Going Ape

Nick Pinkerton on “Simian Vérité” at Anthology Film Archives

Barbet Schroder, Koko, A Talking Gorilla, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes.

SINCE THE CINEMA has faced such a long struggle for respectability as an art form, it’s only understandable that some of its advocates resent being reminded of its unbreakable bond with the lowest common denominator. How else to explain that we’ve been so many years without a proper survey of the monkey movie, a storied subgenre—a few years in my youth alone rendered up Monkey Trouble (1994) and Dunston Checks In and Ed (both 1996)—which simultaneously recalls the step-right-up fairground provenance of the movies and the undignified, tire-swinging, feces-smearing ancestry of humankind? Enter to raspberry-blowing fanfare Anthology Film Archives’s twelve-film “Simian Vérité” program, a study in the ridiculous sublime that results when an anthropoid primate goes before a cinematographic device. I’m not saying the ape film is the quintessence of cinematic art, but it is mighty hard to find its equivalent in painting or prose or lyric poetry.

Few filmmakers knew better than Howard Hawks the entertainment value of watching charismatic human performers interface with jungle critters. His mastery of animal business can be seen in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Hatari! (1962), and, featured in AFA’s program, Monkey Business (1952)—released the year after the chef-d’oeuvre of our fortieth president, Bedtime for Bonzo. The film, which stars Cary Grant as a corporate chemist searching for a fountain of youth elixir, gives far more time to human shenanigans by Grant and dead game partner Ginger Rogers than to those of simians, but the laboratory chimp antics set up the film’s theme of primitivism lurking beneath the veneer of civilization, a presiding preoccupation of Hawks’s comedies. Significantly more ape action is to be found in the endearing cornpone comedy Every Which Way but Loose, a smash hit of 1978 that made hay from the inspiration of pairing Clint Eastwood, here playing California long-haul trucker and bare-knuckle boxing champ Philo Beddoe, with a pet orangutan named Clyde. The role is played with panache by Manis, one of the many proteges of animal behaviorist and trainer Ralph Helfer, who also provided the all-ape cast of ABC Saturday morning curio Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp (1970–72), whose genesis is the subject of Jeff Krulik’s 1999 video short I Created Lancelot Link.

The joys of on-screen human and animal actor interactions have largely been lost in a post-Jumanji world, but even before CGI began to put the ape wranglers out of business, many filmmakers opted to go with the human-in-a-monkey-suit option. One of the more impressive technical efforts in this direction appears in Nagisa Oshima’s Max, Mon Amour (1986), a collaboration between regular associates of Luis Buñuel, including screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and producer Serge Silberman, and the Japanese director, filling in for Buñuel, who was unavailable on account of having died in 1983. The resulting film, which unfolds the amour fou affair between a British diplomat’s beautiful, aloof wife (Charlotte Rampling) and a chimpanzee named Max, suffers for the absence of Buñuel’s ineffable twinkle, but it needs be said that the British dancer Ailsa Berk, as Max, gives one of the knuckle-walking performances for the ages.

Nagisa Oshima, Max, Mon Amour, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.

Max, Mon Amour offers a more playful take on a trope that runs through “Simian Vérité,” in which the ape is presented as totem of primordial sexual threat, one often replete with overtones of anxiety over miscegenation, perhaps most famously embodied in a certain 1933 film by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack namechecked by Kanye West—“They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.”

The original Kong, which probably plays out often enough, is absent from Anthology’s program, but in its place there are some intriguing rarities that show the big fella’s massive cultural footprint. When the Japanese kaiju movie shot to international popularity following Godzilla’s first wade through Tokyo in 1954, the then-defunct RKO licensed the rights to their prize gorilla to Toho, who promptly employed Kong in a battle royale against Gojira himself in King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962). Anthology will screen the second Japanese Kong film, King Kong Escapes (1967), which combines the talents of kaiju master Ishiro Honda and the best minds at the Rankin/Bass animation studio, who had already been cranking out episodes of The King Kong Show (1966–69), and who provide the visual effects.

Kong’s next owner was Neapolitan ballyhoo man and celebrity producer Dino De Laurentiis, who by the mid-1970s had come a very long way from his roots in Italian neorealism—his bicentennial year megaproduction of King Kong came on the heels of antebellum provocation Mandingo (1975), and moved Kong’s last stand downtown, to the towers of the then recently completed World Trade Center. Dino’s Kong is a spectacular slightly better than its reputation, plugging the legend into then-contemporary energy crisis concerns and featuring Charles Grodin flashing his sneered grin at a “Petrox Oil” executive looking to drill on Skull Island, driving a wedge between stowaway primate paleontologist Jeff Bridges and pulchritudinous damsel-in-distress Jessica Lange. The critics were not kind, but the thing made buckets of money regardless, enough to inspire the Hong Kong–based Shaw Brothers Studio to rush out their own quasi-Kong in the form of the daffy The Mighty Peking Man (1977). It includes the requisite grand finale, in which hulking “Utam” climbs to the top of the Connaught Centre, today Jardine House, then the tallest building in Asia, and introduces some twists of its own, including blonde Evelyne Kraft in a variation on the Fay Wray role—she’s a Sheena, Queen-of-the-Jungle type who was orphaned in a Himalayan plane crash and raised from girlhood by a huge, hairy surrogate father.

Utam’s precise size seems to vary through The Mighty Peking Man, while George A. Romero’s properly depraved Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) attests to the fact that apes don’t necessarily need to be five stories tall to be bad news. The “heavy” in Romero’s film is tiny Capuchin helper monkey “Boo,” used by angry-at-the-world quadriplegic ex-jock Jason Beghe as an accomplice in visiting his revenge on those he blames for his humiliation—a concept that can be traced back to an impressive pedigree. Long before Cooper and Edgar Wallace dreamed up Kong—even before the publication of On the Origin of Species—the homicidal primate had entered the annals of popular culture in a short story by a peripatetic West Point dropout and dipsomaniac that also happened to go some ways toward creating the template for the detective genre. The story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” received a very free adaptation by Robert Florey at Universal Pictures a year before King Kong hit screens, though the film’s principle inspiration would appear to be 1931’s Frankenstein—a project from which both Florey and Bela Lugosi, who stars as unibrowed proto-Darwinian mad scientist “Dr. Mirakle,” had been dropped. Shot by the supremely gifted atmospherist Karl W. Freund, the film, set on a soundstage “Paris 1845,” achieves a disorienting combination of fluidity of visuals and howling awkwardness of dialogue. Poe’s killer is identified as an “Ourang-Outang,” though here a real chimp is used for close-ups, and long shots are ceded to an actor in gorillawear—none other than the diminutive Philippine-born Charles Cruz Gemora, dubbed “the King of the Gorilla Men” for his many such appearances, who perfected his simian shuffle through studious visits to the San Diego Zoo.

Frederick Wiseman, Primate, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes.

The film’s many embellishments to Poe’s text include giving Dupin a fat, fastidious, effeminate roommate (Bert Roach) and the Mirakle character, whose use of his ape as a subject for experimentation touches on another theme running through AFA’s series, that of the primate’s role as test subject—“Mice, rabbits, guinea pigs… Now monkeys” as the lab janitor is heard to mutter in Monkey Business. Two documentaries at AFA focus on the lab ape: The stars of Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978) are the most famous lowland gorilla before the meteoric postmortem rise of Harambe, Koko, and her sign-language instructor, “Penny” Patterson. For director Barbet Schroeder, whose other documentary subjects have included Charles Bukowski, Idi Amin, and terrorist defense lawyer Jacques Vergès, this may seem like light fare, though Patterson in here way fits right in with his filmography’s gallery of odd obsessives.

Koko, however, leads a charmed life, especially when compared to that of the average inmate at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, as documented in Frederick Wiseman’s Primate (1974). Wiseman at this point in his career had made something of a specialty in studies of institutional repression—Titicut Follies (1967) and Law and Order (1969), for instance—and here applies the same combination of sly associative edits, unadorned observation, and gelid rage to observing man’s treatment of his nearest relation, in a work at once very funny, as a film that features grown men and women soberly contemplating and discussing monkey cum can’t help but be, and absolutely harrowing. After watching it, the images of simian revenge on the homo sapiens spread through the series seem like just desserts.

“Simian Vérité” runs Friday, June 16 through Tuesday, June 27 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.