With 2017 bringing the two latest entries in long-running film franchises featuring clashes between humans and apes, Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming exploration of this ongoing fascination, Simian Vérité, is perfectly timed.
“The series is predicated on something of a joke,” Anthology guest programmer Steve Macfarlane explained via email. “The tension between primate and human can be taken in so many different directions that the hook is mostly just an excuse to watch movies about monkeys.”
Macfarlane explores some of those directions with 11 examples taken from the rich tradition of man/monkey movies. You can see Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling as a diplomat’s wife who becomes enamored with a chimp in Max Mon Amor or watch an ape become infatuated with a human in the Dino de Laurentiis–produced 1976 version of King Kong. Other entries take more oddball inspiration from that 1933 classic, including King Kong Escapes, a 1967 Japanese remake incorporating pop-art design, and Bye Bye Monkey, in which Gérard Depardieu and Marcello Mastroianni rescue a chimp found near the giant ape’s decomposing corpse. In what is likely the strangest film in a series full of strange films, zombie maestro George Romero’s Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Terror contains the sight — rare in real life but repeated in this flick — of a quadriplegic man slow-dancing to Peggy Lee with his helper capuchin monkey.
While Simian Vérité’s hodgepodge of cinematic primates spans genres, three movies provide the best cross-section of the series’ many representations of apes. The offerings can be divided into portrayals that are fictional (a live orangutan going on a road trip with Clint Eastwood in 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose), factual (documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s account of scientific testing on live apes in 1974’s Primate), and farcical (a man in a suit in the 1977 Hong Kong King Kong ripoff Mighty Peking Man).
In the fictional realm, Every Which Way But Loose starts from a fairly outlandish premise: Eastwood’s truck-driving protagonist travels across the American southwest seeking his runaway lady love — an aspiring country singer — with the help of his friend Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and his pet orangutan Clyde. They are hunted by disgruntled police and a vengeful biker gang but manage to best their adversaries via slapstick contrivances. For this kind of wackiness to resonate with the audience, the comic timing and execution need to be pitch perfect, But director James Fargo has a faulty instinct to overemphasize the least funny aspects of his film’s comedy. This proves especially compromising in the portrayal of Clyde. Manis, the orangutan who plays Clyde, is a great performer, seamlessly interacting with his co-stars. The director, though, tends to take Manis’s gift for mimicry and showcase it in static shots of the animal behaving like a person, a trope that most often presents itself in the form of the ape raising a middle finger at an enemy. Even before an age where “orangutan doing human things” could return about 4,109 clips on YouTube, these shots lack the originality and wit that could have made them compelling. Considering the degree to which Fargo restricts Manis’s natural charisma with stilted, self-conscious shots, his decision to use a live animal in the first place is baffling.
Unlike Every Which Way, Wiseman’s Primate uses real apes to its advantage. In much of his work, Wiseman is content to simply allow images, naturally occurring sounds, and conversation to speak for themselves. He typically avoids the exposition-spouting talking heads of most documentaries; all dialogue comes in the form of conversation. In fact, Primate’s audience watches more than 55 minutes of animal experiments as well as conversations between researchers before a goateed, bespectacled scientist lets the camera know that he and his colleagues seek to “elucidate human and great ape evolution.” Here Wiseman embraces the talking heads that he normally eschews because humans in this instance are not the main characters. Since apes — the film’s true protagonists — cannot speak, knowing the scientists’ goals and motivations does not compromise the objective distance that Wiseman strives to maintain.
The gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans provide the type of spontaneity that typically attracts Wiseman’s camera. Unlike Manis in Every Which Way, the animals are thoroughly resistant to stiff blocking and staging, moving as they please and drowning out all other sounds with their shrieks of captivity. Their expressive faces and familial gestures toward each other remain at the center of shots as often as possible. While scenes of mechanical masturbation and one dissection are not for the faint of heart, seeing Primate on the big screen is essential for any ape fan, as the large canvas at Anthology puts these animals’ humanity on vivid display.
Ho Meng-hua’s Mighty Peking Man finds another way to shine a spotlight on apes’ humanity. This riff on King Kong — re-released in the United States in 1999 by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures — begins with the reassuring trumpet fanfare and logo shield of Shaw Brothers Studio, the producers of so many classic kung fu films. However, the remake has more in common with the output of Japan’s Godzilla factory Toho Studios, using a human in a suit instead of a live animal to portray its titular monster Utam. This choice creates a comfortable balance between the wooden staging of Every Which Way and the unpredictability of Primate. With “suitmation” (as fans have affectionately named it), Ho has the opportunity to plan and rehearse his shots without sacrificing fluidity of movement, painting the creature as essentially human.
Besides the ape suit, special effects nerds have plenty more to enjoy. Back projection makes human beings appear miniscule in comparison to the images of a giant raging ape displayed on a screen in the background. Model vehicles ground the action in reality, especially in a plane crash sequence where fire mangles actual physical material. On a grander scale, the ape is often represented by a large replica of his hand that grasps the protagonist explorer (Danny Lee) and provides affection to Samantha (Evelyne Kraft), his childlike human companion and Fay Wray analogue. Like most of the selections in Simian Vérité, Mighty Peking Man favors practical effects over CGI — a preference Macfarlane shares. “Avoiding CGI was not an entirely conscious choice, except insofar as I’m trying to avoid it for the rest of my life as a movie lover,” he joked.
While the works in Simian Vérité provide an extensive cross-section of ape portrayals on film, Macfarlane lamented, “If there were a great ape film without human characters, that would have been ideal [for the series] too, but we’re not there yet.”
Perhaps this dream represents the future of simian cinema. While the dreaded CGI could readily accomplish this feat, a recent example of live animals in film might provide a better blueprint. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s 2014 canine revenge story White God is a misanthropic slog, but its choreography of a dog army is a breathtaking accomplishment. Imagine an ambitious animal trainer turning similar attention toward apes at feature length. This approach could yield the type of once-in-a-lifetime spectacle that only the cinematic experience can deliver, reigniting the wonder and awe that audiences feel every time they see their genetic ancestors on the big screen. Until then, the fictional, factual, and farcical portrayals on display at Anthology will more than suffice.
Simian Vérité runs at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Avenue, East Village) from June 16 through 27. Spectacle (124 South 3rd Street, Brooklyn) hosts Missing Links, a companion series programmed by Macfarlane, until June 30.