed to memory (she claims she’s a “quick study” for roles), which astonishes him but she’s too effective in performance for him to question as to deeper motives or subversive strategies, although she’s quick to throw in criticisms of the whole concept of this story, which she sees as pornographic and degrading to women, despite the overt content of the Severin character pledging his submission to this strong woman, even offering himself for physical punishment if that would please his Vanda (given that she’s understood to be based on some manifestation of Sacher-Masoch’s wife, it’s impossible to overlook the real-world-casting-reality that our film’s Vanda is played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, just as many have commented that Mathieu Amairic as Thomas bears a reasonable resemblance to a younger Polanski, so if there are further levels of psychological trauma beneath the already-unstable-surface of this most-intriguing-but-unsettling-film, then I’ll have to leave that to those who like to do second-hand-psychoanalysis of film directors based on their works and writings; I think we already have enough to deal with concerning what Vanda and Thomas represent to each other, with the fictional Vanda and Severin's situation presenting powerful opportunities for these theatre-folks' hidden personas to manifest themselves).

 As a film-viewing-experience, Venus in Fur is an active interaction between the lines of the play and the dialogue of our only characters— being delivered to us as an extended audience beyond the depicted empty house—which evolves into a 96 min. on-screen-narrative using the rare cinematic structure of story time directly equaling running time, just as we’d see this presentation on stage with no use of editing to compress time or move us outside the theatre into conceptually-enhancing-locations, as is the usual case when a play finds itself transformed into a film.  This only adds to the impact of Polanski’s appropriation of Venus in Fur because as the intensity builds we have no respite from fade-outs, additional locales, missing pieces of action that we must subliminally imagine the contents of while the necessary scenes move the action along in a manner more appropriate to filmic conventions.  These 2 people, in their increasing dance of power-transformation and blending of on-and-off-stage-lives, drive us into a whirlwind of raw emotion, primordial conflicts of sex roles, and a conclusion that comes across as much more operatic than we could ever have assumed in those opening minutes of a flustered, would-be-actor trying to gain a moment’s attention from a self-consumed writer/director in a pathetic little theatre where even the props needed for the Venus in Furs adaptation (another minor change from the original, open to interpretation as to why the plural form of the book’s title was dropped) are surrounded by the debris of the previous show, a seeming absurdity that further mocks the profound seriousness that Thomas is trying to maintain for his play which he sees as the furthering of a substantial piece of previous intellectual/cultural accomplishment, despite Vanda’s ongoing protests (we have reason to wonder throughout most of this narrative why she's auditioning for a play that she detests so much, challenging Thomas on everything from misogyny to child abuse [all of which he denies]—a question that will be answered in a most "striking" manner when we reach the end).

Where Thomas has gone in a direction notably different from Sacher-Masoch, though, is in the shifting of emphasis toward the play's conclusion.  In the novel (as recounted above) Severin says that he should have imposed himself physically upon Wanda after her seeming declaration of love for him and abandonment of their agreed-upon-slave-status for Severin quickly changed to an even more humiliating situation than he’d previous endured as she and her Greek lover give the most vicious beating of all to Severin, literally driving his “eternal love” for Wanda out of his consciousness.  In the play Vanda stays with the turn-around of attitude only briefly presented in the novella, truly pledging her love for Severin, telling him how difficult it was for her to act so cruel toward him but doing it anyway out of devotion to him and her understanding of his need for such humiliation, finally presenting herself as his servant, ready to be subjugated to his will as she recognizes the underlying strength that he must possess in order to allow himself to be so abused by her actions (although we only get a partial presentation of the script of Thomas’ play-within-the-play/film so it’s not clear what that full production would have shown of the physical damage done to him; compared to what’s graphically noted in the book the play only seems to offer a few slaps with the whip and some kissing of her shoe rather than the full-blown S&M scenes in the Sacher-Masoch version).  This twist of fate for character-Vanda brings about a massive change in actor-Vanda, as she begins her steady takeover of the audition coupled with the growing dynamic between performer and director.  In the process, she sheds the dress so that she’s now more provocatively-alluring than ever in just her underwear and high heels, she draws Thomas into Freudian analysis about his fiancée with him on the couch and her wearing a blazer and glasses, then convinces him to take on the role of Vanda while she assumes the most assertive-version of Severin, complete with him putting some traditional dominatrix tall boots on her—she’s back to her other leather clothes by this point also—while she stuffs his feet into her high-heeled-shoes, puts the dog collar on him, then adds some lipstick before she ties him neck and hands to a tall prop, at which point she unleashes her full fury on him, seemingly as Venus (or Aphrodite, I got a little confused during the swirl of this action, especially trying to take notes while the dialogue raced on in spit-out-French) roaring out her fury at his misogynistic attitudes and art, now suddenly nude except for the fur she swirls around her body, then leaving him bound on the stage under a spotlight as she exits the theatre (after she’d previously commanded him to call his fiancée, telling her he wouldn’t be home that night, giving no further explanation), with the camera dollying out in one long dramatic shot as the doors slam shut in the night, leaving Thomas to whatever fate might await him, depending on when anyone ever bothers to enter that building again.

Whether Vanda is actually a wrathful goddess or just a very vengeful actor is hard to say (for me at least) based on either the play’s script or seeing the film, but it’s clear that she’s got it in big time for Thomas (much more so in the film, given her furious exit which is not part of the play), seemingly as a representative of men for all time in their absurd assumptions that women are dangerous co-existents who must be tamed because otherwise they’ll rise to their natural state of domination, given how easily men are seduced by the female’s wily nature (she’s likely also angry that the horrid history of patriarchy that pollutes all of human history has led to women needing to learn such manipulative tactics in order to survive, let alone thrive in male-run-societies), but Thomas does seem like a miniscule target for her wrath, given his apparently-limited-impact on arts and culture, trying desperately to even get his play together in this dilapidated theatre (although he does have a high opinion of himself, even using Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as his cell-phone ring tone).  He’s a complex person in his own right, vehemently denying that his stage characters have anything to do with either himself or his fiancée, yet showing an easy embrace of first the role of Severin being willingly overpowered by a women, then quickly accepting Vanda’s late-narrative-submissive-position before he realizes how much more dangerous than he ever imagined this woman on stage with him has become, just as he fears her decision that—like Severin—he’s asked for more than he can handle, that he has no idea how fierce a powerful woman can be.  (Conjuring up the whole debatable catalogue of Freudian ideas about castration anxiety in men, penis envy in women, along with the implications that for men nervous about their long-held-positions of power that even fur represents the “dangerous animal” that resides beneath a woman’s “fur-patch,” first implied in Thomas’ text when Vanda [at that point more of a merge of both actor and character than either one of them separately] invites Severin/Thomas to lie with her on the couch “beneath her fur” [only implied at that point by a long scarf]—a cluster of concepts that would likely make a successful thesis or dissertation for someone in either art, literature, or theatre history, if not whatever branch of academia still accepts psychoanalytical premises, given their dismissal in mainstream Psychology departments [as for my initial “Fear the Fur” warning, I can’t help but think of a marvelous musical performance by now-deceased Texas singer/songwriter Steve Fromholz—died in January 2014 in a freak hunting accident—in which he tells of how his Aunt Minnie in Arkansas ended up married to a bear, who on his death bed told her that while he was disappointed she wasn’t very furry overall he sure admired the one place that she was furry, confirming in a humorous way the underlying assumption that Vanda was likely railing against, that women are often valued by men only as cisterns of sex more suited to our primate ancestors than to civilized pursuits; I wish I could steer you to an available version of this “Aunt Minnie and the Bear” routine that precedes Fromholz's somewhat-successful-song, “Bears” [a metaphorical slap at racist assumptions about “others,” unknown to us because we’ve never taken the time to understand anything about them, a theme directly explored below in the new Planet of the Apes movie], but it’s on his Fromholz Live! album [Felicity Records, 1979] which seems to be completely unavailable, even on e-Bay at this point, although I can offer you just the recording of “Bears” at

Does Thomas fit so 
smoothly into the role of 
Severin because he 
secretly desires to be
commanded by the very women that he so easily dismisses in his public
professional life? Does 
he equally find himself 
embracing the role of 
Vanda (at least until he's helplessly trussed up—
unless this ultimate 
bondage is what he reallydesires) because he 
realizes that in our rigid 
patriarchal world that to 
experience true 
degradation he must become like a subservient woman, to the point of being squeezed into 
uncomfortable shoes and covering his face with socially-sanctioned makeup? For that matter, what are to make of Vanda in her stereotypical dominatrix outfit?  That she relishes the command that this “uniform” implies or that she’s simply using it as a means of appealing to the sexual undercurrent that draws Thomas to the role of masochist which then further fuels her fury that even his (and other male masochists) submission is actually part of his control of the situation, that his sexual stimulation brought on by the humiliation is really a matter of him getting what he wants—even in a subordinate physical position—using her as his instrument of delight rather than her truly being in command of the situation?  There are no easy answers here for any of these complicated situations.  Ives leaves us wondering what will come next as Thomas acknowledges the full exchange of command that has occurred as his Venus in Fur concludes; Polanski raises the ante with his frightening final scene, leaving us with a myriad of questions about Thomas and Vanda, taking Ives’ extension of Severin and Wanda into new territory even further, leaving us with much to discuss after the final credits about what really went on here, what we’re supposed to think about it, and what we as humans in a supposed-civilized-stage of our existence need to consider about the kinds of socialization that lead to any of the encounters faced by any of the characters in the novel, the play, or the film.  During those final credits, Polanski offers us a marvelous montage of depictions of Venus by a host of artists of older days (going all the way back to the armless statue of Venus de Milo, probably implying the desire of Thomas and other men to subjugate what they fear as the Castrating Female [as Chuck Berry said of Venus at, “She lost both her arms in a wrestling match To get a brown-eyed handsome man”), so many that I can’t even begin to recount them all so I’ll illustrate these concluding Venus in Fur statements with another image by Titian, one of several by him on the same topic with this one usually called Venus and Music (painted in 1548, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid) but sometimes referred to as Venus and the Organ Player (although technically that’s the title of the version done c. 1550, now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).  This may or may not have been in Polanski’s credits-collection, but I include it because of the ludicrous sightline—index vector, in the terms of my Visual Communication class—of the musician right into the goddess’ crotch, getting us directly back to what Vanda/Venus (?) was fuming about so much in Venus in Fur.

 (This also reminds me of another relevant recording, the beginning of the Firesign Theatre’s 1970 absurdist-comedy-album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, noting “Organ Leroy at his organ again” [ G2ScItPoh2ojdFfTfN1h0H contains this bit at 3:05 into its 9:42 running time, but please note that the audio begins at a very low level; if you’re warped enough to want to hear the whole album—which might provide a useful antidote to the traumas generated by watching Venus in Fur—this link drops you into a cluster of clips but there’s no easy path through the whole thing, although there are Parts 1-3 noted, then you can just listen to the other audio-videos randomly if you like which won’t really compromise the integrity of the experience too much given how pseudo-improvisational it seems to be anyway].)  As for my official Musical Metaphor to cap off our conversations about Venus in Fur, I’ll offer the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” (from their 1967 album, The Velvet Underground & Nico) at—inspired directly by the Sacher-Masoch book—given how well its mood matches the finale of Polanski’s film and that Vanda references it when she first meets Thomas in her self-constructed-role of dithering actress (I use the female diminutive purposely here rather than the more-inclusive/appropriate term "actor" for male or female in a stage/film role, although "performer" might be even better) which she starts to shed immediately after being allowed her audition by adjusting the stage lights for a more appropriate atmosphere, a technical operation that Thomas admits he has no training for.  What we understand about this fascinating, challenging extension of several previous works of art, though, is probably best left to individual interpretations.

The latest entry into the ongoing Planet of the Apes saga (beginning with the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel, then making its way through the first 5-movie-series, 1968-1973, followed by the not-well-received-but-still-financially-successful-reboot even though the ambiguous-at-the-time-ending “apes” the novel better than the earlier series does [Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton, 2001)], and now the alternate reboot, beginning with Rise of the Planet of the Apes [Rupert Wyatt, 2011]) also gives you a few things to think about, certainly more so than the standard Futuristic Science-Fiction story where humankind is facing disaster either by grinding ourselves into a soulless stupor brought on by overgrown bureaucracy (1984 [Michael Radford, 1984]; Gattaca [Andrew Niccol, 1997) or by what we find ourselves with in various environmental disasters as the result of over-reaching human ambition (the Terminator series, 1984-2009 [so far]; Children of Men [Alfonso Cuarón, 2006]).  Mostly in these stories we just wander through 2 hours of warnings about how we hold the key to our own better future, so that we shouldn’t cede too much control to profit-hungry-social-engineers (a concern that various Survivalists and Tea Partiers have taken too much to heart, in my opinion, although today’s immigration-based-problems between the industrialized First World and everyone else is a real crisis that must somehow be dealt with, hopefully with other measures than border walls and mass deportations) or allow our scientific curiosity to unleash deadly genetic experiments, overly-intelligent machines, or climate-altering-intrusions into the balance of nature.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)—which is, arguably the better title for the first of this revived series, allowing our current movie to present the “rise” of intelligent non-human apes (it’s a clumsy reality for all of these titles that “apes” is a term that includes humans, clustering various related primates on their proper branch of the evolutionary tree, as Desmond Morris explained to us way back in his 1967 book, The Naked Ape—or if you prefer, the crisis is that true apes are just animals while humans were created separately by God but our meddling into the divinely-created-natural-order has resulted in the abomination of human-like apes [a position implied by Dreyfus, the Gary Oldman character in this movie, along with his followers—so when I attempt to discuss what differentiates “them” from “us” I need to be more precise because from a DNA-standpoint there’s a lot more “us” here than many of us normally care to admit) in opposition to the decimated human population (most were killed off in the 10-year-span since the timeframe of the previous movie by the unintended release of a simian virus created in the same San Francisco lab where the original intelligent chimps and other primates were bred, then escaped from in the last installment of this ongoing series [Believe it! Check the box-office-returns for this mammoth hit if you even dare to think we’ve seen the last of these inter-ape-struggle-stories.]) as these increasingly-intelligent-simians prepare for full-scale-war with the remnants of human society as the apes continue their turnstile-twirling-march into the future (about $73 million on its opening weekend, boosted by strong critical response—91% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, 79% average with the stingier Metacritic crowd; more details far below).

If you’re aware of the plotlines in both Rise … and Dawn … (my distraction genes are working overtime tonight, but I have a friend named Dawn and I just can’t keep from thinking how funny it would be for her to go to a Halloween party in a gorilla mask and one of those name tags that says “Hi, I’m … Dawn, of the Planet of the Apes” [it’s marvelous the semiotic tricks you can do with language, such as drop the “s” from Venus in Furs to create an entirely new emphasis such as the one I overelaborated above), then you know that this new series of … Apes movies is like the rebooted Batman and Spider-Man series of recent years that retain major characters and an overall sense of the previous storylines but push off in new directions with no concern for resolving continuity with the older offerings.  Here, we understand that ape-leader Caesar (voiced and acted with image-capture by the marvelous Andy Serkis, who may someday be the first Best Actor nominee in a film where we never see his real face—well, I guess Heath Ledger somewhat beat him to that with his distorted Joker visage in The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008] but at least the essence of Ledger was there rather than with Serkis where we know him only as the computer-generated Gollum in the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings stories [Peter Jackson; 2001, 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013, to come in 2014], King Kong [Jackson, 2005]) is the fair-minded-head of the huge intelligent-ape-colony living in Muir Woods, north of San Francisco now that 10 years have passed since the last movie’s origin story.  (Where the chimpanzee Caesar was genetically-enhanced in SF’s Gen-Sys labs in an attempt to find a cure for Alzheimer’s but all that resulted from that was him leading a breakout of other mentally-enhanced-apes from the labs and normal apes from the zoo, along with the accidental release by a human of the simian-virus-based-drug into the general population which leads to massive extinction of people in the decade between these 2 movies; in the older series Caesar was the son of chimp scientists from the far-distant-future of Earth who traveled back to the early 1970s just before the planet was destroyed in the future by desperate present-day [for the ‘70s] time-traveling astronaut George Taylor [Charlton Heston]; this version of Caesar grew up in the 1990s where other pets had somehow died so apes became human companions until tensions grew between the species with that Caesar leading a revolt that results first in the bad human decision to use nuclear arms, eliminating many of the combatants but contaminating areas of the planet, followed by a period of inter-species-peace [I saw only the original Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Ted Post, 1970), relying on Internet summaries for the other movies of that series, assuming that there were never-shot-chapters that explained why Taylor’s arrival in the far-flung-future found him at a point where humans had devolved to mute forest dwellers, hunted and exterminated by the superior apes, ironically putting him in an unwitting status not that different from Severin’s desired-domination by a hair-covered-master in Venus in Fur [but Taylor resisted such subservience: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”—one of cinema’s most enduring lines]).

The forest apes have prospered much better than the isolated, unconnected, electrical-power-poor-humans still left alive (due to genetic immunity to the virus), with the brain-boosts from the experimental drug that Caesar sprayed on the Gen-Sys simian captives allowing them to build a nature-based civilization of dwellings, sign language (be aware that you’ll be reading almost as many subtitles here as you would in a foreign film such as Venus in Fur), horseback riding, and a moral system of laws (“ape not kill ape”), and the ability to interact on a cognitive basis with humans when a small group of them ventures into the woods in hopes of restarting a dam-based-power-plant to bring generator-power back to the human encampment in the ruins of San Francisco.  The overt message in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that there are good and bad members of every tribe, those who are willing to see the perspective of the outsider in an attempt to make some peace with them for mutual interests vs. those who feel that “the only good _______ (fill in the blank depending on who or what you hate this week) is a dead _________”; in this story the main peacekeepers are Caesar (far left in this photo) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke)—a guy with a wife and teenage son (from an earlier relationship; I think the first wife died in the previous decade’s chaos) who just wants to help the folks back across the Golden Gate Bridge, offering no harm to the apes, most of whom have little interest in nor respect for their former human captors—while the hostile belligerents are Dreyfus on the human side and Koba (voiced and motion-captured by Tony Kebbell) with the apes, given his hatred for us based on the torturous experiments he endured while at the Gen-Sys labs, although Carver (Kirk Acevedo) in Malcolm’s group doesn’t help much either, first with a hair-trigger reaction that wounds the son of a prominent ape, then by hiding a weapon after an agreement (following Malcolm’s wife, Ellie‘s [Keri Russell], healing of Caesar’s dying mate) between the 2 sides to allow a short-term-opportunity to get the generator working again.  Carver’s hostility is neutralized, but not that of Koba, who manages to get a gun from the humans’ SF arsenal (the apes can cross the bridge much more easily and undetected than the humans), seemingly kill Caesar, blame the shooting on the humans, then lead the frenzied apes' mob into SF to destroy all of the humans just as Dreyfus readies his troops to fight back with all the firepower at his disposal.

Essentially, this extended-reality-story is one about the dynamic tension between attempts at peaceful coexistence and the let’s-wipe-them-out-before-they-attack-us-mentality that has so much of our real world in despair even while this movie is playing in protected, comfortable theatres here and abroad.  Oldman’s Dreyfus has his own emotional wounds from the plague, blaming the apes—as do many others—for the virus even though it was human-created, so he constantly has to be negotiated with by Malcolm in order to prevent a full-scale-invasion of the apes’ colony in the woods (strangely enough, neither he nor anyone else seems to know anything about Caesar being able to talk [a few other apes also have this capacity now] nor being understood as the leader of the previous rebellion so I guess that without constant news media coverage and repetition of events from years before the collective memory of this human enclave has deteriorated quite a bit).  Similarly, Koba is restrained only by the physical might of Caesar and the leadership homage that the rest of their huge tribe pays him (kind of reminded me of retiring-at-the-end-of-this-season NY Yankees superstar-shortstop Derek Jeter at the All-Star Game) based on his deliverance of them from human control in the previous movie (so in that one he essentially played a Moses role—I started to say a “hairy Moses role,” but Heston was pretty hairy himself [in more ways than one] in his famous portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments [Cecil B. DeMille, 1956]; later in this … Apes tale Caesar’ll become Christ-like, rising from his presumed death to take command of his tribe again, decreeing a “last judgment” against Koba by allowing him to fall to his death as Caesar determines that his antagonist's life no longer deserves to be preserved, but then abandoning that conflict-healer-role at the end of this movie, simply telling Malcolm and his family to escape from the scene of conflict because an interspecies war has now started that he’s powerless to stop so he must lead the battle to protect his “people”).

Once Caesar is presumed dead (until he too is tended to by Ellie, as well as reunited with his son, Blue Eyes [voice and body movements of Nick Thurston]—temporarily under Koba’s sway—through the efforts of Malcolm, echoing the stronger bond that he’s developed with his own son, Alexander [Kodi Smit-McPhee]), Koba is quickly able to rally his entire tribe (although a few of Caesar’s closest confederates begin to resist the brutal schemes that Koba wants to enforce upon the rounded-up-humans in SF—as well as on them if they cross this new-self-appointed-leader—so they get locked up as well until all are released through a clandestine operation by Blue Eyes) to rum amok in the remains of San Francisco until a revived Caesar shows up to once again battle his renegade “brother” in hopes of stopping this calamity before it escalates further.  Dreyfus and his henchmen attempt to blow up the supports of the mangled tower that the apes have gathered on (although the exposed beams of the structure still provide a useful location for these sure-footed-simians to leap about), but this blast only kills Dreyfus and company, along with some of the apes, leaving Caesar and Koba to battle it out until the unexpected decision of Caesar to drop his adversary to certain death in punishment for his killing of Caesar-colleague Rocket (voice and motion of Terry Notary) as well as the attempt on Caesar’s life and the launching of the brutal, unnecessary attack on the humans.  While that’s enough to bring this episode to an end, we know that there’s a larger war to come because human military reinforcements have been contacted and are on their way to do battle with the ape army, so we’ll just have to wait until 2016 to see what direction this narrative may take, given that it now has set itself up for complete freedom from the previous novel and movie series to evolve in whatever direction its creators can conjure up.

Both Malcolm and Caesar have to admit that their hopes for the best behavior of their respective species are too optimistic, given that each side sees the other as the likely means of termination of their way of life, especially after the apes locate those armory weapons; now they’ve got access to technologies beyond muscles, spears, and stones, making them equal combatants in hand-to-hand-combat, although we’ll have to assume for now that the remaining humans in other pockets of isolation (wherever those may be) still have control of even-greater-killing-forces which would seem to be more than land-bound-apes could resist, especially if it’s just this one large tribe of them in a specific locale of northern California rather than world-wide-colonies of intelligent apes, but we’ll just have to be patient about what happens next.  For now, there’s lots of good reason to respect this movie, as it tries to advocate that war—even between seeming-sworn-enemies—doesn’t have to be the inevitable answer to how conflicts must be resolved.  (Damn, are there a lot of countries worldwide that need to really hear that message, although I don’t think their guns, car bombs, and missiles will stop firing long enough for them to even hear the idea.)  Even after blood has been shed and fighting-assumptions have ended the hoped-for-willingness-to-negotiate, cooler heads in Caesar and his inner-circle prevail, allowing facts to be verified, hair-trigger-rumors to be reconsidered and rejected, actions to be taken to halt the violence before it escalates—of course, not all of the wrongs can be righted when the conflict is too far along and revenge is high in the minds of the combatants to spill the blood of those who have killed or injured loved ones on both sides, but at least some rational positions remain even during the firestorm of war, attempting to reassure us that a tragic environment doesn’t have to overwhelm the sanity of everyone in it, giving us a little food for thought to go along with our buttered popcorn.  There are other voices out there, though, responding to this film and its messages in a more negative manner than I’m experiencing, so to offer some balance to me, the Tomato-tossers, and the Metacrtics, I’ll refer you first to Peter Rosenthal’s profanity-packed-tirade (I thank my friend Barry Caine for sending this my way but I’m not kidding about the language; even if this is a typical Onion-style-satire on the ubiquity of Hollywood-sequel-mania its language would get an NC-17 rating), then to the second ... Apes-related suggested video link below (redundant in presentation as it may be, it’s passionate and plausible in its arguments) where the diatriber elaborates—and elaborates—on ways in which this movie socializes us to maintain old perspectives of the progression-killing-status-quo (the kind of thing we pedantic academics call “hegemonic indoctrination”).
You—and Fox News—can decide for yourselves (although I think they’ve already decided on just about everything for the rest of this century) what you think, but I enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for its combination of highly-polished-production-values (with a fabulous combination of location shooting, motion-capture, and computer-creation of the many apes, demonstrating the light years of technological development we’ve enjoyed since people in gorilla suits were jumping around in the beginning segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968]) and thought-provoking-content, much more than I expected from a summer action vehicle—I guess you could say it doesn’t “monkey around” with its possibilities (yes, I know that monkeys aren’t apes, but they [we’re] all primates, so just indulge me, OK?).  As for a Musical Metaphor to put to rest the concerns raised by our filmmakers this week about the fearsome fur that may await us on a personal or society-wide basis, I think I’ll just go with the first song that one of Malcolm’s group found to play when the power came on at an abandoned gas station in the woods after they got that generator operating again, The Band’s “The Weight” (from their 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink).  If the sentiments of that song are what crisis-consumed-humans want to hear after a decade of living on scant resources (just as real-world-California is continuing to face a major water shortage that’s pitting urbanites against rural counties due to the ongoing drought this year, making those scenes of incessant rain both glorious and hard to watch considering they’re not really happening off-screen—but this was shot near Vancouver and New Orleans so it was never “our” rain to begin with; damn!), then I’d better be willing to give a listen too at, probably what would be considered the “official” live version from The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978), the artifact of their 1976 final performance (on Thanksgiving Day at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco)—even though some numbers such as this one, with vocal collaboration from The Staple Singers, were recorded in a studio rather than at the concert venue—but here’s another one from an equally-famous-concert, the original 1969 Woodstock (even though this performance didn’t make it into any release-cut of Michael Wadleigh’s magnificent, Oscar-winning 1970 Woodstock documentary) at  Listening to this is an easy enough task for me, given how much I enjoy this song, especially after the treat of seeing The Band perform it on their Before the Flood tour with Bob Dylan in 1974, possibly the best concern I’ve ever seen (the ... Flood album's still available in several audio formats if you’ve never heard it), especially with one of my favorite lyric lines from all of pop music, very appropriate to the content of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  “’Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?’ He just grinned and shook my mind, ‘no’ was all he said.”  So, I invite you to take a listen—go on, take a load off, Fanny—while I catch a cannon ball to take me down the line; so, until next week, “won’t you stay and keep Anna Lee company?” while I go find something else to write about for this never-ending-blog (which obviously took me longer than last Tuesday night to write and post, but as John Lennon once said, "Life is just what happens to you while you're busy making other plans").

If you want to know more about Venus in Fur here are some suggested links: (5:36 excerpts from the Broadway play of Venus in Fur written by David Ives, with Nina Arianda [Tony winner for Best Actress in a Play from the 2011-12 season] and Hugh Dancy [very different actors and attitude than in the film, intentionally more comic on stage], with an American rather than a French setting])

If you want to know more about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes here are some suggested links: (33:26 exploration of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the speaker’s opinion on its topics of maintenance of “wisdom of the elders” lessons, religious view of humans falling from grace vs. evolutionary view of steady improvement, authoritarian leader’s vision vs. “jabbermob” nonsense babbling, pro-gun-implications, war results from tragic misunderstandings that weren’t realized when the blood-lust ran high, promotion of the destructive “noble savage” ideal—interesting commentary but not presented in a very concise manner once the initial points are made [and you think that I ramble on forever—OK, I do, I admit])

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Another great review. Your warnings are getting to be as long as the content itself. Dawn is worth watching and excels in most areas, not the least being direction, acting and the story pacing. If somehow you have not seen any Planet of the Apes movies, start with the original and then skip to this one. Then you will have "had enough", which is what I think Peter Rosenthal’s sequel satire clearly implies. I must agree that normally reboots are not worth watching on TV much less paying for at the Megaplex. This is an exception and has elements of the best scifi from decades ago combined with excellent production values. Thumbs up for me.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your input. Yes, I admit that my preludes are getting longer all the time but that's intentional; I'm hoping to get the intro and exit material long enough that I no longer have to actually write reviews with hopes that no one (but you) will notice. I think my next tactic will be to insert the U.S. Constitution (just like Jimmy Stewart did to stretch his filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [Frank Capra, 1939]). That should take up some space.

    As for this Apes movie and the rest of its cousins, yes, rj has a great idea here if you're a novice with the material, just go back to the Heston original then see the latest episode and you'll know more than enough about the world of the "damn dirty ape." Ken